Monday, February 27, 2012

Trying to Go Against the Grain: Teaching about the Neolithic and Civilization

In a previous post (The Content of the Form), I noted how many prehistory texts still implicitly paint the human story as one with a definite direction and that direction being towards complexity and hierarchy--the teleological march towards civilization. In my classes, I’m attempting to highlight this hidden story to illustrate its assumptions and how it sometimes can misdirect us from other interesting stories.

Case in point. I recently ran across Marcella Frangipane’s “Different Types of Egalitarian Societies and the Development of Inequality in Early Mesopotamia.” It’s a good read as it untangles different ways of being egalitarian--Halafian and Ubaid--and how those strategies might shed light on the development of “civilization.”

A more thorough examination of these distinctions would also help to explain the different paths along which these differing social systems have evolved [Frangipane 2007:151].

Understandably, the article looks at these societies with the long shadow of Mesopotamian civilization extending into the past. However, Frangipane makes clear that she is not invoking some sort of universal, evolutionary trajectory,

two contrasting systems of egalitarian societies described above are to be seen as different models of social, economic and political structures which are not in a chronological and evolutionary succession (153)

While, I’m no expert in the region and am not offering any specific insight, but the article reminded me just how long Neolithic-life living peoples lived before urban, state society emerged. When teaching introductory classes, it’s easy to get caught up in what I’ve often thought of as the “Greatest Hits” of prehistory. This means that I talk the Neolithic in many ways to set the stage for civilization. While the developments are intertwined, reading Frangipane’s paper made me take a step back and really appreciate the impressive stretch of time that people lived with some of the potential ingredients of civilization (surplus agriculture, relative sedentism), but were able to follow an alternative path. While a society like the Halafian was ultimately absorbed by expanding civilizations, it’s important to note that many generations of ancient Southwest Asian folks lived farming lives in the absolute absence of the hierarchical political systems that words like “civilization” and complex society describe. Several millennia-ful of human life is nothing to gloss over.

References Cited
Frangipane, Marcella
2007 Different Types of Egalitarian Societies and the Development of Inequality in Early Mesopotamia. World Archaeology, 39(2):151-176

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