Before we’d even become Homo sapiens sapiens, humans lived everywhere from South Africa up to Britain and over to China.
There were mountain people, coastal people, people who hunted woolly mammoths, and people who’d never seen a woolly mammoth in their lives.
Just like we see with distinct groups of other animals, these differences of experience, adaptation, and expectation would have made for real cultural and even physical differences between populations.
A few hundred thousand years later, after fully modern humans had reached all regions of the globe and begun to build large settlements, they often enclosed them within massive walls.
The ways different cultures interact across those walls could be seen as the central story of civilization.
Top archaeologists from around the world have been exploring that story for the past week in public presentations and conversations at the 2015 Dialogue of Civilizations in Beijing.
A Fortress Deep and Mighty
Because of known battle stories and the sheer scale involved, a lot of people look at city walls and think of them as being built to physically hold back the onslaught of aggressors from outside. The evidence shows though that this was not always—and not even primarily—the case.
At the site of Harappa in the Indus Valley where he excavated from 1986 to 2010, Mark Kenoyer has clear layers in the earth showing the ups and downs of the city over 700 years, and in all that time, the people maintained extensive city walls.
The unexpected part is that throughout all that history, there is “not one example” of anyone attacking said walls.
Kenoyer is an experimental archaeologist. He chips out stone tools, drills holes in stone beads, and recreates ancient kilns, all to see firsthand how things were made and what it looks like as they are used. If those walls had ever seen action for physical defense, he’d notice the clues.
So while the city’s massive walls of may have kept armies out, they did it through show. And since the Harappan civilization was focused heavily on external trade and internal order, the walls had plenty to do controlling commerce without needing to worry too much about combat.
Still Part of the Family
The Maya were also big wall builders. Their towering pyramids looked out over vast though often lightly populated areas enclosed by walls, moats, or a combination of the two.
Outside the city walls though, Maya life was going on as well. Huge causeways rose above the wet lowland landscape linking areas of natural resource extraction, other major cities, and smaller settlements throughout the region.
With no wheeled carts or beasts of burden, people walked everywhere, spending long periods on these roads, and creating the conditions for a thriving service economy, according to Elizabeth Graham.
Richard Hansen, director of excavations at El Mirador—the largest Maya site discovered, with gargantuan earthen platforms larger in volume than the pyramids of Egypt—sees these places inbetween the city walls as the next great frontier for Mayan archaeology.
With Lidar and other methods for viewing the contours of the land through the dense forest canopy, researchers can now fill the enormous gaps in space and our knowledge between the great temple complexes of legend, and reveal a more full-spectrum view of the Maya world.
National Geographic grantee Geoff Emberling’s excavations of the Nubian settlements and tombs just south of Egypt’s border with Sudan illustrates another function of ancient city walls. In addition to keeping invaders at bay and commerce under control, they can keep modern interpreters locked inside a certain perspective.
Ancient Egyptian civilization built practically indestructible monuments and had incredible consistency of artistic and political expression for 3,000 years. Its awesome reputation, its strategic location for trade at the top of the Red Sea, and the dependable fertility of the Nile valley made it an attractive partner or target for many other empires throughout the Mediterranean and Mesopotamian realms, even up to the Napoleonic and World Wars.
Just beyond the southern borders of this golden child of world historical attention though was a civilization as old and distinct, even if lighter on the land.
Geoff Emberling studies ancient Nubia, renowned in Egyptian records as a fierce and dangerous civilization bringing violence and destruction along the same path down which the Nile itself brought life. As Renee Friedman of the British Museum put it, “They were scared of them.”
They were heavily influenced by Egyptian funerary practices and today there are more pyramids in Sudan than Egypt, but there was still a strong Nubian flavor to them, and the society was dramatically different.
Eventually, Nubians would adopt much of Egyptian culture and would conquer Egypt itself and rule for a few generations, setting up many monuments in traditional style (read more about them in “Black Pharaohs” from National Geographic magazine).
During earlier periods though, when the river was smiling on them they built large settlements with round buildings framed about with undulating walls of wood and mud.
Hedged in on a much narrower floodplain though, Nubia didn’t have the deep pockets of their northern neighbors. So when the going got tough, they had to get going.
Renee describes how during periods of stress they would abandon their settlements and head back to the hills and deserts with their flocks and herds.
While these factors lead many to classify Nubia as a “secondary civilization,” Geoff sees it differently. This wasn’t a half-hearted attempt to be just like Egypt, it was a full-steam-ahead practice of something different.
He calls it a “pastoral civilization” and thinks we’ve been underestimating the culture and significance of Nubia and other ancient and modern civilizations because they simply took a different approach than creating monumental and permanent cities.
Order From Chaos
With the Dialogue being held in China, walls are hard to miss.
There is of course the famously Great one, careening over 13,000 miles of terrain by some measures. Most of what we see today dates back to the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries, but the first mega version dates back to Emperor Qin from the 200s B.C. Even then though, his vision was to connect large wall systems from several other kingdoms dating back a few centuries before that.
Lest you think it’s that simple, keep in mind that even the earliest Chinese cities from the Bronze Age age and even back to the largest Neolithic settlements were ordered by a series of walls and palatial courtyards.
Walls like this are also hard to miss in Beijing, from the concentric borders in the Forbidden City to the contained communities of private homes and small shops.
And that’s perhaps the final clue to the deepest origin and meaning of the walls humans build around cities and entire civilizations.
More than keep anything particular out or in, walls set up a boundary inside of which a civilization can feel it has made order out of the natural chaos of the world.
For all the differences of culture, members of any civilization believe they are on to something. Life in their land, following their rules, enjoying what they see as pleasures, avoiding what they see as vices, leads to a happy life. Outside may be chaos and unpredictability, but inside these walls is order.
As the Dialogue of Civilizations shows though, that doesn’t mean one city is the only civilized place or that its inhabitants think it is. It also doesn’t mean other walled cities and communities outside are not vibrant and integral parts of civilization as a whole or the distinct civilizations they interact with.
The most action on a wall after all is through its gates.
The Dialogue of Civilizations is an annual conference organized by the National Geographic Society and partners in a host country bringing together top archaeologists focused on different ancient civilizations from around the world. In public presentations they discuss what they can learn by better understanding each other’s sites and how those lessons can help us better understand and navigate the world today.
To organize the 2015 Dialogue of Civilizations, the National Geographic Society partnered with the International Center on Chinese Heritage and Archaeology, the School of Archaeology and Museology and Center for the Study of Chinese Archaeology at Peking University, and the Institute of Archaeology at University College London, with support from the Research Group of the Project “In Search of the Origins of Chinese Civilization.”