PNAS paper here: https://www.pnas.org/content/118/27/e2105873118
Weighing technology was invented around 3000 BCE between Mesopotamia and Egypt and became widely adopted in Western Eurasia within ∼2,000 y. For the first time in history, merchants could rely on an objective frame of reference to quantify economic value. The subsequent emergence of different weight systems goes hand in hand with the formation of a continental market. However, we still do not know how the technological transmission happened and why different weight systems emerged along the way. Here, we show that the diffusion of weighing technology can be explained as the result of merchants’ interaction and the emergence of primary weight systems as the outcome of the random propagation of error constrained by market self-regulation. We found that the statistical errors of early units between Mesopotamia and Europe overlap significantly. Our experiment with replica weights gives error figures that are consistent with the archaeological sample. We used these figures to develop a model simulating the formation of primary weight systems based on the random propagation of error over time from a single original unit. The simulation is consistent with the observed distribution of weight units. We demonstrate that the creation of the earliest weight systems is not consistent with a substantial intervention of political authorities. Our results urge a revaluation of the role of individual commercial initiatives in the formation of the first integrated market in Western Eurasia.