Monday, January 24, 2011

Myths of the urban revolution

The phrase “Urban Revolution” was coined in the 1930s by archaeologist V. Gordon Childe to describe the transformation of Neolithic village farming society into the urban states and empires of the Bronze Age. Prior to the Urban Revolution there were no kings, no cities, no writing systems, and no social classes. This was perhaps the most extensive and far-reaching social transformation in human history, with greater implications for life and society than either the Industrial Revolution or the Neolithic Revolution (yes, I know, historical sociologists will not believe that anything was more important than the Industrial Revolution).

Today, archaeologists have quite a bit of information about the Urban Revolution, which happened independently in several parts of the ancient world. For background and discussion, see Childe (1950), Smith (2009), Trigger (2003), or Johnson and Earle (2000). The Urban Revolution is not just about the origin of cities; instead it describes a broader set of social transformations, of which urbanization was only one component. (I realize that other writers and websites have used the phrase “urban revolution” to mean widely divergent things, but Childe’s usage dates to 1936, so archaeology wins out by precedent).

So, what are the myths of the urban revolution? I use this phrase to describe things that many people think are true, when in fact they are errors. Here is the big myth of the urban revolution:

  • ·        The urban revolution represented  progress for human life, with things improving for individuals and society.

It turns out that archaeology and anthropology have accumulated quite a bit of evidence showing that this was not a positive transformation for most people in most societies. Here is what happened to life and society after the Urban Revolution:

1.      People had to work harder to make a living.
2.      People had less freedom and self-determination.
3.      Human health went into a nose-dive: people had more diseases and lifespan was lowered.
4.      Violence and chaos increased in many cases.

Points 1-3 are strongly supported by considerable empirical evidence. Indeed, these are the kinds of things that get asked on exams in introductory anthropology classes. Point 4, as phrased here, is more controversial, but it includes an important insight often ignored by political scientists and economists—that social order was typically maintained in pre-state and non-state societies. Let’s review these points a bit:

1.      People had to work harder to make a living. Ethnographers have shown that modern hunter-gatherers spend LESS TIME making a living than farmers, and that tribal (not-state) farmers spend LESS TIME to produce the food they need than their peasant descendants after the Urban Revolution. This may seem counter-intuitive: weren’t hunters living at the edge of starvation until farming made life easy for everyone? Well, ethnographers have timed people as they live their lives, and hunter-gatherers put in less time to feed their families than do farmers. And after the Urban Revolution, people not only had to feed their families, they also had to produce a surplus to pay rent and taxes, which made them work longer hours. Archaeological research supports this model, showing, for example, that time-consuming agricultural features (e.g., irrigation canals, or hillside terraces) were generally built AFTER the Urban Revolution. They weren’t needed before then.

2.      People had less freedom. People in tribal societies had considerable freedom to live their lives as they saw fit.  In tribal society there are no leaders with coercive power, no laws or written regulations, no police force. If a family is dissatisfied with life in their group, they can leave and move elsewhere.

3.      Human health went into a nose-dive: people had more diseases and lifespan was lowered. Archaeologists can monitor ancient health and nutritional status by studies of the human skeleton from burials (this field is called bioarchaeology, or human osteology). Populations after the Urban Revolution had higher incidences of many diseases, they had more skeletal markers for childhood deficiencies of protein and other nutrients, and the average age at death went down. There are several reasons for this: diets were less varied, life in cities increased the level of communicable diseases (from dense and unsanitary conditions), and poverty increased. For discussion of points 1-3, see Johnson and Earle (2000), or a textbook such as Harris (1983), or Trigger (2003).

4.      Violence and chaos increased in many cases. This is the only one of my four points that is at all controversial. The extent, nature, and implications of ancient and non-western warfare are currently the subject of extensive debates. These debates draw on archaeological data, ethnographic observations, history, and theoretical models from ecology and economics. My own reading of the evidence is that warfare increased after the Urban Revolution (because states find more reasons to go to war, and their wars are larger scale and more deadly than tribal warfare).

But whether or not I am correct about levels of warfare, one aspect of point #4 is not controversial at all: non-state peoples maintained social order. Life was not chaotic or violent prior to states, and Thomas Hobbes was just plain wrong in calling life in the state of nature (i.e., outside of states) “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Now I realize that some prominent modern scholars have claimed that pre-state life was chaotic and violent. Nobel Prize winner Dougas North and his colleagues, for example, have built a model for social change that posits chaos before the state (North et al. 2009a, b). Life was so chaotic and violent that nothing was accomplished (in their terms, there was little economic growth). So elites had to step in and establish laws and private property and formal government to reduce the endemic violence that Hobbes had described. I’m sorry, but this is just plain incorrect.

My suggestion for anyone who wants to believe in the violence of non-state society is to read some ethnography. This is pretty basic, low-level stuff in the field of anthropology; any student in an introductory cultural anthropology class can probably rattle off the ethnographic evidence for social order and control in tribal society, and the social mechanisms by which order is maintained. If you don’t want to take an intro anthropology class, then try a few of these works: (Harris 1983, 1989; Roberts 1979; Taylor 1982). Or check out Sillitoe and Kuwimb’s (2010) critique of one of Jared Diamond’s recent controversial papers.

So, if the social changes of the Urban Revolution were the opposite of progress (“De-evolution”?? Devo?), then why did it happen at all? Why aren’t we all still hunter-gatherers, or tribal farmers? Good questions. I’m out of space now, so I’ll duck this one for the moment. Let me just say that this is a big research question in modern archaeology.


Childe, V. Gordon
1950    The Urban Revolution. Town Planning Review 21:3-17.

Harris, Marvin
1983    Cultural Anthropology. Harper and Row, New York.

1989    Life Without Chiefs. New Age Journal Nov/Dec: 42-45, 205-209.

Johnson, Allen W. and Timothy K. Earle
2000    The Evolution of Human Societies: From Foraging Group to Agrarian State. 2nd ed. Stanford University Press, Stanford.

North, Douglass C., John J. Wallis, and Barry R. Weingast
2009a  Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History. Cambridge University Press, New York.

2009b  Violence, Natural States, and Open Access Orders. Journal of Democracy 20(1):55-68.

Roberts, Simon
1979    Order and Dispute: An Introduction to Legal Anthropology. St. Martin's Press, New York.

Sillitoe, Paul and Mako John Kuwimb
2010    Rebutting Jared Diamond's Savage Portrait: What Tribal Societies Can Tell us About Justice and Liberty. StinkyJournalism .Org website:published online.

Smith, Michael E.
2009    V. Gordon Childe and the Urban Revolution: An Historical Perspective on a Revolution in Urban Studies. Town Planning Review 80:3-29.

Taylor, Michael
1982    Community, Anarchy and Liberty. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Trigger, Bruce G.
2003    Understanding Early Civilizations: A Comparative Study. Cambridge University Press, New York.

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