The Rise of Empires
In my previous two attempts (here and here), I tried to discover the roots of civilization as we know it today and hierarchic social structure we intimately associate with it. As it turned out, even though my initial approach pointed in the right direction, it was, nevertheless, rather simplistic and in some way, one may say, even naive. Indeed, God as well as Devil is in the details as they say, because delving deeper into the topic revealed a much more complex reality.
According to traditional understanding, the rise of complex civilized societies is more or less a combination of agricultural form of sustenance, food surplus, rapid growth of population, urbanization, labor specialization, and technological progress — factors that lead to an increase of wealth and status disparities, inevitable rise of elites, and subsequently centralized forms of management which allow for and also further accelerate the whole process. This widely held view is, however, fallacious, because, as I will demonstrate, the evolution of complex society and the rise of social disparities are two separate processes that, although they grow on the same basic civilizational substratum, develop independently of each other, thus, you can have one without the other.
What may be even more surprising is that, while we cannot exactly put a finger on why some communities remained for centuries (and even millennia) without visible signs of social stratification despite their enormous size and highly sophisticated civilization, there are certain common traits that can be clearly identified across all hierarchical societies.
Simply speaking, if you want to create a caste society with wealth and status differences, all you need is a forcefully created multi-ethnic group of people and some form of theism.
In prehistoric times, the most common ways how you could establish such a motley crowd would be e.g. forced exogamy (stealing females from neighboring tribes), forced adoption into the tribe (basically what we know as slavery), taking in refugees displaced by war or environmental distress, or creating a honeypot effect (i.e. inciting people to migrate toward your prospering centers — see USA for an example from recent past). To homogenize the group and make it hold together, and this is a must, you would then implement a theistic ideology. The most common one throughout the history was polytheism, but henotheism, and also monotheism, as we can see even today, would fulfill the same purpose equally well.
Without going into lengthy metaphysical explanations, I must, nevertheless, explain what I mean by theism and why it is essential in the process of creation and upholding of hierarchic society.
While animism and non-duality as its natural evolutionary continuation are both the underlying worldviews of polytheism and monotheism respectively, they cannot serve as a pivot for a social hierarchy because of their very nature which is based on lived experience. The former on a communal level and the latter on a deep personal one. Essentially, they are both antithesis to all forms of hierarchy because they entail the personal experience of solidarity or interconnectedness rooted in oneness of the whole existence.
Inevitably, you need to invent god (or a complete pantheon of gods), an instrumentality through which the wholeness of existence and its various aspects operate, but which can be separated from community as well as individual. Now, you have eliminated the lived experience and you have replaced it with worship and faith that are both easily controlled by priests and religious rituals. The more shocking and palpable the better I guess, because religions of all hierarchic societies are closely tied to blood sacrifice and, more often than not, cannibalism as the ultimate ritual to reconfirm the group’s social cohesion. Again, the actual roots of this ritual probably go back to funeral feasts of ancient animistic communities but that is beside the point.
As I said in the beginning, the events in Levant that started with advent of agriculture and transpired up to bronze age (c. 12500–3300 BCE) were more complex than how I outlined them previously. Even though Natufians and their descendants (Levantines) may have been the original inventors of the new way of sustenance, most probably due to the spread of those ideas, there were allegedly up to seven distinct, separated ethnic and/or cultural groups in the Near East region responsible for the neolithic revolution. The three most important ones were already mentioned Levantines in the south (current-day Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon), Anatolian hunter-gatherers and their offspring in the north-west (current-day Turkey), and people of Zagros Mountains in the north-east (current-day Iran).
These three groups are significant not only for their early practice of agriculture but also for the way they influenced the subsequent development in rest of Levant, Europe, and Indus Valley — Anatolian farmers were original builders and inhabitants of Çatalhöyük (7400–5100 BCE) and around 6500 BCE (Reich, 2018) migrated into Europe spreading agriculture to the “old continent”. Similarly, Zagros (or Iranian Neolithic) farmers were not only hypothesized ancestors of Sumerians and Elamites, but, before majority of ethnic groups in Levant essentially melted into each other either genetically (Skourtanioti et al., 2020) or culturally, they migrated toward the east into current-day Pakistan where they built settlements such as Mehrgarh (7000–2000 BCE) which eventually gave rise to Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) that lasted roughly from 3300 BCE to 1300 BCE .
Çatalhöyük, Mehrgarh, and later cities of IVC are especially remarkable. Not only for the sheer size of these settlements — Çatalhöyük estimated at 5000 to 8000 people (During, 2007) and for a long time considered the largest known Neolithic site in Near East (Mellaart, 1976, in Feuerstein et al., 2005, 146); Mehrghar, almost four times larger than Çatalhöyük, estimated at 25,000 people (Feuerstein et al., 2005, 147); or Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, two jewels of IVC, both estimated at 40,000 people (National Geographic, 2020) — but more particularly for their elusive social structure.
First, Çatalhöyük is assumed to be of a mixed constitution reflecting diverse origins of populations (Thissen, 2002). Correspondingly, Mehrgarh too was surprisingly multiracial (Feuerstein et al., 2005, 150), and it is therefore safe to assume that that was also the case with Harappa and Mohenjo-daro. This is also supported by busy trade contacts between Indus Valley and regions in Levant, Central Asia, Afghanistan, southern India, or areas near the coast of Arabian Sea as it is documented in archaeological finds in Mehrgarh (ibd.) and further confirmed by excavations of Indus seals at different sites in Mesopotamia (Ur, Telloh/Girsu near ancient Lagash, Djokha/Umma, Babylon, Nippur, Kish, Tell Asmar/Eshnunna, and Tell es-Sulema) and Elam (Susa), as well as Akkadian records of their prominent trading partner “Meluhha” that most scholars associate with the Indus Valley Civilization (Parpola, 2015, 210–220).
This in itself would be nothing spectacular — even if we omit the rest of Levant, only Mesopotamia alone, during a slightly shorter time span from c. 6500 BCE, saw rise of Sumer, from Ubaid, through Samarra, to Uruk and Ur, as well as Akkadian Empire, and Assyrian kingdom. But while the region around the rivers Euphrates and Tigris saw the rise of settlements such as Tell es-Sawwan (c. 6000 BCE) fortified with defensive walls against raids, first precursors of warfare dating back as far as c. 4400 BCE as documented by excavations at Tepe Gawra (McMahon, 2020), or rise of priestly elites performing blood sacrifices in temples that were essentially holy granaries serving for redistribution of previously collected and centrally stored food as can be seen in Eridu or Uruk, this was not the case with the cities mentioned earlier (Çatalhöyük, Mehrgarh, Harappa, etc.).
In the case of Çatalhöyük it’s rather obvious, because by 5100 BCE, very likely due to the very Sumerian ascent just described, it was already abandoned, and at the beginning of 4th millennium the whole Near East followed the Sumerian model as can also be seen in e.g. Arslantepe. But if we’d look at Çatalhöyük at any time during its 2300 years of history, we would see the same image that Kenoyer (2000) describes while looking at Mehrgarh, “the emergence of distinct socioeconomic classes at Mehrgarh cannot be documented through conventional data, such as burials and architecture.” What’s more, while Çatalhöyük essentially resembles a gigantic honeycomb-like village, Mehrgarh, Harappa, and Mohenjo-daro exhibit clear signs of city planning, with latter two also containing communal granaries and public spaces (such as a large public pool assumed to be a place intended for ritual purposes), or highly standardized set of weights and measures, seals, and, what seems to be, a writing system.
Also, while we have a pretty good grasp on the nature of sacrificial system that emerged in Near East, all clues from Çatalhöyük, Mehrgarh, and IVC point at people worshiping Mother Earth in the vein of their hunter-gatherer ancestors.
Thus, considering the lack of material evidence in the form of disparities in amount and quality of burial goods among different members of the society or clearly identifiable palaces of local elites (despite all of the sites being excavated rather thoroughly) and religion closely resembling ancient animistic cults, it’s not surprising that people could not wrap their heads around these facts and came with various explanations, ranging from full-fledged egalitarian anarchic society, to corporate model of management, or hypotheses such as elites ruling in-absence from distant rural places in the manner of Saxon aristocracy in England during 1st millennium CE (Wankowski, 2019).
The answers may however be hidden in plain sight in relatively recent developments in pre-Columbian Americas.
Without complicating the issue too much, let me just reiterate the long known facts that all major civilizations that rose in South and Mesoamerica exhibited the same patterns as the ones that followed the Sumerian pattern in Levant — from Olmec, Maya, or Teotihuacan, all the way to Aztec and Inca, all of them were multiracial, heavily stratified in terms of status as well as wealth, and knit together by a bloody sacrificial cannibalistic cult based on polytheism.
Meanwhile, North America was predominantly characterized by plethora of independent tribes with various forms of sustenance, ranging from foraging and horticulture, to agriculture and pastoralism (and anything in between), with mostly egalitarian social structure and animistic worldview — basically an image of Levant during the Neolithic before and around the rise of Sumer.
However — there’s one more, quite specific, group that can hold the keys to the secrets of Çatalhöyük, etc., and those are Puebloans from Southeastern United States.
Again, without overcomplicating the topic too much, the first thing that may strike you is the similarity of architecture in both areas in question (especially, but not only, Çatalhöyük). But the real surprises come only after we unpack the historical and spatial relationships that created the Mesoamerican connection to Pueblo religion, because then we arrive at a paradox where we can identify a profound degree of shared cosmology, iconography, metaphor, and ritual between the two, yet we clearly see that the societies of the two regions remain qualitatively different (McGuire, 2011).
In short, during the Mesoamerican Early Classic Period (200–600 CE) Hohokam culture, clearly related to West Mexico, established itself in Arizona as an “island of Mesoamerican influence” (or a “tip of peninsula”, depending on the direction of one’s view), and social relations in México and the southwestern United States broke into three social webs. In the tumultuous times that followed (600–1200 CE), via decentralization, migration of elites and artisans to new regional centers, bi-directional trade routes and complex intermingling of various regional micro-cultures, these social webs resulted in three distinct cultures: 1) Casas Grandes (1250–1450 CE), the most Mesoamerican of the three, ruled over by matrilineal elites and still performing human sacrifices; 2) Salado Polychrome tradition, with ethnically diverse population, community plans resembling Casas Grandes and containing elite residences, and religion similar to the one practiced in the Mesoamerican Epiclassic, which was designed to unify diversity and legitimate social differentiation and inequality, and which included extensive human sacrifice and common ritual uses of human bones; and finally 3) Katsina religion of Pueblos.
Randall McGuire (2011) summarizes the Katsina religion as a form of asceticism, and further adds that, ”It advocates a communal life of hardship, humility, and hardiness. Individuals are expected to subordinate themselves to the interests of the group in order to maintain the balance and cycle of the world. A hierarchical body of esoteric knowledge and ritual lies at the core of the religion. Control of the esoteric sets a few priests off from the mass of the people. Yet the priests manifest their sacred position and power by living modestly and by not standing out from others in the material world. People sacrifice their individuality, possessions, food, and individual desires to feed the Katsinas and advance the common good. [Unlike Mesoamericans] the Pueblos lacked this fascination with blood and slaughter. Instead of spilling blood on altars and offering still-beating human hearts to the gods, they put out prayer feathers and offered pollen and corn meal to the Katsinas.”
It very much reads like a return to animism. Suffice to say, Pueblo culture was strongly egalitarian.
Just as a side note to complete the picture, as you can see in the case of People of the Longhouse, aka Iroquois, you obviously don’t have to have a highly developed civilization, not even a particularly deep hierarchy, centralized government, or a very visible wealth disparities to build a pretty oppressive and brutal state. A little bit of polytheism is more than enough.
Or maybe all what it takes is to forget a substantial part of our human traits and revert back to the level when we were indistinguishable from chimpanzees. But I digress.
As I stated in the beginning, my initial approach, although pointing in the right direction, was rather simplistic and naive. No surprise that also my attempts to link the rise of empires to discovery of non-duality proved to be futile (as should be already obvious). Not only there is no known example of animism evolving into non-duality in Americas, there’s also no evidence of this knowledge prior to Indo-Iranians (aka Aryans) splitting from the common branch of Proto-Indo-Europeans c. 2000 BCE, because, similarly to Americas, there are also no known examples of native monotheistic religions among the rest of Indo-European traditions.
Thus we may safely conclude that knowledge of non-dual nature of existence really originated with a common ancestor of Vedic Hinduism and Zoroastrianism, and is precisely what Abraham allegedly brought with himself from Ur into Canaan. How that knowledge got perverted to include blood sacrifice and hierarchy by simply inventing an almighty God in some imaginary Heaven is a story for a different time though.
 Even though in their latest study Shinde et al. (2019) try to argue that IVC has no contribution from Neolithic Iranian farmers (merely from Eastern Hunter-Gatherers), they hinge their interpretation on the fact that Neolithic Iranian farmers contain Anatolian DNA (but see Skourtanioti et al., 2020 for extent of Zagros population) and thus when they identify the split (i.e. last “pure Zagros”) at 10,000 BCE with only one (!) EHG individual (the rest being farmers from Ganj Dareh in the central part of Zagros Mountains who got mixed with Anatolian farmers pretty early on) they assume that agriculture could not have been imported, i.e it’s indigenous to the Indus region.
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McGuire, R. (2011). Pueblo Religion and the Mesoamerican Connection. In: Religious Transformation in the Late Pre-Hispanic Pueblo World, (pp.23–48). University of Arizona.
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