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March 26, 2004

What Happened? Part III (or, the secret of the pyramids . . .)

This one's for you, Razib.

To recap so far: I am trying to bring up to date the question Rousseau once referred to as the origins of inequality -- or, in modern terminology, the establishment of dominance hierarchies at the dawn of history.

In parts I and II, we saw that whereas in hunting-and-gathering societies "reverse dominance hierarchies" were possible to sustain, the situation alters dramatically with the introduction of agriculture, which ties men down to a place, and makes it possible for one group to capture another and make them work for them.

But a single act of conquest, I suggested, would not be enough to destabilize the entire neolithic social order. As evidence I pointed to the existence of geographically isolated walled cities like Catal Huruk (I could also have mentioned Jericho) which predate the rise of civilization by thousands of years.

But then I invited everyone to imagine what would happen if a conquest occurred on an otherwise featureless plain, which was dotted with horticultural villages in reasonably close proximity to one another. (This, btw, is roughly the situation that existed in northern Mesopotamia in the early 4th millennium BCE.) So let's look at the dynamics of that situation.

The first thing to note is that when a conquest occurs within calling distance of other, similarly-situated agricultural villages, the event does not pass unnoticed.

The second thing is that the village which happens to have been conquered first will soon find itself (after a few harvest cycles) in a position to maintain a larger military force in the field than its neighbors. . .

This follows from the fact that the farmers in the first village have been subjugated, and are now being compelled to work much harder and longer than they would voluntarily choose to do (quite possibly to the limits of their endurance) in order to feed not only themselves, but also the new class of conquerors who stand over them. It follows that the latter group will be able to devote all their time and energy to the arts of domination (keeping their new peasant charges physically exhausted and submissive, above all) and warfare -- including further acts of conquest.

From this point, the process spirals ineluctably out of any man's control. It will be only a matter of time before a second neighboring village is subjugated and added to the first, and then a third (under a process that the Cambridge archeologist Glyn Daniel termed synoceism, from a Greek word signifying the union of several villages under a single head). Meanwhile, news spreads; villagers further afield begin looking suspiciously at their neighbors. Because they are possessed with imagination, the evil thought inevitably insinuates itself into their brains: "If we don't do it to them, and do it quickly!" or, at the very least, band together with our neighbors in a defensive alliance -- then it is only a question of time before they, or someone like them, will do it to us.?
Next thing you know, what was once a featureless plain dotted with Neolithic villages, gives way to a featureless plain dotted with walled city-states, each master of a collection of villages in the surrounding countryside, whose members are compelled to pay taxes and tribute to the central authorities, or else be roundly beaten with clubs if they dare show even the slightest signs of disobedience or insubordination. Thus, through a combination of offensive actions and defensive re-actions, the institutions of domination and submission are gradually propagated outward in ever widening circles, whose compass is limited only by the slowly advancing technologies of command and control (writing, record-keeping, road networks, etc.) City-states give way to local empires, which give way to larger regional empires, which give way in turn to even larger empires that eventually cover considerable portions of the surface of the earth (Sargon, Gilgamesh, Xerxes, Alexander, Caesar. . ..) The progress of civilization is well under way.

Posted by lukelea at 12:16 PM