Sunday, December 7, 2014

Cities and the Rise of Inequality

This article is interesting: How Farming Almost Destroyed Ancient Human Civilization (io9). Many people are aware that the city of Çatalhöyük in central Turkey was fairly egalitarian based on what we can discern from the architecture and artifacts. Less well-known is the fact that it was abandoned and people returned to small village life:
There were no palaces, no massive ziggurats or pyramids dedicated to the gods, and no signs of class distinction. Every family had a small, slightly rectangular one-room home with a hearth. Each home was roughly the same size. Streets didn't exist in Çatalhöyük — homes were erected next to each other, honeycomb-style, and people just walked over each other's roofs to get home through doors in their ceilings. Though there was art, there was no writing. And there was little in the way of specialized labor. Unlike in ancient Uruk or Mohenjo-Daro, there were no cottage industries in bead-making or weapons production. Families lived by hunting, but mostly by keeping farms and small herds of animals like goats in the nearby hills.

Maybe Çatalhöyük didn't look much like cities as we know them, but it and other mega-sites were the most developed forms of settlement anywhere in the world at that time. They were the urban developments of their age, sheltering huge populations and fostering technological progress like cooking with dairy and making fired pottery (both were major high tech inventions in the Neolithic).

Here's where things get weird. In the mid-5000s BCE, Çatalhöyük was suddenly abandoned. The same thing happened to several other outsized village-cities in the Levant. Their populations drained away, and people returned to small village life for thousands of years. 

Even more mysterious is the fact that we see a similar pattern — intensification of farming, booming population, growing settlements, and abandonment — elsewhere in the world. Farming came later to Western Europe and England, so we see this cycle starting roughly 5,000 years ago (around 3,000 BCE) in many European regions and in England.

What happened?
What happened indeed? Was there some sort of a collapse? Maybe:
In the Levant, climate change seems to be an obvious culprit in the dissolution of mega-sites. Çatalhöyük was once surrounded by gushing rivers; today they have run dry. As Harvard paleontologist Ofer Bar Josef has argued for most of his career, it seems certain that favorable climate conditions allowed agriculture to flourish in the Levant. But in the late Neolithic, the weather cooled down and dried out. A place like Çatalhöyük could no longer sustain itself on locally-grown crops and famine may have become a major issue. Scattering into smaller villages gave people a chance to have the comforts of settled life without depending on massive crop yields to feed everyone.

But archaeologists who study the population drops in Europe suggest another explanation. University College London archaeologist Stephen Shennan and his team found that there was no correlation between climate shifts and population drops in Europe. They suggest that what appears to be abandonment of megasites may actually be population drops due to disease...
But others think that populations accustomed to the egalitarianism of the nomadic life did not want to live under the thumb of the local big men and just left. This is another blow to the progress narrative of the "rise" of civilization - that people were so much better off in cities that they abandoned their nomadic and village life. It turns out that even after a taste of urban life, people walked away. History is not a progress from worse to better as was once thought. It was hardly a ladder upward as depicted in the triumphalist view of eternal progress:
It's possible that the mega-village model of life wasn't sustainable because it was propped up by belief systems that could only exist in small communities where everybody shared resources. That would explain why people abandoned these sites for smaller villages that never grew beyond about 200 people...we'd spent tens of thousands of years as nomads before that, and weren't yet ready to abandon our ancient beliefs that no family should ever accumulate more than its neighbors. As a result, our earliest experiment with urbanism ended in failure. When the going got rough, with bad harvests and disease, humans preferred to abandon their nascent urban creations because we had not yet developed a social structure that would allow us to cope with the difficulties of city life.

Because nomadic life requires everyone in the group to share resources to survive, these groups would develop rituals and customs that reinforced a very flat social structure. Certainly there would be families that had more prominent positions in a hunter-gatherer group or small village, but if they ever started hoarding resources too much that would be bad for the entire group. So people would strongly discourage each other from ostentatious displays of social differences.

All of this works nicely in a small community, where you know all of your neighbors and only share with people whose lives are bound to yours (even if you don't like them very much). But once you have a thousand people living together, it's harder to have a flat social structure. People need local representatives to stand in for them, and perhaps even a system of writing to keep track of everyone and what they own. Some people start to do specialized tasks, and social differentiation begins.

But the ideology of these Neolithic people in mega-villages...may have treated any kind of social differentiation as taboo. As soon as somebody took enough power to be a representative or proto-politician, other people would rail against them...major conflicts may have grown out of this tension between a belief in flat social organization and the need to create social hierarchies in larger societies. It's an intriguing hypothesis, especially when you consider that when cities re-emerge in the 4,000s BCE, they have rigid social hierarchies with kings, shamans, and slaves. Plus, they have writing, which is primarily used to tally up who lives where and owns what.
What changed a thousand years later in Mesopotamia? One is reminded of Carneiro's circumscription theory - that in areas circumscribed by mountain ranges, impenetrable deserts, bodies of water and hostile tribes, people had nowhere to run and had no choice but to submit to centralized power, urban agglomerations, slavery and despotism. Those that didn't or wouldn't were eliminated.

And we've been getting more unequal ever since - The Walmart Heirs Are Worth More Than Everyone in Your City Combined (Mother Jones)

See also: Did This Ancient Civilization Avoid War for 2,000 Years? (io9)
The Harappan civilization dominated the Indus River valley beginning about five thousand years ago, many of its massive cities sprawling at the edges of rivers that still flow through Pakistan and India today. But its culture remains a mystery. Why did it leave behind no representations of great leaders, nor of warfare?

Archaeologists have long wondered whether the Harappan civilization could actually have thrived for roughly 2,000 years without any major wars or leadership cults. Obviously people had conflicts, sometimes with deadly results — graves reveal ample skull injuries caused by blows to the head. But there is no evidence that any Harappan city was ever burned, besieged by an army, or taken over by force from within. Sifting through the archaeological layers of these cities, scientists find no layers of ash that would suggest the city had been burned down, and no signs of mass destruction. There are no enormous caches of weapons, and not even any art representing warfare.

That would make the Harappan civilization an historical outlier in any era. But it's especially noteworthy at a time when neighboring civilizations in Mesopotamia were erecting massive war monuments, and using cuneiform writing on clay tablets to chronicle how their leaders slaughtered and enslaved thousands.

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