Why Did We Start Living in Cities?

Nick Cassella on 2018-06-14

Were homo sapiens destined to become metro sapiens?

In the popular video game Civilization VI, your goal is to build an empire from the early cradle of civilization on towards the present day. To kick off your people’s progression through the ages, you must first settle a city. From then on, culture, science, and religion flourish within your borders, while beyond the safety of civilization lies a dark world populated only by barbarians.

I know the game’s creators never set out to develop a perfect representation of human history. But intentionally or not, Civilization VI perpetuates a common misunderstanding that the domestication of homo sapiens was natural, inevitable and desirable.

Most of us have internalized this story about our progress. It goes something like this: our primal predecessors were an underachieving bunch. They lived mostly in small groups. Some would hunt and some would gather. Violence pervaded all areas of life. Then, one day somebody discovered how to manipulate the land and everything changed. Our ancestors didn’t have to follow herds anymore. They could farm. They could rely on grain to fuel them throughout the year. They could erect walls for protection. People were ecstatic — they had been “saved” from all that aimless hunter-gatherer stuff and finally could focus on thriving as a species.

This “common belief in the beneficent rise of the state” has had some serious proponents over the years. Aristotle is one of the originals. He believed that humans initially lived only with their families. But as time passed we developed an ever-widening conception of the common good. Soon, we started residing with other families and after that we began shacking up in cities together. The trajectory of human communities towards greater density was unavoidable to Aristotle. He was convinced that the good life could only be achieved in this higher state of being.

Centuries later, Thomas Hobbes continued to overstate the magnificence of the civilized world. He had a particularly bearish outlook on humanity before the modern state came along. His depiction of pre-civilized “man” eerily mirrors how Civilization VI’s developers coded their savage barbarians to act. Influenced by his anarchic assumptions, Hobbes concluded that the earliest settlements must have been magnets “of civil peace, social order, and freedom from fear” for early humans.

This insight on the Hobbesian worldview comes from James C. Scott, a professor of political science and agrarian studies at Yale University. His book Against the Grain is what inspired this piece, and it takes issue with the conventional narrative I’ve just laid out. He fundamentally disagrees that humans were preordained to become “sedentary, cereal-growing, livestock-rearing subjects.”

According to Scott, we know that “our ancestors did not run headlong” into the civilized life for a few reasons. First, archaeological research shows that sedentary populations existed in Mesopotamia as far back as 12,000 BCE. But it took until around 3,100 BCE before the very first stratified, tax-collecting states popped up in the Tigris and Euphrates Valley.

This massive lag proves that, once settled, cities didn’t naturally flourish as Civilization VI indicates. The collapse of ancient settlements was actually very common. Fatal disease spread rapidly in these settings, brought about by the cohabitation of animals and people. Add in the potential for crop failures, taxes, and getting sent away to fight a war for some grain-rich despot and you’ve got some legitimate concerns about abandoning your “primitive” life to hop on the human progress train. Scott remarks:

The life of “late barbarians” would on balance, have been rather good. Their subsistence was still spread across several food webs, they would have been less vulnerable to the failure of a single food source. They were more likely to be healthier and live longer — especially if they were female…Barbarians were not subordinated or domesticated to the hierarchical social order of sedentary agriculture and the state. They were in almost every respect freer than the celebrated yeoman farmer.

Early cities were not, as Scott points out, the “logical and most efficient units of political order.” Ancient people would’ve known this firsthand. There’s good evidence to suggest their lives were marked by regularly movements in and out of different types of living arrangements. To paraphrase Scott, city walls were built as much to keep taxpayers in, as to keep the barbarians out.

The city life did not immediately spark human flourishing like Aristotle argued and Civilization VI implies, nor did it offer sweet refuge from a brutal world, like Hobbes claimed. Our evolution towards greater population density, like all things human, was messy and anticlimactic.

It’s not hard to understand why this less glamorous explanation has been omitted or ignored. Humans love a good, linear story and have a low tolerance for uncertainty. We prefer to embellish our place in the universe, instead of demean it. Frankly though, it’s more impressive to know that our modern world emerged from trial and error and not simply because of destiny. Our species’ success loses no shine by acknowledging that “lesser” truth.

Nonetheless, Civilization VI, like the rest of us, has continued to idolize an attractive, yet imprecise past. We now have enough evidence from our ancestors to know better. And if they’re anything like us, they’d want their story to be told accurately.