Alumnae Bulletin May 2009

On Course: Archaeology B104: Agriculture and Urban Revolution—Egypt to India

Climate and collective
Peter Magee, Associate Professor of Archaeology

By Thomas W. Durso

The relationship between farms and cities is a complicated one. We think of farmland and cities as distinct, disparate places, the former sparsely populated, rural areas where food is grown, the latter densely peopled regions of commerce, culture, and ideas. Country folk who dare venture into the big city are portrayed as backward rubes awestruck by the bright lights and grand scale; urbanites who escape to the farm are seen as arrogant, clueless boors with no idea of how real people live.

At the same time, each needs the other for human civilization to advance. Farms provide food; cities provide consumers. And populations from each region escape to the other for a change of pace.

The push and pull between farming communities and urban areas should come as no surprise; it is not a recent phenomenon. The questions it raises—in particular, the mystery of why ancient peoples transitioned from wandering, nomadic bands to agrarian societies and then to cities—form the basis of a fascinating new archaeology class at Bryn Mawr.

In his course Agriculture and Revolution—Egypt to India, Associate Professor Peter Magee uses the discipline of archaeology to explore both agriculture and urbanism, the two most fundamental changes that have occurred in human society in the last 12,000 years, from the Near East to South Asia. The course, which debuted just last year, also examines societies that did not experience these changes.

"The course looks at the period from when humans stopped in certain parts of the world," Magee says. "Stopped being mobile, stopped moving around the landscape, and actually started living in one place, rearing animals, controlling the age and gender of herds, and growing crops. This moment, which has been the subject of archeological and anthropological interest for well over 100 years, is key to understanding a lot of what our society is about, because it fundamentally changes everything in terms of our economy and how we relate socially."

Indeed, notes Magee, historiographically it is completely justified to mark the onset of civilizations from the point when people in ancient world cultures came together and developed "fabulous monuments and writing and complex societies, as we call them." What happened is not in question; what remains for historians and anthropologists and archaeologists to determine, he likes to tell his class, is the motivation behind those happenings.

"We need to understand why humans were moved towards those civilizations, towards those dense urban cities that we see in Mesopotamia, in Egypt and South America, why humans were engaged in what would seem to be fairly unproductive lives," Magee says. "Building pyramids is not really what you want do with you with your life unless you have to, and to understand that we have to understand something about where the economy starts.

"It starts with early agriculture, and it starts with early animal domestication."

This is where the tools of Magee's trade come in handy. Bringing camels, sheep, and other livestock under control allowed humans to develop more permanent sources of food and to use the animals to assist with farming. By studying the bones of ancient animals, archaeologists and archaeozoologists can determine when and where this domestication process began to take place. Magee's students learn about these studies and the significance of what they reveal. All the while, he emphasizes an overarching theme of the course, one he acknowledges they may tire of hearing because he repeats it so often.

"This wasn't progress at all for humanity," Magee says.

"All the evidence suggests that collective farming was not necessarily a productive thing to do."

While Middle Eastern peoples were mostly likely the first to form these farming societies, elsewhere in the world, in such places as North America, Southeast Asia, and Australia, indigenous societies did not practice agriculture for tens of thousands of years—and were far healthier as collective populations. It was not for several thousand years after the farming societies developed that humankind began to reap their benefits, a time so far in the future that the people who formed them could not begin to fathom that their activities ever would have any benefits at all.

That is what leads students to the most unexpected outcome of the course, notes Magee: for all of the historical and archaeological evidence, no one has yet discerned why humankind evolved societally from wandering herds to static agrarianism and then to the chaos of cities. "We can never accept that there is progress; that doesn't really explain why societies change," he says. "That's the first part of the course. The second part of the course is urbanism, the development of cities and what led to that, and the questioning tone is the same. Why would people living in farms practicing their agriculture, herding animals, being relatively successful at it for a few thousand years, allow themselves to be drawn into this dense, urban fabric full of communal diseases, full of dysentery, full of bad sanitation practices? Why would that happen? We look at possible causes, and I don't explain why, because I don't think we can understand."

These unexplained phenomena, thousands of years old, hold relevance for today. A possible reason for the rise of cities in the areas where human societies began developing is the effect of climate change, which may have caused people to realize that banding together minimized risk for everyone. Issues of climate and population feature quite heavily in the course, with Magee directing his students to paleo-climatological studies, in which "archeologists and prehistorians recreate ancient climates and the way in which that might prompt changes in humans subsistence and how they feed themselves."

An example Magee cites is that about 12,000 years ago, a rapid climate-change event known as the Younger Dryas saw a swift cooling of the environment in the North Atlantic Ocean, leading to catastrophic effects for population groups in Europe. Global-warming skeptics point to that event as evidence that climate shifts have been common for thousands of years, since long before greenhouses gases and carbon emissions. But Magee uses it to emphasize that the rate of climate change today is far quicker—meaning the effects of today's human-caused environmental shifts could be even more dramatic than those precipitated by the Younger Dryas.

"We can anticipate how climate change will affect us to some extent," he says. "After all, we have the historical evidence to show that we are always liable to the issues of climate change. We have to deal with it—and if we're the ones causing it, we need to determine ways to stop. If we don't, there is the potential we are going to see major shifts in our lifeways, just as happened in prehistory." Perhaps that's something that