Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Knowledge Travels by Sea

The first urban settlements on earth were in Mesopotamia, where man was able to prosper because of the geography – farming made easy. The technology of the Mesopotamians was not a secret for long, and it moved south to Egypt and westward over the Mediterranean.

The following chart shows this movement from Sumer to Greece over a 1500 year time span.

These are not movements of people in groups, they are the pathways of knowledge. Perhaps the craftsmen did move – the smiths and potters who were skilled enough to go with the highest bidder. Still, it was the absorbing of what was previously unknown that built the foundation of each successive society.

You see green arrows and white arrows, showing knowledge transfer by sea and by land. Funny thing about the land route, though. It stops at Troy. There is little evidence of knowledge crossing from Troy by land to the Greek Peninsula. Conversely, there is ample evidence for the sea route: to Crete, the Cyclades, and then Lerna in the Peloponnese.

Maybe this should be obvious, because man could transfer new ideas faster by sea than land. Trade would expose the importer to new wares and create demand for the style locally. Pottery styles follow the arrows as they make their way west. Still, individual differences remained. The Greeks never quite understood the Minoan pottery’s lack of precision. They admired the craft, and maybe copied the technique, but never gave up that which was uniquely Greek.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Great Civilizations of Antiquity

All the talking we do about the Greco-Roman Civilizations, got me thinking about older more ancient civilizations. Often we focus on the west and the ancestor civilizations to Europe, neglecting the rest of the world. For example, we have discussed Mesopotamia and Egypt in recent posts, because they are most familiar to us. But what other civilizations were extant?

It turns out that anthropologists commonly identify six civilizations as preceding all others – Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, the Indus River Valley, Peru, and Meso-America (Central America).

I put together a chart comparing five of these on a timeline, showing the stages of development for each. The Indus Valley has been excluded because it’s unique history was not like the others. (Click to enlarge)
I chose the year zero as an arbitrary endpoint in the timeline. A review of the chart shows Mesopotamia leading the way, with Egypt close behind, eventually catching up. China was a couple thousand years behind Mesopotamia when it began, but closed the gap to a thousand years later on. The two civilizations of the Americas were still father behind and did not complete their developmental phases before the year zero.

One can clearly see how the terms the “fertile crescent” and “cradle of civilization” fit Mesopotamia and Egypt as the earliest cultures.

China began its development in the early Bronze Age, in the north, near the Great Bend in the Yellow River. This is a site of Loess soil (sediment formed by the accumulation of wind-blown silt and lesser and variable amounts of sand and clay), which allows the soil to absorb water rapidly without runoff or erosion. The Chinese began to develop irrigation techniques using simple grooves cut in the soil, which took no skill. Later, they used more sophisticated irrigation techniques along with flood control to manage productivity. Here as in Mesopotamia, steppe intersected the flood plain and created two economies: nomadic herdsman and sedentary farmer. Like Mesopotamia, the herdsman took to a life of mobility and raids upon the farmers. The need for defense among the farmers led to the formation of cities. The cities became bigger, networked together, and a hereditary theocracy was the result.

Our two civilizations of the Western Hemisphere are mostly alike and very different from the others. Their formative periods began in the middle to late second millennium B.C, as a result of maturing agricultural techniques. In both cases, advancing agriculture was fused with religious belief systems to produce chiefdoms.

We see in all of these civilizations the catalysts of human development: fertile soil producing from the most primitive farming techniques and eventually a surplus of crop leading the way to a differentiation of human skill and the population density of a city. Urbanism was, in the beginning, protective against the invader, but later evolved according to local forces.

Data from the chart came from Elman's book Origins of the State and Civilization.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Civilization without Cities?

We talk a lot about cities in this blog because of their significance in the development of human culture. The first urban areas came into existence in antiquity, creating dense human populations, and setting the stage for the foundation for modern society. The Polis, in particular, has received many words here as the pre-eminent ancient urban model and the bulwark of the Greek civilization. More recently, we have discussed the early urban centers of Mesopotamia – the world’s first.

But there was one ancient civilization without a major city until the end of the second millennium B.C, a span of three thousand years. Do you know which one?

Its Egypt! Land of the Pharaohs – Jewel of the Nile. No cities? How can that be? Aren’t cities the natural result of the development of human society?

In Egypt, like other cultures, geography influenced man. Egypt is located between deserts, on the west, east, and south, making it immune from outside attack. On the north sits the great delta, with no natural harbors available to support an invasion. In its midst sits that great river with its alluvial plain, bringing precious water to any cultivated field near it.

Egypt was influenced by Mesopotamia (e.g. the pottery wheel) but did not derive from it, because there were unique aspects to this African land that made it different from any other.

The harshness of the surrounding land kept Egypt stable. The boundary line between arable land and desert was absolute, so it was never possible to settle on the fringe. Dissatisfaction was stillborn because no was nowhere for the dissatisfied to go.

Early on, there developed a sphere of political influence over hundreds of small communities, so the urban revolution never got started. The ruler was a king and god, which short-circuiting a separation of powers model seen in other cultures. Additionally, Egypt is a homogeneous geography which works against the kind of vertical economy seen in Mesopotamia. Near Sumer, plain, steppe, and mountain produced a micro-economic climate that allowed human task differentiation which was fostered in a urban setting.

It has been suggested by Anthropologists that cities arise from a human need for defense. Then, once they are established, urban areas develop in different ways. As we have said, Egypt needed no defense, so the primary driver for urbanism was lacking.

This great ancient Egyptian society featured a bureaucracy, which was the greatest in the history of man. It directed an economy of craft specialization and mass labor projects focused on division of labor by personnel rather than region – a stable process further increasing cultural stability.