These peoples prove that some sociopolitical systems very unlike our own… were not threats to biodiversity, but rather contributed to expanding and maintaining it. — William Balée
Two of the civilizations described here are considerably pre-Sumer (whose earliest dates come from around 5,500 years ago). One is more or less coterminous with Sumer but located in the New World; one is of a later vintage.
Catal Huyuk [9400-8200 years ago] was an early Neolithic town in Anatolia (Turkey). A large settlement, said to have 3000-8000 inhabitants at its peak, it lasted some 1200 years, in equality, peace, and surprising levels of prosperity and comfort. The Catal Huyukers were so inspired with house building that they settled in the middle of a marsh (and suffered from malaria as a consequence). Apart from marsh fowl and fish, they had to walk miles to gather food. Apparently, having close access to the types of clay suitable for building and plastering was of greater importance. Their settlement resembled a pueblo. There were no streets, and entryways were from the roof. Inside, amazing and elaborate frieze art was found, as well as figurines, beads, obsidian tools and mirrors, ovens, and floor graves. There is evidence of long distance trade based on obsidian. The place must have been a beehive of activity, and drew people from nearby settlements to join the project. The art was inspired in part by the wild world still at their doorstep and the adoration of the female principle, and in part by rituals connected with the dead. The society was based on the extended family, there is so far no evidence of elites or gender disparities, and everybody worked hard. (Too hard.) While both women and men were given grave goods at death, these were not frequent. Most of the grave gifts went to children. There is no evidence of large or monumental architecture. The nearby forests were pushed back due to beam cutting for house roofs, but Catal Huyuk continued to prosper even when neolithic communities in the Levant collapsed.
Would I like living at Catal Huyuk? I think I would have been drawn by the experiments with building, one of my interests in this life. I would also like to see how the town was administered. They had considerable complexity, density, and simple wealth, yet lived as equals and in peace; how did they managed that? On the other hand, the place was smelly, smoky, crowded and unhealthy, like most cities later on. Much of the art was weird and menacing, and the life full of chores as people buried and reburied their dead, rebuilt and replastered their houses, and traveled far north to collect obsidian. On the whole, not my favorite kind of place; nevertheless a very interesting experiment in proto-urban autonomy civilization.
Cucuteni/Trypillia [7500-4750 years ago] was an extensive cultural area in Romania and northward into Ukraine and Moldova. These late neolithic Europeans built a few towns of up to 15,000 people, and many villages and hamlets. The houses in the towns were built in concentric circles around a commons. These brightly decorated wattle-and-daub structures sometimes had two and three stories. Log houses and underground dwellings were also built. Large amounts of beautiful pottery have been found, and many clay female figurines. They invented the potter’s wheel and the vertical two-chamber kiln. The Cucuteni farmed but also hunted and gathered in the surrounding forests and steppes. Some of their pottery is marked with symbols suggestive of writing. There is no evidence of warfare for most of that time; only in its later period fortifications and weapons were found. These may have protected against wild animals, but there was also a violent culture associated with sacrificial mass graves and hill forts called kurgans that eventually moved closer from the east, and may have put pressure on the Cucuteni, along with climatic vagaries and environmental degradation. The Cucuteni would burn down their towns periodically and move; it is assumed this was for religious reasons, but perhaps they discovered that it was healthier for them to burn the accumulated filth and start over on fresh ground. Needless to say, this resettlement pattern, combined with clearings for farmland, was hard on the land.
The Cucuteni were master potters, weavers and knitters, and cared a great deal about beauty in the objects they created. They were so fond of their houses they left clay models of them. Their sensible dependence on both foraging and cultivation, along with craft and trade, brought them prosperity. It is thought by some that the larger houses were really house-shrines. Graves were not richly endowed. Women’s graves often contained red ochre, sometimes beads, figurines and tools. It must have been a pleasant and creative place to live. Unfortunately the areas have not been investigated for a long time. Latest archeological methods will disclose many more details about the lives of these esthetically gifted people.
Norte Chico/Caral [5000-3800 years ago] is a newly explored cultural area extending through the valleys of coastal northern Peru. Caral was one of the ritual centers, and is better excavated than the 30 or so others. It appears that this was a civilization based on fish, particularly anchovies, so plentiful in the cold coastal waters. Agriculture developed secondarily, and was based on vegetables, cotton, and fruits. No grains were grown. There is no evidence of pottery or art, but some finds indicate that a mnemonic system of strings and knots known as quipu was perhaps already being used. Caral is a large ceremonial center with a plaza, apartment buildings, temples and several pyramids built of granite chips carried in grass-mesh bags and dumped directly onto the built structure. The stonework was eventually covered by white plaster. It is assumed that there was effective leadership which inspired this project. There is no evidence of war, domination or defensive structures. Parties of volunteers would come to build, then held a big celebration atop the partly finished pyramid, with a bonfire, feasting, music, alcohol and hallucinogens. Some experts think that Caral was an inhabited settlement, others see the multitude of simple huts found as evidence of short term housing for the work parties and pilgrims.
The land depended on irrigation but the water projects were not particularly complicated. It appears that the fishermen from the coast would supply protein to the inlanders, and received cotton and vegetables in return. There was long distance trade over the Andes. This civilization lasted about 1200 years, and it is not known why it faded. The land was not prone to salinization. My fantasy runs thus: there came a time when El Niño was particularly bad, and the anchovies moved away from the coast. So a delegation was sent to the priests of Caral. “What should we do?” the people asked. The head priestess rubbed her chin, and then a big smile broke out on her face. “I know! Let’s build another pyramid!” The people picked up their hats, went back to their villages, and put Caral so out of mind that the pyramids turned into dusty hills and no one remembered those who labored and celebrated there.
I admire Norte Chicans for their resourcefulness and their dedication. They created oases of green in an otherwise dry and inhospitable terrain, and lived well. But pyramid or monument building is just not something that attracts me. I am more impressed with their irrigation canal networks, many lasting to this day, and their skill at breeding useful varieties of vegetables and fruits. Perhaps their cotton and fish-created wealth would have been better spent on elaborating and deepening village life. And it appears that this was their eventual conclusion as well.
Amazonia/Beni. [1100B.C.-1750 A.D.] It was reported by the earliest Spanish explorers that there existed along the Amazon and its tributaries a civilization full of large settlements. Later explorers found just a few scattered villages, so these early reports were discounted as fanciful. And influential modern archeologists were so convinced that a civilization must be built on domination that they vehemently denied such could be created in the Amazon. They assumed that large projects could only be accomplished through coercion. And in the vastness of the Amazon, any abusive chief would find himself alone as people quietly slipped away in their canoes into the open and provident jungle.
But of late, new evidence has come to the fore showing the widespread remains of a society that knew how to turn the thin, poor soil underlying the jungle into rich, fertile dark earth that actually self-perpetuates! This so called “terra preta” soil provided enough food for large populations, especially when the jungle was turned into a permaculturist dream thick with food-trees and other low maintenance crops. Since stone was rare, and the wood commonly used in buildings decayed long ago, this civilization’s remains are limited — apart from the dark fertile soil — to rare carved stones, and a profusion of pottery (along with charcoal, broken pottery was used to build up low areas to make them suitable for human or forest habitat). Terra preta is currently under intense scientific investigation. It appears that low-heat charcoal (biochar) was the key to creating these remarkable anthropogenic soils.
In the Beni area of Bolivia, on the far end of the Amazon basin in the Llanos de Moxos, an ancient civilization was recently discovered which built up roundish pyramids in the middle of the savannah. This savannah floods for half a year, then completely dries up. Not an easy environment to inhabit. The ancient settlers built up pyramids with moats and connected these islands by causeways and transportation canals. They lived on some of them; others they turned into productive forests. They also built raised fields on the savannah, the outlines of which can be seen to this day, and constructed huge zigzagging fish weirs leading to catch ponds. Again, as in Amazonia, the pyramid islands are full of pottery shards and charcoal. Perhaps, ancient terraforming pioneers from the Amazon came to the Beni and turned it into a habitable region, actually improving on the landscape: today, these islands rising over the savannah are rich with flora and fauna that never could have gained a foothold otherwise.
Would I have liked to live in the Llanos de Moxos? The climate is very harsh. But to be part of a cooperative terraforming project would have been glorious, and life on population-limited, yet interconnected mounds pleasant. The subtle cleverness of their care for the land appeals to me; but most of all, what I like a great deal is living in human-centered islands surrounded by more or less nature-centered land. It seems to me to embody the essence of being civilized: creating human centers, working to make the land around richer for all creatures, and leaving the rest to be itself. And imagine: pyramids built for the living rather than the dead! The Beni peoples /Amazonians lived a noble human life, working to enlarge the chances of life. Of all the autonomy civilizations mentioned, they hold the distinction of being the only one that actually enriched the land. This civilization disappeared with the early advent of the Spanish, presumably wiped out by European diseases. The Beni peoples persisted into the early 18th century due to their inaccessibility but were eventually persecuted, resettled, enslaved and wiped out.
Of course, in the days of Amazonia, Beni, Catal Huyuk, the Cucuteni and Norte Chico, land was still plentiful and the effects of population increases and “limitless growth” were not so keenly felt. It is very different now. So any future experiments with new forms of civilization must include limits to acquisitive and biosphere-endangering behaviors. Still, if autonomy civilizations did exist once, they can certainly exist again. These first civilizations did not crash into devastation. The evidence often points to people wearying of the project and moving on. The Norte Chico people probably carried on with a simpler life in the same area, and some may have left to seed other ceremonial centers elsewhere. The dispersed descendants of Catal Huyukers started another settlement nearby later. The Cucuteni were probably absorbed by other cultural groups in the area. And the Amazonians and Beni peoples perished over a short period of time from infectious diseases and conquest, leaving an enriched landscape behind. These last were the only ones who did not degrade their environment, and far outlasted the other civilizations mentioned here.