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Opinion | What Jared Diamond and Yuval Noah Harari Get Wrong About History

If it all sounds a little drab or “simple,” we should bear in mind the ecology of these early Ukrainian cities. Living at the frontier of forest and steppe, the residents were not just cereal farmers and livestock-keepers, but also hunted deer and wild boar, imported salt, flint and copper, and kept gardens within the bounds of the city, consuming apples, pears, cherries, acorns, hazelnuts and apricots — all served on painted ceramics, which are considered among the finest aesthetic creations of the prehistoric world.

Researchers are far from unanimous about what sort of social arrangements all this required, but most would agree the logistical challenges were daunting. Residents definitely produced a surplus, and with it came ample opportunity for some of them to seize control of the stocks and supplies, to lord it over the others or fight for the spoils, but over eight centuries we find little evidence of warfare or the rise of social elites. The true complexity of these early cities lay in the political strategies they adopted to prevent such things. Careful analysis by archaeologists shows how the social freedoms of the Ukrainian city dwellers were maintained through processes of local decision-making, in households and neighborhood assemblies, without any need for centralized control or top-down administration.

Yet, even now, these Ukrainian sites almost never come up in scholarship. When they do, academics tend to call them “mega-sites” rather than cities, a kind of euphemism that signals to a wider audience that they should not be thought of as proper cities but as villages that for some reason had expanded inordinately in size. Some even refer to them outright as “overgrown villages.” How do we account for this reluctance to welcome the Ukrainian mega-sites into the charmed circle of urban origins? Why has anyone with even a passing interest in the origin of cities heard of Uruk or Mohenjo-daro, but almost no one of Taljanky or Nebelivka?

It’s hard here not to recall Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” about an imaginary city that also made do without kings, wars, slaves or secret police. We have a tendency, Le Guin notes, to write off such a community as “simple,” but in fact these citizens of Omelas were “not simple folk, not dulcet shepherds, noble savages, bland utopians. They were not less complex than us.” The trouble is just that we have a bad habit of “considering happiness as something rather stupid.”

Le Guin had a point. Obviously, we have no idea how relatively happy the inhabitants of Ukrainian mega-sites like Maidanetske or Nebelivka were, compared with the steppe-lords who covered nearby landscapes with treasure-filled mounds, or even the servants ritually sacrificed at their funerals (though we can guess). And as anyone who has read the story knows, Omelas had some problems, too.

But the point remains: Why do we assume that people who have figured out a way for a large population to govern and support itself without temples, palaces and military fortifications — that is, without overt displays of arrogance and cruelty — are somehow less complex than those who have not? Why would we hesitate to dignify such a place with the name of “city”? The mega-sites of Ukraine and adjoining regions were inhabited from roughly 4100 to 3300 B.C., which is a considerably longer period of time than most subsequent urban settlements. Eventually, they were abandoned. We still don’t know why. What they offer us, in the meantime, is significant: further proof that a highly egalitarian society has been possible on an urban scale.

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