The Trouble with Civilization

Sierra Bellows
UVA Magazine

Phillip Trella studies bones from the ruins of the ancient cities of Upper Mesopotamia. After several millennia, the cities have been reduced to mounds, the detritus of human habitation piling up year after year so that the sites are elevated above the plains. A specialist in zooarchaeology, Trella can recognize a goat tibia with a glance. Turning a bone over in his hands, he can identify the species, age at death, sometimes sex, whether it was domesticated and how it may have been butchered and cooked.

“There is a sense of awe that people feel about ancient people that lived in complex societies,” says Trella (Grad ’00, ’10). “I think we can more easily relate to people living in early cities with buildings and monuments, with government and class hierarchies, than we can to hunter-gatherers. I think the reason for this is that we believe in a socio-evolutionary narrative that suggests that we share certain commonalities with other ‘civilized’ societies.”

One feature that is common to most civilizations is that they go through cycles of growth and disintegration. Why do they fall apart? History documents the rise and fall of vast empires—Rome, Greece, the Maya, Persia and, yes, Mesopotamia. While examining the evidence left by ancient cities, Trella and other archaeologists develop theories about the nature of complex societies that inform our present civilization—the largest and most complex in history.

Agricultural practices, societal hierarchies, use and abuse of resources—all come under their scrutiny.

“As a group, you’ll find that anthropologists are very wary of the things being done now that cause environmental degradation,” says Patricia Wattenmaker, an associate professor of anthropology at U.Va. whose research focuses on the archaeology of complex societies, particularly those in the ancient Near East. “That is because we’ve seen how local environmental degradation affected societies of the past. To see environmental degradation on a global level is upsetting, because for us, unlike the ancient people who left their cities to become nomads, there is nowhere else to go.”

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