The First Mean Streets

A panel from the Sumerian Standard of Ur depicting fish, animals, and goods being brought in procession to a banquet, circa 2600 BC
British Museum
A panel from the Sumerian Standard of Ur depicting fish, animals, and goods being brought in procession to a banquet, circa 2600 BC

The rise of the city is looked upon as the dawn of civilization, but a deep mystery surrounds the first city-dwellers. All we are left with as we strive to understand their lives are fragments unearthed by the archaeologist’s trowel, and that is a slender basis on which to reconstruct entire lives. In two recent books, Monica Smith and James Scott offer highly contrasting interpretations of these enigmatic, long-vanished people. Smith’s Cities: The First 6,000 Years imagines the world’s first citizens as happy folk, dedicated to festival-going, shopping, and displaying their social status. In contrast, Scott’s Against the Grain, published in 2017, depicts them as disease-ridden, subjugated, and desperate to escape the city’s bounds.

Smith is a professional archaeologist who has excavated many ancient ruins around the world. As she conjures the lives lived among those now tumbled stones, she depicts people who bear an uncanny resemblance to contemporary, urban Californians. If she has conjured aright, the nature of the urbanite has been more or less set from the start. Scott, an anthropologist and political scientist, has never wielded a trowel, but his research is extraordinarily meticulous and detailed, and the lives of his imagined first citizens are unlike anything existing today. His analysis implies that the history of the metropolis has been marked by one long struggle by ordinary citizens to free themselves from oppression.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, Smith and Scott disagree on the starting point of cities. Smith posits that the first urbanites lived six thousand years ago, in a now-abandoned settlement called Tell Brak, in what is today northern Syria. Scott traces their advent to a few hundred years later, in a constellation of cities that sprang up on the Mesopotamian alluvium around what was then the northern end of the Persian Gulf. Before the shallow sea was filled with sediment, its shore lay just two hundred miles south of Baghdad, half the current distance.

What makes a city different from a large village? In the 1930s the Australian archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe laid out ten criteria for identifying cities that are still used by researchers, though some in modified form. Childe noted that cities are larger and more complex than the settlements that preceded them and possess monumental architecture and specialized workers. They conduct trade over long distances, and their citizens pay taxes to a central authority.

A fundamental question, addressed most fully by Scott, concerns why cities only emerged some five millennia after the first crops and herds were domesticated in the Fertile Crescent. According to Scott, one of the most convincing explanations has been put…

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