The vulnerability of aging states: A survival analysis across premodern societies

Marten Scheffer*, Egbert H. van Nes, Luke Kemp, Timothy A. Kohler, Timothy M. Lenton, Chi Xu

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


How states and great powers rise and fall is an intriguing enigma of human history. Are there any patterns? Do polities become more vulnerable over time as they age? We analyze longevity in hundreds of premodern states using survival analysis to help provide initial insights into these questions. This approach is commonly used to study the risk of death in biological organisms or failure in mechanical systems. The results reveal that the risk of state termination increased steeply over approximately the first two centuries after formation and stabilized thereafter. This provides the first quantitative support for the hypothesis that the resilience of political states decreases over time. Potential mechanisms that could drive such declining resilience include environmental degradation, increasing complexity, growing inequality, and extractive institutions. While the cases are from premodern times, such dynamics and drivers of vulnerability may remain relevant today.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2218834120
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number48
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2023


  • archaeology
  • civilizations
  • longevity
  • resilience
  • societies


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