Pathways to Civilization
January 8, 2017 12:12 AM   Subscribe

The Origin of Cities - "It may seem odd to conduct the rise of cities to ritual, inequality, and debt, and yet they play a very large role in the urban revolution." (via)

Part 2: Jericho – the First City; The Enigma of Çatalhöyük
Part 3: The Social Logic Transforms
Part 4: The Urban Revolution; On Oriental Depotism

also btw...
-Göbekli Tepe
-How to Rebuild Civilization From Scratch
-Urbanisation Signal Detected in Evolution
-The Influence of the City on Human Genes
posted by kliuless (20 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite

Hot damn this is good
posted by Joseph Gurl at 12:21 AM on January 8 [2 favorites]

A very interesting counterpoint to the idea that that cities must arise through social stratification and state power is Djenne-Jeno in Mali, an ancient urban society that doesn't show evidence of much of either. It's believed that it grew due to its strength in trade.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 2:00 AM on January 8 [3 favorites]

And, lots more cities who grew out of being strategically located on ancient global trading routes as suitable watering holes.
posted by infini at 2:09 AM on January 8

I'm sure if anyone has read Gordon White's book Star Ships, then the idea that civilization has been re-started is not new.

Specifically, he goes into a long explanation of how Gobekli Tepe rose up as a ritual space BEFORE there was evidence of agriculture or similar - in fact ritual gatherings preceded agriculture or grouped landed communities. The accepted narrative for how culture began does not pass muster in terms of anthropological evidence... let's see how long for these facts to take hold!
posted by jbenben at 2:13 AM on January 8 [2 favorites]

Shorelines were vastly different thousands of years ago, and most relevant archeology that proves ancient sophistication is currently under water.
posted by jbenben at 2:20 AM on January 8 [1 favorite]

Chicken/Egg Scenario? Do human factors or environmental factors cause societal collapse?

Jill Grant

Ronald Wright

Jared Diamond

William Cronon
posted by pftoet at 3:26 AM on January 8

Reading a book on the ancient Roman trade in incense - frankincense and myrrh, to name to wellknown examples - which correlates to what jbenben said above. Mecca isn't near enough to the trade route nor is it a natural oasis.
posted by infini at 4:26 AM on January 8

Star Ships is apparently proud of its status of standing outside mainstream academic study (i.e. being fringe), and uses breathless, mystical prose in its promotional copy. I can't find any academic discussion. Everything I've found so far is by laymen, most of which is on spiritual sites.

Mainstream academic study doesn't have a monopoly on truth, but these are all serious warning signs of woo.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 5:59 AM on January 8 [8 favorites]

Some interesting stuff in part 1, but the constant efforts to present what looks to me like a straw man version of V. Gordon Childe as "the standard story" are a little tiresome, particularly when it's only to build up an equally over-simplified story to oppose it.

I'm currently reading an overview for a popular audience that starts with exactly this part of history, very much the standard story as it was understood in the 1960's. There is no single formula to explain everything that happened in every culture around the world that underwent a neolithic revolution. If you want to advocate for any general rule as to how things went down, it's going to need to be a lot more vague if you don't want to accept there being many exceptions to it.
posted by sfenders at 6:58 AM on January 8 [5 favorites]

So much of what passes for academia these says is turning into woo that one can't tell the genuine from the authentic anymore.
posted by infini at 7:49 AM on January 8 [1 favorite]

Am I the only one bothered by the fact that the opening sentence - "It may seem odd to conduct the rise of cities to ritual, inequality, and debt, and yet they play a very large role in the urban revolution." - is so poorly written? It has a typo ("conduct" should probably be "connect") and the conjunction "and" before "yet" is unnecessary. I don't mind the occasional typo or mistake but it's an ominous sign when a document opens with several mistakes.
posted by ElKevbo at 8:23 AM on January 8 [2 favorites]

So much of what passes for academia these says is turning into woo that one can't tell the genuine from the authentic anymore.

While there are certainly problems within academia, the process of building a scientific consensus through an ongoing conversation between experts is still the best we've got.

You shouldn't trust any single book coming out of academia, either, but a book that is informed by that process is generally going to be much more reliable. Some academic works are, shall we say, out there, but that's why you don't take any one work as authoritative and evaluate every work within its intellectual context.

The intellectual context of Star Ships is pretty obviously different than most books on prehistory I've read.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:12 AM on January 8 [2 favorites]

No, the prose is terrible throughout. Extensive use of air-quotes and em-dashes makes it feel like reading a bitter, scatterbrained academic who's been denied his PhD. The content is still interesting though.
posted by migurski at 9:48 AM on January 8

Yeah... I don't know enough to establish crank versus non-crank with regard to archeological ideas here but the context and format kinda give me pause.
posted by midmarch snowman at 10:23 AM on January 8

immediately stops using air quotes and m dashes
posted by infini at 1:41 PM on January 8

I'll never stop -- they can pry them from my cold, dead hands.
posted by tivalasvegas at 1:56 PM on January 8 [3 favorites]

For a more considered reflection on the origin of cities, and a plausible theory as to how cities would arise before agriculture, see Jane Jacobs' overlooked treatment of the subject in her book The Economy of Cities.
posted by TwelveTwo at 2:07 PM on January 8 [1 favorite]

I like a lot of what he's saying, partly because I've seen it in what I think are pretty mainstream sources. The ideas of early Middle Eastern cities mostly being ritual centers or kings' households, and the late appearance of markets, are discussed in Colin McEvedy's historical atlases. Redistributive societies are described in Marvin Harris's books. Early Chinese cities were almost all palace. (But then, early Chinese civilization did not develop from city-states, as Mesopotamian civilization did.)

In other areas he talks like a crank. E.g.:

"[I]t is difficult to discern any productive contribution that the Pharaoh, the priesthood, or the aristocracy made.” [...]

But there is no evidence whatsoever that the people themselves saw their societies this way. Is it so hard to see the bureaucratic and managerial activities performed by priests and scribes as having a pro-social purpose[...]?

The attempted rhetorical question is a sign of crankery: argue for your position, don't try to pretend it's obvious. In fact his assertion is wrong-- just at hand, here is a quote from an Egyptian document, a writing exercise for student scribes telling them how good their lives are:

Do you not consider how things are with the farmer, when the harvest is taxed? Grubs have taken half the grain, the hippopotamus has eaten from what is left... [The tax collectors] say "Hand over grain!"... He is stretched out and beaten... his wife is bound in his presence...

You don't have to look very far to find other ancient complaints about arbitrary and rapacious rulers. (The Chinese classics are full of them, for instance.)

In other places he talks about how we don't have evidence that the lower classes were unhappy with their lot. Dude, in most things we don't have evidence what the lower classes thought whatsoever. The people who wrote things down were almost always elite males.

For a corrective I'd recommend David Graeber's Debt: The First 5000 Years. A not entirely unfair summary of Graeber would be "The first two thousand years of urban civilization were the worst. The next two thousand years, they were also the worst. After that, things went into a bit of a decline." The article refers to debt jubilees; you don't have debt jubilees unless debt is a huge social problem.

I do like his point about early trade happening at the edges of cultures. I'm not sure I buy it entirely, but it's interesting.
posted by zompist at 3:57 PM on January 8 [3 favorites]

Sorry, one more complaint.

As a result, there were real limits to centralized authority. The effective power of the ruler is diluted by his need to exercise authority through subordinates (and their subordinates), whose ‘household’ domains are smaller in scale but similar in structure to his own.

A minor point: when you're an early civilization inventing terms for hierarchies, of course you use kinship terms. What else would you use? I would be wary of therefore assuming that the institutions involved acted just like a family or clan.

But the main thing-- the first statement is entirely correct, but I don't think it means what he thinks it does. Of course kings couldn't micromanage everything in their kingdom. One of the Sultans of Delhi mentioned that he could only count on his orders being obeyed within a hundred miles of Delhi (and his nominal realm was most of India). Even a modern corporation or dictatorship requires delegation; all the more so a kingdom without modern communications.

But this was not "limited power" in the way a constitution or a legislature limits power. It doesn't mean that power was benign, or not resented by the ruled.
posted by zompist at 4:16 PM on January 8 [2 favorites]

V. Gordon Childe and the Urban Revolution: a historical perspective on a revolution in urban studies
In the 1960s, functionalist explanations of early states were popular. These models posited that larger and more complex societies required organisation and coordination, so leaders altruistically stepped forward to take on these tasks for the benefit of everyone; these early managers were posited as the ones who formed the first governments and the first elite social classes (e.g. Sanders and Price, 1968). This simplistic approach was replaced in the 1980s by ‘political’ models that placed more emphasis on the self-serving nature of elite activities: elites were portrayed as looking after their own interests first, leading to exploitation and inequality (e.g. Brumfiel and Earle, 1987b) rather than the consensual social integration of earlier models. This trend of theorising has continued to evolve through an emphasis on different types of power (Earle, 1997) and studies of how ancient rulers and governments used space (Smith, 2003), cities (Yoffee, 2005; Smith, 2008) and other resources to create, expand and legitimise their power.

[...] A final development of note is the great expansion in archaeological studies of people and their daily activities and social conditions. Many archaeologists excavating in ancient cities have turned from the temples, palaces and tombs of the elite to the houses and workshops of commoners. By studying households and neighbourhoods, archaeologists can now reconstruct many aspects of daily life, social identity and the roles of commoners in society (Allison, 1999; Robin, 2001). New comparative political models, employing collective action theory, explore the variation in ancient governments, which ranged from autocratic and despotic regimes to more democratic forms in which commoners had a greater say in governance (Blanton and Fargher, 2008).
posted by sfenders at 6:01 PM on January 8 [1 favorite]

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