The origin of urban life

The hunter-gatherer way of life had persisted more or less unchanged for many millennia of prehistory. What happened that it “suddenly” gave way to an urban way of life six thousand years ago? Was this a result of environmental change or some internal transformation? Or both? It is conventional wisdom that cities arose as a consequence of agriculture; yet farming predates cities. While it may presuppose agriculture, urban life could have arisen for other reasons as well.

In any case, larger settlements meant that humans lived increasingly in a humanly defined world—an environment whose rules and elements and players were different from those of the wild or the small village. The presence of other people gradually overshadowed the presence of raw nature. If social and material invention is a function of sharing information, then the growth of culture would follow the exponential growth of population. As a self-amplifying process, this could explain the relatively sudden appearance of cities. While the city separated itself from the wild, it remained dependent on nature for water, food, energy and materials. While this dependency was mitigated through cooperation with other urban centres, ultimately a civilization depends on natural resources. When these are exhausted it cannot survive.

But, what is a city? Some early cities had dense populations, but some were sparsely populated political or religious capitals, while others were trade centers. More than an agglomeration of dwellings, a city is a well-structured locus of culture and administrative power, associated with written records. It was usually part of a network of mutually dependent towns. It had a boundary, which clarified the extent of the human world. If not a literal wall, then a jurisdictional one could be used to control the passage of people in or out. It had a centre, consisting of monumental public buildings, whether religious or secular. (In ancient times, there may have been little distinction.) In many cases, the centre was a fortified stronghold surrounded by a less formal aggregate of houses and shops, in turn surrounded by supporting farms. Modern cities still retain this form: a downtown core, surrounded by suburbs (sometimes shanties), feathering out to fields or countryside—where it still exists.

The most visually striking feature is the monumental core, with engineering feats often laid out with imposing geometry—a thoroughly artificial environment. While providing shelter, company, commercial opportunity, and convenience, the city also functions to create an artificial and specifically manmade world. From a modern perspective, it is a statement of human empowerment, representing the conquest of nature. From the perspective of the earliest urbanites, however, it might have seemed a statement of divine power, reflecting the timeless projection of human aspirations onto a cosmic order. The monumental accomplishments of early civilization might have seemed super-human even to those who built them. To those who didn’t participate directly in construction, either then or in succeeding generations, they might have seemed the acts of giants or gods, evidence of divine creativity behind the world.

Early monuments such as Stonehenge, whatever their religious intent, were not sites of continuous habitation but seasonal meeting places for large gatherings. These drew far and wide on small settlements involved in early domestication of plants and animals as well as foraging. These ritual events offered exciting opportunities for a scattered population to meet unfamiliar people in great numbers, perhaps instilling a taste for variety and diversity unknown to the humdrum of village life. (Like Woodstock, they would have offered unusual sexual diversity as well.) A few sites, such as Gobleki Tepe, were deliberately buried when completed, only to be reconstructed anew more than once. Could that mean that the collaborative experience of building these structures may have been as significant as their end use? The experience of working together, especially with strangers, under direction and on a vastly larger scale than afforded by individual craft or effort, could have been formative for the larger-scale organization of society. Following the promise of creating a world to human taste, it may have provided the incentive to reproduce the experience of great collective undertakings on an ongoing basis: the city. This would amplify the sense of separateness from the wild already begun in the permanent village.

While stability may be a priority, people also value variety, options, grandeur, the excitement of novelty and scale. Even today, the attractiveness of urban centres lies in the variety of experience they offer, as compared to the restricted range available in rural or small-town life, let alone in the hunter-gatherer existence. Change in the latter would have been driven largely by environment. That could have meant routine breaking camp to follow food sources, but also forced migration because of climate change or over-foraging. If that became too onerous, people would be motivated to organize in ways that could stabilize their way of life. When climate favoured agriculture, control of the food source resulted in greater reliability. However, settlement invited ever larger and more differentiated aggregations, with divisions of labor and social complexity. This brought its own problems, resulting in a greater uncertainty. There could be times of peaceful stability, but also chaotic times of internal conflict or war with other settlements. Specialization breeds more specialization in a cycle of increasing complexity that could be considered either vicious or virtuous, depending on whether one looked backward to the good old days of endless monotony or to a future of runaway change.

The urban ideal is to stabilize environment while maximizing variety of choice and expanding human accomplishment. Easier said than done, since these goals can operate at cross purposes. Civilization shelters and removes us from nature to a large extent; but it also causes environmental degradation and social tensions that threaten the human project. Compared to the norm of prehistory, it increases variety; but that results in inequality, conflict, and instability. Anxiety over the next meal procured through one’s own direct efforts is replaced by anxiety over one’s dependency on others and on forces one cannot control. Social stratification produces a self-conscious awareness of difference, which implies status, envy, social discontent, and competition to improve one’s lot in relation to others. It is no coincidence that a biblical commandment admonishes not to covet thy neighbor’s property. This would have been irrelevant in hunter-gatherer society, where there was no personal property to speak of.

In the absence of timely decisions to make, unchanging circumstances in a simple life permit endless friendly discussion, which is socially cohesive and valued for its own sake. In contrast, times of change or emergency require decisive action by a central command. Hence the emergence—at least on a temporary basis—of the chieftain, king, or military leader as opposed to the village council of elders. The increased complexity of urban life would have created its own proliferating emergencies, requiring an ongoing centralized administration—a new lifestyle of permanent crisis and permanent authority. The organization required to maintain cities, and to administer large-scale agriculture, could be used to achieve and consolidate power, and thereby wealth. And power could be militarized. Hunter-warriors became the armed nobility, positioned to lord it over peasant farmers and capture both the direction of society and its wealth, in a kind of armed extortion racket. (The association of hunting skills with military skills is still seen in the aristocratic institution of the hunt.) Being concentrations of wealth, cities were not only hubs of power; they also became targets, sitting ducks for plunder by other cities.

The nature of settlement is to lay permanent claim to the land. But whose claim? In the divinely created world, the land belonged initially to a god, whose representative was the priest or king, in trust for the people. As such, it was a “commons,” administered by the crown on divine authority. (In the British commonwealth, public land is still called Crown land, and the Queen still rules by divine right. Moreover, real estate derives from royal estate.) Monarchs gave away parts of this commons to loyal supporters, and eventually sold parts to the highest bidder in order to raise funds for war or to support the royal lifestyle. If property was the king’s prerogative by divine right, its sacred aura could transfer in diluted form to those who received title in turn, thereby securing their status. (Aristocratic title literally meant both ownership of particular lands and official place within the nobility.) Private ownership of land became the first form of capital, underlying the notion of property in general and the entitlements of rents, profits, and interest on loans. Property became the axiom of a capitalist economy and often the legal basis of citi-zenship.

The institution of monarchy arose about five thousand years ago, concurrent with writing. The absolute power of the king (the chief thug) to decree the social reality was publicly enforced by his power to kill and enslave. Yet, it was underwritten by his semi-divine status and thus by the need of people for order and sanctioned authority, however harsh. Dominators need a way to justify their position. But likewise, the dominated need a way to rationalize and accept their position. The still popular trickle-down theory of prosperity (a rising tide of economic growth lifts all boats) simply continues the feudal claim of the rich to the divinely ordained lion’s share, with scraps thrown to the rest.

The relentless process of urbanization continues, with now more than half the world’s population living in cites. The attractions remain the same: participation in the money economy (consumerism, capitalism, and convenience, as opposed to meager do-it-yourself subsistence), wide variety of people and experience, life in a humanly-defined world. In our deliberate separation from the wild, urban and suburban life limits and distorts our view of nature, tending to further alienate us from its reality. Misleadingly, nature then appears either as tamed in parks and tree-lined avenues; as an abstraction in science textbooks or contained in laboratories; or as a distant and out-of-sight resource for human exploitation. It remains to be seen how or whether the manmade world can strike a viable balance with the natural one.