One might consider human history to be an extension of Natural History. If one considers the process of evolution to be an historical process, it is the story of changes in the morphology of animals over time. But in the case of human beings, those changes have not taken place in homo sapiens. It may well be that modern man has not been in existence for a sufficiently long period of time, but there appears to have been relatively little change in appearance between the cave-dwellers and ourselves, except those that might be ascribed to diet and medicine. Human history is not the study of changes in the human body, but of changes in the way that human beings organize themselves.

Why is social organization so important? I would suppose that the basic reason is that human infants are relatively helpless and vulnerable for the first ten years of their lives. Unlike the young of other kinds of animals, human do not come equipped with a full set of instincts that need only time to develop, nor do they possess special bodily features like claws, sharp teeth, an armored hide, or the ability to run very fast, features that become usable in most animals within a years or two after birth. Young humans must learn to thing and reason and to make tools to supplement their physical weakness. The process of learning how to think rationally takes several years to develop, and the skills necessary to make and use tools do not develop naturally, but must be learned. In order for the species to survive, humans have had to form relatively stable social groups to protect and instruct their young until they were able to survive on their own.

But the tools that human groups need in order to survive are not simply things like hammers, needles, spears, baskets, knives, grinders, and bows and arrows. The group needs some common understandings in order to live together peaceably and to cooperate. It needs a sense of identity and some picture of the universe such that its members can see a similar pattern in the world about them. In this sense, calendars by which one can anticipate the changes of seasons, a way of counting so that one can estimate and compare quantities, a system of belief about the forces that control the world and how one can influence those forces, and a common realization of the needs and goals that bind the group are all tools that are important to humans. These sorts of tools take various forms such as magic, folk-lore, and religion, and are among the most important class of tools that human beings have at their disposal. The human young have to learn these tools also. The task of learning all of this takes a considerable length of time, but it would take even longer without the most important tool that humans have developed -- the power of communication. But communication itself must be learned.

The earliest form of human society was probably not much different from that of other primates -- a male surrounded by as many females and their young as he could collect and defend against other males eager to take his place or at least to steal some of his females. This would not have formed a very stable or permanent group, and was eventually supplanted by the extended family -- the chief male and his females, together with his male offspring and their females. This might have been sufficient for most purposes, but the hunting of the sort of large mammals that were prevalent during the last ice-age took a larger number of able bodied hunters than most extended families would have had at their disposal. And so it is likely that a few extended families would have joined to form a hunting band. Agriculture brought with it the establishment of permanent villages and the beginning of warfare between villages for each others' land. This meant that better organization, more effective weapons, and increased numbers were necessary for survival, and a new form of social organization emerged in the clan, a group claiming descent from a common, and often mythological ancestor, and the tribe, which consisted of a number of clans often united by a regular process of intermarriage. The increased numbers of such groups, together with the fact that they were sedentary, made possible a more sophisticated division of labor that saw the emergence of some full-time professional artisans, such as potters.

The very fact that the inhabitants of these neolithic villages were not related by blood or common descent made religion and ritual more important than ever, and the development of specialized crafts increased the interdependence of such groups. No one could learn everything that the group needed to survive, and so the young had to be educated for a particular function. It may well have been increasing specialization that gave rise to the Urban Revolution.

This process seems to have first occurred in Sumer in Mesopotamia, what is now the nation of Iraq. Various theories have been advanced as to why it should have taken place, one of the most popular being Arnold Toynbee's concept of challenge and response. Toynbee argued that the neolithic villagers faced the challenge of having to increase the land at their disposal by massive works of irrigation and draining, and that their response was an the increase in numbers and organization that made it possible for them to accomplish these tasks. This is an attractive approach, but suffers from the fact that it does not explain why some people, such as the Sumerians, responded to their challenge and many others living under similar conditions did not.

It may be simpler to regard the Urban Revolution as simply a continuation of processes underway in the villages of late neolithic times. The growing complexity of "tool-making" led to the emergence of groups with specialized knowledge and skills that they did not share with others. One of these groups of specialists took charge of religious activities and devised increasingly complex rituals. Since their function was to understand and control the forces of nature, they assumed a role of leadership, developing means of predicting coming events, such as the calendar, and an complex theology to explain their failures. In their role of leaders, they also developed more effective means of calculation and administration, not the least important of which was a method of recording ideas in such a fashion that they would not be forgotten. With the development of writing, history, in the restricted sense of the word, may be said to have begun.

As we shall see throughout the semester, some inventions are democratizing in that they spread power more evenly throughout a society, and some are aristocratizing in that they concentrate power in the hands of a small group. Early forms of writing are a good example of an aristocratizing invention. The cuneiform, or "wedge-shaped" script of the Sumerians was at first pictographic, consisting of small and stylized pictures of things scratched into a lump of clay. It later developed into and ideographic script, in which signs or symbols signified ideas such as "tomorrow," "dark," and "go." In either form, there were hundreds of signs that had to be learned, and the number of people who had the power of reading and writing were restricted to those whose parents were sufficiently wealth and powerful to secure them many years of education. In this fashion, the class with power in the early cities tended to become hereditary.

An on-line course developed at the University of Minnesota offers an excellent introduction to this period of History. The first module offers, among other things, a discussion of the meaning of the term "civilization." Following modules consider the early civilizations in the chronological order in which they arose: the Sumerian cities of Mesopotamia and the Old Kingdom of Egypt in the Nile River valley. The next assignments in this course will provide an introduction to the Civilizations of Harappa in the Indus Valley and the rise of Shang in the Yellow River Valley of China.

The standard catalogue of links to sites dealing with the ancient Near East is ABZU, maintained by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. It is an excellent place from which to surf, if you're interested in Sumeria, Babylonia, Ancient Israel, and such things. The University of Evansville has developed a very nice presentation page called EAWC: The Ancient Near East

There are a great number of Egyptian sites, some of them particularly striking. One has to start somewhere, however, and Ancient Egypt offers a good introduction. Pilgrimage to Abydos is a MUST VIEW interactive site which allows you to explore a famous ancient temple.

This text was produced and installed by Lynn H. Nelson, Department of History, University of Kansas.
25 January 1998
Lawrence KS