Part 2. How long do civilizations last on average? 336 years

I stopped trying to find out why each civilization failed in Wiki because it’s not always clear and historians bicker over it, though it’s clear drought, invasions, civil wars, and famines played a role in most of them.  Yet what’s seldom mentioned is that deforestation (Perlin “A forest journey”) and topsoil erosion (Montgomery “Dirt: the erosion of civilization”) were often the main or one of the key reasons for collapse.

But what’s clear is that societies always collapse, and our civilization will fail as well, since it depends on a one-time only supply of fossil fuels.

Kemp, L. 2019. Are we on the road to civilization collapse? Studying the demise of historic civilisations can tell us how much risk we face today says collapse expert Luke Kemp. Worryingly, the signs are worsening. BBC

In the graphic below, I have compared the lifespan of various civilizations, which I define as a society with agriculture, multiple cities, military dominance in its geographical region and a continuous political structure. Given this definition, all empires are civilizations, but not all civilizations are empires.

Civilization [Duration in years]

  1. Ancient Egypt, Old Kingdom [505]  The power of pharaoh gradually weakened in favor of powerful nomarchs (regional governors)…. The country slipped into civil wars mere decades after the close of Pepi II’s reign.  The final blow was the 22nd century BC drought in the region that resulted in a drastic drop in precipitation. For at least some years between 2200 and 2150 BC, this prevented the normal flooding of the Nile. The collapse of the Old Kingdom was followed by decades of famine and strife.
  • Ancient Egypt, Middle Kingdom [405]   
  • Ancient Egypt, New Kingdom [501]  Egypt was increasingly beset by droughts, below-normal flooding of the Nile, famine, civil unrest and official corruption
  • Norte Chico Civilisation [827]  when this civilization is in decline, we begin to find extensive canals farther north. People were moving to more fertile ground and taking their knowledge of irrigation with them
  • Harappan Civilisation (Indus Valley Civilisation) [800]  Aridification of this region during the 3rd millennium BCE eventually also reduced the water supply enough to cause the civilisation’s demise, and to scatter its population eastward
  • Kerma [400]   Egypt grew increasingly powerful and envious of Kerma’s resources. They launched a series of military campaigns that destroyed Kerma
  • Akkadian Empire [187] The empire of Akkad fell, perhaps in the 22nd century BC, within 180 years of its founding, ushering in a “Dark Age”  collapsing outright from the invasion of barbarian peoples from the Zagros Mountains known as the Gutians.  Another theory is a century of drought.
  • Elam Civilisation (Awan Dynasty) [157]   The Assyrians had utterly destroyed the Elamite nation
  • Minoan Civilisation (Protopalatial) [500]   Volcanic explosion
  1. Xia Dynasty [500]
  2. Third Dynasty of Ur [46]
  3. Old Assyrian Empire [241]
  4. Middle Assyrian Empire [313]
  5. Neo Assyrian Empire [322]
  6. Elam Civilisation (Eparti Dynasty) [210]
  7. First Babylonian Dynasty [299]
  8. Old Hittie Empire [250]
  9. Minoan Civilisation (Neopalatial) [250]
  10. Shang Dynasty [478]
  11. Mycenae [400]
  12. Vedic Civilisation [1000]
  13. Middle Hittite Kingdom [70]
  14. Elam Civilisation (Middle Elamite Period) [342]
  15. New Hittite Kingdom [220]
  16. Olmecs [1000]
  17. Phoenicia [661]
  18. Zhou Dynasty (Western Period) [351]
  19. Kingdom of Israel and Judah [298]
  20. Chavin Culture [700]
  21. Urartu [225]
  22. Kushite Kingdom [1150]
  23. Etruscans [404]
  24. Zhou Dynasty (Eastern Zhou Spring Period) [330]
  25. Zhou Dynasty (Eastern Zhou Warring States Period) [411]
  26. Ancient Rome [244]
  27. Elam Civilisation (Neo-Elamite Period) [203]
  28. Phrygia [43]
  29. Lydia [144]
  30. Magadha Empire [364]
  31. Chaldean Dynasty (Babylon) [87]
  32. Medean Empire [66]
  33. Orontid Dynasty [540]
  34. Scythians [800]
  35. Mahanjanapadas [200]
  36. Carthage [667]
  37. Achaemenid Empire [220]
  38. Roman Republic [461]
  39. Nanda Empire [24]
  40. Ptolemaic Egypt           [302]
  41. Classical Greek [265]
  42. Hellenistic [177]
  43. Maurya Empire [137]
  44. Seleucid Empire [249]
  45. First Chera Empire [500]
  46. Early Chola Empire [500]
  47. Maghada-Maurya [90]
  48. Parthian Empire [469]
  49. Satavahana Dynasty [450]
  50. Qin Dynasty [14]
  51. Xiongnu Empire [184]
  52. Han Dynasty (Western Period) [197]
  53. Numidia [156]
  54. Teotihuacans [735]
  55. Kingdom of Armenia [442]
  56. Hsiung Nu Han [120]
  57. Sunga Empire [112]
  58. Andhra [370]
  59. Aksumite Empire [1100]
  60. Kanva Dynasty [45]
  61. Three Kingdoms of Korea [725]
  62. Saka [140]
  63. Roman Empire [525]
  64. Han Dynasty (Eastern Period) [195]
  65. Kushan [200]
  66. Bactria [70]
  67. Ptolemaic [290]
  68. Liu-Sung [250]
  69. Gupta [90]
  70. Hun [100]
  71. Byzantine [350]
  72. Yuen-Yuen [30]
  73. Toba [130]
  74. White Hun [100]
  75. Visigoth [240]
  76. T’u Chueh Turk [90]
  77. Avar [220]
  78. Western Turk [70]
This entry was posted in Cambridge Centre Study of Existential Risk, Collapsed, Scientists Warnings to Humanity and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Part 2. How long do civilizations last on average? 336 years

  1. SomeoneInAsia says:

    How do we define a ‘civilization’ and what counts as a ‘collapse’? If we define a ‘civilization’ as a large group of people sharing the same language and narratives as enshrined in the language, and if we understand a real ‘collapse’ to be something from which recovery is out of the question, then I’d venture that China never really collapsed. There have been more than a dozen dynasties in Chinese history, and at the end of each there has undoubtedly been strife and chaos, but it was always replaced by a new order, and what is essentially the same language has been used by the Chinese from Confucius’ time down to the present day. And the Chinese classics continue to be read.

    • luis g de la fuente says:

      Yeah, with that way of reasoning Rome didn´t collapse either. Its provinces (Hispania, Galia, Britannia, Germania) just took the lead at some point in History.

    • energyskeptic says:

      Since fossil fuels have allowed population to grow from 1.5 to 7.5 billion people, then 6 billion people are going to die on the downslope of oil production ultimately. If that isn’t a collapse, what is? Not only that, but eroded topsoil, depleted aquifers, deforestation, salinization, depletion of fisheries — there must be at least 200 reasons in addition on this website for reasons carrying capacity will plunge beside lack of fossil fuels. Not to mention wars as times get desperate. I wouldn’t be surprised if 400,000 to 500,000 wasn’t the ultimate population.


    “But what’s clear is that societies always collapse” -> RIGHT
    “… and our civilization will fail as well, since it depends on a one-time only supply of fossil fuels.” -> WRONG

    Our civilization will collapse because it needs abundant and cheap energy, something current politics are trying to cut out because of a wrong diagnosis of the situation.