The Origin of Cities – Part 2

Jericho – the First City

Cities were preceded by proto-cities, which were in essence large-scale farming villages. The most famous of these are Jericho in Israel and Çatalhöyük in Turkey. Proto-cities are distinguished form true cities in that they do not have a pre-planned layout, show no signs of hierarchy or separate social classes, and do not appear to have distinct religious or governmental buildings outside of private dwellings. All of the residences at Çatalhöyük were the same layout, for example, and there were no palaces or specialized religious structures. There were no streets either; the city was a honeycomb warren of mud-brick houses built on top of one another and accessed via ladders from openings in the ceiling which also allowed for ventilation.

For Lewis Mumford, the consummate historian of cities, Jericho alongside the Jordan river was the first city. Yet Jericho was established long before the transition to domesticated agriculture, meaning that it cannot be a response to the surpluses caused by it. It was still in essence, a large pre-agricultural village inhabited by people who were still largely hunter-gatherers. The reason it was mistaken for a city is because it was surrounded by a four meter high wall, with an eight meter tower that has been dubbed “the world’s first skyscraper,” and which was likely the tallest structure on earth at that time.

For Mumford, then, walls are the hallmarks of the city, that is, the distinguishing feature of a city are its walls. In his estimation, the walls were testament to the rising surpluses caused by sedentary agriculture and the need to defend those surpluses. Walls protect the surpluses from raiders–cities, walls, warfare, and centralized governments all went hand-in-hand, and they all stemmed from population growth engendered by agriculture, went the thinking. By hiding behind city walls, early people could stay safe from the increasing violence caused by a population growth and develop the first “private” property, went the story.

Mumford also sees walls in cities as the beginnings of the first “surveillance state.” By putting up walls around a city, the rulers could determine who was coming and who was going– and manage accordingly. In this view, the watchtower completes this picture. The watchtower allowed the inhabitants to keep a lookout for distant raiders coming for their surpluses, and retreat behind the walls as soon as the marauders showed up.

And yet, we may have misunderstood the walls of Jericho.

What caused archaeologists to doubt the walls’ defensive purpose was the lack of any evidence for large-scale warfare or raiding, such as weapons or skeletal injuries. And why was Jericho alone walled? If there was all this fighting going on in the Neolithic, surely we would see similar walls elsewhere, and yet we don’t see any other walled cities in this time period. The layers of Jericho that showed destruction came much later in its history, closer to the early Bronze Age.

What archaeologists did find, rather than signs of warfare, was a massive buildup of river silt and related debris along the base of the walls. This led archaeologists to surmise that the wall of Jericho were built as flood walls, to prevent the village from being inundated by the nearby Jordan River during the rainy season (Jordan river flooding is mentioned in the Bible). The river provided a source of water for growing the cereal grains which were becoming increasingly central to the new way of life at this time. The cereal grains grown nearby may have been used for feasting, and the walls may have been to keep out those who were invited to the feast from those who were not. Not only that, but there were hardly enough people in early Jericho to adequately defend such a long perimeter of wall!

Since third-millennium Mesopotamia, urban density has been catalyzed by the defensive military need of inhabitants to gather in walled towns. Indeed, the word “town” derives from the German Zaun (“fence”), typically referring to the walled military camps planted across Europe by the Roman emperors in standardized designs. But civilization’s first urban areas are not well characterized as such towns. Although Jericho appears to have been a walled center by about 9000 BC, its walls were not necessarily fortifications; they may well have been flood walls. In any event, when archaeologists next encounter urban sites, such as Çatal Hüyük in the sixth millennium BC, they find a cosmopolitan neutrality….It appears that the earliest towns were sanctified from raids. Southern Mesopotamian fortifications, for instance, do not appear until relatively late, c. 2800 BC.”

From Sacred Enclave to Temple to City(Michael Hudson)

In fact, Jericho’s walls may have served primarily a social purpose, rather than a defensive one.

Or, at least, that’s what a number of archaeologists believe. In their opinion, the walls served a similar purpose as today’s gated communities–to separate selected people from those around them. And the tower was a part of that. The tower may have actually built as a promotional technology – built by aggrandizing elites to demonstrate the riches and power of the village, rather than to keep a lookout for raiders.

Recently, archaeologists have argued that the tower was specifically designed to play on the fears of the local population. The stairwell of the tower was oriented in a very specific way relative to the sunset on the longest day of the year:

In a 2008 article, the Tel Aviv University researchers proposed that the tower and wall of Jericho should be seen as cosmological markers, connecting the ancient village of Jericho with the nearby Mount Qarantal and sunset on the longest day of the year. The new paper fortifies their hypothesis…”Reconstruction of the sunset revealed to us that the shadow of the hill as the sun sets on the longest day of the year falls exactly on the Jericho tower, envelops the tower and then covers the entire village,” .. “For this reason, we suggest that the tower served as an earthly element connecting the residents of the site with the hills around them and with the heavenly element of the setting sun.” Its construction may be related to the primeval fears and cosmological beliefs of the villagers…

The “cosmological significance” of the tower connects it with the previous megalithic sites which also had very specific orientation relative to nearby geographical features and celestial objects. The researchers go on to describe how constructing such a monument would serve the interests of the important people of the village:

The researchers note that this is the first instance of human beings erecting such a tall structure, even before the transition to agriculture and food production in the region. Liran and Dr. Barkai now believe that the tower, which required about ten years to build, is an indication of power struggles at the beginning of the Neolithic period, and that a particular person or people exploited the primeval fears of Jericho’s residents in persuading them to build it. ..”This was a time when hierarchy began and leadership was established,” Dr. Barkai told the Jerusalem Post. “We believe this tower was one of the mechanisms to motivate people to take part in a communal lifestyle.”

First skyscraper was a monument to intimidation: How Jericho’s 11,000-year-old ‘cosmic’ tower came into being (Science Daily)

Thus, the tower may be some of the earliest evidence anywhere of the transition from transegalitarian societies to more collective, hierarchically-based lifestyles, well before domesticated agriculture or the much later cities of Mesopotamia.

We’ve already talked about the “lures” that Triple-A personalities used to get people to work for them – the lure of profit, and the lure of addictive and psychoactive substances. We also talked about the need to attract “highly motivated and skilled” labor from rival villages and the competition between aggrandizing individuals to acquire followers. We mentioned that such villages often constructed elaborate public works to “advertise success” and attract people from neighboring villages to come and settle there (such as the totem poles of Northwest coast villages). Was the tower at Jericho built for this purpose? As a side-note, I recently read the CEO of a major company here where I live (Northwestern Mutual) say in an interview with the local newspapaer that he hoped the new skyscraper they were erecting downtown would allow them to attract “top talent” to our decaying Rust-belt city. So using tall towers to “advertise success” by aggrandizers is not so far-fetched.

Schlifske says new Northwestern Mutual tower will attract talent (JSOnline)

The walls would have enforced separation between “us” and “them.” Inside the walls would be the feasting ceremonies with their rich foods and plentiful psychoactive substances, including possibly alcoholic beverages. Great exchanges of food and wealth, moderated by the Big Men, would take place. The tower, with its cosmological significance, would have attracted people from far and wide to come there and work the Big Men, as the archaeologists posit. It would have enticed people from the surrounding areas to abandon their hunter-gatherer ways (and the related freedom) for the lure of psychoactive substances, whose characteristics would have eased the transition. It would also serve to attract the Stakhanovite “hard workers” from other surrounding villages. As we’ve seen, labor was almost universally pooled through work feasts, and no doubt the construction of Jericho’s wall and tower was a result of such lavish feasts. No doubt the cosmological orientation of the tower and its connection to the surrounding hills would have reinforced the “supernatural” powers and abilities of the Big Men elites.

So, then, walls were actually a physical manifestation of many of the behaviors that Hayden associates with the beginning of hereditary rank societies–bridewealth, specialized training, secret societies, and so on. The social logic became manifested in the actual physical world as walls separating elites from commoners. While we cannot entirely rule out walls as protection form raids, its notable that early walls were just as likely to be within cites as around them. This clearly implies that they were less about defense than about social exclusion. And they would have helped to reinforce a new social identity apart from the hunter-gatherer bands of the outside world:

In Peter J. Wilson’s book The Domestication of the Human Species, the anthropologist argues that humans first walls were probably a social or cultural development. They allowed people to develop a sense of individual and group identity in villages and cities that grew far beyond the size of any hunter-gatherer group. It’s possible that humans needed walls to deal with the psychological stress of living in bigger groups; they gave people separate spaces where they could cool off from conflicts or share their feelings without social judgments.

In the years since Wilson’s book came out, archaeologists have confirmed that many city walls appear to serve a social purpose rather than a military one.

In the Neolithic village Ilıpınar, located in the Anatolian region of Turkey, walls helped villagers consolidate their identity as a community. These people’s biggest threat was not a military incursion, but fragmentation into hunter-gatherer groups. And indeed, it seems that Ilıpınar’s inhabitants did eventually return to a semi-nomadic way of life. The village was slowly abandoned after several hundred years of permanent settlement. But first, it was occupied by people who only lived there for part of the year. It’s as if they became partial nomads, then abandoned village life altogether. Early walls in cities were also used to enclose small groupings of homes rather than the entire settlement. Perhaps these internal walls were used to separate powerful groups from everyone else.

Why Do We Build Walls Around Our Cities? (io9)

Indeed, the lifestyle of such a large agglomeration of people would have been highly unnatural to people accustomed to either hunting and gathering or very small villages. Walls were as much about keeping people in as keeping them out–Richard Manning speculated that the Great Wall of China may have been less about defense than about keeping the first inhabitants of agrarian civilizations from running away from the drudgery of farming to join the nomads. As we’ll see below, early walls may also have demarcated sacred ground as societies became more hierarchical with the emergence of full-time hereditary religious specialists. The walls seen around early cities may derive from their origin as sacred spaces rather than just a need for defense.

Thus walls appear to have played a social role first, with the defensive one coming later due to the “militarization” of the ancient world that came with the Bronze Age.

Another possibility is that the walls served a ritual purpose; to demarcate sacred space from common areas:

Excavations by Orkney College at the nearby Ness of Brodgar site between the Ring and the Stones of Stenness have revealed several buildings, both ritual and domestic and the works suggest there are likely to be more in the vicinity. One structure appears to be 20 metres (66 ft) long by 11 metres (36 ft) wide. Pottery, bones, stone tools and polished stone mace heads have also been discovered. Perhaps the most important find is the remains of a large stone wall which may have been 100 metres (330 ft) long and 4 metres (13 ft) or more wide. It appears to traverse the entire peninsula the site is on and may have been a symbolic barrier between the ritual landscape of the Ring and the mundane world around it.

Mesopotamian temples, for example, had walls around them because they were concerned with ritual “purity.” In order to enter the sacred space of the temple, the priest had to first perform ablutions before entering:

The need to please the gods made ritual purity a major concern in Sumer. As early as the Uruk period, some temple precincts had been walled off from the secular parts of the city. Before entering the temple, even a Sumerian ruler had to perform ritual ablution, washing away the pollution of the secular world. (The Creation of Inequality, p. 481)

Similar separating walls may have been more to demarcate ritualized landscapes than protect private property. Since the first true cities centered around temple precincts in Mesopotamia, this may have caused the misconception that cities were always places of military rule and centralized government. Walls may have also simply served to demarcate a group’s territory, with its major monuments serving as the cultural identifier.

The Enigma of Çatalhöyük

Çatalhöyük, in central Turkey, was on of the world’s earliest “cities” discovered by archaeologists. It discovered in the late 1950’s and excavated British archaeologist James Melaart beginning in the 1960’s. The city began and ended long before the cities of the marshlands of southern Mesopotamia were founded.

This was a much larger agglomeration of people than anywhere else in the world at this time, leading to speculation about what caused it. The city was occupied about 8000 BC, and had what is estimated to be over 2000 inhabitants:

It’s hard to say what, exactly, Çatalhöyük was. Was it a city or just some kind of bizarre, outsized village? We know it lasted for millennia, with thousands of people living there continuously from about 7500 BCE to 5700 BCE. Perhaps we might say that was the closest thing to a city in the Neolithic, since hundreds more people lived there than in typical villages nearby. But it had none of the features we associate with the grand, walled cities that emerged thousands of years later in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

How Farming Almost Destroyed Human Civilization (io9)

The most notable feature about Çatalhöyük is the lack of hierarchy. Here, in this early proto-city, all the dwellings are approximately the same size and layout. There are no specialized buildings such as palaces or temples. Sacred spaces, to the extent we can identify them, were within private houses–there were no temple structures. Nor does there seem to have been much in the way of gender inequality. The dead were buried under the floors of the dwellings. Sometimes the skulls of these bodies were removed and plastered to resemble the living, and stored in dwelling units. This has led to speculation about ancestor worship.

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 others 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.

How Farming Almost Destroyed Human Civilization (io9)

Çatalhöyük was built on two hills near the Kashen-Dag volcano, which provided a rich source of obsidian–volcanic glass. Such a sharp substance would have been particularly useful before metal was commonly utilized – even today it’s used in some surgical tools because, unlike metal, it never rusts or dulls. Obsidian from this region has been identified at sites all over the Levant, including Jericho, indicating the presence of long-distance trade networks between large groups of people long before the emergence of the first literate civilizations.

One remarkable recent discovery is that the people living together as “families” in these dwellings were not biologically related to one another, as revealed by DNA. These were unrelated people living together in the Neolithic – a very strange condition indeed!

Perhaps Çatalhöyük was a “city of refuge.” As places “set apart” from their surrounding communities, one of the functions of the first cities may have been as places of refuge for fugitives such as convicted murders. There, they would have been outside of tribal justice systems and accepted into a “new” family. Such cities appear to have been common in various cultures around the world and functioned as a way of keeping tit-for-tat blood-feuds from escalating out of control. Perhaps disease played a role too. For example, “leper colonies” were places where diseased people were quarantined and lived with one another apart from society, and are widely attested to in the Bible. These “penal/leper colonies” may have been the world’s first large agglomerations of people:

The first city that appears in the Bible (Genesis 4) is not a commercial port, administrative capital or military outpost, but the city of refuge located “east of Eden . . . in the land of Nod,” to which Adam’s son Cain withdrew after he killed his brother Abel….Such cities of refuge are found not only in the Old Testament but also in Native American communities at the time of their first contact with white men, suggesting a nearly universal response to the problem of what to do with public offenders. Throughout history, exile has been a widespread punishment for manslaughter and other capital crimes, including treason. The exile is obliged to leave his native community on pain of death, liable to retaliation by the victim’s family taking revenge.

Sanctuaries for such fugitives must have been well peopled, for an early myth says that Romulus helped populate Rome by founding an asylum for them.The Israelites are said to have created twelve cities of refuge, one for each tribal region…Such cities are assumed to have been placed on hills, mountains or other prominent spots plainly marked, as described in Deuteronomy 19…In any event, each year public workers are reported to have been sent to repair the roads leading to them, and to maintain signposts guiding manslayers…

From Sacred Enclave to Temple to City(Michael Hudson)

Or, perhaps it was some sort of religious commune, maybe even a type of monastery/nunnery. One feature noted by early excavators was the presence of a large number goddess figurines. This led to the speculation by Melaart that Çatalhöyük was the center of a “goddess cult.” Although this has been dismissed by most later archaeologists, certainly some sort of collective religious sentiment would have been needed for such a large agglomeration of people–unrelated people no less– to live together in relative harmony for thousands of years. Perhaps they were similar to today’s Amish, whose religious beliefs are key the the enforcement of strict egalitarianism, and hence communal solidarity and a stable social structure.

As enigmatic as Çatalhöyük’s social structure and religious beliefs is the the reason why is was abandoned. Early speculation was that a change in climate was the cause. Yet recent research has indicated that abandonment occurred during a period of relative climatic stability. Another speculation is that disease outbreaks, caused by living in close proximity to domesticated animals, may have caused large die-offs of people and the abandonment of villages.We know that people lving in close proximity to animals is the vector for a whole host of new diseases that were established for the first time in the Neolithic, such as smallpox. Communicable diseases would have spread much more easily. Or perhaps the soil became exhausted and the forests were overharvested to provide fuel for heating.

One tantalizing speculation is that Çatalhöyük outgrew its social structure. As the village grew larger, it need to form various hierarchies in order to manage its growing numbers. Yet this also introduced wider class divisions that were antithetical to the egalitarian social norms at this time, a legacy of hunting and gathering. This tension was unable to be resolved, and so people eventually just walked away rather than submit to the “control” of elites.

The problem is that people in Neolithic mega-villages had inherited a system of social organization and spirituality from their nomadic forebears. 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.

How Farming Almost Destroyed Human Civilization (io9)

Recent evidence has shown that increasing signs of inequality begin to emerge later in the settlement’s history, closer to its eventual abandonment. Coincident with this development is a large degree of non-fatal head injuries seen in the skeletons, apparently caused by projectiles. The speculation is that increasing inequality led to increasing social tensions, exhibited by the blows to the skulls, which are absent from earlier generations.

One reason this may have happened was cattle. Cattle were domesticated in this same region of Turkey, and yet there is little evidence of cattle-herding at Çatalhöyük even long after it became commonplace elsewhere in the vicinity. It’s speculated that, again like the Amish, certain “technologies” that would lead to class divisions may have been deliberately ignored or suppressed. After all, an excavation of a modern Amish settlements by furture archaeolgists (assuming there are any) would raise some interesting questions if you had no idea of what Amish social structures and belief systems were like.

The hundreds of homes excavated thus far exhibit remarkable unity in how they were built, arranged and decorated, with no sign of any distinctive structure that could have served as an administrative or religious center. In most of the layers of successive settlement, each household seems to have had a similar amount of goods and wealth, and a very similar lifestyle. It’s primarily in the most recent uppermost layers, after about 6500 B.C., that signs of inequality begin to emerge. [Ian] Hodder speculates that this uniformity, as well as a strong shared system of beliefs and rituals, kept people together in the absence of leaders. He cautions, however, that it may not have been an egalitarian utopia.

“We believe people in Çatalhöyük were quite equal, but it might not have been the nicest society to live in,” he says. “Residents had to submit to a lot of social control — if you didn’t fit in, you presumably left. What Çatalhöyük may show is that such a society only works with strong homogeneity. For many generations, it was very unacceptable for individual households to accumulate [wealth]. Once they started to do so, there is evidence that more problems started to arise.”

In line with Hodder’s theory, the skulls with this characteristic [injury to the top back of the skull] were found primarily in later levels of the site, when more independence and differentiation between households started to emerge. Hodder speculates that, with these inequalities potentially creating new tensions among the community’s members, non-fatal violence may have been a means to keep everyone in check and prevent or diffuse full-fledged conflicts that could break the settlement apart. “The head wounds, in a way, confirm the idea of a controlled society,” Hodder says. “They suggest that violence was contained and regulated, not something that led to large-scale killing.”

What Happened to Turkey’s Ancient Utopia? (Discover Magazine)

So once cattle-herding was introduced, the thinking goes, class-based differences start to emerge.

Farmers in the Fertile Crescent, more than 200 miles east of Çatalhöyük, began domesticating cattle around 8000 B.C. By 6500 B.C., the practice had moved to parts of Turkey’s Central Anatolia, Çatalhöyük’s general neighborhood. But evidence of domesticated cattle at Çatalhöyük is scarce until after the move to the West Mound. Compared with their neighbors, the people of Çatalhöyük appear to have been “late adopters” of that era’s hottest new innovation: domesticated cattle.
“Every domesticated animal is a hugely complex new technology that offers great potential for change, but also requires great investments,” says Katheryn Twiss, an associate professor of archaeology at Stony Brook University and co-director of Çatalhöyük’s faunal analysis laboratory. “If you have cattle, you can start to plow, but you also have to be able to get enough water and graze, and to keep them healthy and safe from predators. There may have been reasons to resist adopting this technological advance.”

Some 3 million animal bones have been found at Çatalhöyük — primarily from sheep and cattle, but also goats, horses, dogs, boar, fox, deer, hare and other species. Twiss’ team has been analyzing them to determine when, and why, the settlement transitioned from hunting to herding. Ongoing research may link the arrival of domesticated cattle with emerging inequality between households, and increasingly individualistic behavior among Çatalhöyük residents.

What Happened to Turkey’s Ancient Utopia? (Discover Magazine)

Whatever the reasons, proto-cities were abandoned all over the Near East, not returning to such levels until the establishment of literate Near-Eastern civilizations of Egypt, Mespotamia and the Indus Valley. This shows that there is nothing “inevitable” about population growth leading to cities. For a long time, walking away was a viable option.

One thought on “The Origin of Cities – Part 2

  1. The Henges of Europe are circular bank/ditch structures… but built the ‘wrong’ way round. If these structures were defensive, it was to keep something /in/… 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.