The Rise Of Cities In Eurasia

Posts on The Dawn Of Everything: Link

Chapter 7 of The Dawn Of Everything shows that the rise of agriculture around the world shows a pattern similar to that of the Fertile Crescent, discussed here. To be sure, the mechanisms vary, the staple foods vary and the mix of foraging and farming vary, but in each case, people slowly domesticate plants and farm animals, and switch between hunting and gathering and agriculture, and work out methods for sharing resources. There is not a single linear story, just a general increase in the amount of farming and a reduction in foraging over a span of several thousand years.

Chapter 8 takes up the rise of cities. The standard story is that when people live in large groups they need a hierarchical organization, like monarchy. One of the main points Graeber and Wengrow make is that merely living together in large numbers doesn’t imply any particular form of political organization, or that there is anything we would recognize as political organization. In Chapters 8 and 9, we get a look at the various ways people lived together in the earliest large groups we have uncovered so far.

The earliest large settlements, tens of thousands of people, seem to date back about six or seven thousand years. These early settlements have some things in common. They seem to be laid out in an orderly way, in grids or circles, and smaller subdivisions. Where we have written records, there are grand statements of civic unity, and often the residents refer to themselves in terms like The Sons And Daughters Of the City. We see evidence of infrastructure, like roads, market places, meeting spaces, and ritual spaces. We also see some cities with more advanced infrastructure, storage facilities, drainage and sewer systems, and open spaces.

There is evidence that people came from all over to live in these cities. The standard story says for most of human history people lived in groups based on kinship, so members lived mostly with an extended family. Gradually these groups accreted into cities. The authors have a different theory.

There is an obvious objection to evolutionary models which assume that our strongest social ties are based on close biological kinship: many humans just don’t like their families very much. And this appears to be just as true of present-day hunter-gatherers as anybody else. Many seem to find the prospect of living their entire lives surrounded by close relatives so unpleasant that they will travel very long distances just to get away from them. P. 279-80

These escapees would naturally look for pleasant places to live, places with abundant foraging and hunting, and most important, other people.

Rather than replicate the authors’ description of these early cities, I will give links to sites describing them. These have good descriptions, with maps and photographs of the sites and objects found there. Here I give only limited discussion focused on political arrangements as described by the authors.


The earliest large settlements we know about now are in Ukraine, founded 6-7,000 years ago and occupied for hundreds of years. Here’s a description of one called Nebelivka.

This article agrees with Graber and Wengrow that there is no evidence of a central authority, or rulers or large wealth or class disparities. The settlement seems to have some form of self-government, possibly through communal meetings at the assembly houses. The article also notes that other excavators think the sites were not occupied year round. Instead they think it was used part of the year, or regularly by groups of pilgrims.


Uruk is thought to be the first large city in Mesopotamia. There are settlements there dating back to at least 5000 BCE, and the city emerges around 3500 BCE. The city and the kingdoms associated with it, Assyria and Babylonia, are mentioned in the Bible, a fact that led 19th Century archaeologists to search for them. Here’s a long Wikipedia entry on Uruk, worth reviewing just for the pictures.

Graeber and Wengrow claim that the earliest incarnations of Uruk were not monarchies. They base that assertion on the lack of the visible signs of monarchies: “palaces, aristocratic burials and royal inscriptions, along with defensive walls for cities and organized militia to guard them.” P. 298. These do begin to appear later, around 2800 BCE. This seems to conflict with the Wiki entry, which is based on a Sumerian document dated around 2800, the Sumerian King List. It may be that a lot of the early history of this area mixes myth and fact. Some of it reminds me of The Epic of Gilgamesh, and it may be that the early histories are attempts to justify the monarchy.

We know a lot about Uruk because they developed cuneiform script around 3500 BCE. Excavators have found vast amounts of written material, enough to form a good idea of the social organization of the city. It appears that there were local councils and councils of elders and other groups, so that everyone had some kind of representation. These councils continued in different forms long after kings took over the primary role of rulers.


Mohenjo-daro is a city on the Indus River in Pakistan. It dates back to about 2600 BCE, and was abandoned about 800 years later. There are pictures and description in this Wikipedia entry. There are two levels in the city. The most striking building here is a gigantic pool located on raised brick structure in the upper part of the city. You can see it in this short National Geograpphic video.

There isn’t much evidence of wealth inequality in the early part of the city’s history. Graeber and Wengrow tell us that there is no evidence of wealth or power in the upper city. In the lower city we find jewelry and other signs of wealth everywhere, and not concentrated in a few sites. There are also tools and craft equipment all over the lower town, but not in the upper town.

The upper town seems to be focused on the baths and other public buildings. The authors speculate that the people who lived the residents sought purity rather than wealth or power. They suggest that residents of the upper town constituted a proto-caste, a precursor to the Brahmin caste, and that the residents of the lower town were grouped into other castes. They say there is no evidence for kings or other charismatic leaders in this town or in the other towns in the area. They speculate that these cities had some form of communal governance.

Eventually the townspeople moved to the higher level. Apparently a few people began to accumulate great wealth, as the later residences on the upper level are grander, and have craft spaces attached. And then the city was abandoned.


The first three cities seem to have begun without kings or powerful figures like priests. The fourth city, Taosi, in northern China, seems to have been formed under a hierarchical system. Taosi dates back to about 2200 BCE, a millennium before the first named dynasty, the Shang. Here’s a fascinating report from Chinese authorities, tying Taosi to the Emperor Yao, previously thought to be fictional.

Here’s the Wikipedia entry. The article says that Chinese archaeologists believe that the city collapsed after a rebellion against the ruling class. Graeber and Wengrow acknowledge this possibility. They agree that there was a rebellion, as evidenced by pits with human remains showing torture and murder. But then the city walls were razed, and the city expanded and remained for another 200 years. They suggest that the overthrow of the elites was followed by a prosperous and more egalitarian period.

Next we look at some Mesoamerican cities.

17 replies
    • john gurley says:

      Yes, oldest layer being 9,000 years old, occupied for 2400 years.. Mixed agricultural/pastoral culture. Symbols printed on various building walls look intriguingly like writing.

      Recent deep radar maps of hills in Indonesia reveal large square stone platforms, with preliminary estimates at 20,000 years old.

  1. pseudo42 says:

    Considering quasi-egalitarian cities during a period of “general increase in the amount of farming and a reduction in foraging”, I hope we can agree then, that agriculture is not to blame for injustice. An anti-farming pretext is present elsewhere in Graeber and Wengrow, and of course in JC Scott, and deep into the past, well before Rousseau.

    There are other clues about authoritarianism in the organization needed for proto-urban development. One clue is the uniformity of materials, weights, and measures in the Indus Valley Harrappan civilization that included Mohenjo Daro. That civilization spanned thousands of square miles, not just one city. Nobody really knows how that happened with no priest-king. Maybe social pressure to conform, a need to go along to get along where population was dense, conferred authority to the crowd and was a precursor to concentrated power later embodied in metal weapons and war horses.

    Still, even in cities and proto-cities that appear to have been relatively egalitarian, and even in forager settlements, no one has shown that authoritarianism was absent. (Keyword: human sacrifice.) I find it a stretch to imagine there was no coercive power operating in the construction and operation of proto-cities, or at other complex sites including Cahokia and Golbeki Tepe.

    So in the end I think `there was egalitarianism’ and `agriculture ruined it’ are both equally unlikely.

    • Rayne says:

      agriculture is not to blame for injustice

      Shall we ask the descendants of enslaved people who were used to sustain agriculture in the U.S.? ~eye roll~

      • Jim_08FEB2023_1112h says:

        Shall we ask their ancestors who lived as free farmers for millennia? Eye roll…..

        [Welcome to emptywheel. Please choose and use a unique username with a minimum of 8 letters. We are moving to a new minimum standard to support community security. The name “Jim” is not permitted as we have a contributor named Jim and many other community members named “Jim” or “James.” Your username has temporarily been changed for differentiation, noting the date/time of your first comment. Thanks. /~Rayne]

        • Rayne says:

          Oh, yes, shall we ask them about the history of the Oyo Empire and the Dahomey who traded slaves in what was then Yorubaland and now western African countries of Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, and Ghana?

          Shall we look into the history of the white masters who surely fathered mixed race children of the slaves they took to farm their lands, like Thomas Jefferson?

          The extra labor was demanded once families stopped subsistence farming and expanded into large scale agriculture; technology replaced some of it over time, but family farms are still challenged to become profitable without additional income streams and without favorable tax treatments in lieu of free/cheap labor. Question what role capitalism and monarchism has played instead of being a dick about this.

          ADDER: This well-timed article does a pretty good job of outlining the problems facing Black farmers, the descendants of slaves who worked the land they can’t buy.

          In majority-Black Prince George’s, a struggle to help Black farmers
          By Lateshia Beachum | February 8, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EST

          How do they become profitable enough as small business persons to acquire land when their own labor isn’t enough?

    • Ed Walker says:

      The authors point to the practice of corvée as an example of cooperative labor that doesn’t seem to involve coercive power. Everyone pitches in to work on specific projects. It may involve tangible rewards, like food and drink, or debt forgiveness, but it seems largely to be an act of citizenship.

      They quote a song from Uruk that seems to say coercion is not involved.

      Women did not carry baskets,
      only the top warriors did the building
      for him; the whip did not strike;
      mother did not hit her (disobedient) child;
      The general,
      The colonel,
      The captain,
      (and) the conscript,
      they (all) shared the work equally;
      the supervision indeed was (like)
      soft wool in their hands.

      Page 300.

  2. Lit_eray says:

    Kojin Karatani in “Isonomia and the Origins of Philosophy” describes early Ionian cities as being free of hierarchies and laws, i.e. isonomia. Also early New England colonies were isonomias. He discusses the elements necessary for such societies. His use of the word differs somewhat from dictionary definitions you may find which mention equality under law.

    • Jim_08FEB2023_1112h says:

      Early New England colonies were theocratic hell scapes and people fled them at the first opportunity, northward and westward.

      • Rayne says:

        Can you point to any written documents providing evidence that colonists left their communities because of theocracy and not a general desire to expand their agricultural reach to support a growing population?

  3. Spencer Dawkins says:

    Ed, I want to thank you for this series. I read almost everything you post on Emptywheel, but am only now ordering the book for myself, based on this entry.

    This isn’t my field AT ALL, but I found the description of very small groups of humans in “The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?” by Jared Diamond very interesting. I’m pretty sure that book is much more mainstream than “The Dawn of Everything”, but since it’s based on much more recent human history (Diamond’s 20th-centry anthropology field work) it’s a reminder that the kind of political and economic organizations I’m most familiar with aren’t inevitable – “traditional” organizations of extended families and clans still existed in my lifetime, if you know where to look.

    I’m leading a Bible study that’s just finishing up Exodus, so I’ve read the description of the beginning of hierarchy in Exodus 18, where (we are told) Moses’ father in law Jethro sees Moses trying to resolve every dispute by himself, and tells Moses, ““What you’re doing is no good. You will surely wear yourself out, as well as these people who are with you, because the task is too heavy for you. You cannot do it alone, by yourself” … “But you should seek out capable men out of all the people—men who fear God, men of truth, who hate bribery. Appoint them to be rulers over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Let them judge the people all the time. Then let every major case be brought to you, but every minor case they can judge for themselves. Make it easier for yourself, as they bear the burden with you”.

    I wasn’t there at the time, of course, but this was the first instance of pre-king hierarchy that popped into my mind when you were talking about that.

    Sorry for the long comment – your post just made me think! I’m looking forward to your next post.

    • skua says:

      The word “king”, or at least it’s Gaelig equivalent, was applied on Great Blasket Island in the west of Ireland, to someone doing the work you describe Moses as doing, through to the 20th century.

      The possibility is that the supreme authority, tryranny, rule by force of the kings/queens we are more familiar with is an addition/overlay/corruption of a dispute settling role that was assigned to the person/s deemed most capable in that field by the community.

  4. Katherine Williams says:

    It has been decades, but I recall reading that there was no need for Kings or a ruling class until cities & societies began fighting/raiding one another. Kings and their warrior-followers (armies) existed to fight the Kings of other cities.

  5. wetzel says:

    Hi Ed,

    I don’t think this is right, or maybe I’m missing something: “The earliest large settlements we know about now are in Ukraine, founded 6-7,000 years ago and occupied for hundreds of years.”

    Jericho and Damascus were both much more ancient. Here’s a bit of the WikiPedia on Jericoho:

    The first permanent settlement on the site of Jericho developed near the Ein es-Sultan spring between 9,500 and 9000 BCE. As the world warmed up, a new culture based on agriculture and sedentary dwelling emerged, which archaeologists have termed “Pre-Pottery Neolithic A” (abbreviated as PPNA). Its cultures lacked pottery, but featured the following:

    • burial of the dead under the floor of buildings
    • reliance on hunting of wild game
    • cultivation of wild or domestic cereals

    At Jericho, circular dwellings were built of clay and straw bricks left to dry in the sun, which were plastered together with a mud mortar. Each house measured about 5 metres (16 ft) across, and was roofed with mud-smeared brush. Hearths were located within and outside the homes.

    The Pre-Sultan (c. 8350 – 7370 BCE) is sometimes called Sultanian. The site is a 40,000 square metres (430,000 sq ft) settlement surrounded by a massive stone wall over 3.6 metres (12 ft) high and 1.8 metres (5 ft 11 in) wide at the base, inside of which stood a stone tower, over 8.5 metres (28 ft) high, containing an internal staircase with 22 stone steps and placed in the centre of the west side of the tell. This tower and the even older ones excavated at Tell Qaramel in Syria are the oldest towers ever to be discovered . . .

    I think that qualifies as a “large settlement”, though maybe that is the distinction I am missing.

    • Ed Walker says:

      Chapters 8 and 9 deal with large settlements, which I characterize as “tens of thousands or more”. The smallest of these in this section is at the level of 20,000 and I think higher.

      According to the Wiki entry, “The identity and number of the inhabitants of Jericho during the PPNA period is still under debate, with estimates going as high as 2,000–3,000, and as low as 200–300.” So that’s the difference.

      To be clear, I don’t know enough to do more than report what I read, and I hope readers will fill in the gaps.

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