The Origin of Cities – Part 1

It may seem odd to connect the rise of cities to ritual, inequality, and debt, and yet they play a very large role in the urban revolution.

The conventional story has cities as a sort of natural response to the population growth and the sedentary lifestyle engendered by agriculture. The need to settle down and abandon a nomadic existence led to villages, and agglomerations of people in certain ecologically favorable spots inevitably grew over time as population increased, becoming the first cities. The concentration of population, the need to control labor and redistribute surpluses, and the need to conduct military campaigns, led to the emergence of specialized “classes” – bureaucrats, soldiers and rulers – who heralded the emergence of “states.” Taxes flowed into the capitals where rulers used them to build infrastructure, as well as grandiose temples and palaces for their own aggrandizement, paid for seizing the surpluses of the productive classes, often through violence. Such early states are invariably depicted as “despotic.”

Or so the story goes. But what if that picture we’ve told is too simple?

The archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe first coined the term “Urban Revolution” to describe the rise of cities starting in the third millennium BC. Childe assumed that cities were a natural response to increasing population pressure thanks to intensified agricultural methods, and that the subsequent characteristics of cities emerged spontaneously from people living in close quarters. He listed ten characteristics of the urban revolution, among which were: Full-time economic specialization and the division of labor; monumental public architecture; a hereditary ruling class; writing and mathematics; predictive sciences such as astronomy; standardized systems of weights and measurement; naturalistic art; and long-distance trade.

Yet, as we saw last time, large-scale construction and economic specialization was commonplace already in chiefdom societies, with their redistribution networks and their work feasts. And we saw that large-scale construction was often done under the aegis of chiefs and other important figures to establish a unique “cultural identity” and express social solidarity, not through slavery or coercion. Such large-scale public structures long preceded cities. As we saw last time, monumental stone megaliths reach back to end of the Ice Age, when the caves were abandoned.

And as we saw redistribution allowed greater economic specialization, larger social networks, insurance for shortages, a safety net for uncertainty, more trading opportunities, and greater population growth than simple reciprocity. Such activities were apparently viewed as beneficial for the wider society, rather than being ‘extorted” by violence as commonly depicted. Many of these tasks no doubt grew out of the early neolithic feasting complex. The benefits of wider social networks would have become even more important given the need to provide for defense from neighboring cultures as population increased.

Historians and archaeologists usually interpret cities as heralding the rise of a “new” social form; that is, the replacement of kinship structures with social classes. This is connected with the emergence of a full-time “professional” bureaucracy which is needed to manage  the distribution of goods and labor, as well as a hereditary ruling class set apart from the “commoners,” that controls the whole affair. This bureaucracy is sustained by “contributions”–taxes–from food producers, who remain in smaller-scale villages governed by reciprocity and kinship.

In addition, the standard story continues, specialization of labor caused people to from new “professional” associations apart from kinship structures. Specialization of labor concentrated in cities in order to cater the new wealthy upper classes, leading to the first markets, and later spreading to encompass long-distance trade. As people became full-time specialists instead of generalists, they needed some way to exchange their goods, leading to the spontaneous formation of “free and open” markets using a precious metals as a medium of exchange. From this economic activity, the standard story goes, the bureaucrats and ruling classes “extorted” goods from the productive classes in return for “protection money;” yet the vast majority of these “contributions” did little but support a parasitic ruling class living in luxury off the backs of the producers.

Yet in this period people did not so much interact as “individuals” as members of various communities. As we’ll see later, economic interaction was not via strangers using cash (which would not exist for thousands of years) in markets. Nor is there evidence for “despotism” or the “coercion” of taxes, or the forcing of labor to construct ancient monuments. Such monuments were managed by rulers, but appear to have been built by corvee labor and other specialists who were compensated for their work, often through feasting. It’s another “Flintstonization” example of us projecting our “modern” social structures onto the past.

In fact, many parts of the standard narrative for the beginnings of cities may be entirely too simple and wrong. For example:

– Agriculture–growing food in the same place year after year,–requires sedentism, but as we’ve seen, sedentism more likely lead to agriculture than the other way around. Sedentary populations existed as far back as the Neolithic era, and proto-cities were founded in the Levant as far back as 8,500 BC. Widespread trade networks and collective labor also apparently existed as far back as the Neolithic era, thousands of years before the first cities–we see beads, copper, and obsidian traded all over the Levant for thousands of years before urban forms emerge, for example.

– Monumental stone architecture long predates cities, from Göbekli Tepe, to Nevali Çori, to the orthostats of Nabta Playa and and Stonehenge, to the megalithic stone temples of Malta, to the barrows and cairns of prehistoric Europe. In places like Easter Island and other places in the South Pacific, monumental structures were built by chiefdoms without cities or significant population density.

– Rather than a separate “professional” bureaucracy, or the speculative existence of social “classes,” such relationships may have emerged out of existing social structures. A “ruling class” and hierarchy existed in many chieftainship societies all over the world without cities or even the cultivation of cereal grains. Nor is sedentism even required: pastoral nomads typically have powerful chiefs and headmen, for example, the Mongols, or the Masai herders, while still being largely nomadic.

– Cities were centers of long-distance trade between cultures, but internally were run by debt/credit relationships and/or centralized redistribution networks, and not by “free and open markets” or money exchanges. Specialized labor began under the aegis of temples, often as welfare provisions for the sick/poor/elderly/disabled. Temples functioned as “public utilities.” Profit making enterprises and the charging of interest began through the activities of “public” institutions, and not through the activities of “private” individuals. Social norms were ordered around preserving and maintaining social relationships and trust, which would would have precluded economic “competition” for profit.

– Cities were often autonomous and “cut off” from the surrounding countryside, both politically and economically. They can not be seen as centers of “government” or anything like a “state” in the modern sense of the term. They were places where unrelated people were able to come together to conduct arms-length economic transactions apart from the embedded cultural institutions which functioned at the village and household levels. These transactions were “sanctified” by the religious authorities. This gave temples a “cosmopolitan” character early on. Temples were often sanctified from raids, and thus became places where the community stored its surpluses for safe-keeping. Some early cities may also have been “cities of refuge” where offenders were banished to escape the reach of tribal justice. Defensive walls around cities appear to have arrived later with the Bronze Age.

Michael Hudson sees the unique characteristics of cities identified by Childe not as responses to population density, but rather stemming from their origins as religious/ritual centers dating all the way back to the ice age. These sites were not occupied year-round, but served as places where widely distributed communities came together to conduct “doctrinal rituals” that bound the society together. He writes, “…all ten of Childe’s urban characteristics turn out to be grounded in preurban ritual activities that long retained a public character, above all those associated with Bronze Age temples, their communal storage facilities, handicraft workshops and sponsorship of the festivals that were the focal point of the archaic calendar.”

Thus, the origin of cities was long before the agricultural revolution as was very much tied together with the activites of ritual feasting. Many of the ancient megaliths show the same “cosmological” orientation as the early temple cities do. The calendrical orientation was associated with the priestly caste who used astronomical observations to determine the timing of the feasts. The design of these sites was intentionally made to represent a cosmic order manifested on earth, a common theme of early ruling classes who were establishing a celestial “order” on earth – “as above so below” in language of hermeticism. Just as the sacred feasting rituals provided the opportunity for the gift exchanges that led to the interest-bearing debt and inequality, so too did the written debt/credit relationships which supplanted them originate in the sacred context of the temples.

Concentrations of people first occurred at ritual sites. ..The localization of specialized meeting areas for ritual and exchange may be found as early as the Ice Age, and later in sacred groves and seasonal gathering spots. These sites were occasional rather than year‑round settlements. It therefore is appropriate to view them as social constructs independent of their scale, performing urban functions long before they came to grow substantially in size and attract year-round settled population…Only if we assume that the earliest gatherings of people must have been year‑round does it follow that urban forms could not have developed prior to the agricultural revolution. Seasonal gathering sites existed already in paleolithic times. The idea of sanctifying their ground must have survived to play a germinal role in patterning more permanent cities…

It may seem unusual to begin the history of urbanization in the Ice Age, but this is a logical corollary of viewing cities as originating simultaneously in sacred cosmological functions ‑‑ ordering their communities, supporting astronomical observers who helped administer the festival calendar, and sponsoring festivals of social cohesion ‑‑ while also organizing external relations (trade and war) with the objective of preventing external trade and warfare from deranging the ordered proportions that governed domestic social life.

From Sacred Enclave to Temple to City (Michael Hudson)

In fact, such ritual feasting centers long predate cities. Religious/cultural centers are present in societies all around the globe at various stages, as we saw last time. They are not the result of population density. For example, most cultures throughout the South Pacific have a large ritual complexes, despite not having anything like a “city”:

A marae (in New Zealand Māori, Cook Islands Māori, Tahitian) malaʻe (in Tongan), malae (in Samoan) and mālaʻe (in Hawaiian) is a communal or sacred place that serves religious and social purposes in Polynesian societies…In Māori society, the marae is a place where the culture can be celebrated, where the Māori language can be spoken, where intertribal obligations can be met, where customs can be explored and debated, where family occasions such as birthdays can be held, and where important ceremonies, such as welcoming visitors or farewelling the dead (tangihanga), can be performed.

In Māori usage, the marae atea (often shortened to marae) is the open space in front of the wharenui or meeting house (literally “large building”). However, the term marae is generally used to refer to the whole complex, including the buildings and the open space. This area is used for pōwhiri – welcome ceremonies featuring oratory. … The meeting house is the locale for important meetings, sleepovers, and craft and other cultural activities. The wharekai (dining hall) is used primarily for communal meals, but other activities may be carried out there. … Marae occur in various sizes, with some wharenui being a bit bigger than a double garage and some being larger than a town hall.

Interestingly, many of these ritual complexes were surrounded by walls and palisades, such as “Old Lapaha” in Tonga. Such walls were not defensive, but rather a way to “set apart” ceremonial and religious grounds. Thus, the earliest walls observed in cities may in fact, stem from their role as sacred ground and not from a defensive need (as we’ll explore below). In fact, such religious structures were apparently “sanctified” from raids, and hence became the place where the community stored its valuables. We see this even today, with Christian churches functioning as “hallowed ground” where fighting is prohibited and enemies can interact peacefully. Churches were traditionally the place where a community kept their valuables (such as gold) to keep them safe from raids (although this backfired for Christians when the pagan Vikings showed up).

Much like the ancient cities of refuge (such as that to which Cain withdrew in Genesis 4, and which Numbers 35 and Joshua 20 describe as being established throughout Israel), temples served as sanctuaries for fugitives from the retaliatory fury of local feud justice. They also served as sanctuaries to store the savings of their communities ‑‑ gold and silver, seeds, tools and other sanctified assets deemed free from attack by neighboring communities that shared a common religious belief that such seizure would be sacriligious.

Such ritual sites needed to be centrally located, and they were often situated on waterways to facilitate travel to and from them by all members of the community at various times of the year. Other times, such ritual sites were set at the boundaries of their communities, rather than the center, where different people came together to conduct commerce, or at critical trade routes.

To perform this role of neutral bridges, such sites tended not to develop at the center of their communities (i.e., “automatically” as a result of growing population density and scale), but at boundaries or natural crossroads between diverse communities. Assur, for instance, sat astride the Tigris intersecting central Mesopotamia’s major east/west trade route, and many other entrepots likewise were situated near the sea or on major transport rivers. The landlocked town of Çatal Hüyük seems to have been the center of its own regionwide trading network.

These sacred sites became the centers of trading. The reason is fairly simple – inside the society, economic relations were governed by principles of reciprocity and redistribution (and later householding). Market exchange -interaction with strangers–was rare. Thus, ritual sites provided the locations–the “portals”– where people from disparate cultures could come together without fear of attack. And the negotiations would have been conducted under the watchful eyes of the gods, sanctifying such exchanges. After all, what is the motivation to deal honestly with “strangers” that you would never see again otherwise? We have also seen that long-distance exchange networks were established by elites such as “Big Men,” and that the control of this trade and the display of “prestige” items took place at ritual feasting events. Thus, feasting centers and their entrepreneurial exchanges (as we’ve already seen), naturally emerge as centers of long-distance trade and ritualized profit-seeking:

Cities were not an automatic byproduct of population pressures sprawling inward from the land, but were a planned and structured response to the need to conduct external relations, above all trade…Urban development thus may be attributed largely to heterogeneous groups coming together to engage in commerce and communal rituals….Early southern Mesopotamian cities took their character from their temples, which played a major role in this trade. Prior to the Bronze Age these temples served as ritual centers and gathering places, and their commercial functions evolved out of this role.

Thus, the “cosmopolitan” nature of cites is present from the very beginning, long before population growth or even recorded history. In fact, the first true city that emerges in the historical record, Eridu, appears to be not only a sacred site centered on its temple complex (Sumerian kingship was said to have descended directly from heaven to Eridu), but also a meeting place of the three distinct lifestyles of ancient Mesopotamia – herding, farming, and riparian. Eridu was where these distinct cultures interacted.

Eridu appears to be the earliest settlement in the [Mesopotamian] region, founded ca. 5400 BC, close to the Persian Gulf near the mouth of the Euphrates River….According to Gwendolyn Leick, Eridu was formed at the confluence of three separate ecosystems, supporting three distinct lifestyles, that led by the Abgallu (Ab = water, Gal = great, Lu = man) came to an agreement about access to fresh water in a desert environment. The oldest agrarian settlement seems to have been based upon intensive subsistence irrigation agriculture derived from the Samarra culture to the north, characterised by the building of canals, and mud-brick buildings. The fisher-hunter cultures of the Arabian littoral were responsible for the extensive middens along the Arabian shoreline, and may have been the original Sumerians. They seem to have dwelt in reed huts. The third culture that contributed to the building of Eridu were the Semitic-speaking nomadic herders of herds of sheep and goats living in tents in semi-desert areas. All three cultures seem implicated in the earliest levels of the city. The urban settlement was centered on an impressive temple complex built of mudbrick, within a small depression that allowed water to accumulate.

The inhabitants of Eridu may have not only had radically different lifestyles but also spoken very different languages. Some have speculated that the religious structures of Eridu were the inspiration for the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, where differences in languages and cultures were first said to have emerged.

2 thoughts on “The Origin of Cities – Part 1

  1. Good stuff; but 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 hard to parse (what does “conduct” mean in this context?), and I don’t think it adds anything. The article might be more widely-read without it.

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