Author Archives: Alison Alessi

Intensive Agriculture as the Gateway to the State.

I am inclined to think that of the 6 primary characteristics of a state, intensive agriculture is one of the most important. It allows for the other 5 characteristics to happen. Intensive agriculture leads to finding ways to increase the carrying capacity of the land, and allows for less people to be involved in food production leaving them open for specialization. With extra food and swanky new luxury goods made possible by specialization, the state can trade with other states for their products building a complex economy. This complex economy then gives rise to marked social stratification. With extra income and a competitive market, some people are bound to make more money and have more excess than others. This marked social stratification either creates or enforces the authority of the state. With the complex economy and a shift in focus from food production to other occupations, people naturally flock to a central location more suitable than the country for trading. This creates a dense urban population.

Two of the four classic theories for the development of Ancient States involve intensive agriculture. One theory hypothesizes that irrigation (a technique of intensive agriculture) is what allows for the development of an ancient state because carrying capacity of the land is increased and more food can support a denser population. However, this turns into an chicken and the egg argument when considering the theory that warfare caused by reaching or surpassing carrying capacity developed leaders and is the cause of the formation of a state. Carrying capacity may be increased by intensive agriculture but it attracts a denser population which could lead to warfare over new lands which will then use intensive agriculture to increase the carrying capacity of those new lands and it could go on until the state’s inevitable collapse. Or, lands could be conquered by warfare which then develops into a state. The leaders created have time to figure out better ways to use the land and so they develop intensive agriculture and it goes on until the inevitable collapse. Either way, intensive agriculture is present.

Another theory states that agricultural diversity leads to long distance trade. One state might have something that another state needs. They both use intensive agriculture to get the most out of their land and use that for trading. V. Gordon Childe believed that urbanism led to the development of the ancient state. That this dense population has enough people that they can start specializing. I doubt you could support such a population without intensive agriculture, however.

For all these reasons, I think that intensive agriculture is probably one of the most important characteristics of an ancient state. I don’t think it is required, I know it isn’t required but it seems to be a pretty common practice among ancient states. States have even collapsed over a bad harvest. We don’t really need writing, but everyone always needs food.

Don’t go to Machu Picchu

On Monday, the site of Machu Picchu was mentioned briefly as an estate built by the Pachacuti Inca (1438-1471). I had never known the exact use of Machu Picchu or that it was at one point thought to be the last refuge of the Inca during the Spanish invasion. After looking into the history of Machu Picchu, I have learned that though it is considered a royal estate, it was also used for religious purposes. There is lots of evidence to suggest that half the city was used for religious ceremonies and worship. The god that seems to be worshiped the most at this site was the sun god, Inti (who was also discussed Monday). It would make sense that a royal estate would include quite a bit of religious imagery related to this particular deity because the first “great Inca” was considered the son of Inti. This would have made Pachacuti related to that God as well. Because it was typical in this society to treat past rulers as still living, it makes even more sense that a large portion of the royal estate would be devoted to Inti (a relative to each “still living” ruler of the Inca.). The complex also included a residential section for the non-elites who worked in the city. There was a certain amount of agriculture to be cared for as well as all the other activities required for the maintenance and continual care required of a royal estate.

The city was only in use for about 100 years. It is thought that environmental factors might have contributed to the abandonment of the city (this area is very prone to earth quakes), but it is also theorized that the population at Machu Picchu was decimated by small pox brought over by the Spanish. This is interesting considering that Machu Picchu never actually seemed to be visited by the Spanish (it was never looted or defaced in the way the Spanish did to other Incan sites). This suggests that people who had come into contact with the Spanish then infected the population at Machu Picchi without ever informing the Spanish of the city’s existence.

Though the site was said to be discovered in the early 1900’s, there is evidence suggesting that the site was discovered in the late 1800’s and had been visited by non-native Peruvians multiple times before its “discovery” by Bingham. Bingham discovered the site by being led there by a Quechua boy. Actually, Machu Picchu was still being inhabited partially by some of the Quechua people at this time. He then stole many artifacts across the Bolivian border which he then took to Yale university. A long drawn out battle took place over Yale’s right to keep these artifacts and this only ended in the 2000’s when Yale agreed to give back the artifacts under the condition that they could still study them.

The current threat to Machu Picchu is not so much environmental anymore. The main threat is tourism. It is the most popular tourist destination in Peru. Though heavy restrictions have been placed on visitation, Machu Picchu continues to be one of the most threatened historical sites.

The moral of the story: Machu Picchu is an important site because it was overlooked by non-natives for so long. Now that people are going there in the thousands every year, the site is once again threatened. Don’t go to Machu Picchu.

Ai Weiwei (Contemporary Chinese Artist)

Ai Weiwei is a well known activist and artist who lives currently in China. (Last time I checked, the Chinese government had revoked his passport.) One of the art projects he is most well known for is his destruction of ancient Chinese cultural artifacts. The most famous of these works is a photo series of Ai Weiwei dropping an urn from the Han dynasty that was thousands of years old. This is considered a crime in China as it is illegal to destroy cultural artifacts over there. Many were outraged by this willful destruction of an ancient artifact. In response to this Ai Weiwei said, that ancient ceramics such as the Han dynasty urn, “was industry then and is industry now” (translation). Basically, it appears he doesn’t think that time alone makes something valuable. If it wasn’t valuable then, then it isn’t worth getting upset over now. It has been said (perhaps by Ai Weiwei himself), that his photo series is actually more valuable than the urn itself was. It sold for something like 50,000 pounds.  He uses the destruction of the artifacts as a political criticism of China. I think it can also be seen as a statement against the image of China and the ability for these artifacts (and the image) to be marketed to the rest of the world. Ai Wei Wei has been very concerned with the way that China presents itself to the rest of the world in their media. For example, when an earthquake killed a couple thousand children and it was suspected that the cause was shoddy construction on the part of the government, they refused to publish the names of those who died. Ai Weiwei started an art project that collected the names of all the victims and posted them on his website.Where media is censured to such an extent, doing that type of project can be very dangerous. When the Olympics took place in China, Ai Weiwei was asked to create a large art piece to be displayed at the games. He agreed but later spoke out against the Chinese Olympics, citing that the image they showed to the rest of the world was not the real China, only what the Chinese wanted to be seen as. People were pushed out of their neighborhoods for the games barring the regular community from having any involvement with the event. Basically, people were displaced from their homes for the sake of China’s image. Of course, I don’t know anything about this personally. I have never been to China and I do not ever watch the Olympics. This is all things that I have seen and heard about Ai Weiwei and his political messages and his methods for expressing them. On Monday when it was mentioned that China has thousands of these artifacts and that it was easy to buy them illegally off the black market, it made me think of Ai Weiwei and his outright destruction of them. Is it alright that Ai Weiwei destroyed ancient artifacts for modern art? Or is it “an act of self-indulgent barbarism, akin to book burning”? Is it better or worse than selling artifacts on the black market?

Here is an article on the exhibit. It’s where all my quotes came from. It also includes pictures of the art piece itself. Personally, I am a fan of his and I definitely think he is worth checking out.

The nessesity of a surplus to complex societies.

It seems based on the readings about the rise of Mesopotamia as well as the lecture this morning that ancient states were heavily dependent on there being a surplus of resources. We already learned that intensive agriculture is one of the necessary traits of an ancient state and this is because it increases the carrying capacity of a piece of land. This allows for enough food to be made by a smaller number of specialized farmers so there can be specialization in other types of work. Places of water are very important to this because they allow for irrigation. When Egypt underwent a climate change, it forced the people to move closer to the river. Eventually, they figured out that they could grow large amounts of food. This was more successful than each individual hunting and gathering. It could also support a larger amount of people. Birth rates must have increased and the surplus must have attracted other people to the area.

In Mesopotamia, some of this urbanization is even thought to have been forced. Patterns in Prehistory states, “…Adams, argues that early Mesopotamian urbanization may have been imposed on a rural populace by a small, politically conscious superstratum that was motivated by military and economic interests,” (Wenke, 348). However, this indicates a chicken and the egg type of conundrum. Complex economy comes out of complex society and so does political and military organization. How could there even be political leaders, let alone ones with the power to enforce mandatory immigration? It seems as if urbanization is one of the first steps of a society becoming complex (more people are needed to build irrigation canals, which then support more and more people). To me, this indicates that there was already some time of infrastructure in place that then began forcibly sucking up rural people from around the area.

As agriculture becomes more intensive, the surplus increases. This then requires some handling. Who takes care of the surplus? Who is in charge of distributing it? I think it just started out as a specialized profession like any other but the importance of food was so great that the position became glorified. The person who distributed the surplus might have found a way to restrict access to it, thereby increasing his importance. Whoever has control over the surplus, has the power in an ancient state.

This explains the ability of ancient states to grow but ti also explains their eventual collapse. The reason given today for Egypt’s first collapse was a possible drought. There was no surplus so the centralized state lost a great deal of power. No surplus = no centralized power= no ancient state. When food production becomes more successful, (for example, when the Nile’s drought was over), there becomes more of a surplus. When there is a surplus, people who are in charge of distribution rise to power and the whole cycle continues again.

Of course, this is nor the only reason for the rise and fall of the ancient states but it does prove the necessity of agriculture to civilization. When humans exceed carrying capacity, centralized government breaks down. It begs the question, when will modern states reach that carrying capacity if they haven’t already. When will our first intermediate period begin?