Annalee Newitz has a fascinating article at IO9 on early neolithic societies: How Farming Almost Destroyed Ancient Human Civilization.
Roughly 9,000 years ago, humans had mastered farming to the point where food was plentiful. Populations boomed, and people began moving into large settlements full of thousands of people. And then, abruptly, these proto-cities were abandoned for millennia. It’s one of the greatest mysteries of early human civilization.
…The problem is that people in Neolithic mega-villages had inherited a system of social organization and spirituality from their nomadic forebears. Because nomadic life requires everyone in the group to share resources to survive, these groups would develop rituals and customs that reinforced a very flat social structure. Certainly there would be families that had more prominent positions in a hunter-gatherer group or small village, but if they ever started hoarding resources too much that would be bad for the entire group. So people would strongly discourage each other from ostentatious displays of social differences.
…But the ideology of these Neolithic people in mega-villages, Kuijt speculates, may have treated any kind of social differentiation as taboo. As soon as somebody took enough power to be a representative or proto-politician, other people would rail against them. He believes that major conflicts may have grown out of this tension between a belief in flat social organization and the need to create social hierarchies in larger societies. It’s an intriguing hypothesis, especially when you consider that when cities re-emerge in the 4,000s BCE, they have rigid social hierarchies with kings, shamans, and slaves. Plus, they have writing, which is primarily used to tally up who lives where and owns what.
The quotes above give a basic overview of the article, but the article is very well done with colorful images and informative diagrams, including a very interesting timeline. If you’re interested, I highly recommend reading the full thing. I learned some things from it, and I’m moderately well read in this area. For instance, while I knew Çatalhöyük had been abandoned at some point, I wasn’t aware it was part of a general collapse.
As interesting as I did find this article, the basic hypothesis seems weak to me. The reason is the vast time scales involved. Remember that we’re talking about the period between when farming began, around 10,000 BC, until around 5000 BC. That’s pretty much the same time span as recorded history. Çatalhöyük, the main example Newitz discusses, flourished from c. 7500 BC until c. 5700 BC, almost two millenia. No society in recorded history has managed to last that long (at least, not without creative historical interpretations of events). In other words, it was a successful society for a very long time.
We also have to remember that these were pre-literate societies, so the people living in Çatalhöyük or similar settlements in 5700 BC almost certainly had no memory of how their hunter-gatherer ancestors had once lived. Oral histories, and hence cultural traditions, just don’t survive intact more than a few centuries without evolving heavily. (Literate societies generally have their core traditions in sacred documents that serve to limit that evolution, even if it doesn’t eliminate it.) The idea that culture remained static from when hunter gatherers settled down until this late neolithic collapse millennia later seems implausible.
I don’t doubt that the neolithic settlements probably suffered from organizational problems. They didn’t have writing yet, which had to limit how sophisticated their organizational structures could become. But the idea that they held hunter-gatherer values for thousands of years, collapsed, and then figured out hierarchies to build civilization is probably too simplistic a view of what was more likely a complex evolution over thousands of years.
The timescales are interesting:
- 200,000 BC: modern humans emerge in Africa
- 90,000-60,000 BC: a portion of humanity migrates out of Africa
- 12,000 BC: earliest settlements
- 10,000-8000 BC: farming begins
- 5500-5000 BC: the neolithic collapse the article discusses
- 3000 BC: development of writing and the beginnings of record history
Sometimes I wonder if civilization isn’t just an aberration, a passing fad allowed by the current ice age interglacial period, that we may have to leave behind in the millennia to come.