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Published on 20 Apr 2013
2009 © Vera Pavri
Lecture 2: Technology in Ancient Civilizations
I. Early Civilizations
- Urban Revolution – 6000 years ago
- Where? At least six different centers around the world: Mesopotamia (after
3500 BC); Egypt (after 3400 BC); Indus River Valley (after 2500 BC);
Yellow River in China (after 1800 BC); Mesoamerica (500 BC); South
America (after 300 BC)
- Characteristics: high populations, centralized political and economic
authority, regional states, stratified societies (status/class), complex
architecture, higher learning
- Why did they develop? Larger populations needed intensified agricultural
- Simple agriculture replaced by field agriculture
- Large scale water management networks (‘public works’) built and
maintained by “the corvee” which were conscripted labor gangs
- Projects supervised by state employed engineers
II. Hydraulic Hypothesis
- Fact that all these early civilizations required large-scale hydraulic
engineering projects (because of either too much or too little water for
practicing intensified agriculture) has led some scholars to explain this
phenomena as hydraulic hypothesis (Wittfogel and Steward)
- HYDRAULIC HYPOTHESIS: there is a link between the rise of early
civilizations and the technology of large scale hydraulic systems
- Large scale irrigation: heavy water use, and in some cases, growing of
crops in otherwise unsuitable regions by extreme use of water (e.g. rice
paddies on arid land).
- Large scale irrigation necessitates centralized co-ordination and this leads
to greater political integration in society
- Irrigation on such a large scale thus “causes” the emergence of
centralized and hierarchal political system
- Civilizations like Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, etc… are therefore types of
“irrigation civilizations” which have common features and develop in a
similar way because of this need to adapt to their environment via large
scale irrigation
- For example, these civilizations have very hot climates which makes it
easier to produce large amounts of crops
- Civilizations able to grow because they are in a environmental restricted
space – when warfare occurs, groups that are defeated cannot move
anywhere like they could in earlier times – instead, become slaves and
peasants who work to maintain intensified farming practices
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2009 © Vera Pavri
- This allows more people to be fed but also requires society to be
organized in a way that allows for maintaining system, distributing goods,
settling water disputes, controlling grain surpluses
- Therefore there is the development of an authoritarian state because
water (a scarce commodity) must be controlled
- N Mass labor had to be coordinated, disciplined when necessary, and
“led” by higher political authority
III. Criticisms of Hydraulic Hypothesis
- Major criticisms of hydraulic hypothesis stem from idea that large-scale
irrigation “causes” this type of hierarchal political system
- This association between irrigation and the political systems present in
these civilizations is very deterministic
- Critics argue that centralized political power did not just center around
irrigation activities
- in fact in places like Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica had centralized
states even before they began having large-scale irrigation projects; large
cities were already developed
- thus irrigation more a “consequenceor “product” rather than “cause” of
this kind of state organization (although it does facilitate development of
bureaucratic elite)
- also question whether large-scale irrigation products always require this
kind of political organization (i.e. Hohokam society, ancient Ceylon)
- William Mitchell: reformulate hypothesis to state that, “it is not irrigation
itself, but the centralized coordination of irrigation activities that has
important social consequences”
- Feedback system: centralized control of irrigation means greater political
integration and this then allows people in power to come up with an
“excuse” for more political control (i.e. the right to limit access to water)
IV. Early Science and Technology in Ancient Civilizations
- Urban civilizations mastered art of bronze metallurgy (study of metals);
leads to this era being known as the “Bronze Age”
- Metal used for tools and weapons instead of stone means that these
civilizations able to master complex sets of technologies such as mining
ore, smelting, hammering and casting metals at temperatures greater than
1100 degrees Celsius
- Along with bronze metallurgy came silver and gold metallurgy but this was
done mostly in new world for decorative or ceremonial purposes
- Leads to more trade in minerals; specialization of labor (i.e. craft
production, beer brewing)
- These civilizations also used new sources of energy such as wind power,
boats, ox plow, horse and wheeled cart, camel
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