In what is probably the worst idea I’ve ever had, I’m reading and blogging The Dawn of Everything by David Wengrow and David Graeber.
Chapter 8 “Imaginary Cities” is the best chapter so far. I love it. Far far too much of DofE so far has been mucked up by the two David’s mixing the narrative with constant complaints about ‘what we think’ and why it’s wrong–which would be bad enough if the ‘what we think’ were actually what any appreciable number of people actually think. But when you’re dealing with hunter-gatherers and prehistory and Enlightenment thinkers I don’t know anyone outside the fields of anthropology and archaeology and a few oddball history-buffs who thinks much of anything, so it’s splitting hairs over straw men that aren’t really even popular enough to be straw men, so straw men of straw men–if I can mix my metaphors.
But Chapter 8 takes us to early cities–or towns if you prefer–and it’s wonderful trip. They remind us before we begin that thousands of years separated the first settled towns/cities from any evidence of the hierarchies that in my childhood books associated with cities.
Okay they do halt almost immediately to discuss ‘Dunbar’s Number’–a theoretical number of human contacts our band-level brains can track–which is more history of ideas, but I’d call it more journalism of ideas since Dunbar’s Number is current and popular among evolutionary psychologists (unlike Rousseau). Among evolutionary psychologists, who tend to be conservative, Dunbar’s Number implies that there are limits to the theoretical size of communities become hellscapes of alienation and misery. The Davids point out that foraging societies like the rest of us “exist simultaneously at two radically different scales: one small and intimate, the other spanning vast territories, even continents…”
It’s this capacity to shift between scales that most obviously separates human social cognition from that of other primates… Humans tend to live simultaneously with the 150-odd people they know personally, and inside imaginary structures shared by perhaps millions or even billions of other humans. Sometimes… these are imagined as being based on kin ties.
It’s a good point but it doesn’t really refute conservative prejudices, since like all prejudices they aren’t subject to comparison with evidence. The Davids also point out that humans often don’t like the smallest of the nested units. Many humans dislike their families, neighbors, tribes, cities–and go join others. It’s weird to assume everyone was happy in small groups.
But now we visit actual cities (finally!) starting with Ukrainian sites known today as Taljanky, Maidenetske, Nebelivka, and others. These are huge towns or cities consisting of concentric of houses surrounding an open clearing. The houses are divided into 10-14 pie pieces, each with an assembly house of some kind (whether for meetings, religious ceremonies, social gatherings, or whatnot). There’s no evidence of palaces or aristocratic houses of any kind. The Davids compare possibilities for how these towns might have run with Basque towns today.
Next we go to early Mesopatamia and Uruk. I’d never heard of the Ukrainian sites when I was in college and I’ve learned little about them since, but with the Sumerians we’re visiting more familiar ground. And what’s especially fun is that the Sumerians left written records so we finally have evidence based on more than excavation. The Davids explore the history of Uruk before the period of the kings and warrior elites that came later. I won’t go into detail but even if you don’t want to buy this book, stop in Barnes and Noble and read pages 298-313. Try not to damage the book so that someone else can buy it.
Then we visit the “Indus Valley Civilization” or “Harappan Civilization” as it’s called. The writing here has not been deciphered but the David’s tell us what is known and compare possibilities from later literature.
In the Ukraine, Uruk, and the Indus Valley the Davids discuss different types and forms or egalitarianism that seem to have existed, if eventually (in the case of Uruk) displaced or overthrown.
Then the Davids take us to China before it was the China of Bronze, chariots, and imperial warfare. The sites are Shimao and Taosi, where cities that did seem founded with a very hierarchical ‘constitution’ show evidence of revolutions overthrowing the leadership and becoming more egalitarian.
The Davids talk about the abundant evidence for public gatherings and various councils or meeting groups in the various cities that continued to operate even after the cities were conquered by various imperial kings. The Davids are annoyed these systems are sometimes called ‘primitive democracy’ for obvious reasons, but here thankfully they are not distracted for more than a couple of paragraphs.
Throughout the chapter in the background appear hunting societies with warrior elites and heroic burials who watch these new, growing cities. They watch them with jealousy, fear, and perhaps greed. The Davids hypothesize one such group destroys one city that seemed to be a colony of Uruk. As the cities grow wealthier, can we guess what these heroic warriors will do in future chapters?
Next Chapter 9: Hiding in Plain Sight