The First Urbanites

on July 19, 2004

The origins of agriculture could be explained to the satisfaction of twentieth century materialists as resulting from a series of accidental discoveries, refined by natural selection. However, other achievements of the Neolithic, like the construction of cities and the rise of complex states, were not so easily dismissed as unintended adaptations to circumstances. It is very hard to build a city by accident.

In order to complete their mechanistic model, the archeologists were thus forced to turn from Darwin to Karl Marx.

In Marx’s theory of historical materialism, all social change starts with changes in the mean of production. Everything else, from government to religion, is merely a cultural superstructure erected upon the hard foundation of economics.

From this point of view, once the “Neolithic Revolution” had altered the way in which people met their basic needs, a whole array of other changes became inevitable, including all aspects of the “Urban Revolution.” It was just that simple.

However, this ultra-deterministic view of historical causality, which always involved a certain amount of hand-waving, has now been completely undermined by new data. It is becoming obvious that people were already living in villages before they began taming wild plants, and that even a few fair-sized cities were built by people who practiced relatively little agriculture. It is beginning to seem as though subjective factors, such as an active desire for the advantages of urban life, may have preceded and been the cause of the shift to farming, rather than its outcome.

The most distinctive feature of the earliest towns (of which Catal Huyuk is the best-known example) is the enormous amount of energy devoted to religious art and the great flowering of novel forms of religious symbolism. As a result, archaeologists who deal with these materials are starting to reject the materialist model and to speak of a “cultural revolution,” which preceded the Neolithic and made the transition to agriculture both psychologically possible and economically necessary.

Even more radical speculations about the roots of the Neolithic have recently been offered by interested amateurs operating outside the boundaries of orthodox archaeology. One intriguing suggestion is that the first plants to be domesticated may have been intended not as food crops but as medicines and psychedelics, and that only later was this new technology turned to the mundane business of filling one’s belly. Another is that urban life may have begun in certain favored locations thousands of years before the start of agriculture.

What all these theories have in common is that they give the life of the mind priority over mere subsistence, and creative inspiration priority over historical inevitability. It begins to seem that the real engine of human history is and always has been a combination of visionary dreaming and open-ended improvisation, a potent mixture which constantly lures us on beyond the next horizon.


A listing of all my posts on deep prehistory 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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