Sunday, May 20, 2012

Was the "urban revolution" really a revolution ?

Ur, a city from the Urban Revolution
I recent issue of the journal Science features a news article titled, "New Light on Revolutions that Weren't" (by Michael Balter, Science vol 336, 4-May-2012, pages 530-531). The article points out that several cultural transformations in human history that had been called "revolutions" in fact took far longer than had been thought (and, therefore, should not be called revolutions). One is sometimes called the "creative explosion" that signaled the final transition from early hominids to modern human creative cultural behavior (things such as complex tool making and creative aesthetic expressions). It turns out that several of the supposedly modern human traits actually developed closer to 300,000 years ago rather than the 50,000 year age of the supposed "creative explosion." The article goes on to suggest that some traits commonly gathered together under the label "Neolithic Revolution" (e.g., sedentism and plant domestication) actually started several thousand years earlier than had been previously thought.

So what about the "Urban Revolution"  Will that become the next member of the group of "Revolutions that Weren't"?? I'm not holding my breath. For the earlier transitions, these changes just reflect the normal course of the advancement of archaeological knowledge. For any given social transformation, at first we have few sites, little information, and not very good dating. As more fieldwork is done and sites are dated more precisely, changes that had looked sudden start to look more drawn-out. As I have talked about here in several posts (and in some scholarly articles; Smith 2009), the "urban revolution" refers not just to the origins of cities, but to the origins of complex, state-level societies. Urban origins was just one of a number of social transformations that were generally bundled together in different parts of the world. The other big changes were the rise of centralized state polities that could project true social power, the institutionalization of inequality into social classes, and the expansion of economic specialization and activity.

The term revolution, when applied beyond the limited domain of major political upheavals and transformations, generally has two components: A fundamental or major transformation; and a rapid transformation. Just as with the earlier revolutions, archaeologists are finding that inequality did not originate with the earliest states, and that cities can exist in chiefdom societies (previously thought to be pre-urban). So it is not surprising that the Urban Revolution may have taken longer to happen than previously thought. But what has NOT changed is the fact that the Urban Revolution was the single most far-reaching social transformation in the human past. Life in early urban state societies (in, say, Egypt or Mesoamerica) was radically different from life in the Neolithic (tribal farming) societies that preceded them.

With the Urban Revolution, former freedoms and independence (of individuals, households, and communities) were replaced by servitude, taxes, rules and regulations. Society and human life would never be the same again. Two of the clearest descriptions of this process were written by anthropologist Marvin Harris. One is a chapter in his book, Cannibals and Kings called "The Origins of Pristine States" (1977, Vintage books). The other is an essay called "Life without Chiefs," which is posted online. An excellent early scholarly treatment of the archaeological evidence for the Urban Revolution in Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica is Robert McC. Adams' book The Evolution of Urban Society (1966, Aldine Press). For a review of recent thinking on the topic, see my paper on V. Gordon Childe and the Urban Revolution.

So the Urban Revolution is not going to become a "revolution that wasn't" any time soon. Social life was changed far more drastically than during the earlier creative explosions or Neolithic Revolution, or in the later Industrial Revolution. We should not give in to attempts by evolutionary psychologists and some other evolutionary thinkers to pretend that the Urban Revolution never happened. They assert that human society went from tribal ancestors directly to the present, without much of a change in organization or complexity. See my post Deep history vs. the urban revolution on this.

The Urban Revolution was a very big deal in the human past.

 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.

No comments:

Post a Comment