The civilization before history

A forgotten civilization?

No, I am not talking about Atlantis or Hyperborea or Lemuria. Nothing made up here. Nor am I talking about the real Neolithic cultures highlighted in War Before Civilization. I alluding to the period between 3500 and 3100 BCE in the Near East when the city of Uruk was the nexus for and a source of a massive cultural and mercantile expansion. I’ll quote Wikipedia:

Around 3600 BC, during the Middle Uruk period, Uruk trade networks started to expand to other parts of Mesopotamia, and as far as North Caucasus. According to archaeologist Konstantine Pitskhelauri, this expansion started even earlier, at the end of the 5th millennium BC, and continued in the 4th millennium.

Large masses of Uruk migrants settled in the South, and later in the North Caucasus. The sites in this general area include Habuba Kabira in Syria, and Arslantepe in Turkey. Uruk expansion to the northeast included sites like Godin Tepe in Iran. Tepe Gawra, in northwest Iraq, is another important site with deep stratigraphy that includes the Uruk period in later layers. Hamoukar is a large site in northeastern Syria that has been recently excavated; it includes Uruk and pre-Uruk layers.

Uruk enclaves have also been identified at Tell Brak and Nineveh in northern Mesopotamia, and on the Syrian Euphrates at Qrayya, and Jebel Aruda. On the Euphrates in Anatolia, Uruk enclaves were found at Hassek Hoyuk, Samsat, and Tepecik (Elazığ Province, near Keban Dam).

Sargon of Akkad is usually asserted to have been the first empire-builder in history, in that his rulership extended across many ethnicities, from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. The Four Corners of the World he claimed. But the Sargonid system lasted for but a century, and successor Mesopotamian hegemonies did not extend beyond the land of two rivers until the rise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire over 1,000 years later.

In contrast, the Uruk culture persisted for hundreds of years, far longer than successor polities in that area in the 3rd millennium. It was also more expansive than even than Sargon’s empire.

There has long been a debate about the nature of the Uruk expansion. What is ideology? Was it trade? Was it migration? Was it conquest?

Empire of power, empire of ideas

Since we do not have writing to tell us a narrative we can never know definitively, at least until ancient DNA clears up the demographic questions. In Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization the author points out that Communism spread across many societies without invasion (though in some cases there was external invasion; ask the Germans). Similarly, many religions have also spread without external invasion. Christianity’s spread to Armenia, Ethiopia, Georgia, and Ireland, occurred relatively gradually and synthesized without indigenous cultural forms due to broad-based diffusion as well as elite adoption so as to integrate into the Christian world system. But there is something very distinct about the Uruk expansion in contrast to the above examples: some of the cities seem to be replica copies of Uruk in toto.

If it was an ideological movement of emulation by local elites only there should have been at least some synthesis even these narrow regions of Uruk-outside-of-Sumeria. In fact there seem to have been small pieces of Uruk society scattered across the Fertile Crescent (and beyond!) during this period, embedded in wholly culturally alien territory. Additionally, there is some circumstantial evidence for fighting and conquest.

Now that we know there were massive migrations during the Neolithic and Bronze ages across the Near East and Europe, I think we should update our estimations of the alternative hypotheses. In light of radically decreasing genetic distance between the eastern and western portions of the Fertile Crescent since the rise of agriculture it seems implausible to think that the Uruk expansion might not have at least been partly mediated by the movement of people. People moved. So did ideas.

That being said, as observed in Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization, the recession of the Uruk hegemony after ~3100 BCE was extreme in its totality and rapidity. Heretofore longstanding zones of Uruk civilization outside of southern Mesopotamia disappear immedlately. Peasant ways of life which had flourished in the local regions during earlier periods reappear as the city-states disappear. Not only does the way of life defined by the Uruk period retreat, but the sole overarching preeminence of Uruk in what became Sumeria disappears, to be replaced by a millennium of jostling between rival city-states, Uruk (Erech in the Bible), Ur, Kish, and Lagash.

Later analogs to the Uruk collapse

Does this remind you of something? The Late Bronze Age was characterized by a collapse of civilization as well, with a regress to old centers such as Babylonia, Assyria, and Egypt. Smaller polities on the Levantine coast emerged in the wake of the decline of the earlier empires, while Greece and Anatolia went into “Dark Ages,” as the Mycenaean citadel society descended into barbarism and the Hittite domains totally collapsed.

The city-states of Classical Greece were fundamentally different from the Mycenaean citadel-culture that had preceded them centuries earlier. The Greek civilization of the Bronze Age had adopted many of the forms of the Minoan society based in Crete and extending around the Aegean. Aesthetically, and in terms of their writing system. Mycenaean civilization was fundamentally one of rough hewn barbarians grafted onto a beautiful well developed canopy of Minoan motifs. And the Minoans themselves were clearly influenced by the broader constellation of Near Eastern civilizations, from the Hittites to the kingdom of Cyprus and down to Egypt.

Classical Greece was very different, mostly doing away with the autocratic kingships of the Bronze Age, as well as adopting a different form of writing from the Phoenicians. Linear B was impenetrable to them. All the scribes had died without passing their knowledge.

Though Homer and the broader corpus of Greek mythology clearly preserves elements of the Bronze Age society (translation of Mycenaean Linear B tablets makes it clear that many of the Classical gods had roots in the the pantheon of the Bronze Age), the Classical Greeks had forgotten their Mycenaean past (before Linear B was translated it was assumed by most that it was not Greek, but rather a mainland extension of Minoan civilization). The cyclopean masonry typical of Mycenaean citadels were believed by Greeks of the later period to have been constructed by…cyclops.  This method had been forgotten in the several hundred year Greek Dark Age. The battles depicted in the Iliad are clearly those between petty Dark Age warlords, not the kings of old (though the prominence of Mycenaean cities such as Pylos and Mycenae were recalled).

The point here is that Mycenaean Greek civilization, which was created to a great extent by imitating a non-Greek prototype, collapsed, after which there was total regression to peasant barbarism. The Greek civilization that emerged later was much more distinctive, and less imitative, than the initial incarnation.

The Sumerian Dark Age and its aftermath

Unlike the case with the Mycenaeans, I believe that Uruk expansion to the west, north, and east, was mediated by migration and conquest from the source. Mycenaean civilization was modeled upon, and strongly inflected by, Minoan civilization, which was modeled upon Near Eastern polities. But they were never total replicas of each other. Though there were certainly mercantile connections and colonies of Near Easterners in the Aegean, it seems likely that these later cases of influence were genuine instances of cultural diffusion. We have writing to back-up our presuppositions.

In contrast, the nature of the Uruk expansion indicates transplantation in totality and exact replication of the original society. To me this reminds me of Roman colonies. Unlike cultural diffusion, the colonies of Latin speaking Roman citizens in regions of southern Gaul, Iberia, and North Africa, served as entry-points for Romanitas. But this Romanization could be reversed. This was certainly the case in southern Britain, which had a fully developed Latin Roman urban society, but collapsed back to barbarism with the retreat of the legions. Arguably it was also the case in the hinterlands of the Balkans, with modern Vlachs and Romanians being the descendants of the Latin peasants.

It is not difficult then to assume that if there was some exogenous shock to the Uruk system ~3100 BCE, the isolated colonies would quickly whither. Just as the urban centers of southern Britain were replaced by fortresses of semi-barbaric British elites, so the subjugated hinterland cultures, which had persisted, quickly filled the vacuum left by the collapse of the Uruk polity. Eventually, just as Classical Greece developed its own distinct indigenous civilization in the broader commonwealth of eastern Mediterranean polities, so Ugarit, Ebla, Mari, the city-states of Hatti, and Urartu, came into the light of history in the 3rd millennium organically.

Forgotten Antediluvian Sumeria

In Babylon the author suggests that the flood legend allows them to partition their own literate civilization, which developed after 2900 BCE, from the fallow two century period after the collapse of the Uruk ascendancy. Could the the Sumerians have forgotten the greatness of the 4th millennium in a few centuries? I believe that they might have.
The Uruk ascendancy of the 4th millennium, if it took political form, would have have exhibited none of the totality and dominion of a modern nation-state. Rather, like the Maurya Empire, and many antique polities, it would have been defined by numerous strongpoints extending out from a dense and well networked core. In the outer zones of control the dominion would have consisted primarily of close supervision of the interstices between territories occupied by indigenous tribal chiefdoms, who may have given nominal fealty to the local governor appointed from Uruk. A collapse would have consisted proximately of the destruction or abandonment of the strongpoints, and ultimately the forgetting of the period of alien hegemony by the local populations.

At that time core Sumeria was an oral society, and in the centuries after the Uruk expansion there were major changes to many aspects of its physical superstructure, and therefore one presumes the ideologies underpinning the control of the population by the elite. Without written records the quasi-imperial past might have become muddied very quickly if there was a transition of elites. The peasants would have had no great incentive to remember the Uruk hegemony, while the nouveau elites may have wanted to created their own legends, rather than be haunted by the earlier greatness.

The many civilizations before writing

My forebears?

The Uruk ascendancy should not be a surprising idea when we think about it in the context of world “history.” The civilization of the Indus valley was certainly a civilization, but its script remains undeciphered. Though they were likely symbolic in some manner, it is quite possible that they were not a fully fleshed representation of language in the way cuneiform was. Most of the examples of the script are exceedingly short.

But we know something about the Indus people in part because we know that they traded with Sumeria, and there were people from this culture who were resident in Sumerian towns. Clearly Sumer viewed these people as peers, albeit aliens.

Another example would be the Inca. Before the Spanish overthrew their empire, it stretched from Columbia to central Chile. Because we have Spanish records, and memories of the Inca nobility who were assimilated into the post-conquest order, we know that this was not simply an ideological expansion. It was a military one. And one of demographic transplantation and imposition. Though there still debates, it seems most likely that the Inca did not have true literacy.

The ultimate point is that ancient people were far more organized and cohesive across large territories than we likely give them credit for. Let me finish with this article from last year in Science, Slaughter at the bridge: Uncovering a colossal Bronze Age battle:

About 3200 years ago, two armies clashed at a river crossing near the Baltic Sea. The confrontation can’t be found in any history books—the written word didn’t become common in these parts for another 2000 years—but this was no skirmish between local clans. Thousands of warriors came together in a brutal struggle, perhaps fought on a single day, using weapons crafted from wood, flint, and bronze, a metal that was then the height of military technology.

And yet chemical tracers in the remains suggest that most of the Tollense warriors came from hundreds of kilometers away. The isotopes in your teeth reflect those in the food and water you ingest during childhood, which in turn mirror the surrounding geology—a marker of where you grew up…Just a few showed values typical of the northern European plain, which sprawls from Holland to Poland….

Further clues come from isotopes of another element, nitrogen, which reflect diet. Nitrogen isotopes in teeth from some of the men suggest they ate a diet heavy in millet, a crop more common at the time in southern than northern Europe.

Ancient DNA could potentially reveal much more: When compared to other Bronze Age samples from around Europe at this time, it could point to the homelands of the warriors as well as such traits as eye and hair color. Genetic analysis is just beginning, but so far it supports the notion of far-flung origins. DNA from teeth suggests some warriors are related to modern southern Europeans and others to people living in modern-day Poland and Scandinavia. “This is not a bunch of local idiots,” says University of Mainz geneticist Joachim Burger. “It’s a highly diverse population.”

As University of Aarhus’s Vandkilde puts it: “It’s an army like the one described in Homeric epics, made up of smaller war bands that gathered to sack Troy”—an event thought to have happened fewer than 100 years later, in 1184 B.C.E. That suggests an unexpectedly widespread social organization, Jantzen says. “To organize a battle like this over tremendous distances and gather all these people in one place was a tremendous accomplishment,” he says.

Standardized metal weaponry and the remains of the horses, which were found intermingled with the human bones at one spot, suggest that at least some of the combatants were well-equipped and well-trained. “They weren’t farmer-soldiers who went out every few years to brawl,” Terberger says. “These are professional fighters.”

Curiouser and curiouser….

11 thoughts on “The civilization before history

  1. Nice informatics article but just a minor quibble with the excerpt from the Science piece:

    3,200 years ago would be 1183 BC so wouldn’t that be contemporaneous with the Trojan War (1184 BC) rather than a century apart unless I have my maths completely wrong.

    I don’t know if that makes any difference with the two events being so close together; I don’t remember Odysseus leading any armies in Northern Europe 🙂

  2. no, he just fought cyclops and interacted with sorceress. those be the facts!

    though seriously i think they mention this because there were southern european professional soldiers at this battle.

  3. I kept trying to remember why the name “Uruk” sounds familiar, and finally it dawned on me. In the Dylan classic “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” (the one where he discovers America) he says at one point,

    “I told them for the Pope of Uruk I was employed.
    They let me go right away: they were very paranoid.”

    I don’t think anyone’s ever come up with a thematic reason why he has it as Uruk rather than any other place: just fanciful spitballing, I guess.

  4. Somebody must have pulled in a lot of political favors and accumulated obligations to assemble an army of seasoned fighters from such a large area.

  5. Thanks for the overview.

    Who among you may stroke this pet hypothesis, either with or against its fur? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bicameralism_(psychology)

    After pre-intenet decades of occasionally wondering whither goest it, I recently looked it up, and to my surprise, I don’t see that it’s been conclusively defeated. Which I’da thought it woulda been by now. But apparently not. Academics are still publishing and commenting on it as a still-viable, albeit rather outre’, possibility. Dennet and Dawkins among.

    “Jaynes theorized that a shift from bicameralism marked the beginning of introspection and consciousness as we know it today. According to Jaynes, this bicameral mentality began malfunctioning or “breaking down” during the 2nd millennium BCE. He speculates that primitive ancient societies tended to collapse periodically (e.g., Egypt’s Intermediate Periods, as well as the periodically vanishing cities of the Mayas) as changes in the environment strained the socio-cultural equilibria sustained by this bicameral mindset. The Bronze age collapse of the 2nd millennium BCE led to mass migrations and created a rash of unexpected situations and stresses which required ancient minds to become more flexible and creative. Self-awareness, or consciousness, was the culturally evolved solution to this problem. This necessity of communicating commonly observed phenomena among individuals who shared no common language or cultural upbringing encouraged those communities to become self-aware to survive in a new environment. Thus consciousness, like bicamerality, emerged as a neurological adaptation to social complexity in a changing world.”

    If you’ve already dealt with this one, and with superior erudition mocked it thoroughly into the dirt, perhaps you have a link to which I may hie and properly disabuse myself.

  6. I am a rationalist, but stories like this bring out something irrational in me. I suspect that we (in the West and Near East) *do* remember Uruk.

    The Qur’an is full of tales of civilisations that grew strong in their arrogance, which God then struck down. And when Dan Ackroyd was writing the script for Ghostbusters, he hit themes of reconciliation and rectification.

    Are these stories passed on, with a new set of characters imposed the *next* time we blow up our own civilisations? Have we destroyed ourselves so many times that it’s now ingrained in our DNA like the fear of spiders?

  7. Hit the wrong button. My comment was not in response to Brett. It is in response to the main post.

  8. A lot at play in that question. As a starting point, though, what blows my mind is the increasing possibility that most West Eurasians have non-trivial ancestry from Mesopotamia as recently as the Uruk Period.

  9. Well, Uruk is also famous for being the city that Gilgamesh ruled a couple centuries after the events of this blog post so Bob Dylan could have learned about it from that.

    [woah, with your history i can’t believe you’d dare comment here! -razib]

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