Saturday, December 24, 2011

Deep History vs. the Urban Revolution: Which was more important?

Deep History
The deep history of our species — our origins and early development — has seen an explosion of research in the past decade. Knowledge of our hominid ancestors has increased greatly with new fossil finds and new models. A major strand of research right now is the development of modern human capabilities. When did our brains reach their modern size? When did our ancestors begin using modern-like language? What is the earliest evidence for the use of fire, for symbolic behavior, for trade? A hot topic now is the origins of cooperation. Humans engage is cooperative behavior much more frequently and intensively than any other species. How did this come about, and how did it relate to the biological and cultural innovations that made us human? (see Mithen 2006, Richerson & Boyd 2004, Bowles & Gintis 2011).

While I don't want to downplay the importance of this research on human deep history, some caution is required. Authors sometimes suggest that an understanding of deep history  and human biology can explain modern human society (e.g., Pinker 2002). But in tracing out the social development of human society, such authors often ignore a crucial middle territory — the Urban Revolution — that created many of the important features of recent and modern society. This is the conclusion of an outstanding book review by Colin Renfrew (the leading archaeologist today) in the latest issue of American Scientist. Renfrew reviews the book, Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present (Shryock and Smail, eds, 2011). I am a big fan of good academic book reviews. The best book reviews are gems: short essays that not only say what the book is about and whether it is good or bad, but also set the book into its intellectual context. Renfrew's review fits in this category.

I own the book, Deep History, which is an admirable attempt by historians to extend our understanding of "history" back into the distant human past. Most chapters are jointly written by various combinations of excellent scholars (archaeologists, anthropologists, historians). But in skimming and reading through it I thought the individual chapters are very good but the sum total is not satisfying. Renfrew's book review explains the basis for my dissatisfaction. Renfrew notes,

The Urban Revolution
"By stressing the very remote past of the hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic era and then leaping to the modernity of today's world, without much emphasis on the intervening ancient world of Greece and Rome or the earlier civilization of Sumer and Egypt (or indeed of the Incas and the Aztecs), do the authors risk recreating the Noble Savage? By underplaying the ancient civilizations, from Shang China to the Olmec of Mesoamerica, are they perhaps jumping from savagery to modernity without having sufficiently considered the mediating effects of barbarism or of early civilization?" (p. 68).

In other words, the contributors to the book Deep History ignore the Urban Revolution. Starting with the first formulation of this concept by V. Gordon Childe in the 1930s archaeologists have shown how most of the key institutions of modern society (kingship, government, social classes, laws, urbanization, writing, complex economies) originated in the early states around the world, from Mesopotamia to Egypt to China to Mesoamerica. Granted, none of these innovations could have occurred without the development of human cognitive and cooperative abilities. And neither could they have occurred had societies not previously worked out crop domestication and agriculture (the so-called Neolithic Revolution, also a term that originated with Childe). But while the Neolithic Revolution led to some important changes in demography and settlement, the Urban Revolution brought about much more radical and far-reaching changes in the organization of human society.

For more information about the Urban Revolution, see my previous post on this. Better still check out Childe's highly influential article, "The Urban Revolution" (Childe 1950) and my recent commentary on the historical status of that paper (Smith 2009).

The opposition posed above— Deep History vs. the Urban Revolution — is artificial, of course. It is not possible to determine rationally which of these was "more important." But without the Urban Revolution, the innovations of Deep History would never have led to modern society, and we might still be living a tribal life in campsites and villages, rather than a socially complex life in cities and towns.


Bowles, Samuel and Herbert Gintis  (2011)  A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and its Evolution. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

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

Mithen, Steven  (2006)  After the Ice: A Global Human History, 20000-5000 BC. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Pinker, Steven  (2002)  The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Viking, New York.

Richerson, Peter J. and Robert Boyd  (2004)  Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Shryock, Andrew and Daniel Smail (editors)  (2011)  Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present. University of California Press, Berkeley.

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.

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