Hydraulic Despotism without the Despot?

Nature Water
Earliest ceramic drainage system and the formation of hydro-sociality in monsoonal East Asia

Published: 14 August 2023


The earliest ceramic drainage system unearthed at the Pingliangtai site on the Central Plains of China represents an unprecedented social and environmental manipulation as societies faced surging environmental crises in the Late Holocene East Asian Monsoon region. Here we present results of excavation and a geoarchaeological survey of the water-management infrastructures and environment which reveal the operation and maintenance of a well-planned and regulated two-tiered drainage system. Rather than a ‘centralized hierarchy’, the drainage activities were mainly practised at household and communal levels, through which Pingliangtai society was drawn to more pragmatic aspects of social governance. Through their emphasis on spatial uniformity, cooperation in public affairs, and a series of technological innovations, water management at Pingliangtai gravitated to collective shared interest as the society responded [emphasis JAB] to recurrent environmental contingencies. Such a pragmatic focus on public affairs constituted a previously unrecognized, alternative pathway to the development of power structure and social governance on the Central Plains regimes in late Neolithic and later times.

OK, at least it wasn’t Boas that reported this, although it was “Nature” that published it. It always gives me the willies when one of our “High Impact Scientific Journals” ventures into archaeological anthropology – particularly political economic aspects thereof.

I confess to having not yet reviewed far beyond the abstract before posting it here in “The Happening World” because, well, whatever its contents, such a publication by Nature in the current geopolitical environment where “populism” is a dirty word, should be regarded as a significant “happening”.

“the society responded” is a key phrase in any evolutionary pressures toward cooperation imposed by environmental stressors – pressures that can and do result in specialization. The most extreme case in point is the “environmental stressor” imposed on “the selfish genes” by their prospects to participate in a fair meiotic lottery while turning from undifferentiated stem cells into “sterile worker cells” cooperating to build a sexual organism.


What’s also interesting is that of the eleven authors on this paper, all but one are affiliated with Chinese universities. Now while the original Mao Tse-Tung “Little Red Book” incorporated some aspects of bottom-up organisation, and the Cultural Revolution had some (crazy) ideas about decentralisation, such as backyard steel furnaces, most of the post-Mao party line has seen the Party as the inheritor of a millennia-long tradition of Chinese imperial centralism and top-down administration. Advocates of Wittfogel’s hydraulic empire theory have seen this as a prime example of centralisation as a consequence of managing a large population with a limited and/or inconsistent supply of water and reinforced in its power by its control over this essential resource.

Now, a bunch of pesky academics come along and argue that people, motivated by their own needs and self-interest, will spontaneously self-organise to secure and distribute a supply of water for themselves and their Posterity, without an Emperor, Central Committee, or Party to tell them what to do.

Could the Lysandrist subversion of the Red Chinese regime be breaking out into the open?


That’s one of the last technologies that should be taught to a secondary school boy as part of graduation: construct his own sword and plowshare in the spirit of SciAm of old’s The Amateur Scientist and Boy Scouts rather than as any great leap forward. Think of the appreciation that would instill in him as steward of heritage as well as the sense of individual mastery entering manhood.

Having said that there may be something to your conjecture about A Great Lysander Awakening given how severely the Chinese authorities have botched their total fertility rate.


in the spirit of SciAm of old’s The Amateur Scientist

From the Science Madness library, C. L. Stong’s masterpiece : http://library.sciencemadness.org/library/books/projects_for_the_amateur_scientist.pdf

Because if no one reads it, it’s like it never happened.