Generations of history textbooks have assumed two things about the history of civilizations:
- Human civilization is a relatively new phenomena, originating in the Fertile Crescent sometime around 3500 B.C.
- Human civilization developed largely because of an increase in technical skill which allowed for plowing, increase of production, storage, etc.
I have never liked the second assumption. It seems so easy for us to make it, for it reflects our bias perfectly. Toynbee wrote of the predilections of western civilization,
The Hellenic civilization displays a manifest tendency towards a predominantly aesthetic rubric for orienting and defining itself. The Hellenic tendency to view life as a whole distinctively in such terms that the ancient Greek adjective “kalos,” which denotes what is aesthetically beautiful, is used in addition to describe what is morally good. In other words, Greek concepts of beauty and morality . . . were indistinguishable.
When we come to our own western civilization we find no difficulty discovering our own bent or bias. It is, of course, a penchant towards machinery: a concentration of interest and effort upon applying discoveries of Natural Science to material purposes through the creation of social-clockwork devices, i.e. steam engines, motor cars, but also social engines like representative governments and military mobilizations.
We sometimes talk as if this appetite for mechanics was a quite recent occurrence in western civilization . . . But this is precisely how westerners were viewed by the courts in Japan and China [in the early 1800’s]–as “barbarians” redeemed partially by our manifest and outsized technical ability. The Byzantine princess Anna Comnena had the same impression of the first crusaders in 1099 A.D. She called their crossbow a “devilish construction” that, while ingenious in its mechanics, fitted perfectly the barbarians who wielded it . . .
Though I find James Burke’s Connections series entertaining, he too makes the same assumptions about the development of civilization. What brings people together for Burke is tools, food, and political organization. Our “appetite for mechanics” has us assume that others had the same appetite.
Recent finds at the enigmatic site of Gobekli Tepe look to possibly overthrow both of the common assumptions.
Essentially, the site contains precision stone work thousands of years before the Egyptians supposedly invented working with stone. Not only that, we have no evidence of any habitations near the site-it appears to be the only structure at all in the vicinity. Add to this, the site appears to have no “practical” purpose to it. Most think it served as a place of worship. A recent article reads,
. . . these new findings suggest a novel theory of civilization. Scholars have long believed that only after people learned to farm and live in settled communities did they have the time, organization and resources to construct temples and support complicated social structures. But Schmidt argues it was the other way around: the extensive, coordinated effort to build the monoliths literally laid the groundwork for the development of complex societies.
Any student of ancient history will almost immediately realize that the ancients did not share our passion for mechanics, and surmise that the origins of civilization lies elsewhere. But common sense will suffice for anyone lacking such rudimentary knowledge. Common love of something draws people together and creates relationships. Common needs may bring people together temporarily. Common loves will sustain and likely originate such relationships. We all experience this. We are what we worship.*
Gobekli Tepe may rouse the historical/archaeological community to rethink their views of the past, and I welcome this. But we should realize that such a shift would not lead to a discovery of something new about mankind, but something as old as the world itself.
*This helps explain why most moderns judge those like Charlemagne so harshly. How can he insist on a common faith of those he governs? Not only does it fly against our sense of individual rights, it seems so unnecessary. Doesn’t Charlemagne know that a shared use of certain technological tools creates stable societies?
We may scoff at those who fight over religious belief. But western powers have fought over natural resources that will allow us to create more technological tools, or more powerful tools, and so on.
Maybe all wars can be boiled down to religious belief.