Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Urban Origins and Preindustrial Cities

 by Elvin Wyly

Where and when did the first cities emerge? Historians and archaeologists have, traditionally, answered the question like this: the first cities emerged around 3,500 years before the current era (or BCE) in the fertile river valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates, in Mesopotamia (in presentday Iraq). This dates the first cities, then to about 5,500 years ago. Agricultural innovation, providing a consistent surplus, was the basis for specialization, the growth of hierarchical institutions, and the increasing scale of dense human settlement. Wittfogel portrayed this as a “hydraulic society”: particularly in arid and semi-arid environments, the required scale of irrigation produced the kinds of division of labor, intensification of agricultural production, and large-scale cooperation that together formed the preconditions of urban growth. V. Gordon Childe spent a career excavating ancient cities in Mesopotamia and evaluating the evidence of a large, sophisticated, and quite heterogeneous urban society. His work portrayed a long series of transformations in which the agricultural revolution (and its associated surplus) drove a process of societal change culminating in a rapid “urban revolution” sometime around 3,500 BCE. His work came to be summarized under the acronym of ‘poet’: population, organization environment, and technology.
The conventional view of early cities has been in question, however, since the 1960s. Archaeological excavations have found remnants of dense settlements at Wadi-al- Natuf (circa 11,000 BCE), Jericho (8,000 BCE), and Çatal Hüyük (7,500 BCE), and each of these sites has yielded different kinds of evidence contradicting key elements of Childe’s thesis (or at least his extrapolation from Mesopotamia to a universal theory of urbanization.) There is an emerging consensus that many cities predated the development of sedentary agriculture: many hunter-gatherer societies developed semi-permanent and heterogeneous settlements long before the innovations of the agricultural revolution produced a large, consistent surplus. But a few key “hearths” saw a full-fledged process of urbanization: Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley, the Huang Ho (Yellow) River Valley, and Mesoamerica.

old bricks from 7,500 B.C. in Çayönü, in the upper Tigris region, and in south east Anatolia, photo by marie-ll
more about urban history:

Form and Meaning in the Earliest Cities: A New Approach to Ancient Urban Planning

History Of Cities And City Planning

A Brief History of Urban Form: Street Layout Through the Ages

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