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The Technology of War




In the remote past, the diffusion of military technology was gradual and uneven. There were several reasons for this. First, transport was slow and its capacity small. Second, the technology of agriculture was no more advanced than that of war, so that, with most of their energy devoted to feeding themselves and with little economic surplus, people had few resources available for specialized military technology. Low economic development meant that even the benefits of conquest would not pay off a heavy investment in weaponry. Third, and most important, the absolute level of technological development was low. A heavy dependence on human muscle was the principal cause and a major effect of this low level of development. With human ingenuity bound by the constraints of the human body, both technology and tactics were heavily shaped by geography, climate, and topography.

The importance of geographic and topographic factors, along with limited means of communication and transportation, meant that separate geographic regions tended to develop unique military technologies. Such areas are called military ecospheres. The boundaries of a military ecosphere might be physical barriers, such as oceans or mountain ranges; they might also be changes in the military topography, that combination of terrain, vegetation, and man-made features that could render a particular technology or tactic effective or ineffective.

Until the late 15th century AD, when advances in transportation technology broke down the barriers between them, the world contained a number of military ecospheres. The most clearly defined of these were based in Mesoamerica, Japan, India-Southeast Asia, China, and Europe. (In this context, Europe includes all of the Mediterranean basin and the watershed of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.) With the appearance of the horse archer in late antiquity, the Eurasian Steppe became a well-defined military ecosphere as well.

Those ecospheres with the most enduring impact on the technology of war were the European and Chinese. Though Japan possessed a distinctive, coherent, and effective military technology, it had little influence on developments elsewhere. India-Southeast Asia and Mesoamerica developed technologies that were well adapted to local conditions, but they were not particularly advanced. The Eurasian Steppe was a special case: usually serving as an avenue for a limited exchange of knowledge between Europe and China, in the late classical and medieval eras of Europe it developed an indigenous military technology based on the horse and composite recurved bow that challenged Europe and ultimately conquered China.

Improved methods of transportation and warfare led to the eventual disappearance of the regional ecospheres and their absorption into the European ecosphere. This process began in the 12th century with the Mongol conquest of China and invasions of Europe, and it quickened and assumed a more pronounced European flavour in the 15th and 16th centuries with the development of oceangoing ships armed with gunpowder weapons.

Because European methods of warfare ultimately dominated the world, and because the technology of war, with few exceptions, advanced first and fastest in Europe, this article devotes most of its attention to the European military ecosphere. This first part traces the technology of land war in that ecosphere from Stone Age weapons to the early guns. For reasons of continuity, warships from before the gunpowder era are discussed with modern naval ships and craft in the second part, Modern weapons and weapon systems (see Naval ships and craft ).




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