Thursday, 12 March 2009

Early civilisation, part 1: The birth of civilisation

As Aristotle commented in his Metaphysics, people begin to philosophise when the needs of life are provided.[1] After many thousands of years of minimal development, during which our existence was a war against hunger and need, history could begin, and culture could flower. By 3000 BCE, in the valley formed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, great cities of brick and stone with palaces, walls and marketplaces had arisen alongside fields of wheat and orchards. In workshops, specialists produced pottery, jewellery, and sculptures; others studied astronomy and mathematics. Artists began to create achievements on a scale never before possible, in architecture, sculpture, drama, music and painting.

Abu SimbelThe temple of Ramesses II at Abu Simbel. 13th century BCE.

Shortly after the emergence of the Sumerian culture in Mesopotamia, other great civilisations were appearing in the world — in China along the Yellow River, in Pakistan along the Indus, and in Africa along the Nile. Human society had entered a radical new stage of development, and our thousands of years of existence were about to take a new turn. From being mostly nomadic hunter-gatherers, the vast majority of humans would become sedentary and increasingly urbanised.

The Urban Revolution

With the Neolithic Revolution, humanity began to consistently produce more food than was necessary to merely subsist. By around 5000 BCE, the surplus had become large enough to support complex city-states — the essence of what Gordon Childe termed the ‘Urban Revolution’. The very word ‘civilisation’ refers to living in cities (the Latin for a citizen or townsman is civis). Within a few generations, peoples that had once foraged and hunted for their food began to raise sprawling settlements with fortified walls, geometric street plans, palaces, and monumental sculpture. Childe defined the Urban Revolution thus:

On the large alluvial plains and riverside flatlands the need for extensive public works to drain and irrigate the land and to protect the settlement would tend to consolidate social organisation and centralise the economic system. At the same time, the inhabitants of Egypt, Sumer and the Indus basin were forced to organise some regular system of trade or barter to secure supplies of essential raw materials. The fertility of lands gave their inhabitants the means for satisfying their need of imports. But economic self-sufficiency had to be sacrificed and a complex new economic structure created. The surplus of home-grown products must not only suffice to exchange for exotic materials: it must support a body of merchants and transport workers engaged in obtaining these and a body of specialised craftsmen to work the precious imports to the best advantage. And soon soldiers would be needed to protect the convoys and back up the merchants by force, scribes to keep records of transactions growing ever more complex and state officials to reconcile conflicting interests.[2]

The first known civilisation was created by the Sumerians, in the Tigris and Euphrates valley on the tip of the Persian Gulf. But theirs were not the first towns. Irrigated crops were supporting settlements long before — in the 7th century BCE, the city of Jericho was trading salt and Çatalhöyük was trading obsidian, and both had populations of several thousand. By the Ubaid period in the late Neolithic (approx. 5300–4100 BCE), there had already been human settlement in Mesopotamia for thousands of years. Sumer’s advantage was that instead of depending upon one commodity, it practised intensive, year-round agriculture: the fertile soil in the valley was regularly refreshed by spring floods, and the Sumerians irrigated the alluvial desert to raise great fields of grain. The fruits of greater wealth, population growth, and division of labour are characteristic of true civilisation.

Further south in Africa, an Egyptian civilisation arose under the First Dynasty in around 3100 BCE and survived with varying fortunes for the next three thousand years until occupation by the Greeks and then the Romans. Another was established in the Indus Valley around 2500 BCE.

In the Near East, a culture based in the city of Babylon matured around 1700 BCE with the creation of an empire under Hammurabi, which conquered both Sumer and its rival Akkad. Around 1300 BCE the Assyrian empire, with its capital in Nineveh, became ascendant, conquering Babylon and remaining dominant until the Babylonians took Nineveh in 612 BCE. The next dominant culture was the Persians, whose empire under the Achaemenid dynasty was conquered by Alexander the Great (died 323 BCE).

Outside Mesopotamia, civilisation arose independently in several centres as a result of similar economic developments. In the Americas, the first was that of the Olmec in Central America around 1200 BCE, and in 1000 BCE we see the first signs of the Maya civilisation in the south of modern-day Mexico and the Yucatan peninsula. China’s first great dynasty, the Shang, was established around 1500 BCE.

Map of early civilisationsThe earliest civilisations. Map: Eugene Hirschfeld.

In short, something very significant happened across the world between 3000–1500 BCE. The magnificence of this new world was made vivid in the Epic of Gilgamesh with its description of the city of Uruk:

See how its ramparts gleam like copper in the sun.
Climb the stone staircase, more ancient than the mind can imagine,
approach the Eanna Temple, sacred to Ishtar,
a temple that no king has equalled in size or beauty,
walk on the wall of Uruk, follow its course
around the city, inspect its mighty foundations,
examine its brickwork, how masterfully it is built,
observe the land it encloses: the palm trees, the gardens,
the orchards, the glorious palaces and temples, the shops
and marketplaces, the houses, the public squares.[3]

Early agriculture had increased in productivity as people slowly discovered ways to selectively breed plants and animals. But food production had to keep pace with an increasing population, and the vulnerability of crops to famines, floods and other calamities demanded improvements in technique. Inventions like irrigation and the plough increased productivity. Growing new towns had storehouses whose enormous importance to the community helped their evolution into temples. The historian Georges Roux said of the blossoming of civilisation in Mesopotamia:

The decisive factor was no doubt the enormous common effort required by artificial irrigation, for it implies the existence of co-ordinating authorities at least on a regional scale and must have led to an early concentration of power and wealth in a few hands and on a few points. Some villages became more important and richer than the others. Around their temples — already, we assume, the centres regulating the whole economy — gathered that part of the population that lived for them and from them: priests of various ranks, of course, but also storekeepers, overseers, guards, foremen, architects, masons, carpenters, tinsmiths, potters, stone-cutters and so on, and these villages slowly grew into towns.[4]

The social surplus product could support hundreds or thousands of people who no longer needed to engage directly in food production, allowing a separation of town and country and a more advanced division of labour. Now, not all members of the community had to hunt or forage — some could be supported by cultivators while fulfilling specialist roles. Specialists such as priests, soldiers, merchants, scribes, artisans and bureaucrats were able to more intimately explore the objective world around them, which, along with the impetus given by the new conditions, was a huge step forward for society — it brought us trade, philosophy, writing, legal systems, astronomy, algebra, geometry, medicine, and new forms of art. There also came many technological innovations such as the wheel, the sailing ship and metallurgy. The arts have provided us with valuable evidence of such advances.

Sumerian war chariotSumerian war chariot. Detail from the Standard of Ur, c. 2500 BCE. The wheel was probably invented between 5500 and 3200 BCE in Mesopotamia.

It also meant considerable changes in how, and for whom, art was practised. One example is the invention of the potter’s wheel, which almost certainly predated the use of the wheel for transport. With a lump of clay set upon a turning wheel, a potter can make in a few minutes a form that would otherwise need to be painstakingly built up over a few days. Childe describes pot-making as “the first mechanised industry, the first to apply the wheel to manufacturing machinery.”[5] From being a domestic task performed by women, pottery became a specialist task performed by men.

Indeed, the advent of civilisation was accompanied by the rise to prominence of men. As men became increasingly responsible for food production, and the productivity of men’s labour drastically outgrew that of women’s, the egalitarianism of early society was broken apart. Engels explained the importance of matrilineality to early societies, and how the shift away from it represented one of the most fundamental changes in human society:

The overthrow of mother-right was the world historical defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude, she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children. This degraded position of the woman, especially conspicuous among the Greeks of the heroic and still more of the classical age, has gradually been palliated and glossed over, and sometimes clothed in a milder form; in no sense has it been abolished.[6]

The creation of a surplus, while it allowed a huge expansion of our intellectual and cultural development, also laid the material basis for the division of society into classes. A minority of the population came to exert a disproportionate control over a society’s wealth, a control that was later to turn into ownership. A caste of priests controlled the surplus and the keeping of written records, while another new specialist appeared: kings.

The combination of surpluses and centralised power meant that warfare now became a way of augmenting one’s wealth — by raiding other societies and stealing theirs. Whereas hunter gatherer bands rarely engage in anything more than skirmishes, the early civilisations were incessantly warring upon one another over territory and resources.

The advance in productivity and social organisation meant not only that large quantities of food and goods were being produced, they were also being stored, centrally distributed and traded with other cities. Organising this for a population of several thousand people demanded more than memory. The social layer responsible for managing the stores — usually the priesthood — needed an accounting system, and around 3000 BCE in Sumer in the Middle East, we see the appearance of a cuneiform [7] script which is considered the first true writing.

Sumerian cuneiformInscription in Sumerian cuneiform, 26th century BCE.

Such markings began as simplified pictures of particular items and in time became more and more abstract, coming to represent sounds instead of symbols, or a mixture of both.

The earliest Sumerian writing was little more than a tally used to record amounts of grain, etc. As this developed into a method of recording language, ancient stories like the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh could now be preserved. This went hand in hand with the creation of a social layer of scribes and administrators — for centuries this wonderful invention was the guarded secret of a privileged class.


None of these changes were uniform. Some peoples, known as ‘pastoralists’, adopted the domestication of animals but not agriculture, and had their own variable sets of relations with urbanised peoples. Others came to civilisation without acquiring a system of writing. Still others never moved on from hunter-gathering at all. A complex totality of environmental, historical, social and cultural factors combined to create a general situation out of countless specific ones.

It is worth remembering how recent civilisation is. Taking it to be 5000 years old, and counting 25 years per generation, we find that just 200 generations separate us from ancient Mesopotamia — an extraordinarily small number. That compares, if we consider anatomically and behaviourally modern humans to go back 40,000 years, to 1600 generations of our existence.

This is an important point, because it means we must be careful how we judge the development of art. Art is far older than civilisation, which raises important questions about whether art can be said to ‘progress’. Was Ancient Egypt, with its huge feats in architecture and sculpture, its sophisticated metalworking, its complex script and paintings, creating ‘better’ art than the Pre-Estuarines or the Magdalenians? Surely it was more advanced? We shall address such questions in coming articles.

We have already pointed out that the dividing line between art and other forms of labour can be impossible to pin down. Art in the ancient world was seen very differently to how we see it today. The view of works of ‘art’ as the product of special, gifted individuals was a product of the Renaissance, and the concept of the ‘aesthetic’ was not created until the eighteenth-century. To see ancient art as museum pieces or insights into absolute beauty is to take away from them their human value as everyday and utilitarian objects. Here is Ellen Dissanayake:

Previously, the sorts of objects that in the post-eighteenth century West came to be called art — paintings, sculptures, ceramics, music, dance, poetry, and so forth — were made to embody or to reinforce religious or civic values, and rarely, if ever, for purely aesthetic purposes. Paintings and sculptures served as portraits, illustrations, interior or exterior decoration; ceramics were vessels for use; music and dance were part of a ceremonial or special social occasion; poetry was storytelling or praise or oratory to sway an audience. Even when beauty, skill or ostentation were important qualities of an object, they did not exist ‘for their own sake’, but as an enhancement of the object’s ostensible if not actual use.[8]

This is a point I made of Paleolithic art and I make it again here, for it is in this light that we must see the art of early civilisation. We shall explore these issues in more detail in the next few articles.

[1] Aristotle, Metaphysics, I.2.
[2] V. Gordon Childe, Man Makes Himself (1939).
[3] From Tablet 1 of the Epic of Gilgamesh. The quotation is from the translation by Stephen Mitchell.
[4] Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq (1964, revised edition 1992). One of the most important books on the history of Mesopotamia, covering the period from prehistory to the early centuries CE.
[5] V. Gordon Childe, Man Makes Himself (1936).
[6] Engels, Chapter 2 of The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884).
[7] Cuneiform script was written upon clay tablets using a stylus, leaving wedge-shaped impressions.
[8] Ellen Dissanayake, Homo Aestheticus (1992).

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