For a long time, archaeological evidence – from Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, Mesoamerica and elsewhere – seemed to confirm this. If you put enough people in one place, the evidence seemed to show, they would start to divide into social classes. You could see inequality emerging in the archaeological records with the appearance of temples and palaces, presided over by elite rulers and their relatives, and warehouses and workshops, run by administrators and overseers. Civilization seemed to come as a whole: it meant misery and suffering for those who would inevitably be reduced to serfs, slaves or debtors, but it also allowed the possibility of art, technology and science.
This makes a melancholy pessimism about the human condition seem like common sense: yes, living in a truly egalitarian society might be possible if you are a Pygmy or a Kalahari Bushman. But if you want to live in a city like New York, London, or Shanghai – if you want all the good things that come with concentrations of people and resources – then you have to come to terms with the bad things too. For generations, such assumptions have been part of our original history. The history we learn in school has made us more willing to tolerate a world in which some can turn their wealth into power over others, while others are told their needs are not great and their needs are unimportant. life has no intrinsic value. As a result, we are more likely to believe that inequality is only an inevitable consequence of living in large, complex and technologically sophisticated urban societies.
We want to offer a whole different story of human history. We believe that much of what has been uncovered in recent decades, by archaeologists and others in related disciplines, runs counter to the conventional wisdom offered by modern writers of the “great history”. “. What this new evidence shows is that a surprising number of the world’s earliest cities were organized along decidedly egalitarian lines. In some regions, as we know today, urban populations governed themselves for centuries without any indication of the temples and palaces that would emerge later; in others, temples and palaces never emerged at all, and there is simply no evidence of an administrative class or any sort of ruling stratum. It would seem that the mere fact of urban life does not necessarily imply a particular form of political organization, and never has. Far from resigning ourselves to inequality, the new image now emerging of humanity’s deep past can open our eyes to egalitarian possibilities that we would never have envisioned otherwise.
Wherever cities have emerged, they have defined a new phase in world history. Colonies inhabited by tens of thousands of people appeared about 6,000 years ago. The conventional story goes that cities developed largely as a result of technological advancements: they are the result of the agricultural revolution, which triggered a chain of developments that supported large numbers of people living in one place. But in fact, one of the first most populous cities did not appear in Eurasia – with its many technical and logistical advantages – but in Mesoamerica, which had no wheeled vehicles and sailboats, no transport to animal propulsion and even less metallurgy. or literate bureaucracy. In short, it is easy to overstate the importance of new technologies in the overall direction of change.
Almost everywhere, in these early cities, we find great conscious statements of civic unity, the arrangement of spaces built according to harmonious and often beautiful models, clearly reflecting a kind of planning on a municipal scale. Where we have written sources (ancient Mesopotamia, for example), we find large groups of citizens referring simply as “the people” of a given city (or often its “sons”), united in devotion to its people. founding ancestors, its gods or heroes, its civic infrastructure and its ritual calendar. In China’s Shandong Province, urban settlements were present more than a thousand years before the earliest known royal dynasties, and similar finds have emerged from the Mayan Lowlands, where ceremonial centers of truly enormous size – until now, only exhibiting no evidence of monarchy or stratification – can now be traced back to 1000 BC, long before the rise of classical Mayan kings and dynasties.
What kept these early experiences of urbanization together, if not kings, soldiers and bureaucrats? For answers, we might turn to other surprising finds on the interior grasslands of eastern Europe, north of the Black Sea, where archaeologists have found towns, just as large and ancient as those of Mesopotamia. The oldest date back to around 4100 BC. While Mesopotamian cities, in what are today the lands of Syria and Iraq, first formed around temples and then royal palaces, the prehistoric cities of Ukraine and Moldova were surprising experiences. of decentralized urbanization. These sites were planned as a large circle – or series of circles – of houses, with no one first, no one last, divided into quarters with meeting buildings for public meetings.
If all this sounds a bit dull or “simple”, we have to keep in mind the ecology of these early Ukrainian cities. Living on the border of the forest and the steppe, the inhabitants were not only grain farmers and herders, but also hunted deer and wild boar, imported salt, flint and copper, and kept gardens in the hills. limits of the city, consuming apples, pears, cherries, acorns, hazelnuts and apricots – all served on painted ceramics, which are considered among the most beautiful aesthetic creations of the prehistoric world.
But the point remains: why do we assume that the people who found a way for a large population to rule and support each other without temples, palaces and military fortifications – that is, without overt displays of arrogance and cruelty – are somehow less complex than those that don’t? Why would we hesitate to give such a place the name of “city”? The mega-sites of Ukraine and neighboring regions were inhabited between 4,100 and 3,300 BC. Eventually, they were abandoned. We still don’t know why. What they offer us, meanwhile, is significant: further proof that a very egalitarian society has been possible on an urban scale.
Graeber and Wengrow are the authors of the forthcoming book, “The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Mankind,” from which this essay is adapted.
The New York Times