Worldbuilding for Fantasy Writers and Gamemasters, Part Seven

THE AGRICULTURAL REVOLUTION AND THE RISE OF CITY-STATES

[image description: Uruk Archaealogical site at Warka. Photo: SAC Andy Holmes (RAF)/MOD, OGL v1.0 http://NationalArchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/1/, via Wikimedia Commons]

Mesopotamia, the land “Between Rivers”, namely the Tigris and Euphrates in what is now Iraq, is considered the cradle of civilisation. There are a number of factors that made it perfect for the rise of the first known cities and city-states, but it’s important to note that urbanisation didn’t occur just in one location and then spread to the rest of the globe from there. It actually arose spontaneously at different times in different places; this is just the earliest example we have evidence of.

If you recall from, or refer back to, my previous post regarding the different types of societies that might inhabit your fictional world, I mentioned that agriculture was responsible, or at least necessary, for large populous settlements such as those we are about to encounter in this stage of our worldbuilding journey. I also used the following handy flowchart to show the progression from a hunter-gatherer to a more industrial society, and how that development would affect the society as a whole:

[image description: Societal development by Rcragun (Own work) CC-BY-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. top row: hunter/gatherer, pastoralist/horticulturalist, agricultural, industrial, post-industrial. bottom row: surplus, denser populations, specialization, technology, inequality.]

Of course, this is a very simplistic diagram only suggesting the general trend as a society evolves from a nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle such as hunter-gatherer or pastoralist/horticulturalist to ever more settled types of subsistence strategies which support larger populations, more specialisation and stratification, certain kinds of technological advancements, and the surplus that allows for commerce and the beginnings of a capitalist or market economy. Reality tends to be more messy, especially when you account for something else which that graphic doesn’t mention: warfare.

[image description: “Mural of War” by Gari Melchers (1862–1932). Photographed in 2007 by Carol Highsmith (1946–), who explicitly placed the photograph in the public domain. – Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-highsm-02247 (original digital file).]

The first agricultural revolution not only eventually gave rise to the first cities and city-states, but also allowed for standing armies, mining and advanced metal-working, and everything else necessary for large-scale warfare. I don’t mean to suggest that war itself didn’t exist before; only that it could now be conducted on a scale never before seen. Of course, one other singular human advancement that also made the level of warmaking we’re talking about possible and which was not dependent on any agricultural revolution was the domestication of the horse. But for the full story on that I can only refer you to the following video, as that subject, worthy as it may be, is beyond the scope of this work.

First Horse Warriors – Botai,Yamnaya

The first agricultural revolution, also known as the Neolithic revolution, consisted of “the domestication of various types of plants and animals…in separate locations worldwide, starting…11,700 years ago [which] transformed the small and mobile groups of hunter-gatherers that had hitherto dominated human pre-history into sedentary (non-nomadic) societies based in built-up villages and towns. These societies radically modified their natural environment by means of specialized food-crop cultivation, with activities such as irrigation and deforestation which allowed the production of surplus food. Other developments that are found very widely during this era are the domestication of animals, pottery, polished stone tools, and rectangular houses. In many regions, the adoption of agriculture by prehistoric societies caused episodes of rapid population growth” [Wikipedia].

You’ll also find time and again that concurrent with the ongoing development of these complex urban societies there may have been certain other advances which would be advantageous (if not crucial) to their existence, such as those in mathematics, geometry, architecture, writing, and of course, construction. But out of all the foregoing that last one is the one most dependent on the city’s environs, for the very reason that the importation of building materials from far afield would not be cost effective for burgeoning urban centres, and in many cases even impossible, or at the very least impractical. Using the earliest Sumerian cities as an example, lacking sufficient indigenous stone for the building of their walls and edifices, they fashioned bricks from the plentiful clay to be found in their region.

In the following video, which I highly recommend you watch in full, the rise and fall of the first city-states is depicted in great detail. More than that, you will witness the rise and fall of the first empire, and empires will certainly come up again in this series, just as they will keep coming up in world history. Like cities and city-states, it would seem that empires are an inevitable result of the development of societies from the simpler end of the spectrum to the more and more complex.

The Sumerians – Fall of the First Cities

“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

~Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Next: Barbarians

Previous: Culture: Material and Symbolic

Published by striderlee

Dungeon Master, homebrewer, foodie, bibliophile, and fantasy author. He/Him

2 thoughts on “Worldbuilding for Fantasy Writers and Gamemasters, Part Seven

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