Civilization beyond Civilization

on June 20, 2009

After writing a few days ago about how fairy tales may reflect the actual culture of roughly 4500 to 2500 BC, I got inspired to dig out my files on that period — and particularly on the times and places that don’t normally get into the history books.

When I was in school — and I doubt things have changed much since then — the beginnings of civilization were always pegged at around 3000 BC, with the emergence in Egypt and Sumeria of complex societies characterized by organized religion, monumental architecture, and writing.

The Harappan culture of the Indus Valley was also given an honorable mention in this story, though it was generally thought to have appeared several centuries later and to have been in some vaguely-defined way less innovative and influential than Egypt or Sumeria. But everyplace else was dismissed as crude and backwards — at most reflecting glimmers of influence from the three great river-valley civilizations — until some time after 2000 BC.

This picture of three major civilizations serving as lonely beacons of light in a sea of darkness was utter fantasy, of course. It grew out of late 19th and early 20th century prejudices, which regarded colonialism and monumental architecture as signs of evolutionary superiority, and was perpetuated into the second half of the 20th century by errors in carbon-14 dating.

From the time of its discovery in 1949 until adjustments were made in the 1970’s, the dates returned by carbon-14 analysis were uniformly too low — by as much as a thousand years for the time around 3000 BC. These skewed dates, however, were not applied uniformly. There were already well-established timelines for the literate cultures, based on such things as king-lists and inscriptions, and those were not abandoned just because they conflicted with the new carbon-14 dating.

This meant that it was only the areas outside the zone of literacy that were affected by the distortion. As a result, cultures which were actually contemporary with Old Kingdom Egypt and Early Dynastic Sumeria were considered to be much younger and to have developed under Egyptian or Sumerian influence.

We are only now realizing that many of those cultures were not only as early but as sophisticated in their own way as the major river-valley civilizations. They may have lacked the population density and the need for social planning which stimulated certain developments, such as writing, but their art and technology were equally as vibrant and creative.

As soon as the carbon-14 dates had been recalibrated, it was apparent that Stonehenge had predated the pyramids and that the wheel had been invented in the Netherlands as early as in the Middle East. But old habits of thought die hard, and it turned out to be a lot easier for archaeologists to acknowledge that there might have been interesting local developments in far-off Western Europe than to alter their well-entrenched narrative about the Birth of Civilization.

As a result, new evidence from the Middle East continued to be jammed into the same old framework of thought. I recall, for example, reading an extremely detailed explanation of why any signs of higher culture in Iran during the third millennium BC must have been the result of Sumerian merchants promoting the development of an elite class among the neighboring barbarians which they could then buy off with gaudy trinkets in exchange for access to local resources.

That kind of retrospective neo-colonialism seemed condescending and offensive even to me. It must have been far more galling for the Iranians themselves to be informed that their nation had first entered history as a Mesopotamian colony, particularly following their overthrow of the Shah and successful expulsion of Saddam Hussein’s invading armies. That may explain why the crucial discovery which finally appears to have broken the back of the old paradigm was that of a site in Iran called Jiroft, which began to be explored in 2001.

According to its excavators, Jiroft was founded about 4000 BC, and thus owed nothing to Sumerian influence, and it had become as grand as any city of Sumeria by the mid-third millennium. Jiroft may or may not have had a fully developed writing system, but it and related towns most certainly traded with their neighbors in all directions, from Sumeria to the Indus Valley and from Arabia to the Russian steppes.

Claims that Jiroft represents a civilization fully as sophisticated as that of Sumeria have met with a degree of skepticism outside of Iran, but the general idea of a network of independent but interconnected cultures seems to be gaining general acceptance and was endorsed by an important archaeological conference in Italy in 2007. Reports on the conference, like this one from LiveScience, proclaimed a radical new understanding of the world of the third millenium BC:

New discoveries at dig sites in Middle Asia are rocking the archeological world and redefining the origins of modern civilization.

Numerous sites in modern-day Iran and the surrounding region suggest that a vast network of societies together constituted the first cities, whose residents traded goods across hundreds of miles and forged parallel but strikingly independent cultures.

Archaeologists have thought that modern civilization began in Mesopotamia, where the large Tigris and Euphrates rivers bounded a fertile valley that nurtured an increasingly complex society.

The social structures, wealth and technologies of this society slowly spread along the Nile and then the Indus rivers in the 3rd millennium B.C.

The findings at the new sites may have shaken conventional ancient history to its very foundations, reporter Andrew Lawler told LiveScience.

“People didn’t think you could have large settlements this early without large rivers emptying into an ocean. No one knew of these sites,” said Lawler, who reported in the Aug. 3 issue of Science magazine on the key findings, which were discussed at a recent archaeological conference in Ravenna, Italy. …

Over a period of centuries in the mid- to late-3rd millennium B.C., a cultural awakening occurred in many cities in this area, evidenced by the elite’s showcasing of valued materials gathered across large distances and fashioned by artists. …

Lawler added that these differences in style testify to the individuality of each society, comparable to the city-states of ancient Greece. In neither case were the settlements mere satellite colonies of a larger city.

This concept of a “vast network” of cities trading with one another across considerable distances while developing their own distinctive cultures has a great deal of resonance for the early 21st century. We live in a heavily networked global society, after all, so we are as likely to see the past in that image as people in the early 20th century were to see it in the image of colonialism.

Aside from that reservation, however, the network paradigm does appear to offer a more satisfactory explanation of the available evidence than the trickle-down paradigm which came before it.

But the larger question it raises for me is how far back in time and how far out in space this network of local cultural nodes may have extended. For reasons hinted at in my fairy tales entry, I suspect that its origins lie as early as 4500 BC — and that it stretched far into Europe and Asia and perhaps even beyond.

But that is a matter to be taken up in Part II.

Related:

A listing of all my posts on the roots of civilization can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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