Origin of Civilization

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Origin of Civilization

Mark Twain once wrote, “Civilization is the limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessities. ” Today, we live in a very complex civilization; however, this was not always the case. Before televisions, cars, houses, and farming, people lived off of the land without intentionally altering it. The people of the time that Mark Twain is referring to here, were called foragers. Foraging was a successful way of life. So what changed? Complex societies and civilizations sprouted and paved a whole new way of life for generations to come.

Many archaeologists, have different theories of the origins of civilizations and many of them can be tested. Not only is it important for an archaeologist to test these theories, but it is also important to understand the definition of a civilization in the first place. Along with the many origin theories, there are many definitions that can be applied based on one’s point of view. In the case of the Middle to Late Uruk Period of Mesopotamia, the “long list” definition by Charles Redman suffices (Owen 2013b: 1). The origin of this civilization fits the “social surplus” theory by V.

Gordon Childe with a strong nine out of ten (Owen 2013a: 1). One of the first parts to Childe’s theory is the improvement to agriculture (Owen 2013a: 1). What made Mesopotamia such a unique culture in human history was their ability to use irrigation for their subsistent crops. The area that Mesopotamia is located at is not the best for farming, as it is a very dry desert-like area. For these people to be a successful new innovations to agriculture needed to take place. Although the land is desert-like Ancient Mesopotamia was surrounded by two major rivers.

These rivers being the Tigris and the Euphrates. The people needed to find a way to use this water and they did so through innovations like irrigation canals (Wenke 2007: 327). This was taking place in Mesopotamia before the Uruk people, but the Uruk’s continued to make progress with agricultural innovations. The plow, was not in major use or introduced up until the Uruk period (Owen 2013c: 5). This innovation was a key component for their agriculture leading to an increase of production which also is part of Childe’s theory (Owen 2013b: 1).

With an increase of production, the population also began to shift upwards giving rise to large towns and cities (Owen 2013c: 6). This shift continued making these cities’ populations become ever more concentrated. As time went on in Late Uruk, these cities developed into city states (Owen 2013c: 6). “A city state is an independent political unit comprising a single city and its surrounding communities” (Owen 2013c: 6). Some of these city states even had conflict between one another indicated by city walls (Owen 2013c: 6).

Just like Childe’s theory stated, the Uruk agricultural technology improved, causing increased production permitting towns and cities (Owen 2013b: 1-2). In Childe’s theory not only is the creation of cities and towns enough, but there also has to be a a “social surplus” of food that can support non-farmers (Owen 2013b: 1). This had to be the case because there were potters. “Uruk-style pottery was made by people now called Sumerians” (Owen 2013c: 5). This style’s name comes from the site of “Uruk”, the largest early Sumerian site (Owen 2013c: 5).

This is not to be confused with the time period of Mesopotamia also called “Uruk”. This pottery was made from an Uruk innovation called the fast potter’s wheel. “This allowed the mass production of ceramics, but apparently also the simplification and decline in craftsmanship of it” (Owen 2013c: 5-6). The fast potter’s wheel might have been invented in the late ‘Ubaid period, but was not widely used until the Uruk period (Wenke 2007: 341). The potter’s wheel was a crucial innovation and key to the origin of this civilization.

This wheel gave rise to the mass production of bevel-rimmed bowls. Enormous quantities of broken beveled-rim bowls were found in excavations” (Owen 2013c: 7). Archaeologists believe and have evidence that these bowls were used for standardized ration distribution (Wenke 2007: 344). The distribution of rations through these bevel-rimmed bowls suggests a managed economy (Owen 2013c: 7). This was not seen in period’s like the ‘Ubaid or Samarran period that come right before the Uruk period and happens to be a significant piece to Childe’s theory (Owen 2013b: 1). In Redman’s long-list definition, monumental public works need to exist in order to have a civilization (Owen 2013a: 1).

The Uruk period had huge monumental temples known as Ziggurats. “One of the most important temples was the ‘Anu Ziggurat”” (Owen 2013d: 3). Over a span of 500 years, after six rebuildngs, the accumulated stack stood over fifty feet tall (Owen 2013d: 3). These temples had many exterior buttresses, interior small rooms, and steps to get inside (Owen 2013d: 3). These temples were also the same location that many of the bevel-rimmed bowls were found when excavated by archaeologists. Archaeologists believe that these large centralized temples were also the location of redistribution of goods (Owen 2013c: 7).

This distribution of rations suggests a managed economy that fits in with a redistributive system. This was centered in the temples with some people gaining status, power, and wealth from being associated with this massive flow of goods” (Owen 2013c: 7). This all fits within Childe’s theory. His theory states that a surplus is collected by some institution, then stored in some central place (Owen 2013b: 1). This is then redistributed to the people, which makes those in control of this process become powerful (Owen 2013b: 2).

The last part of Childe’s “social surplus” theory is execution of using some of the surplus for public works (Owen 2013b: 2). This legitimizes the leader’s role and allows them to increase their role (Owen 2013b: 2). The end result of this is an elite with real economic power. In the case of Uruk, the central institution “paid rations to people for bringing in harvests and raw materials, as well as working to build, maintain, and renovate the monumental buildings” (Owen 2013c: 7). This definitely legitimized their power.

By the Middle to Late Uruk period, not only all of Childe’s theory was fulfilled, but also exemplifies why it is a civilization, in contrast to the ‘Ubaid period right before (Owen 2013c: 7). Although many similarities exist between these periods there are their subtle differences. The ‘Ubaid period did not have a state organized structure comparable to the Uruk period. The managed economy and redistribution techniques make the Uruk period superior to their predecessors (Owen 2013c: 7). The innovation of the wheeled cart enabled Uruk to have large, distant cities, like in the case of Tell Habuba Kabira (Owen 2013c: 8).

This was not present for the ‘Ubaid period. Although the ‘Ubaid period had successful long-distant, they did not reach places like Egypt where archaeologists have found Uruk influence (Owen 2013c: 8). Childe’s theory boasts a strong nine out of ten, but doesn’t receive a perfect ten. This is because although there is a strong centralized power with wealth, there isn’t a single overwhelming elite taking all control. Overall, the Uruk Period made a strong case for the origin of society in Mesopotamia using the “social surplus” theory (Owen 2013b: 1-2).


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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 2 October 2016

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