Chapter 8 (174-187): The Emergence of Cities and States


Civilization literally means living in cities. Three of the key features of civilizations are the presence of large and dense populations in cities, social stratification and centrally organized political systems (states). A state is a type of centralized political organization that governs many communities. States usually have bureaucracies, or systems of administration that rely on record keeping. They also usually have writing systems. States are also socially stratified and hierarchical. They typically have surpluses and full-time craft specialists. Cities and states arose in different places in the world at similar times, often from early farming villages. There is no single explanation for the rise of cities and states.


Many early Neolithic villages transitioned into cities and, subsequently, into states. These transitions were often marked by certain basic changes in four areas.

1.     The first change occurred in agricultural innovation, which included extensive water works (irrigation), further domestication of plants and animals, and an increase in crop yields. This led to surpluses, which eventually lead to social stratification.

2.     The second change occurred in the diversification of labor, which included the creation of specialized workers (artisans, farmers) and specialized tools made with new materials.

3.     The third change occurred in central governments, which now included the ability to control citizens, the erection of monumental buildings, the creation of writing for record keeping, the creation of legal systems and of bureaucracies to carry out the tasks of government.

4.     The fourth change occurred in social stratification, which included the emergence of social classes and their markers (such as differences in dwelling sizes or locations, health disparities, personal ornamentation and even education).


Many theories that have been developed to explain urbanization come from work in the Middle East, where it was primarily the management of surpluses and increasing trade that led to cities. In other areas of the world, they developed to manage communal irrigation projects, to wage war and protect communities and as a result of religion.

Mesopotamia and the World’s First Cities

Mesopotamia is home to the world’s oldest cities, dating to 5500 ya. One such city, Uruk, had a population of at least 10,000 people by 5500 ya. There is little indication of urban planning. It had a brick wall for defense, monumental architecture, agricultural surpluses, craft production, record keeping, economic management and well-developed government and religious institutions. Rulers were powerful. Like other early cities in Mesopotamia, Uruk was a center of regional trade. Trade is likely one of the main reasons for the growth of cities in the Middle East. It certainly gave rise to writing, by at least 5500 ya. The writing, cuneiform, was a symbol-based system. The wheel was probably invented in Mesopotamia first, around 7000 ya.

The Indus Valley Civilization

The Indus Valley Civilization arose in the area of modern-day Pakistan and northwest India and existed from 4800-3700 ya. It had several major cities and smaller, lower-order cities as well. Full time craft specialists were important and raw materials were imported, made into crafts and traded as far away as Central Asia and Mesopotamia by sea. Trade and writing helped to integrate all the varied settlements. Harappa, at one point, had more than 50,000 residents, many neighborhoods and a large public space for tax collecting and markets. Harappa and other cities were notable for urban planning, a high degree of craft specialization and writing. Streets were laid out in a grid, with areas for public buildings, residences, baths, grain storage, pottery making and grain processing. There was a reservoir in the center of the city and wells were dispersed in the neighborhoods. Many houses had bathrooms and wastewater was carried from homes into the streets where it was channeled into brick drains that connected to underground drains that took the sewage outside the city walls. Harappa is the first example of a city with waste management! People in rural areas grew food, raised animals and supplied the city.

Cities in China

Cities and states in early China developed in two areas, the northern region along the Yellow River and the southern region along the Yangtze River. One early settlement along the Yellow River is Ban-po-tsun and it dates to around 5000 ya. It was similar in size to Mesopotamian urban centers. It was divided into areas based on use such as residential, crafts and burial grounds. There was social stratification, a large population, regional capitals, written records, administrative centers, elaborate bronze works and weapons, ceramics, ceremonies, human sacrifice and fortune telling. Society was highly stratified and warfare was frequent.

Great Zimbabwe in Africa

Sites in Africa like Great Zimbabwe are known for metalworking in iron, as well as for ocean-going trade as far away as China. Zimbabwe was one of many sites to have large stone enclosures, but there is no evidence of militarism. Inside are dwellings, food storage areas and ritual buildings. It had 20,000 citizens at its peak. Trade was an important part of the economy. It controlled vast territories but we don’t know how they were administered and integrated. Cattle herding was also important to the economy; pastoralism combined with cultivation of some grains allowed for surpluses. These sites are perplexing because they grew without a central administration or military control of large areas. Traders may have created economic integration and large sites may have hosted ritual events.


Cities, states and empires in the New World formed later than in the Old World. While they are distinctive, they still rival the Old World in size, power, wealth and duration.

Teotihuacán, Mexico: City of the Gods

Teotihuacan (te-ho-tee-wi-kan) was the largest city of the time (100 BCE-700CE) in the New World and was located in Mexico. It had over 100,000 residents, many of whom were migrants from other areas of Central America. It was cosmopolitan and ritual was prominent. Its temples and monuments were massive. It had neighborhoods and 2000 residential apartment compounds. Obsidian craftwork tools and ritual items were an important part of the economy and many residents were part-time craftsmen. Its political ties, based on regional intermarriages, extended far and wide and it had economic alliances with many. But it suffered from instability, competition, and warfare. It was purposely destroyed by fire and abandoned by 700 CE.

The Maya: An Enduring Civilization in the Tropics

The idea that a literate civilization could arise in the tropics of Central America was preposterous to many scholars until extensive research on the Maya was conducted. Many Maya sites, like Tikal, were huge urban centers with tens of thousands of citizens with social stratification. Elites were literate and recorded lineages, ancestry, marriages and social ties. Warfare, blood rituals and human sacrifice were a part of life. They had grand monuments and large cities. But their decline is mysterious. Current views are that the Maya pushed their fragile tropical environment to its limits with overpopulation and deforestation.

Andean Civilizations: the Inca Empire

By the Spanish Conquest in 1532, the Inca had the largest empire in the world. It ran from Colombia to Chile and its capital was Cuzco. It was linked to distant areas by roads and bridges. Llamas and alpacas were domesticated for their wool, meat and labor. The potato was the most important crop. The empire contained a variety of ecological niches that allowed them to exploit these differences through trade and colonization. They had storehouses, shrines and military garrisons. The state controlled much of the economy and had taxes. They never had a writing system; instead, administrators used a system of knotted cords for record keeping.


All past civilizations went through cycles of expansion and decline, followed by regional reorganization and the rise of new ones. Eventually, most collapse and periods of decline are the norm. But why do they collapse? It might have to do with how difficult it is to maintain social inequality over long periods of time. Unequal structures are fragile, relying essentially on the consent of the governed. The most powerful systems tend to be the most stratified and unequal and are thus often the most short-lived. Many also feel that man-made effects on the environment contribute to some collapses. Many are concerned that changes that began in the Neolithic and that impact the global ecosystem and climate might bring about the collapse not just of one state, but of the entire globalized civilization of which we are a part.


Just like the shift to food production shouldn’t be viewed as progress, but rather as one possible path which many human cultures pursued, we should also be hesitant to label the shift to cities, states and civilizations as progress. Benefits aside, civilization has brought many problems, most of which we are still attempting to find solutions to. The problems of civilization include how to dispose of all sorts of human made waste, the now fertile breeding grounds of cities giving rise to infectious and insect-borne diseases, the degree to which city living negatively affects our health, the inequality of living in stratified societies (which also affects health and lifespan), the degradation and destruction of the natural environment, on which we rely to survive, the risk of over-population, the lack of basic resources such as food and clean drinking water for many of the world’s people, and the risks associated with the development of advanced weaponry. These are just a few of the threats to the continued existence not only of cities, states and civilizations, but to our species.