In this video lesson, you’ll meet Uruk, a lone farmer living in ancient Mesopotamia. As Uruk tries to become a successful farmer, he realizes the difficulties in sustaining a fruitful farm without the help of a community. Watch to understand how these difficulties contributed to the creation of villages and cities throughout history.
The First Farmers
The year is 5300 BCE, the beginning of what archaeologists now call the Ubaid period. The place – Mesopotamia, a fertile tract of land between the Tigris and Euphrates.Meet Uruk the farmer. Uruk has found himself a beautiful place to farm.
Fertile land, plenty of water, a commanding view of the plains around him. He’s got his seeds and he’s got his livestock. Surely, Uruk has everything he needs to be a successful farmer.The problem is that farming requires much more than planting and reaping.
Problems Being a Lone Farmer
To succeed, Uruk the farmer must also practice dozens of other skills.
To use the food he’s grown, he’ll need to be a miller and a brewer. To store his food, he’ll need some sort of vessel, which means he has to be a potter and a weaver.Most baskets and pots don’t do well without a roof overhead, so he’s going to need buildings. To create and maintain these buildings, Uruk needs to be a carpenter, a thatcher, a mason and a blacksmith.To take care of his livestock, he needs to be a shepherd, and by extension, a hunter, a sheep shearer and a tanner.
To get any of his products to market, he’ll need to be a wheelwright and a carter.To keep track of his accounts, he’ll need to be an accountant and a scribe.To ever make children he’s going to have to find someone unrelated to breed with.Finally, Uruk is going to need to be able to defend himself; Uruk must be a warrior. Why? Barbarians! Barbarians are the bane of farmer. Why do all the work of growing food? Why not instead find someone, like Uruk, who has done all the work for you and take what you want from him? You see, for a barbarian to get all the things civilization can do, he can either learn to do all the things Uruk does, or just train to be a better fighter than Uruk and take his things.
So you can see, being a solitary farmer is a very difficult life. You must have dozens of skills and specialized equipment. Most of all, you’re constantly in danger of attack.
The First Villages
To overcome these problems, Uruk invites nearby families to live with him in the valley.
They form a village. This village allows them to band together for common defense. This also allows for a division of labor. With all of these farmers living together, not everyone needs to be a farmer.
Now someone can be a blacksmith, someone else can be a thatcher, someone can be a potter, someone can be a weaver, and Uruk, all Uruk has to be is a farmer. And probably most importantly for Uruk, this village gives him a place to meet girls on a Saturday night.Yet this cute little village is still vulnerable to barbarians. The village of Uruk can now fight off a small barbarian clan, but the bigger the village, the more tempting the target. While the farm of Uruk might have escaped the attention of raiding barbarian bands, by contrast, the village of Uruk is just begging to be pillaged.
Despite these risks, the benefits of living in a community are so great, more and more people come to live there. Gathered together, they still have a better chance of defending themselves from barbarians than they do on their own.Over the course of a thousand years, the village of Uruk grows into the town of Uruk. In the course of this history, Uruk gets invaded, flooded and burned, but people keep returning to this ideal place for a town.
The City of Uruk and Larger Populations
Around 4000 BCE, Uruk emerges as the first of what we recognize as a city. It is such an important city, archaeologists call the next thousand years the Uruk period.
Here is what it may have looked like then.This what it looks like now.While villages and towns might hold a few hundred people, the city of Uruk was home to tens of thousands. That massive population brings new opportunities, the foremost of these being a greater division of labor and an opportunity for specialization.In a village, you might have one potter.
When there’s only one potter in town, he has very little reason to innovate or make improvements. In a city, you have dozens of potters competing with one another. They will work to distinguish themselves, creating a wider variety and a greater chance for new improvements.
Yet this larger population presents new challenges: it’s much harder to feed, it’s much harder to keep supplied, it’s much harder to administrate and it’s much harder to protect.To solve these challenges, rulers took various routes.To feed and supply their people, they build roads. To overcome the problems of administration, societies came up with writing, hierarchies and laws.Yet perhaps the best way to take care of a large population is to put that population to work.
If the city is vulnerable, build walls. Walls have been around for thousands of years, usually around small towns or fortified outposts. It wasn’t until 3,000 BCE that the huge civilization, Uruk, had sufficient skill tools and man power to build a massive wall to protect itself.
Becoming an Empire
That population surplus also gives you a new option; you could raise your own army and start conquering your neighbors. In short, you could build an empire.Rather than fighting invaders, why don’t you be the invaders? The resources and lands gained will help feed and supply your city, allowing it to grow even larger. This is basically what your first civilizations are: city-states, networks to feed a giant central city.Yet empires, in turn, face their own unique challenges, especially when it comes to administration and defense.In a later lecture, we will explore how the adaptations made for cities were further adapted to enable the full-scale building of empires.