Day By Day

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Origins of Complex Societies Revisited

In an earlier post I noted that one of the great organizing concepts on the origins of complex human societies -- the fertile crescent -- has been undermined by recent discoveries. It now appears that the zone of interaction and influence among early developing cultures was far more extensive than was once imagined. The result has been that many geographically-specific theories regarding the "rise of civilization" have been drastically weakened.

Now another set of fundamental assumptions has been undermined. Prehistorians long assumed that urban centers, perhaps the most significant marker of social complexity, followed a common course of development, expanding outward from a central point that had some material or strategic advantage. It was also assumed that urban foundations were a mark of centralized political authority.

But recent excavations in northern Syria, at Tel Brak, have complicated matters somewhat. It appears that this early city originated as a number of small villages that, over time, grew together to create an urban center. What is more, there is no evidence to support the idea that there was any central political authority associated with this growth. Instead the city seems to have emerged from a process of "grassroots organization."

Read about it here.

This is an exciting time to be a pre-historian. Old models and consensuses are crumbling right and left and new perspectives emerging. What we thought we knew just ten or twenty years ago is radically different from what we think we know today.