The First Towns: Seedbeds Of Civilization - The Origins Of Civilizations

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By about 7000 B.C., techniques of agricultural production in the Middle

East had reached a level at which it was possible to support thousands of

people, many of whom were not engaged in agriculture, in densely populated

settlements. Two of the earliest of these settlements were at Jericho in what

is today the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and at Catal Huyuk in present-day

southern Turkey. With populations of about 2000 and from 4000 to 6000 people

respectively, Jericho and Catal Huyuk would be seen today as little more than

large villages or small towns. But in the perspective of human cultural

development they represented the first stirrings of urban life. In these and

other Middle Eastern Neolithic settlements, occupational specialization and

the formation of religious and political-military elite groups advanced

significantly. Trade became essential for the community's survival and was

carried on, perhaps by specialized merchants, with peoples at considerable

distances. Crafts such as pottery, metalworking, and jewelry making were

highly developed. At Catal Huyuk in particular, both sculpture and wall

painting were carried to a high level of sophistication.

In these earliest town centers, the key ingredients of civilization came

together. Agricultural surpluses were sufficient to support specialized

non farming producers and non farming political and religious leaders. The

interaction of these groups resulted in a burst of creativity and innovation

in a wide variety of fields. But these earliest centers were quite isolated.

They were merely tiny islands of sedentary cultivators and small numbers of

townspeople, surrounded by vast plains and woodlands. The earliest town

centers appear to have traded rather extensively but to have maintained only

intermittent and limited contacts with neighboring hunting-and-gathering

peoples. Though small in size and not highly specialized in comparison with

the cities of Sumer and other early civilizations, the first towns, settled

during this period, nonetheless played critical roles in continuing the

Neolithic transformation. The ruling elites and craft specialists of these

towns contributed in several major ways to the introduction in the 4th

millennium B.C. of critical inventions - inventions such as the wheel, the

plow, writing, and the use of bronze - that secured the future of civilized

life as the central pattern of human history.


Proximity to the Jordan River and the deep and clear waters of an oasis

spring account for repeated human settlement at the place where the town of

Jericho was built. By 7000 B.C., over ten acres at the site were occupied by

round houses of mud and brick resting on stone foundations. Most early houses

had only a single room with mud plaster floors and a domed ceiling, but some

houses had as many as three rooms. Entry to these windowless dwellings was

provided by a single wood-framed doorway and steps down to the floor of the

main room underground. Although there is no evidence that the town was

fortified in the early stages of its growth, its expanding wealth made the

building of walls for protection from external enemies increasingly

imperative. The town was enclosed by a ditch cut into the rocky soil and a

wall reaching almost 12 feet in height. The extensive excavation required for

this construction is quite impressive because the peoples who undertook it

possessed neither picks nor shovels. The stones for the wall were dragged from

a riverbed nearly a mile away. These feats of transport and construction

suggest not only a sizable labor force but one that was well organized and


When Jericho was rebuilt in later centuries, the wall reached a height of

nearly 15 feet, and the fortifications included a stone tower at least 25 feet

high. The area covered by the town increased. Round houses gave way to

rectangular ones, entered through larger and more elaborately decorated wooden

doorways. Houses were built of improved bricks, were provided with plaster

hearths and stone mills for grinding grain, and were furnished with storage

baskets and straw mats. In addition, small buildings that were used as

religious shrines were found in the later stages of the city's history.

Though the economy of Jericho was based primarily upon the farming of

wheat and barley, there is considerable evidence of reliance on both hunting

and trade. Domesticated goats provided meat and milk, while gazelles and

various marsh birds were hunted for their flesh, hides, and feathers. The town

was close to large supplies of salt, sulfur, and pitch. These materials, which

were in great demand in this era, were traded for obsidian - dark, glasslike

volcanic rock - semiprecious stones from Anatolia, turquoise from the Sinai,

and cowrie shells from the Red Sea.

The ruins excavated at Jericho indicate that the city was governed by a

distinct and quite powerful ruling group, which was probably allied to the

keepers of the shrine centers. There probably were specialized artisans and a

small merchant class. In addition to the fertility figurines and animal

carvings found at many other sites, the inhabitants of Jericho sculpted

life-sized, highly naturalistic human figures and heads. These sculptures,

which may have been used in ancestor cults, give us vivid impressions of the

physical features of the people who enjoyed the wealth and security of


Catal Huyuk

The first community at this site in southern Turkey was founded around

7000 B.C., somewhat later than the earliest settlements at Jericho. But the

town that grew up at Catal Huyuk was a good deal more extensive than that at

Jericho and contained a larger and more diversified population. Catal Huyuk

was in fact the most advanced human center of the Neolithic period. At the

peak of its power and prosperity the city occupied 32 acres and contained as

many as 6000 people. Its rectangular buildings, which were centers of family

life and community interaction, were remarkably uniform - built of mud-dried

bricks. They had windows high in their walls and were entered from holes in

their flat roofs. These entryways also served as chimneys for the fireplaces

that the houses contained. The houses were joined together to provide

fortification for the town. Movement within the settlement was mainly across

the roofs and terraces of the houses. Since each dwelling had a substantial

storeroom, when the ladder to the roof entrance was pulled up, each became a

separate fortress within the larger complex.

The standardization of housing and construction at Catal Huyuk suggests

an even more imposing ruling group than that found at Jericho. The many

religious shrines found at the site also indicate the existence of a powerful

priesthood. The shrines were built in the same way as ordinary houses, but

they contained sanctuaries surrounded by four or five rooms related to the

ceremonies of the shrine's cult. The walls of these religious centers were

filled with paintings of bulls and carrion eaters, especially vultures,

suggesting fertility cults and rites associated with death. The statuary that

has survived indicates that the chief deity of the Catal Huyuk peoples was a

goddess, who is variously depicted as a young woman giving birth or nursing a

small child, and as an old woman accompanied by a vulture.

The obvious importance of the cult shrines and the elaborate burial

practices of the peoples of Catal Huyuk reveal the growing role of religion in

the lives of Neolithic peoples. The carefully carved sculptures associated

with the sanctuaries and the fine jewelry, mirrors, and weapons found buried

with the dead attest to the high level of material culture and artistic

proficiency achieved by these town dwellers. Excavations of the settlement

also reveal an economic base that was much broader and richer than that of

Jericho. Hunting remained a factor, but the breeding of goats, sheep, and

cattle vastly surpassed that associated with Jericho. A wide range of foods

were consumed by Catal Huyuk's inhabitants, including several grains, peas,

berries, berry wine, and vegetable oils made from nuts. Trade was extensive

both with the peoples in the surrounding hills and with places as distant as

present-day Syria and the Mediterranean region. Catal Huyuk was also a major

center of artisan production. Its flint and obsidian weapons, jewelry, and

obsidian mirrors were some of the finest produced in the Neolithic era. The

remains of the town's culture leave little doubt that its inhabitants had

achieved a civilized level of existence.

Document: Evidence Of Life In The Earliest Towns

Because writing had not yet been invented at the time that towns such as

Jericho and Catal Huyuk were settled, the remains of buildings and artifacts

dug up at these sites provide our best sources about the lives of the people

who lived there. The artifacts and the town plan are from the town of Hacilar

that was built in present-day Turkey about 1000 years after the town of Catal


Online Tutorial - Urban

What are site factors?

Site factors are those considerations which are made by humans when deciding on the ideal location for a settlement. The factors outlined below are not exhaustive, but are the main 8 considerations for the siting of ancient settlements. Site factors for new settlements today, still have to take some of these into account, and may have even more to consider.


1 - Protection

It was especially important to protect settlements from those who wished to attack. A good vantage point to watch for this was a hill, and many castles and forts were built on hills to watch for attackers. There was a disadvantage with this site though, as climatically, these settlements were prone to wind and harsher weather.

Protection can also mean protection from the weather. See 'shelter' below for factor that deals with this.

2 - Plenty of Water

Washing, drinking and cooking all need water, and it was vital to have an adequate supply especially during the summer. Springs, wells and rivers provided supplies, but it was important to take into account the third site factor below, to prevent flooding and damage.

Nowadays, settlements have water piped to them, but it is still a consideration to be near to the mains supply or in a region that actually has adequate rainfall to sustain a supply.

3 - Not Too Much Water

It was important then and is still important to ensure that settlements are not built on areas that will flood, or are marshy (as the settlement will sink).

This isn't always possible to see, particularly if the floods only occur every few years, or there isn't a flood whilst building the settlement. Many settlements flood each year for these reasons and in fact some settlements in many poorer parts of the world are built on flood areas - this is because flooding provides fertile alluvium to agricultural land.

4 - Rivers

Rivers can be useful supplies of water in themselves, or agents of flooding. But what is important about rivers as a site factor is that they can be crossed, either by bridge or ford. A river that couldn't be crossed would have been a major problem for early settlements, particularly if they couldn't escape across a river during an attack. Rivers can now be crossed by building bridges, but these are expensive.

5 - Building Materials

Either wood or stone was needed to build early settlements, so a forest, wood or hillside with crags was needed to provide the materials. This is not so important today, as houses are built of brick and slate, which are easily provided. However, in the National Park areas of the UK, there are strict building regulations which often determine the type of stone and roofing material that should be used to build with. It would therefore be vital that these are available.

6 - Supply of Wood

Not as important today, but early settlements would need wood for fuel. It was therefore vital that the settlement was near trees.

7 - Flat Land

It is extremely difficult to build a settlement on land with a gradient (such as a hillside) and so land should be flat wherever possible. This should not be confused, as it often is, with low-lying land: the top of a high hill or plateau could be flat too.

It is possible to build a settlement now on a gradient, but it is much more time consuming and expensive. This tends to be done only where there is limited space, such as the terraced housing in the coal mining valleys of South Wales, UK.

8 - Shelter

It is important the direction that the settlement faces, and this is geographically known as aspect. In early settlements, it was important that agricultural land faced south so that the sun shone directly on the land. If land faces north in the UK, it never has the sun shining directly on it. Shelter from the weather, especially in winter was essential. Building a settlement in a valley provided a way to keep out of harsh winds.

Today, a consideration of aspect is made as a routine part of most settlement planning. The Byker Redevelopment in Newcastle was partly redesigned with geographical aspect in mind. Click here to see how this settlement used aspect.