History

Ancient Cities in the News

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Like war-hungry neocons, archeologists shift their attention from Iraq to Iran:

Numerous sites in modern-day Iran and the surrounding region suggest that a vast network of societies together constituted the first cities, whose residents traded goods across hundreds of miles and forged parallel but strikingly independent cultures.

Archaeologists have thought that modern civilization began in Mesopotamia, where the large Tigris and Euphrates rivers bounded a fertile valley that nurtured an increasingly complex society….The findings at the new sites may have shaken conventional ancient history to its very foundations, reporter Andrew Lawler told LiveScience.

"People didn't think you could have large settlements this early without large rivers emptying into an ocean. No one knew of these sites," said Lawler, who reported in the Aug. 3 issue of Science magazine on the key findings, which were discussed at a recent archaeological conference in Ravenna, Italy.

Full story (including some skepticism about the new discoveries) here. If you have a subscription to Science, you can see Lawler's articles here.

Reading about ancient trading cities brings to mind one of my favorite revisionist ideas: Jane Jacobs' counterintuitive yet entirely plausible theory, outlined in The Economy of Cities, that urban life predated agriculture. It's unproven, of course, but there is a current of scholars who believe it; and it's an attractive story for those of us who value cosmopolitanism and trade. Here's an excerpt:

The traders of New Obsidian, when they go off on their trips, take along New Obsidian food to sustain themselves. Sometimes they bring along a strange animal, or a bit of promising foreign seed. And the traders of other little cities who come to New Obsidian sometimes take back food with them and tell what they have seen in the metropolis. Thus, the first spread of the new grains and animals is from city to city. The rural world is still a world in which wild food and other wild things are hunted and gathered. The cultivation of plants and animals is, as yet, only city work. It is duplicated, as yet, only by other city people, not by the hunters of ordinary settlements.

More on The Economy of Cities here. Reason's interview with Jacobs is here.

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  1. If cities predate agriculture, then the binding force that led to the rise of non-food-producing specialists and cosmopolitanism was not the centralized control needed for large-scale irrigation, but the economic surplus and more-advanced lifestyles created by large-scale commerce.

  2. Interesting idea. Personally, my favorite out-there theory about early humanity is James’ idea of the bicameral mind.

  3. It’ll be too bad when some of our soldiers step into the wrong angular system and end up in the ancient city of Ry’leh – Calamari for all of Baghdad!

  4. Reading about ancient trading cities brings to mind one of my favorite revisionist ideas: Jane Jacobs’ counterintuitive yet entirely plausible theory, outlined in The Economy of Cities, that urban life predated agriculture.

    Since agriculture predates Ur and other Ubaid period cities by several thousand years, I either don’t understand her usage of “urban” or she knows about some ancient cities that no one else does.

  5. I’m with de stijl–it’s nonsense.

    Besides, everyone knows that the suburbs were first 🙂

  6. Randolph,

    I would expect that it’d be more likely that the calamari would eat all of Baghdad than the reverse… 😉

    One good thing about that occurence would be that I could sell my idea for a special R’lyeh protractor to the military.

  7. Don’t dismiss the argument without reading it. The book isn’t hard to come by.

  8. It is funny that Jane Jacobs, who was hardly a big fan of central planning or big government, found such a following amoung socialists. If only every Libertarian could NIMBY a big government highway project, then we could win over the left!

  9. “… a bit of promising foreign seed.” What the **** does that mean? Jane Jacobs was too cute for words.

  10. wait, upon further research, there is a greater chance that the US military will make an incursion in Irem, the city of a thousand pillars. Unfortunately, calamari stores will remain low for the forseeable future, but the stockpiles of invisible demons have a great growth opportunity.

    The best part about invisible demons?

    no one knows how many you have in your warehouse!

  11. I knew this was about the Jiroft sites before I clicked on the link.

    There’s a ton of stuff (using a very scientific term) we don’t know yet about that region in SE Iran and over into what is now Pakistan, Afghanistan and India.

    The Harappa/Mohenjo Daro sites around the Indus are very ancient as well. What’s now called the Arabian Sea had trade villages along it’s shore going upwards towards Mesopotamia and Iran along the Persian Gulf. And inland through the Makran into the Jiroft area. The area is quite altered from that period, the shoreline of the Makran as advanced miles outward, the Indus has changed course, it’s delta advancing and the same with the Persian gulf. Was it much further north or south up in Mesopotamia? The changing topography and the related water issues are what most likely led to the fall of the Indus Valley folks and the trade links were lost or severley diminshed.

    I can’t remember where I read it, but some theories think the non-Semetic Sumerians may have come from the east, from the same area that the Indus Valley groups arose from. The ancient world was more complex, certainly than we realise. For all it’s crazy crazy, Iran does want to find out about the ancient past. Afghanistan and Baluhistan, good luck with that for now.

    Archaeologists (and historians) get their paradigms torqued more than they like to admit. It’s hard to let go of the old views when you’ve spent your career with them as a model. Then you have the opposite extreme, someone who wants to be an iconoclast and pushes forward ideas that are way out there. Jiroft is, I think, legitimate, though. It’s hard for us today, looking at that barren land, to imagine that it was once a thriving region.

  12. My dad posed the theory that migrations move away from the regions that are most densly populated, because of limited resources. I would look for the first civilizations in China or India.

  13. My dad posed the theory that migrations move away from the regions that are most densly populated, because of limited resources. I would look for the first civilizations in China or India.

    I seriously doubt, at the dawn of civilization, that either of these regions were overpopulated, or at least more dense than any other early habitable region.

    Just because they’re packed today doesn’t mean that holds true forever.

  14. As technology, etc. allows us to take a better look at what is underground we get a better idea of what was going on in the past, particularly in inhospitable regions. This is in part why our understanding of the Maya has rapidly changed over the past forty years. From the “flower child” view of the Maya in the 1960s (which was later overturned) to the breakdown of the division between the pre-classic and the classic we’ve come a long way in our understanding of a people whose buildings, temples, etc. have been swallowed up by the jungle.

  15. Jesse Walker,

    For early trade networks in the Americas check out the civilization which founded Caral.

  16. It is funny that Jane Jacobs, who was hardly a big fan of central planning or big government, found such a following amoung socialists.

    They appreciated the results described in Death and Life, and set out to achieve them by force. The other side, meanwhile, was already firmly ensconced in the suburbs and didn’t give a shit about the whole thing.

  17. Taktix, so the people that crossed the land bridge to North America came from the middle east?

  18. This suggests that Japan may have been one of the earliest sedentary cultures:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J%C5%8Dmon_period

  19. Syloson–

    it also helps to keep in mind that Mayan glyphs were mostly unreadable before the 1960s, and it has been since then that nearly all the progress in reading Mayan inscriptions have been made.

  20. Chuck,

    Very little was known of what the so-called pre-classic period* was really like until the discovery of massive temples and the cities they were part of in the last decade.

    *Pretty soon this distinction will fall by the way side I think.

  21. de stijl,

    The question is whether cities came before agriculture in those civlizations that first founded cities.

    Sure, there were people living in villages in southsest Asia who were raising crops for centuries before the first cities arose. But if they stayed in their villages, while people on the steppes or in Anotalia were living in cities without raising crops, then agriculture did not precede cities in the sense of being necessary to make them happen.

  22. joe,

    If those cities were dependent on the surrounding villages for their surplus grain, etc. then it did precede cities. In the case of Caral a major crop was cotton which was traded with the fishermen on the coast so that they could create baskets to catch fish. The fish were used as a means to trade for cotton.

    ________________________

    Anyway, “agriculture” need not take the form of mere tillage or husbandry as we know them. As I’ve mentioned before the aborigines of Australia used all manner of techniques (including fire) to increase the productivity of “naturally” occuring plants.

  23. Indeed, given the sort of domesticates and environment that the Australians had to work with it would have been odd (to say the least) for them to adopt European style agriculture. That doesn’t mean that they didn’t adapt the land to meet their purposes.

  24. Bottom line is that crediting agriculture for civilization is a trick by our overlords to maintain us in bondage. Give me fish, friends and some decent pottery and I’m good.

  25. James Ard,

    Many of the earliest cities pre-date pottery as well.

  26. The Kalapooian tribes in the Willamette Valley of Oregon practised controlled burns for centuries. Once the Europeans came in a lot of the grasslands disappeared, replaced by fir and oak.

    They did not practice “farming”, but had a definite system for bringing the desired results for them with native plants.

  27. The question is whether cities came before agriculture in those civlizations that first founded cities.

    Unless you know of some secret Fertile Crescent cities that predate 8000 BCE, then domestication preceeded cities by ~2000 years.

    Is the disconnect that you include settlements in the definition of cities?

  28. Sylosos,

    If those cities were dependent on the surrounding villages for their surplus grain, etc. then it did precede cities

    Yes, IF. What I’m saying is, that’s a big if. If a society was able to support itself through hunting and gathering, and produce sufficient surpluses to allow a significant number of non-food-gathering specialists to accrue, you’d have city that existed outside of an agricultural system.

    Good point about fishermen being the equivalent of agriculture – it’s that type of thing that I was thinking of when I sed “food-gathering-specialists” instead of “nonagricultural specialists” above.

  29. de stijl,

    I specifically mentioned cities on the Steppes. Why do I have to know about pre-8000 BCE FERTILE CRESCENT cities?

    FWIW, Jericho is now thought to go back to between 8000-10,000 BCE. There is also a possible city called Catyl Huyuk in Turkey that is that old.

    And no, I’m not confusing settlements with cities. I’m talking about cities, with dense populations and a large body of people who specialize in something other than agriculture/food production.

  30. Er, that last bit is for de stijl.

  31. I’ve never heard of hunter/gatherer cultures supporting enough people to form dense population centers. Could be, I guess, if the hunting/gathering was especially bountiful. Which doesn’t sound like the Asian steppes to me.

    I would guess such a civilization more likely to have occurred in the tropics than in the steppes. Weren’t some of the great African civilizations only marginally agricultural?

    Interesting theory.

  32. Watson Brake probably resembled a city at times while Poverty Point most certainly was. Both are urban and precede what we recognize as agriculture in the culture and region.

  33. I read a book I highly recommend called After the Ice by Stephen Mithen which states that permanent settlements existed 13 – 15,000 years ago, and lasted for a couple of thousand years until the Younger Dryas intervened. This settlements grew to some size, and had an entirely hunter – gatherer economy. These settlements had a culture consistent over all those millenia, and there are suggestions that some of that culture survived to inspire the first real cities in the Fertile Crescent. The book is most interesting because it discusses post-Pleistocene settlements all over the world. Definitely worth readind.

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