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312 pages, Hardcover
First published August 22, 2017
The shift from hunting and foraging to agriculture—a shift that was slow, halting, reversible, and sometimes incomplete—carried at least as many costs as benefits. Thus while the planting of crops has seemed, in the standard narrative, a crucial step toward a utopian present, it cannot have looked that way to those who first experienced it
Just as the meaning of collapse merits close and critical inspection, so the term “dark age” needs to be queried: “dark” for whom and in what respects? Dark ages are just as ubiquitous as storied dynastic highpoints of consolidation. The term is often a form of propaganda by which a centralizing dynasty contrasts its achievement with what it casts as the disunity and decentralization that preceded it. At a minimum, it seems unwarranted for the mere depopulation of a state center and the absence of monumental building and court records to be called a dark age and understood as the equivalent of the civilizational lights being extinguished. To be sure, there are in fact periods when invasions, epidemics, droughts, and floods do kill thousands and scatter (or enslave) the survivors. In such cases the term “dark age” seems appropriate as a point of departure. The “darkness” of the age, in any event, is a matter of empirical inquiry, not a label that can be taken for granted.
Guillermo Algaze puts the matter even more boldly: “Early Near Eastern villages domesticated plants and animals. Uruk urban institutions, in turn, domesticated humans.”
It is surely striking that virtually all classical states were based on grain, including millets. History records no cassava states, no sago, yam, taro, plantain, breadfruit, or sweet potato states. (“Banana republics” don’t qualify!) My guess is that only grains are best suited to concentrated production, tax assessment, appropriation, cadastral surveys, storage, and rationing. On suitable soil wheat provides the agro-ecology for dense concentrations of human subjects.
As Owen Lattimore and others have observed for the Great Wall(s) of China: they were built quite as much to keep Chinese taxpaying cultivators inside as to keep the barbarians (nomads) outside. City walls were thus intended to keep the essentials of state preservation inside. The so-called anti-Amorite walls between the Tigris and Euphrates may also have been designed more to keep cultivators in the state “zone” than to keep out the Amorites (who were, in any case, already settled in substantial numbers in the alluvium). The walls were, in the view of one scholar, a result of the vastly increased centralization of Ur III and were erected either to contain mobile populations fleeing state control or to defend against those who had been forcibly expelled. It was, in any event, “intended to define the limits of political control.”
There are splendid and instructive documentaries on archaic Greece, Old Kingdom Egypt, and mid-third millennium Uruk, but one will search in vain for a portrayal of the obscure periods that followed them: the "Dark Age" of Greece, the "First Intermediate Period" of Egypt and the decline of Uruk under the Akkadian Empire. Yet there is a strong case to be made that such "vacant" periods represented a bolt for freedom by many state subjects and an improvement in human welfare.He then challenged the notion that the rise of the large state implies a triumph of civilization. The remarks on barbarian behaviors were worth bookmarking, those peoples living apparently good lives, apart from any state. What better way to participate in the rise of agriculture than to plunder in an afternoon what was carefully nurtured and harvested through the year.