Ideas that add up #179

An analogy between agriculture and electricity may help explain and exorcise it [the “fallacy of agricultural primacy”]. Cities today are so dependent upon electricity that their economies would collapse without it. Moreover, if modern cities had no electricity most of their people – if they could not quickly get away – would die of thirst or disease. And the most impressive and massive installations for generating electricity are in rural areas. The power they generate is sent into both cities and countryside.

If the memory of man did not run back to a time when the world had cities but no electricity, it would seem, from the facts I have just mentioned, that use of electric power must have originated in the countryside and must have been a prerequisite to city life. Here is how the sequence would be reconstructed theoretically: First, there were rural people who had no electricity, but in time developed it and eventually produced a surplus; then cities were possible.

Jane Jacobs in The Economy of Cities (1969)

Cities came first, according to Jacobs. Then farming.

As she tells it, a crossroads settlement springs up where visiting hunter-gatherers come to trade with local people, also hunter-gatherers, who happen to be custodians of a nearby source of a coveted raw material such as obsidian. The economy of the little settlement expands to include crafts connected with the production and use of obsidian, and the handling and storage of tradeable supplies imported by visitors, such as pelts, pots and tools. The visitors begin bringing live animals – wild, but trussed or hobbled – as food for themselves or for trade, along with non-perishable food in the form of beans, nuts, dried fruit and edible seeds from diverse areas. Seeds are spilled and poo-ed in the vicinity, and over generations hybrids arise and are selected for planting. The more tractable among the wild creatures are selected too, and are set on the path towards domestication. The little entrepôt expands, the throughput of traders grows, the permutations for barter exchange multiply. Increasingly, the embryonic city generates its own supply – and then surplus – of cultivated food, from stewarded stands of fruit and grasses, and semi-managed stocks of animals. It becomes a market for exports as well as imports, and a place of permanent residence and industry. Hunter-gatherer settlements in the rural hinterland, starting in the immediate environs, increasingly align with the economic and social demands of the city, growing food for its population, converting land to pasturage…  


An artist’s impression of Çatalhöyük. Image credit: Dan Lewandowski

Jacobs seems to have intuited her vision of city birth from datings connected with Mellaart’s excavation of the 8th millennium BCE proto-city Çatalhöyük, in Anatolia, which flourished ahead of, as opposed to on the back of, the neolithic agricultural revolution. Agriculture, she is clear, was a consequence of city economic development, not its precondition.

More recent excavations in Anatolia and the Levant support the apparent precedence of sophisticated built environments over sedentary farming communities. But the plot thickens. The archaeologist Klaus Schmidt, who excavated Göbekli Tepe (10th-8th millennium BCE), a monumental ritual complex, asserted that his findings established that temples predated cities, and it was the cross-currency of hunter-gatherer pilgrims converging for feasts and observances, that eventually gave rise to the new modes of food production in the form of domesticated grains and animals. 

It looks, then, like we slipped into civilization – by definition an urban model of social organization – as the unintended consequence of our love of a good festival (Schmidt’s spiritual origin), and/or the urge to shop (Jacobs’ economic origin). The conversion of land for food supply, in the form of crops and livestock, came later. Either way, that standard image of cities as secondary outgrowths on a farming landscape, gets turned inside out.

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