Ancient Societies

  • Ch. 1 The Ancient World

     

    It is important to understand the cultural stages that human civilization has gone through and throughout history there have been six needs common to all peoples throughout history which for the basis of a "Universal Cultural Pattern"

    The need to survive or make a living: all men and women must have food, shelter, clothing and the means to provide for their children’s survival.

    #2 The need for law and order and this includes the needs of the community to keep order within their own communities, protect community assets and protect the community from external attack.

    #3 The need for social organization. For numbers 1 and 2 to be achieved there must be a social structure and hierarchy within the community.

    #4 The need for knowledge and learning. Human experience and knowledge are transmitted first orally, and then by means of writing systems.

    #5 The need for artistic self-expression. People need to express themselves creatively, either through cave paintings or by writing books or creating music forms.

    #6 The need for religious expression. All peoples have a need to understand or at least attempt to explain their existences, the natural world around them, and especially death.

    One thing that I don’t really like about your book is the usage of the term "primitive" for societies and cultures less advanced as ours. To call them primitive makes us as the observers appear to be ethnocentric or culturalcentric.

    We need to define some terms now. When a group of people behave similarly and share the same institutions and ways of life they can be said to have a common culture.

    The term civilization is used for a society that may be literate or pre-literate, but has the presence of cities, well developed political and social organization and the development of occupational specialization.

    Cultures are never really isolated or static and cultures are constantly undergoing changes.

    There are many reasons why cultures undergo changes. Sometimes they are influenced by other cultures that are nearby. The geographic position of where the culture is located profoundly affects it. Ecology affects culture. And invention profoundly affects culture.

    For instance we live in what cultural anthropologists call the post-modern era.

    Also some parts of a culture change more rapidly than others so that one institution in a society becomes outmoded in relation to others. When different parts of a society fail to mesh harmoniously the condition is called cultural lag.

    Your book cites examples of cultural lag as the exploitation of child laborers in the 19th century, the failure to allow women to vote until the 20th century, and the tragedy of hunger in the midst of plenty. But these are not really good examples for those of us living in the post modern world.

    The reason for this is that there are functional and manifest reasons for these cultural lags.

    The next question that we need to address is what are the uses of history?

    There are many different types of history, cultural history, diplomatic history, narrative history and social history to just name a few.

    History clearly seeks to explain not just what happened by why it happened when it did.

    For a great period of time people believed that history unfolded according to Divine will.

    Thinkers such as Thomas Carlyle in the 18th century exalted the role of the individual in the process of history and it was the individual actions of key individuals at key moments in time that created history.

    Opponents of Carlyle contended that history was determined by forces and laws and by the actions of entire societies.

    Economists explain historical processes from the stand point of group action that is influenced by economic forces.

    In the 19th century Karl Marx argued that irresistible economic forces governed the action of human beings and determined the trend of historical events.

    Marx believed that the shift from one economic stage to another—such as the shift from feudalism to mercantilism to capitalism to what we have now—is attained by upheavals and revolutions.

    These revolutions occur because the class controlling the means of production eventually resists further progress to maintain its vested interests.

    Other 19th century thinkers such as Oswald Spengler maintained that civilizations grew like biological organisms and all experienced a spring, summer, fall and winter in their evolution.

    Finally, Charles Darwin argued that civilizations survived due to the survival of the fittest and Herbert Spencer later created what is known as Social Darwinism out of this line of thinking.

    Hydraulic Societies: Along the Banks of Water

    Anthropologists estimate that between three and four million years ago the first humanoids appeared on earth.

    At first the vast majority of them were lived in hunter-gatherer societies. As the wild beasts around them were depleted in number due to natural causes of hunting by humans agricultural skills were mastered.

    Wild animals were tamed and because the flocks and fields of the early farmer could supply most of their wants tribes, communities, clans and societies were no longer compelled to move on endlessly in search of food.

    It was along the banks of great rivers, lakes and oceans that villages first grew into towns and cities.

    Within these new towns life became more specialized. The majority of the people framed, but there were now craftsmen making specialized goods, merchants owned shops and began trading in goods and precious metals.

    Religion flourished and political administrators were needed for planning and coordinating town projects.

    The four earliest civilizations the Sumerian, Egyptian, Indian and Chinese—arose between 3500 B.C. and 1500 B.C. and all arose in the valley of a great river system.

    Many theories have been created about why these societies arose where they did and one of the most interesting is that by an individual named Wittfogel which argued that these were what are known as "Hydraulic Societies" where the harnessing of large scale irrigation of river water created the need for more advanced forms of political organization to oversee the allotment of water to the tens of thousands of farmers. As greater crop yields supported larger population, this in turn led to greater political sophistication.

    From about 100,000 to 40,000 years ago, and both before and during the early part of the last Ice Age, Neanderthal man was the principal inhabitant of Europe, Asia and Africa.

    These people were hunter-gatherers and made tools and weapons, lived in caves and were well adapted to extreme cold.

    The last phase in the development of human beings occurred some 40,000 years ago when Cro-Magnon man replaced Neanderthal man in Europe.

    By 20,000 BC Cro-Magnon man inhabited Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and had moved across the Bering land bridge to the American continent.

    With the final retreat of the glaciers about 10,000 BC, Europe became covered with dense forests and most of the animals of the Ice Age either moved north or became extinct.

    But humans adjusted to the ecological and climatic conditions of the period after the glaciers, by developing new cultures called Mesolithic or Transitional.

    Most Mesolithic groups lived along the coast fishing and gathering shellfish and others lived inland were they again formed tribes and clans of hunter-gatherers.

    In the Middle East, about 7,000 BC people in the Fertile Crescent used early forms of irrigation to produce wild forms of barley, wheat and oats for sheep, goats and pigs.

    As their flocks of animals grew they became nomadic tribesmen searching for larger and larger areas of grasslands.

    This period where people actively adapt to their environmental changes is called the Neolithic or New Stone age.

    For the most part Neolithic peoples flourished in northern Iraq and Turkey and had what could be described as the first forms of early social civilization.

    The Neolithic revolution spread to the Balkans by 5000BC, and to Egypt and Central Europe by 4,000 BC and to Britain and parts of India by 3000 BC.

    There were also very advanced neolithic cultures in Central America and in the Andes especially the Moche and Nazca civilization in Peru were extremely advanced.

    Among all peoples the basic social unit appears to the family unit.

    Anthropologists suggest that most marriages were monogamous and were either matrilocal, patrilocal or varilocal.

    Other social groupings of pre-industrial societies include the extended family, the clan and the tribe.

    The extended family is a single family together with a circle of related persons who usually trace their descent through their mother and are bound together by mutual loyalty. Ritual co-parenthood or fictive kinship is another prevalent example of extended family.

    Land in the extended family system is communally owned, but production is individual on individual family plots, personal property is also individually owned.

    A clan is a group of extended families whose members believe that they have a common ancestor.

    A clan is called patrilineal if its members trace their relationship through the male line and matrilineal if through the female.

    Many clan identify themselves by a totem—which is an animal or other natural object that is revered and made the amulet or insignia of that clan.

    A tribe comprises a number of clans either related or unrelated. The tribe is characterized by having a common language or dialect, a common cultural heritage, a clearly recognized territory and a tribal hierarchy of political power.

    In a tribal society ethical behavior consists in not violating custom. Justice is often ritualized and is used to maintain equilibrium.

    In general government in tribal societies consists of reaching a consensus among the members of the tribe.

    The older tribal members—called the council of elders play a dominant role in the decision making process or in the formulation of options for the tribe. This political role that the elders play is said to be due to the fact that they are the wiser, but it probably has more to do with the fact that they have the greatest economic stake in the tribe.

    The role of the elders in the decision-making process may decrease when a conflict situation arises that threatens their economic well-being. At this stage younger members of the tribe may assume leadership roles for they have less at stake economically and socially than the elders and have everything to gain by defeating the external threat.

    Also your book suggests that males were the only ones that made decisions in the tribe but this is currently being proven incorrect by a new generation of scholars who focus on the role of women in tribes. Some tribes were in fact led by women and in many African tribal societies women made the decisions and controlled the economy of the tribe.

    Mespotamia: Sumer, Ur, Babylon

    Around 6000 BC after the agricultural revolution had occurred where man for the first time had domesticate or tamed the wild seed and used irrigation man could now control the production of food.

    And during this period farmers began to filter into the fertile valleys and basins of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers which was known in the ancient days as Mesopotamia.

    The lower area where the two rivers nearly converge was called Babylonia.

    Akkad was in the north and Sumer the delta of the river system lay in the south and had excellent agricultural potential.

    By 3500 BC the foundations had been laid for what could be termed as one of the first hydraulic societies was developed over how to collectively irrigate the land.

    Also by 3500 BC Neolithic peoples had discovered how to use metals to make weapons and this created a technological revolution.

    By 3000 BC early metallurgists discovered that by adding tin to copper they were able to make bronze which was much harder than copper and provided a sharper cutting edge.

    This ushered in the Bronze Age which lasted until 1200 BC.

    Sumerians for the first time used animal power to pull plows, and the earliest use of the wheel occurred by 3500 BC for war chariots and later potters wheels.

    Since the Mesopotamian plain had no raw materials except for water the Sumerians were forced to engage in interregional trade with other civilizations for metals and timber. This was also probably the reason why the Sumerians developed the wheel.

    The oldest known sailing boat is Sumerian was used around 3500 BC for trade up and down the various rivers.

    By 2800 BC Sumer entered into what is described as the protoliterate period where scribes would work with pictograms and official seals but there was still no official written language.

    Ur was the capital of Sumeria and the Sumerians are credited with coming up with the first written language that we know of.

    Each city in Sumeria was a city-state, which was ruled as a theocracy, for the local god was believed to be the real sovereign, and the city governor was the high priest.

    Sumerian society was highly collectivized with the city temple playing the central role in social and economic organization. Each temple owned lands which the people who belonged to that temple were required to work.

    The remaining free land was divided among the citizens for their support who worked it as share croppers and paid 25% of their crop as rent to the temple.

    In addition to temple lands a considerable section of the the city’s territory was land collectively owned by clans.

    BY 2600 BC these clan lands were becoming the private property of great landowners called lugals

    and there appeared to be flourishing real estate and loan market.

    To the north of Sumer lay the region of Akkad inhabited by the Semites who had absorbed Sumerian culture. Between 2370 and 2315 BC they were led by Sargon who conquered Sumer and went on to establish the first empire in history which extended from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean.

    Sargon was of lower class origins who claimed that his unwed mother was not able to keep him and placed him as a baby in a basket of rushes and cast him into the river. He was rescued and brought up by a gardener. Sargon rose up to power through the army. As a lugal Sargon looked after the welfare of the lower classes, the private merchants and attempted to create a thriving economy based on free enterprise.

    The house of Sargon collapsed in 2150 BC due to its inability to withstand attacks from barbaric invaders and religious intrigue of the Sumerian priesthood.

    Order and prosperity were restored by the lugals of the Third Dynasty of Ur by creating a new highly centralized political administration were the church became an arm of the state and not the state itself as it once had been.

    Disaster struck Ur about 2000 BC when Elamites from the highlands to the east destroyed the city, and the whole region of Mesopotamia suffered from price inflation and economic depression. Stronger local rulers of the period freed the poor from debt slavery and issued a variety of reform laws under the administration of the Hammurabi Dynasty.

    Powerful King Hammurabi the ruler of Babylon again brought most of Mesopotamia under one rule by 1760 BC.

    Hammurabi is best known for his code of laws which were to destroy the wicked and prevent the strong from oppressing the weak. His legislation reestablished a state-controlled economy in which merchants were required to obtain a royal permit, the state set prices for basic commodities and for fees set by physicians, veterinarians and builders. Minimum wages were established, and debt slavery was limited to three years.

    A divorce code was established and women and children for the first time in history had rights under the law.

    The Babylonians were great mathematicians, who worked with fractions, whole numbers and square roots as well as some of the elementary theorems of geometry.

    However, the usual pattern of disunity and warfare reasserted itself in Mesopotamia following the death of Hammurabi. In 1595 the Hittites who were an Indo-European people sacked Babylon destroyed the city and ushered in a dark period of 500 years in Mesopotamia.

    Egypt

    The next great civilization after the Babylonians occurred along the Nile river in Egypt.

    By 4000 BC Neolithic villagers began to build dikes and canal works to control the Nile for irrigation of crops. As the population grew a central political authority was needed to coordinate irrigation works and the control of water resources.

    Consequently, two distinct kingdoms emerged. What is known as lower Egypt comprised the broad Nile delta north of Memphis and that of Upper Egypt extended southward to the first cataract in the river as Aswan.

    Each Kingdom contained about 20 tribes and this is known as the Predynastic period in Egyptian history.

    From 2700 to 2200 BC the Kings of the 3rd through the 6th Dynasties which is known as the Pyramid Age established political order and economic stability in Egypt.

    The nobility lost its independence and all political power was centralized in the King or pharaoh.

    The pharaoh was considered a god rather than an agent of god as in Mesopotamia.

    The pharaoh owned all the land, controlled the irrigation systems received the surpluses of production from the royal estates.

    The surplus was used to support a large group of bureaucrats, administrators, priests, scribes and artists.

    The idea that the pharaoh was god incarnate led to the practice of mummification and the construction of pyramids to preserve the body of the pharaoh for all eternity.

    Yet security and prosperity came to an end late in the 6th Dynasty for the burden of building and maintaining pyramid tombs for each new king exhausted the state.

    The Nile floods failed, crops diminished, but taxes were increased.

    As a result of the state of things the pharaoh lost all political legitimacy in the eyes of the people, tombs were plundered for their riches, tax records destroyed, government files burned and a group of nobles took over control of the Egyptian state.

    From 2200 BC to 2050 BC in what is known as the First Intermediate Period civil war raged among contenders and pretenders to the throne. Barbarians raided the empire and the condition o the common people became unbearable

    However, the pharaohs of the 11th and 12th Dynasties ended the anarchy, created a new capital at Thebes and reunited the country. This period is known as the Middle Kingdom and the pharaohs of this period promoted the welfare of the lower classes of Egyptian society.

    The wealth of the nation was no longer spent on the construction of pyramids and elaborate tombs and palaces, but rather on the construction of irrigation works, one project alone reclaimed 27,000 acres of desert land for farming.

    Also the rulers allowed the lower classes to have their bodies mummified if they could afford it.

    After the 12th dynasty Egypt was again plunged into civil war as provincial governors fought for the throne. This is known as the Second Intermediate Period which was 1800 BC to 1570 BC. It was at this time a Semitic people invaded Egypt from Palestine and made Egypt a tributary.

    It has been speculated that it was probably at this time that the Hebrew Joseph invited his relatives to settle in the Nile Delta during a famine.

    The Egyptians in the 18th dynasty expelled the Semitic invaders and reconsolidated the empire under the aggressive leadership of Thutmose III who ruled from 1490 BC to 1436 BC and conquered Syria, Nubia and upper Sudan.

    The native princes of Palestine, Phoenicia and Syria were left on their thrones but their sons were taken to Egypt as hostages were they were Egyptianized and then sent home.

    Under Amenhotep III who ruled from 1398 to 1361 BC the empire reached its peak, the cities of Luxor and Karnak became the most luxurious cities in the ancient world and tribute flowed in from all the conquered lands.

    However, during the reign of Amenhotep IV the empire went into a serious decline as the result of an internal power struggle between the pharaoh and the high priests.

    In reaction to this power struggle the pharaoh attempted to revolutionize Egypt’s religion by proclaiming the worship of only one god, the son god Aton. Akenaton as the pharaoh later called himself set about to reform religion.

    When Akenaton died his nine year old son Tutankamen or King Tut assumed the throne and returned to the worship of Amon and became a puppet of the priests of Amon.

    The Persians built their model of government on the Assyrian model, but the Persian system was far more efficient and humane.

    The empire was divided into 20 provinces or satrapies, each ruled by a governor called a satrap. To keep an eye on things the king sent out special inspectors to make sure imperial policy was being implemented.

    The important cities were connected by a fairly good road system and a string of couriers could cover the 1600 mile width of the empire in a week by horseback.

    Most importantly the Persian empire was the first to attempt to govern many different racial groups on the principle of equal responsibilities and rights for all peoples.

    As long as the local ethnicities paid their taxes and kept the peace, the king did not interfere with local religion, customs, or trade.

    It seems that the humaneness of the Persian rulers stemmed from the ethical religion founded by the prophet Zoroaster who lived in the 6th century BC.

    Zoroaster sought to replace the worship of idols and polytheism with the worship of a single god, also he posited the idea that after death and resurrection all beings will face the final judgement.

    In terms of art as in forms of government the Persians borrowed from their predecessors in the Fertile Crescent, especially the Assyrians.

    The most important contribution of the Persians was the architectural style that was functional and beautiful.

    The Persian empire was the ultimate civilization in the Near East and experienced the ultimate extension of power of any Near East civilization.

    The Persian empire at its height stretched from India to Europe and this extension of economic and political power brought into an inevitable conflict with the Greeks who were also beginning to expand during this period.

    When this struggle was resolved the next major regional phase in the development of civilization in the West would be centered in Greece.