Prehistory: Power, Cities and States

9 Things You May Not Know About the Ancient Sumerians ...

Ancient Sumer


Episode 5: Power, Cities and States

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

In this lecture, Benjamin traces the 5,000 years of prehistory between 10,000 BC (when humans first adopted agriculture) and 5,000 BC (when the first cities arose). For the first 5,000 years human beings could only produce limited food through agriculture and had to supplement their intake through hunting and fishing.

With slash and burn agriculture, practiced in many areas of the world, villagers moved to new territory when soil fertility was exhausted or when populations grew to large too feed from existing gardens.

During this period a typical village consisted of 24 to 100 dwellings. Some villages were much larger if they had special spiritual significance or an exceptional water source or they became a trading center.

According to archeologists, there is no evidence of hierarchy, power structures or warfare in villages dating from this period. Wealth and power seems to have been shared equally between residents, regardless of sex or social status.

The first cities emerged in Afro-Eurasia and the Americas around 5,000 BCE. Their archeological remains are characterized by massive palaces and monuments indicative of powerful leaders with control over substantial resources and many people. According to to Benjamin, these leaders were initially appointed from below to fulfill specific needs, most commonly to wage war against neighboring cities, to mediate with the gods, to organized irrigation projects or to settle disputes between residents. Eventually a leader accumulated sufficient resources to impose power by force.

Benjamin believes the first cities arose owing to a big increase in food production he credits to improved irrigation and the traction power and manure of domesticated animals.

The first agriculture-based cities appeared in Sumer in Mesopotamia adjacent to the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Over time, Sumer acquired dozens of cities, with Ur, Uruk and Eredu the most prominent. Uruk, the largest, had a population of 55,000.

Once it was no longer necessary for all residents to produce food to survive, city residents could undertake more specialized work, as craftsmen, potters, scribes, silversmiths, priests, administrators and snake charmers. It’s also clear that large numbers of slaves were needed to build walls, large buildings, monuments, and irrigation systems and to clean streets and dispose of garbage. In addition, a regular system of taxation or tribute to finance, city administration, temples and armies, as well as leaders extravagant lifestyles.

Writing was also central to city life to keep tract of taxes, tribute and administrative decisions.

The film can be viewed free on Kanopy.

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