(Roughly) Daily

“The smallest indivisible human unit is two people, not one; one is a fiction. From such nets of souls societies, the social world, human life springs”*…

 

The 11,000-year-old Göbekli Tepe settlement in what is now southern Turkey

The emergence of state authority was a logical consequence of the move to settled agriculture, or so we thought. Until recently, we also assumed that ancient peoples welcomed the advantages of this way of life as well as the growth of state leadership, since it was key to the development of culture, crafts and civil order.

Over the past 50 years, though, more and more cracks have appeared in this picture. We now know settled agriculture existed for several thousand years before the emergence of the city states of the Near East and Asia. In the past few years, archaeologists have been stunned to find 11,000-year-old structures such as those at Göbekli Tepe, in what is now southern Turkey. These were built by peoples who foraged, and who also developed specialised skills, both artistic and artisanal.

This is a surprise, and leaves researchers busily trying to get the story straight – something that really matters for a number of reasons. Traditional definitions of the state and its authority hinged on the right to raise taxes, and on its legal monopoly on coercing its people, from punishing and imprisoning them to waging formal war.

But as James Scott points out, roughly between 8000 BC and 4000 BC we find settled agricultural communities with developing craft skills – yet no evidence of anything much by way of state authority.

This also poses a key question, one which resonates in the 21st century, about whether there is a necessary link between state power and community life.

Scott is a political science researcher at Yale University who has stepped out of his academic comfort zone to grapple with the new archaeological reality. Against the Grain delivers not only a darker story, but also a broad understanding of the forces that shaped the formation of states and why they collapsed – right up to the industrial age…

In the interest of understanding history (lest we repeat it), “The real roots of early city states may rip up the textbooks.”

* Tony Kushner

As we try to learn from the past, we might recall that it was on this date in 1917 that Margaret B. Owen won her fourth speed-typing title with a world-record 143 words per minute.

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Written by LW

October 21, 2017 at 1:01 am

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