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  • Writer's pictureТимофей Милорадович

Rethinking of human history

In the summer of 2014, I was in Iraqi Kurdistan with a small team of archaeologists, finishing a season of field excavations near the border town of Halabja. Our project was looking into something which has puzzled and intrigued me ever since I began studying archeology.

We're taught to believe that thousands of years ago, when our ancestors first invented agriculture in that part of the world, that it set in motion a chain of consequences that would shape our modern world in a particular direction, on a particular course. By farming wheat, our ancestors supposedly developed new attachments to the land they lived on. Private property was invented. And with that, the need to defend it. Along with new opportunities for some people to accumulate surpluses, came new labor demands, tying most people to a hard regime of tending their crops while a privileged few received freedom and the leisure to do other things. To think, to experiment, to create the foundations of what we refer to as civilization.

Now, according to this familiar story, what happened next is that populations boomed, villages turned into towns, towns became cities, and with the emergence of cities, our species was locked on a familiar trajectory of development where spiraling populations and technological change were bound up with the kind of dreadful inequalities that we see around us today.

Except, as anyone can tell you, who's looked at the evidence from the Middle East, almost nothing of what I've just been saying is actually true. And the consequences I'm going to suggest are quite profound. Actually, what happened after the invention of agriculture around 10,000 years ago, is a long period of around another 4,000 years in which villages largely remained villages. And actually there's very little evidence for the emergence of rigid social classes, which is not to say that nothing happened.


Over those 4,000 years, technological change actually proceeded apace. Without kings, without bureaucracies, without standing armies, these early farming populations fostered the development of mathematical knowledge, advanced metallurgy. They learned to cultivate olives, vines and date palms. They invented leavened bread, beer, and they developed textile technologies: the potter's wheel, the sail. And they spread all of these innovations far and wide, from the shores of the eastern Mediterranean, up to the Black Sea, and from the Persian Gulf, all the way over to the mountains of Kurdistan, where our excavations were taking place.

I've often referred, half jokingly, to this long period of human history as the era of the first global village. Because it's not just the technological innovations that are so remarkable, but also the social innovations which enabled people to do all these things without forming centers and without raising up a class of permanent leaders over everybody else.

Now, oddly enough, this efflorescence of culture is not what we usually refer to as civilization. Instead, that term is usually reserved for harshly unequal societies, which came thousands of years later. Dynastic Mesopotamia. Pharaonic Egypt. Imperial Rome. Societies that were deeply stratified. So in short, I've always felt that there was basically something very weird about our concept of civilization, something that leaves us lost for words, tongue tied. When we're confronted with thousands of years of human beings, say, practicing agriculture, creating new technologies, but not lording it over each other or exploiting each other to the maximum.

Why don't we have better words? Where is our lexicon for those long expanses of human history in which we weren't behaving that way?

Over the past ten years or more, I worked closely together with the late, great anthropologist David Graeber to address some of these questions. But we did it on a much larger scale because from our perspective as an archaeologist and an anthropologist, this clash between theory and data, between the standard narrative of human history and the evidence that we have before us today is not just confined to the early Middle East. It’s everything: out whole picture of human history that we’ve been telling for centuries, it’s basically wrong. I'm going to try and explain a few more of the reasons why.

Let's go back to some of those core concepts, the stable reference points around which we've been organizing and orchestrating our understanding of world history for hundreds of years. Take, for instance, that notion that for most of its history, the human species lived in tiny egalitarian bands of hunter gatherers, until the advent of agriculture ushered in a new age of inequality. Or the notion that with the arrival of cities came social classes, sacred kings and rapacious oligarchs trampling everyone else underfoot.


From our very first history lessons, we're taught to believe that our modern world, with all of its advantages and amenities, modern health care, space travel, all the things that are good and exciting, couldn't possibly exist without that original concentration of humanity into larger and larger units and the relentless buildup of inequalities that came with it. Inequality, we're taught to believe, was the necessary price of civilization.

Well, if so, then what are we to make of the early Middle East? Perhaps one might say there was just a very, very, very long lag time, 4,000 years, before all these developments took place. Inequality was bound to happen, it was bound to set in. It was just a matter of time. And perhaps the rest of the story still works for other parts of the world.

Well, let's think a bit about what we can actually say today about the origin of cities. Surely, you might think, with the appearance of cities came the appearance of social classes. Think about ancient Egypt with its pyramid temples. Or Shang China with its lavish tombs.


The classic Maya with their warlike rulers. Or the Inca empire with its mummified kings and queens. But actually, the picture these days is not so clear. What modern archeology tells us, for example, is that there were already cities on the lower reaches of the Yellow River over 1,000 years before the rise of the Shang. And on the other side of the Pacific, in Peru’s Rio Supe, we already see huge agglomerations of people with monumental architecture 4,000 years before the Inca.


In South Asia, 4,500 years ago, the first cities appeared at places like Mohenjo-daro and Harappa in the Indus Valley. But these huge settlements present no evidence of kings or queens. No royal monuments, no aggrandizing art. And what's more, we know that much of the population lived in high-quality housing with excellent sanitation. North of the Black Sea, in the modern country of Ukraine, archaeologists have found evidence of even more ancient cities going back 6,000 years. And again, these huge settlements present no evidence of authoritarian rule. No temples, no palaces, not even any evidence of central storage facilities or top-down bureaucracy. Actually what we see in those cases are these great concentric rings of houses arranged rather like the inside of a tree trunk around neighborhood assembly halls. And it stayed that way for about 800 years.

So what this means is that long before the birth of democracy in ancient Greece, there were already well-organized cities on several of the world's continents which present no evidence for ruling dynasties. And some of them also seem to have managed perfectly well without priests, mandarins and warrior politicians. Of course, some early cities did go on to become the capitals of kingdoms and empires. But it's important to note that others went in completely the opposite direction.

To take one well-documented example, around the year 250 AD, the city of Teotihuacan, in the valley of Mexico, with a population of around 100,000 people, turned its back on pyramid temples and human sacrifices and reconstituted itself as a vast collection of comfortable villas housing most of the city's population. When archaeologists first investigated these buildings, they assumed they were palaces. Then they realized that just about everyone in the city was living in a palace with spacious patios and subfloor drainages, gorgeous murals on the walls.

But we shouldn't get carried away. None of the societies that I've been describing was perfectly egalitarian. But then we might also remember that fifth-century Athens, which we look to as the birthplace of democracy, was also a militaristic society founded on chattel slavery, where women were completely excluded from politics. So maybe by comparison, somewhere like Teotihuacan was not doing so badly at keeping the genie of inequality in its bottle.

But maybe we can just forget about all that, we can look away. Perhaps all of these things I'm talking about are basically outliers. Maybe we can still keep our familiar story of civilization intact. And after all, if cities without rulers were really such a common thing in human history, why didn't Cortéz and Pizarro and all the other conquistadors find any when they began their invasion of the Americas? Why did they find only Moctezuma and Atahualpa lording it over their empires?

Except that's not true either. Actually, the city where Hernan Cortéz found his military allies, the ones who enabled his successful assault on the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, was exactly one such city without rulers: an indigenous republic by the name of Tlaxcala, governed by an urban parliament, which had some pretty interesting initiation rituals for would-be politicians. They'd be periodically whipped and subject to public abuse by their constituents to sort of break down their egos and remind them who's really in charge. It's a little bit different from what we expect of our politicians today.


And archaeologists, by the way, have also worked at this place Tlaxcala, excavating the remains of the pre-conquest city, and what they found there is really remarkable. Again, the most impressive architecture is not temples and palaces. It's just the well-appointed residences of ordinary citizens arrayed along these grand terraces overlooking district plazas.

And it's not just the history of cities that modern archaeological science is turning on its head. We also know now that the history of human societies before the coming of agriculture is just nothing like what we once imagined. Far from this idea of people living all the time in tiny bands of hunter-gatherers, actually, what we see these days is evidence for a really wild variety of social experimentation before the coming of farming.


In Africa, 50,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers were already creating huge networks, social networks, covering large parts of the continent. In Ice Age Europe, 25,000 years ago, we see evidence of individuals singled out for special grand burials, their bodies suffused with ornamentation, weapons and even what looked like regalia. We see public buildings constructed on the bones and tusks of woolly mammoth. And around 11,000 years ago, back in the Middle East, where I started, hunter-gatherers constructed enormous stone temples at a place called Göbekli Tepe in eastern Turkey.


In North America, long before the coming of maize farming, indigenous populations created the massive earthworks of poverty point in Louisiana, capable of hosting hunter gatherer publics in their thousands. And then Japan, again, long before the arrival of rice farming, the storehouses of Sannai Maruyama could already hold great surpluses of wild plant foods.

Now what do all these details amount to? What does it all mean? Well, at the very least, I'd suggest it's really a bit far-fetched these days to cling to this notion that the invention of agriculture meant a departure from some egalitarian Eden. Or to cling to the idea that small-scale societies are especially likely to be egalitarian, while large-scale ones must necessarily have kings, presidents and top-down structures of management. And there are also some contemporary implications. Take, for example, the commonplace notion that participatory democracy is somehow natural in a small community. Or perhaps an activist group, but couldn't possibly have a scale up for anything like a city, a nation or even a region.

Well, actually, the evidence of human history, if we're prepared to look at it, suggests the opposite. If cities and regional confederacies, held together mostly by consensus and cooperation existed thousands of years ago, who's to stop us creating them again today with technologies that allow us to overcome the friction of distance and numbers? Perhaps it's not too late to begin learning from all this new evidence of the human past, even to begin imagining what other kinds of civilization we might create if we can just stop telling ourselves that this particular world is the only one possible.

Thank you very much.



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