Some History of Cities

The standard model of human prehistory goes something like this: Early humans were hunter-gatherers who organized into small nomadic or semi-nomadic groups. Then one day humans discovered agriculture and became stationary farmers. Farming communities needed fortifications in which to store their produce. These fortifications became cities, which gave rise to political administration, military technologies and (eventually) organized civilizations.

The late anthropologist David Graeber thought that the standard model is far too glib. His book, “The Dawn of Everything” attempts to deconstruct it. Graeber shows, for example, that cities were common long before the so-called agricultural revolution ever began, that, in fact, there never was an agricultural revolution in the way the standard model imagines it. But even more interesting, he proposed that early cities never inherently required political administration such as a king or a legislative council might provide. Instead, a shared principle or unifying concept enacted through ritual might suffice.

For example:

These modern Basque societies – tucked down in the southwest corner of France – also imagine their communities in circular form, just as they imagine themselves as being surrounded by a circle of mountains. They do so as a way of emphasizing the ideal equality of households and family units. Now, obviously, the social arrangements of these existing communities are unlikely to be quite the same as those of ancient Ukraine [where the remains of several of the oldest known cities are found]. Nonetheless, they provide an excellent illustration of how such circular arrangements can form part of self-conscious egalitarian projects, in which ‘everyone has neighbours to the left and neighbours to the right. No one is first, and no one is last.’ In the commune of Sainte-Engrâce, for instance, the circular template of the village is also a dynamic model used as a counting device, to ensure the seasonal rotation of essential tasks and duties. Each Sunday, one household will bless two loaves at the local church, eat one, then present the other to its ‘first neighbour’ (the house to their right); the next week that neighbour will do the same to the next house to its right, and so on in a clockwise direction, so that in a community of 100 households it would take about two years to complete a full cycle.

As so often with such matters, there is an entire cosmology, a theory of the human condition, baked in, as it were: the loaves are spoken of as ‘semen’, as something that gives life; meanwhile, care for the dead and dying travels in the opposite, counter-clockwise direction. But the system is also the basis for economic co-operation. If any one household is for any reason unable to fulfil its obligations when it is time to do so, a careful system of substitution comes into play, so neighbours at first, second and sometimes third remove can temporarily take their place. This in turn provides the model for virtually all forms of co-operation. The same system of ‘first neighbours’ and substitution, the same serial model of reciprocity, is used to call up anything that requires more hands than a single family can provide: from planting and harvesting to cheese-making and slaughtering pigs. It follows that households cannot simply schedule their daily labour in line with their own needs. They also have to consider their obligations to other households, which in turn have their own obligations to other, different households, and so on. Factoring in that some tasks – such as moving flocks to highland pastures, or the demands of milking, shearing and guarding herds – may require the combined efforts of ten different households, and that households have to balance the scheduling of numerous different sorts of commitment, we begin to get a sense of the complexities involved.

In other words, such ‘simple’ economies are rarely all that simple. They often involve logistical challenges of striking complexity, resolved on a basis of intricate systems of mutual aid, all without any need of centralized control or administration. Basque villagers in this region are self-conscious egalitarians, in the sense that they insist each household is ultimately the same and has the same responsibilities as any others; yet rather than governing themselves through communal assemblies (which earlier generations of Basque townsfolk famously created in places like Guernica), they rely on mathematical principles such as rotation, serial replacement and alternation. But the end result is the same, and the system flexible enough that changes in the number of households or the capacities of their individual members can be continually taken into account, ensuring relations of equality are preserved over the long term, with an almost complete absence of internal conflict.

There is no reason to assume that such a system would only work on a small scale…One can at least begin to see how – in a different context – such egalitarian systems might scale up to communities of many hundreds or even thousands of households.

It is important to recognize that egalitarianism, as Graeber uses the term here, is not a social objective that the Basques (after grave contemplation) imposed upon their community. It is, rather, a practical consequence of the circular arrangement of the buildings in the city and the ritual that takes advantage of that structure.

Graeber means to emphasize that governance and economy can arise organically, perhaps in ways we may not be accustomed to imagining.

5 thoughts on “Some History of Cities

      1. On the pro side,

        Mutal defense of stored goods from nomadic marauders.

        Thermal building efficiency through shared walls.

        Mutual assistance in emergency.




        Loud music

        Toss ups

        Sanitation can be better or worse than scattered housing depending on design.


        1. I’m told it was not uncommon for pre-agricultural cities to be inhabited on a seasonal basis. That would affect the balance of pros and cons. But this connects to the idea that fascinates me most — that living in cities was the result of choices made consciously by people who could just as well live elsewhere.


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