Investigating the Origins of Mesopotamian Civilization

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Science  05 Aug 1966:
Vol. 153, Issue 3736, pp. 605-611
DOI: 10.1126/science.153.3736.605


It seems unlikely that Mesopotamian society took a single path as it approached the rigidly organized, hierarchal civilization of Early Dynastic times. Rather, we imagine that there was considerable experimentation and variety in the organization of society as people adapted to their physical environment and to the presence of other expanding communities

Some towns and cities probably arose as the demographic solution to the problem of procuring and distributing resources. It would have made sense to have central "clearing houses." Similarly, it would have made sense to have the craftsmen who turned the raw materials into finished products live close to their supply (probably the temple stores). Temple centers are natural focal points of settlements. Cities and towns, however, are not the only demographic solutions to the problem of farming and maintaining irrigation canals. Both of these tasks could have been carried out by people living in more dispersed settlements. City life in Mesopotamia probably also presented other benefits. For example, as warfare came to be a recurrent threat, the psychological and physical security of a city must have been a comfort for many. Finally, to judge from some historical evidence, Mesopotamian cities were places of diversity and opportunity, no doubt desiderata for many people as long as they could also gain a suitable livelihood (38)

In considering the development of civilization, an ecological approach forces us to consider multiple factors. Seeking isolated causes among the many factors possibly involved ignores the central concept of adaptation, with its ramifications of interaction and feedback. Still, we are a long way from fully understanding the emergence of Mesopotamian civilization. In particular, we need a great deal more archeological data that relate to the 2000 years preceding 3000 B. C. in southern Mesopotamia. Specifically, there are three projects which ought to have high priority in the planning of future archeological work in this area. First, we need thorough surveys in order to determine the early history of settlement in Mesopotamia. By means of these surveys in and around the early cities, we would try to determine the duration of occupation, and the variety and location of additional sites. Second, we need extensive excavation of selected smaller sites and portions of larger ones in order to determine the characteristics of different settlements. We would like to know in what way the cities, towns, temple centers, and villages were integrated to form a socioeconomic network. A third question, which gets at the crux of the matter, is, What structural form did the emerging Sumerian society take? Answers to this question must depend in large part on the results of future surveys and excavations of the kind suggested above. Then, selective excavations focusing on successive periods should yield data on the relative roles of economic and religious activities and on social differentiation and stratification. These data, after they are eventually pieced together, will comprise the story of the emergence of the world's first civilization