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Mike Shupp
Anthropology Dept.
California State University, Northridge
18111 Nordhoff Street
Northridge, California 91330

CAVEAT: This was written for a course in Archaeological Theory this past year.  It's homework, in other words.   If you get some useful ideas from it, that's fine, that's what it was intended for, but don't treat it as gospel or indeed as anything representing a professional concensus.  And don't use it as your homework.

An Uruk World System?

Historical and Archaeological Aspects

Immanuel Wallerstein's The Modern World System has provoked much debate, some theoretical discussion amongst social scientists, and not a little vitriol.  A somewhat impressionistic survey is provided as an appendix.  After that little jaunt through theory, it is with much relief that one opens Guillermo Algaze's The Uruk World System: The Dynamics of Expansion of Early Mesopotamian Civilization.  Algaze's dependence upon theory is slight.  He refers to Wallerstein, to Schneider, to a few others, and then digs into the archaeological evidence for contacts between Uruk-era Sumer (roughly 3600 BC to 3100 BC) and neighboring cultures to the north and east.

The facts are not controversial.1 Mesopotamia was short of useful raw material, but rich in agricultural terms.  Consequently, during the bronze and early Iron Age, it was well populated, but had to trade with outsiders for decorative stone, hard woods, and other goods.

These are not, to be honest, essentials.  There was adequate stone for building foundations, and later on, for limestone facing on temples. Decorative stone is simply decorative, and at this point in history, metal was little more than a malleable stone.  That did not mean there was no wish for such luxuries, nor no mechanisms for ensuring that a handful of people would have their wishes satisfied at the expense of the remainder.

At the same time, the cost and difficulty of transporting goods ruled out shipping food to its suppliers.  (Moorey 1994:5-13) Accordingly the logical export goods were manufactured items of high quality, or which were so obviously labor intensive that they could be mistaken as high quality goods-- decorated fabrics, painted pottery, stoneware, jewelry and ornaments, metalwork, and wine, for example.2

Evidence for trade begins early.  At Yarim Tepe I, a Hassuna culture site in northern Iraq, imported wood, obsidian tools and blades, marble, turquoise, copper, and other stones suggest trade, whether directly or through intermediaries, with Iran, Anatolia, south Arabia and Mediterranean coast as early as 5500-6000 BC.  The logical export goods are foodstuffs, which wouldn't travel far, and suggest that the material reaching Yarim Tepe got there by down the line trading.  (Merpert 1982:123, 126)

The Halafians who settled at Yarim Tepe II and elsewhere in northern Mesopotamia were noted for fine painted pottery and zoomorphic vessels.  Their pottery has been found from Lake Van to the Mediterranean coast to Northern Iran to the Transcaucasus, but not, for some reason, in southern Mesopotamia.  (Yoffee 1993: 262-262) The implication is that trade routes across Northern Mesopotamia were in place by 5500 BC-- but not from north to south.

Ubaid pottery also traveled far, but Ubaid settlements were widespread; it is not surprising that their wares moved along the same routes as the Halafian goods.  Ubaid ware also reached Arabia, Oman, and Bahrain; analysis shows these pots were made near the coast and shipped by sea; they are not found inland in Arabia, which argues against their use in trade, but suggest use by coastal sailers or fishermen.  (Oates 1993: 410) Towards the end of the Ubaid period small quantities of lapis lazuli appear in Northern Mesopotamia; the nearest known sources are at Badakhshan in Afghanistan, suggesting that trade routes of several thousand kilometers may have been in operation by about 3750 BC; again, Southern Mesopotamia is outside in this picture.  (Moorey 1987: 37)

However, in the Gerzean period (beginning about 3500 BC), goods of recognizably Sumerian character appear in Egypt and elsewhere: stone cylinder seals, small ceramic jars with broad shoulders and triangular handles, larger jars with drooping spouts.  Interestingly, the pottery types found in Egypt and Palestine are not identical, though both sorts of goods are "Uruk" style ceramics.  Lapis lazuli beads and pendants and occasional decoration on gold tubes also appear in Gerzean graves; "In every known case the manufactured lapis lazuli objects are of local type." This predates any substantiated finds of lapis lazuli in Anatolia, southern Syria, Lebanon, Palestine or Sinai.  (Moorey 1987:37)

There is no evidence of movement of "bulk commodities" between Sumer and Egypt, indeed no evidence of any exports from Egypt, although gold is a possibility. Early Mesopotamian accounting devices (clay balls with miniature counting objects-- "bulla" or "calculi"-- and tablets impressed with simple pictographs and numbers) are not found in Egypt, but emblems often used to mark these records provide motifs which also appear in Gerzean art; other motifs seem drawn from Elam.

A reasonable hypothesis is that the lapis lazuli reaching Egypt arrived as unfinished raw material.  A second hypothesis is that several sets of trades routes were in operation at this time; one at least partially sea borne, running from Egypt through the Red Sea (to Dilmun?) to southern Mesopotamia and Susa and onward to Afghanistan, 5000 kilometers from its end point. (Marfoe 1987: 28) Moorey, however, regards direct contact between Sumer and Egypt by sea as "unlikely," seeing instead trade flowing northward through Palestine (or past Palestine, by sea) to Syria and Uruk-derived colonies in northern Mesopotamia and then via routes controlled by Elamites. (1987:40, 41) Who "controlled" the trade routes between Afghanistan and Egypt is immaterial; the point is that Uruk-era cultures of Southern Mesopotamia had become linked to that trade.

Simultaneously, or as close to as the archaeological record will allow us to speak, the Mesopotamian presence in southern Iran is increasing.  Ceramic assemblages in Susiana and Sumer at this time are similar in composition and in the types of symbols they display.  The tokens, balls, and bulla of Mesopotamian accounting are also found in Iran, and even similar architecture.  "The evidence just outlined leaves little doubt that in the latter part of the Uruk period Susiana was culturally as much a part of the Mesopotamian world as the alluvium itself." (Algaze 1993: 14) Susiana and Sumer had previously been characterized by similar but not identical social evolution.  Algaze suggests that what we see now is deliberate colonization, an intentional process which operates in parallel with processes ongoing to the northeast of Mesopotamia.


The "Uruk-derived colonies" mentioned above are Habuba Kabira, Tell Quannas, and Jebel Aruda, either merchant settlements or colonies in the lower elbow of the Euphrates.  These were not small sites, but walled communities which totalled 20 to perhaps 40 hectares of space-- room for 5000 inhabitants. Algaze reports five and perhaps eight other unexcavated Uruk-era sites in the immediate vicinity of this enclave, and another cluster of at least 18 sites 80 kilometers upstream on the Euphrates about the current Turkish-Syrian border; the latter are mostly villages, but again, they add up to another 30-40 hectares.   And 100 kilometers north of these sites, near ancient Samsat, another Uruk enclave existed, which may have been of roughly the same size.  (Algaze 1993: 25-35)

Meanwhile, British excavations have revealed numerous Uruk periods sites at Tell Brak and other locations in Syria, again totalling more than 40 hectares.  Another large site, unfortunately not well recorded, was at Kuynnjik on the upper Tigris, a precursor of Nineveh.  At all these sites, characteristic south Mesopotamian pottery forms, cylinder seal designs, accounting tokens, and architecture (including the conical decorating cones of Uruk temples) have been found; the larger locations are not haphazard collections of buildings but well planned urban centers with walls, streets, and temples. (Algaze 1993: 35-41)

What were they for? Joan Oates, referring to the Habuba Kibira settlements notes

"... not only the material culture-- pottery, seals, sealings-- but also the individual residential units are indistinguishable from those of southern Mesopotamia and in particular at the site of Uruk, previously our major source for the fourth millennium.  The identity of material culture, ideology, accounting practices, use of space and building techniques render inconceivable any interpretation other than that the settlements at both Habuba and Jebel Aruda were built and lived in by south Mesopotamians....  The presence of monumental temples at Jebel Aruda and the essentially secular structure of Habuba suggest a difference of function for the two sites, which is reinforced by differences in the bureaucratic paraphernalia, including the clay tokens, bullae, other sealings, and the seals themselves...  No agricultural tools were found and food was apparently acquired from local farmers (attested by the large storage jars said to constitute the only local pottery present).  The construction of a massive wall in the second building phase suggests that local relations may not have been entirely peaceful, though it is possible that the wall served only to protect the valuable commodities, the collection of which is likely to have been the site's basic purpose-- or that it may have been entirely symbolic..... There is little evidence for 'conflict' either here or in Sumer at this time." (1993: 411)

Oates stresses the highly organized character of these settlements.  Undoubtably, the initial beginnings were small and haphazard.  There is some evidence of ebb and flow in settlement patterns, but by Uruk times, monumental buildings and coordinated construction show a high degree of "authority", and perhaps centralized redistribution.  The high degree of fidelity to southern patterns also suggest frequent contacts with, and perhaps oversight from, the south as well.   The social organization this implies is far from the family-oriented Old Assyrian merchant Diaspora that Larsen (1987) describes for the Middle Bronze Age.  (1993: 417)

Ironically, we have learned far more about the capabilities of Uruk period civil administrators from these northern and eastern settlements than we have from Sumer itself.

In turn, Leon Marfoe refers to the "massive, intense character" of the communities and "an element of self-conscious calculation in an aggressive program" (Marfoe 1987: 28).  "Just what sort of organization and transactions underlay this varied pattern is elusive, but it seems not improbable that for the first time Mesopotamia was directly exploiting the highland resources." He sees this as possibly related to the expansion of "cities like Uruk" (although the only city "like Uruk" we know of is Uruk), with resultant demands for silver, copper, and timber, which might be paid for with oil, wine, bitumen, and perhaps animals.

But this did not last long, perhaps no more than a few centuries.  The pattern begins to end, he thinks, before the Jemdet Nasr/Early Dynastic I period.  There is a decline in the number of Uruk settlements, an apparent formation of local polities in the highlands, and evidence of increasing trade between the highlands and indigenous Syrian communities.  A possible factor is the domesticated ass, which appeared about this time, and which would have facilitated trade along the northern steppe route.  Finally, the late Uruk period shows the sudden coalescence of larger urban centers and the emergence of regional communities from Syria to Nineveh, and southward to the Persian Gulf.  (Marfoe 1987:29)

Against this, Oates:

"The acquisition of raw materials remains the common sense motive, but it must be emphasized that no single shred of evidence attests any form of 'trade.' The evidence for bureaucratic organization is overwhelming; what is less clear is what was being organized.   Moreover, evidence for industrial activity associated with essentially 'Uruk' sites (e.g. Canaanean blade production at both Hassek and Brak...) illustrates the production of tools for which there is no evidence whatsoever in the south.  Evidence for metalworking is found at sites beyond the Taurus ... as early as the Ubaid levels.... But there is neither overwhelming evidence for the acquisition of metals at Uruk-related sites in the north nor for the consumption of large quantities of metal status objects in the south...." (1993: 412)

Metal can be melted down and reused, she adds, and the major cemeteries of fourth millennium BC Sumer have yet to be found, so the possibility of metal importation remains.  However wool and timber are also possible imports, and could have been shipped down the river with comparative ease.  Some of the occupied sites were at "focal transport nodes," she notes-- river fords, probably occupied by indigenous peoples even before the Ubaid settlements in those areas.

It is the central point of Algaze's book that these sites and others not mentioned by Oates dominated fords and other strategic locations across an extraordinarily broad section of the highlands.  This was not by accident, nor was the process of occupation always a peaceful one.  "An unintended but important consequence of that process may have been the flow of prisoners of war for use as dependent labor in the industrial establishments of the emerging alluvial states." (Algaze 1993: 96).

At the same time, military domination was not attempted.  This was not empire building-- it's unlikely that the idea of a widespread territorial empire had yet entered anyone's mind at 3100 BC.  Instead, the Uruk settlements allowed the southern Mesopotamians to "tap into" the preexisting trade routes and that was probably their primary purpose.  By accident, so to speak, this was a "catalytic factor" in the development of local sociopolitical entities.  The Sumerians created or strengthened local elites in their dealings with local communities, a la Frankenstein and Rowlands; this led to more elaborate local hierarchies and more organized societies; when the Sumerians departed, these societies either filled the power vacuum with their own embryonic states or dropped back to simpler social organizations. (Algaze 1993: 107, Tainter 1988)

The cause of this retreat is not clear.  Algaze, using his world-system model, is forced to assume that local resistance was not a factor, since Sumerian exploitation of highland resources had led to comparative underdevelopment (1993: 4).  He imagines instead that overdevelopment in the alluvium led instead to over-utilization of resources, salinazation of soils, and declines of agricultural yields.  This led in turn to social disruption and partial collapse in Southern Mesopotamia. Sumer eventually emerged from disorder through the development of more elaborate social hierarchies -- kings -- and the creation of megalopolitan urban states but was unable to support its outposts during the crisis.  Collapse and retrenchment resulted.  (1993: 106-107)

However, while Oates also sees retrenchment and retreat at the end of the Uruk period, she sees a more complex picture.  Trade rivalry may have been a factor; she mentions a "red-black burnished ware of Anatolian-Transcaucasus origin." True, "colonies" to the northwest were abandoned; Hassek Hoyuk, one of the most northern sites was "destroyed." However, at Tell Brak and a few other sites, the south Mesopotamian occupation seems to have lasted into the Jemdat Nasr period.  Of course the presence of Jemdat Nasr ceramics at a handful of sites, only makes their absence all the more glaring at other sites.  (Oates 1993 415)

Significantly, she sees evidence for decentralization rather than emerging regional order in Anatolia at this time, suggesting that local elites there had become too dependent on the Sumerian presence to preserve themselves once that presence was gone.  This supports the picture that Algaze has painted.


However, while it is possible to consider the Sumerian core, Assyrian semiperiphery, and surrounding peripheral areas as a world- system, it may be somewhat less than useful.  As noted, with generalized models, one loses detail, and the formation of the world's first urban civilization is certainly a process in which details deserve attention.

Specifically, the differing evolution of core and periphery in the Wallerstein model does not seem to apply well.  While Algaze makes much of the presumed weakness of the periphery caused by southern Mesopotamian exploitation of highland resources, the evidence is that the northern peripheral regions engaged in trade for several thousand years without apparent harm and began to merge into nations or proto-states at about the same time or only shorter than Sumer.  In fact, this is seen by Algaze as a major causes of the subsequent failure of Mesopotamian states to expand successfully beyond the south.

Undoubtably, as Wallerstein would stress, trade played a role in the centralization and strengthening of southern Mesopotamian polities.  However the mechanisms by which it did so are not explained by Algaze.  Here I would suggest attention to the model for social differentiation in Iron Age Germany by Frankenstein and Rowlands (1978); it does not fit the Sumerian situation well, but it might be a useful beginning.

Again, inverting the picture of the modern world system, the Sumerian core seems to have been characterized by low-wage labor- intensive industries exporting goods for high value imports from the periphery.  Or indeed, by "no wage" industries.  A possibility which ought to be considered is that the expense of maintaining "the women with pigtails" shown in the cylinder seals at their occupations in temple- and state-run workplaces was borne by alms or taxes in kind-- chiefly food-- and that these weaveries and potteries made use of otherwise unemployable human resources.  Effectively, the labor provided by these early wage-slaves would have been free, or dirt cheap.  This in tern, would have discouraged the appearance of wage-paying businesses capable of competing with the temple and state enterprises.  And we know from subsequent records that an entrepreneurial manufacturing sector did not emerge at this time.  Workshops and businesses found as late as the Isin-Larsa period in Ur were smal and, household-located (Woolley, 1965:187); craftsmen did not supply their own material as contractors, but were employed on an individual basis or as state employees. (Moorey 1994) The only roles left open for "large" private sector enterprises would seem to be for traders and merchants.  We can imagine this as a possibility for kin groups, particularly if the early "tribes" included both farmers and pastoralists, as suggested by Adams (1981)-- a possibility given increased likeliness by the "ethnic awareness" attested for Amorites in this first multicultural civilization (Yoffee 1993)-- and in fact, the far-flung merchants of second millennium Assyria seem to have been just such family groups (Larsen 1987).

To return to the Uruk settlements themselves, Oates and then Algaze have stressed the size and number of these communities, which even at low population densities must have incorporated ten to twenty thousand inhabitants.  This must be measured against an alluvial population of at most a quarter million.  The number of settlers, in other words, even assuming an unlikely amount of local marriage, far exceeds the number which might plausibly be employed in trading for luxuries, no matter how strongly they might be desired in the south.  At the same time, given the expanse of this area, this population is too small to suggest an occupying military force.

This suggests a rival hypothesis, stimulated by Tainter (1988): that southern Mesopotamia settlement in the north was population driven.  The northward thrust of expansion during the Ubaid period has already been noted; we can imagine that it extended into the Anatolian, Syrian, and Iranian hinterlands as a byproduct of normal growth and became included by right of presence in contemporary trade networks.  We can imagine the process being "rationalized" and expanded under the influence of population growth and improved administrative control of southern polities during the Uruk period.

For whatever reason, after initial success, these colonies failed to take hold.  Perhaps there was too strong an adherence to southern farming methods or-- disastrously-- to southern farming schedules.  In any rate, we find apparent reliance even in the larger settlements on foodstuffs supplied by indigenous residents.  This practice is obviously not capable of infinite expansion.  At some point, local resistance would have occurred.  Crops might have failed, as they did at frequent intervals in antiquity.  There might have been simply too many Mesopotamians for the local population to support.  Settlers and autochthons might have tried to take advantage of one another.

Ultimately, these settlements existing on sufferance exhausted the patience of their neighbors.  The result was conflict and collapse.  The sudden implosion of population in southern Mesopotamia was a catastrophe that could not be dealt with by conventional means of administration.  Among the stop gaps that might have emerged were temporary leaders from without the temple hierarchy possessing dictatorial powers and the sudden expansion of pre-urban settlements.

Fortunately, in their occupation of the north, the Sumerians had learned much of the art of governance.  The new methods of social control and new social organization survived the crisis.  They never let go.

Appendix-- Theoretical Discussion

Since the publication of Immanuel Wallerstein's The Modern World System (volume 1) in 1974, the book has been ransacked by social scientists seeking an engine for theories of intercultural change.  Not without justice-- the work is a long account of the rise of modern world capitalism, presenting a mass of detail viewed through vaguely Marxist spectacles.3 It has great sweep. It presents a grand picture.  It is even readable.4

Structurally, according to Wallerstein, world-systems are large economic units, consisting of "core states", "peripheral areas" and "semi-peripheries." The cores contain nation states with strong governments, capable of using force and willing to do so; their populations perform the more skilled occupational tasks with the system, and enjoy the fruits of their hierarchical position.  The peripheries are weaker, in organization and in will; their populations are saddled with less skilled occupational roles, less well capitalized production systems, and less prestigious standing in the hierarchy; in short, they are exploited.  Semi-peripheries are essential intermediaries and buffers-- Russia in the 17th Century, Taiwan in the later 20th.

"The size of a world-economy is a function of the state of technology, and in particular of the possibilities of transport and communication within its bounds.  Since this is a constantly changing phenomenon, not always for the better, the boundaries of world-economy are ever fluid.

"We have defined a world-system as one in which there is extensive division of labor.  This division is not merely functional-- that is, occupational-- but geographical...  for the most part, it is a function of the social organization of work, one which magnifies and legitimizes the ability of some groups within the system to exploit the labor of others, that is, to receive a larger share of the surplus." (1974:349)

On the one hand, a world-system is in constant flux, as core states and peripheral areas vie for power, with success stemming from historical contingencies and "slight edges" whose significance increases with time.  On the other, the core creates peripheries by its differentiation of economic roles and status, as well as its financial vampirism.  Wallerstein quotes Owen Lattimore to the effect that Civilization, drawing itself together, also creates an opposing entity named "barbarism", and Andre Gunder-Frank who argues that "the underdeveloped world" is the necessary other side of development in a capitalistic system. (Wallerstein 1974:98) Dominance and despoliation are not incidental features of a world-system which might be removed by "reforms," in other words; they are inherent properties of all differentiated socioeconomic systems.

History records two forms of world-systems: "world empires" which are dominated by single political entities and "world economies" with multiple contenders for political dominance.5 The modern world system is not simply another world-economy; for good and ill, capitalism is unique.


This is a model with great possibilities, rich in terminology and useful concepts.  Still, the desperate nature of the search for new social theory becomes clear when we note that an initial attempt to present Wallerstein's ideas as a general research program was made a mere three years after the first volume, discussing the 1450-1600 time period, appeared, a year before the publication of any of the material that would appear in Wallerstein's second volume (1980).

There are stumbling blocks before such a program, however, some placed by Wallerstein himself.  For one thing, his own understanding of matters continues to evolve, as shown by references to Kondratieff cycles6 in his third volume (1989).  Do we steal our world-systems theory from early or late Wallerstein?7

For another, Wallerstein's definitions, concepts, and methods of analysis are at odds with anthropology; Wallerstein apparently has very little interest in culture and ethnicity except as they are shaped by contacts with the world system; the reciprocal influence of culture and ideology on the operation of the system is not a factor which merits consideration.  Economists might not be concerned by such deprivations; anthropologists and archaeologists are.  (Schortman and Urban 1987: 59)

Finally, world systems, from Wallerstein's perspective, are not rare phenomena which need to be explained; they are the normal experience of human life:

"A world-system is a social system, one that has boundaries, struc- tures, member groups, rules of legitimation, and coherence.  Its life is made up of the conflicting forces which hold it together by tension, and tear it apart as each group seeks eternally to remold it to its advantage. It has the characteristics of an organism, in that it has a lifespan over which its characteristics change in some respects and remain stable in others....  What characterizes a social system in my view is that life within it is largely self- contained and that the dynamics of its development are largely internal..." (1974: 347)

"Using such a criterion, it is contended here that most entities usually described as social systems-- 'tribes,' communities, nation- states-- are not in fact total systems. Indeed, on the contrary, we are arguing that the only real social systems are, on the one hand, those relatively small, highly autonomous subsistence economies not part of some regular tribute-demanding system and, on the other hand, world-systems.  These latter are to be sure distinguished from the former because they are relatively large....  More precisely, however, they are defined by the fact that their self-containment as an economic-material entity is based on extensive division of labor and that they contain within them a multiplicity of cultures." (1974: 348)

Which is awkward.  In this very general formulation, Wallerstein has removed any notion of specific details from the definition of a world-system.  Virtually any community of humans since the Lower Paleolithic can now be seen as part of some kind of world- system, and from Wallerstein's vantage, probably should be so seen.  The marvel is not that world-systems have existed in the past, in other words, but that historians and archaeologists have described so few of them.

Moreover, it follows from the definition of a world-system and this ubiquity that in most societies, with the possible exception of the most isolated hunter-gathers, subsistence and other aspects of culture are decoupled.  The means of production are not necessarily in local control; resource exploitation and occupational choice are not necessarily predetermined by the local environment and indigenous technology; household goods-- and household gods-- not necessary pro- duced by local craftsmen; even ideology and iconology can be imported (although this is to expand beyond the role of the world-system as an economic system).

We cannot assume ecological determinism at the local level in a world-system.  It follows that materialist strategies-- Marxism of any sort, cultural determinism, cultural ecology, etc.-- for explaining past complex societies must be jettisoned, and along with them any hope of perceiving "laws of history" in the archaeological record.

We're not talking about a few amphoras of Athenian plonk found in La Tene chieftains' wagon burials, in other words.  In our own time, the picture of a barefoot Amazon native clad in Egyptian cotton jeans sipping Inca Cola with a Sony boombox on his shoulder and Che Guevera on his mind as he trudges to his job at a US-owed rubber plantation is common enough.  As archaeologists, we have to assume that the lives of ordinary folk of Iron Age Germany and Paleolithic France may have been equally shaped by the equivalents of foreign investors, merchants, grifters, and influence peddlers; we are to remember the importance of fashion, the possibility of diffusion, the effects of missionaries and Conquistadors.8 (Trigger 1989: 332-340)

This is Historical Particularism returned with a vengeance!


Faced with these difficulties, social scientists have rushed in different directions.  Sociologists seem to be seeking for a single unified theory.  One tack, to be noted only in passing, is to insist that Wallerstein was incorrect in seeing the "modern" world- system as something new and to embed the current historical period in a greater scheme lasting perhaps as much as 5000 years.9 Andre Gunder-Frank is a leading advocate of this notion and the idea has many adherents, though to a cynical eye, it appears that proponents have avoided the difficulties presented by Wallerstein by reinventing "World History" as a discipline with all its blinking, blooming confusion-- however, it seems not to interest many working historians.

Roughly in the middle, one might place Samir Amin, who attempted to create a Marxist non-Eurocentric version of world-system theory in a 1991 paper, largely as a response to Gunder-Frank-- and a challenge to Arnold Toynebee-- rather than to Wallerstein, who was not mentioned.   For Amin, the over-arching world system is a "tributary system" which begins in 300 BC with Alexander the Great's conquests.  Subsequently a number of regional world-systems came into being, overlapping in time.  Their "centers" or cores were in China, Southeast Asia, India, Central Asia, and the Levant; less developed Europe and Africa were relegated to peripheral status.  Not incidentally, these centers are the homes of the Great Religions that have swept the world in the last 2500 years.  For much of this time, these technologically and socially superior states have lain at least partially within a "glorious" Islamic Region, Amin notes rather pointedly.  After 1492, with the discovery of the Americas (and the unmentioned expulsion of the Moors from Spain), a qualitatively new form of world-system based on capitalism arose in Europe, its character shaped less by innate European superiority than by European backwardness, political underdevelopment and perhaps sheer primitive rapacity.10 Amin believes these thoughts may be new ones for us, not comprehending how apocalyptic the image of "the Dark Ages" is in Western consciousness. In other respects, his ideas echo Wallerstein's, with more assertiveness but less learning, and offer little that is new, other than the useful reminder that world-systems of the past occasionally confronted each other on equal footing, as did China and Rome in the early centuries of the Christian Era, probably because these were not immediate neighbors.


Archaeologists have several other approaches to consider of which the very simplest is simply to ignore Wallerstein.  Not every interaction between peoples is a clash of civilizations, after all, or needs to be seen in purely economic terms.  Sometimes people are just neighbors or too evenly matched for easy exploitation.  (Renfrew 1986).

In other instances, the ties between peoples may have been willingly adopted.  There's not a shred of archaeological evidence, to make the point, that settlers in Ohio and Indiana ever came in violent conflict with each other from the 1780's onward.  Surely the fact is important, but Wallerstein has little to say about the formations of nations or "the systematic, consistent, and normative set of activities that link people in such a way that their lives are defined by such interaction." (Yoffee 1993: 258) Norman Yoffee, seeking to explain "What made Mesopotamia Mesopotamia?" thus rejects a world-systems approach, and makes use of the interaction sphere defined in the 1960's by Joseph Caldwell.11

The least fruitful response to Wallerstein would be attempts to prove or refute his ideas with historical or archaeological evidence.  To do this, one must assume that the modern world-system is a good analog for something which may have existed in the past.  This is to misread Wallerstein, who has insisted on numerous occasions that his picture is not to be seen as a model for the past.  Yet archaeologists persist, among them Philip Kohl, who has produced a series of papers (1987, 1992, etc.) which purport to show that interactions between neighboring cultures in the late Bronze Age-early Iron Age of the Transcaucasian region do not fit the classic Wallerstein model.  Charitably, we might assume that Kohl merely wishes to draw our attention to the difficulties a naive practitioner of world-system models will encounter, but his papers are frequently reprinted; the point would seem to have been made.12

Logically, however, world-system theory is irrefutable. In fact, it cannot be seen as a theory, or even as "science" but only as an approach to history, or a perspective for viewing history, or perhaps as a manner of doing history. It is a paradigm in Thomas Kuhn's terms, a framework for analysis, or perhaps a "research program."13 One does not prove or disprove a paradigm; one uses it or one finds it inadequate and searches for an alternative, as did Renfrew and Yoffee.  Randall McGuire's paper on the Southwest Desert region as a periphery of Mesoamerica is another example.  After respectful nods toward world-systems, he notes:

"I have reviewed the application of Wallerstein's theory to this issue and found it limited in the insights it gives us.  In its stead I propose that we must integrate consideration of production, exchange, and ideology." (McGuire 1989: 60)

Thomas Patterson is another skeptic.  After discussions of social evolution in early Peru, Mesoamerica, Han China, and the pre- Conquest Incas, he concludes states have decisive roles in creating and maintaining regional inequalities. World-system theory lacks "historical specificity." It isn't even very interesting.  In contrast,

"... the concept of articulated modes of production ... allows us to consider production and exchange, exploitation and resistance, and class and state structures.  It takes the issues of how inequalities are established and how labor and/or goods are extracted from populations as historical facts whose constitution must be established and explained rather than as conditions or circumstances whose existence is presumed as given." (Patterson 1990: 15)

Other archaeologists, however, do see world-systems as a useful paradigm, while admitting that Wallerstein's model needs modification to fit past eras.  Jane Schneider's early paper set the pattern with its comment that "The Modern World System suffers from too narrow an application of its own theory." (1977:20) She may have been the first-- but not the last commentator (see Algaze 1993: 7-8)-- to argue that Wallerstein erred in neglecting trade in prestige goods (luxuries or "preciosities" in Wallerstein's terms) as a factor in intersociety relations, and concentrating on bullion and bulk commodities.14

One might also note as a matter of methodology that it's probably considerably easier for an archaeologist to recognize evidence for luxury goods than for the food and drink of common folk.

The drawback of applying general world-system models to prehistory is that from lack of evidence or from considerations of the nature of the primitive economy one is forced to omit characteristics-- technological superiority of the core, political maneuverings of the states within the core, wage differentials between core and periphery, etc.-- which give specificity to Wallerstein's picture of the modern world. The interesting details are all thrown out, leaving mush.

To avoid this, one must supplement the picture with additional theory.  This tack was taken by Frankenstein and Rowlands (1978), who analyzed late Hallstadt and La Tene cultures in South Western Germany, using anthropological theories about prestige-good distribution to show social evolution in these chieftain-level societies, as a result of trade with Mediterranean states.  Santley and Alexander (1992) attempted to supplement the Wallerstein world-system model by identifying subtypes, which they labeled the dendritic political economy, the hegemonic empire, and the territorial empire; the economic analysis was not especially sophisticated and it is unclear whether their additional layer of (fairly crude) classification will prove useful in analyzing actual past societies.

Schortman and Urban (1987), in a paper revealing an extraordinary sense of perspective and theoretical ambition, create their own framework of theory and definition which addresses what they see as Wallerstein's weaknesses while building on the model.  Like Caldwell, whom they quote approvingly, they are interested in ethnicity and co-evolving societies in general.  The depth of their discussion and the number of examples suggests their ideas are less tentative than they modestly proclaim.

Finally, we can see world system theory being used in a weakly exploratory fashion, as a sort of initial approach to phenomena which might lead to more elaborate analysis.  Christopher Chase-Dunn and Thomas Hall (1997) have pursued this course, but not so far moved beyond the hand waving stage.


We might at this point look at the Roman Empire as a case study. For much of its history, this was an administrative patchwork of states, provinces, colonies and the like, not given uniform administration until the time of Diocletian.  On the outskirts at any given time were a gaggle of barbarians, dependent "allies" such as Massilia in Transalpine Gaul-- modern Marseilles-- more or less independent nations, and even rival empires-- Parthians for a while, then Sassanids, then Persians, at the end Turks.  Far in the distance, China and India loomed.

With all of these Rome traded.  And not in small amounts: in the first century AD, Pliny estimated that 100 million sesterces a year flowed eastward from the Empire to pay for imported luxuries-- chiefly spices, silks, and sheer linens to deck the limbs of Roman matrons and whores. (Braudel 1984: 25) Barbarians had their part in this system as well-- until the first century AD, most of the tin necessary for making bronze that entered the Empire came from unincorporated Britain and Outer Spain.  Amber came from Jutland, mercenaries from the Scotland and the Celtic fringes, later from Germany.  And at all times, these outlying areas were the source of the slaves on which the Roman economy depended, whether obtained through conquest or purchased by Roman wine. (Nash 1987, Hedeager 1987)

What is of interest is the extent to which this fits the model of a world-system.  A core, peripheries, semi-peripheries-- we can point to them.  We can watch an area, say modern Belgium, emerge from obscurity on the periphery, gain importance as an entrepot, then grow to prominence within the core itself as the system evolves. (Haselgrove 1987) We have the testimony of Roman authors to show the (by them, unrecognized) evolution of peripheral societies and the archaeological evidence of Roman exports.  Inferentially, we can see how the flow of Roman goods created ties among local elites and strengthened their influence as they in turn emulated Romans and shaped their societies in ways that would be useful to Rome.  Which is not the traditional perspective, to be sure, but a valuable one nonetheless.

If we lift our eyes a bit, we can see the large scale transformation of this world-system as the dominant area of the core moved from Italy to Byzantium.  One can argue that the Western Roman Empire did not "fall" so much as lose economic significance, and that the economic thrust of the later Empire was a basically sensible attempt to eliminate middlemen and gain control of the lucrative trade with the Orient-- an attempt temporarily abandoned by Justinian under the influence of plague and military stalemate in the West, then doomed forever by the rise of Islam.15

A world-empire, Wallerstein insists, is not the same as a world- economy.  We can see differences from our own age-- garrisons in the border regions, an interplay of political and economic forces, above all lack of economic rationale for many features of imperial society, even a lack of economic reasoning.16 (Finley 1982: 176-195) Woolf would add that, contra-Wallerstein and Finley, world-system analysis seems to support a formalist rather than a substantist picture of the Empire's economy. (1990: 50-54) Obviously this is not the final word, but it can safely be said world-system theory provides interesting new perspectives on topics debated since Gibbon's day.


Ultimately, we seem driven to the conclusion of Trigger, that our selection of theory should be fitted to the circumstances.  "The social entity to be studied is determined by the problem that is being investigated." (1989: 33).  This is eclecticism.  It isn't glorious, but it matches the capabilties of the human mind.  It's empirical, and that is the first requirement of any true science.

Footnotes, Gibes, and Cheap Shots

1. The initial settlements of farmers in the lower portion of Mesopotamia appear at about 5300 BC along the banks of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers-- primarily the better behaved former. These late neolithic farmers and archaeologically invisible nomads have pottery, weaving, and the beginnings of metal working, but no signs of elaborate social organization, unless one counts lead and copper trinkets.  The farmers use simple gravity-fed irrigation systems to water their fields.  Slowly, signs of unity appear across the area in the form of similar pottery styles, religious practices, and the use of stamp seals; presumably their languages and mythologies coalesce.  We speak of an Ubaid culture; by 4000 BC, its influence-- in temple architecture and probably mythology and language-- is spreading northward, where it eventually replaces the long established Halaf and Samarran cultures, reaching even Syria and Iran.  Whether this involves an actual movement of peoples or self-protective mimicry is less certain.  Ubaid pottery is found as far afield as Arabia and Iran.  (Yoffee 1993: 265, Oates 1993: 409-410, 414-415, Moorey 1994: 154)

Similar societies exist at about this time in Northern Mesopotamia, in Egypt, and in Khuzistan in what is now Southwest Iran; in the latter area we can speak of a Susiana period until about 4000 BC and then a Susa period.  In fact the world of the time seems filled with half hectare farm towns.  In Anatolia, Catal Huyuk, with 13 hectares of space and perhaps 2000 inhabitants, had already grown to its maximum and been abandoned by 5500 BC. (Redman 1978: 183, 246)

The Ubaid settlements wax and wane and relocate and combine, the largest being Eridu, which reaches 4000 people by one archaeologist's figures, or at least 1000 by sober estimate.  Susa reaches 25 hectares and perhaps 3000 inhabitants by 4000 BC.  However Sumer continues to grow overall, whereas Khuzistan stands still, its rural areas depopulated by the growth of its embryonic urban areas.  By 3600 BC, Sumer holds perhaps 100,000 settled inhabitants, maybe half as many nomads or semi-settled pastoralists, maybe just as many-- we cannot say. (Adams 1981: 251) Robert McC. Adams makes the point that the settled inhabitants and the pastoralists may have been the same people in different years, or may have shared kinships.  Large areas of Mesopotamia were never encroached by settlement, and the tension between farmers and herders that we see in the modern world may not have existed, or may not have been as severe as we would expect.

Towns of 500 - 600 inhabitants are common at this time, the beginning of the Uruk period.  They have shrines and small temples. Larger towns have larger temples, many built on mud brick mounds that cover earlier temples.  The religion is polytheistic, more earthy and erotic than ethereal, both pessimistic and magic-imbued.  We have evidence of "town council" governments with some authority, but temples seem to be the real center of whatever formal administration exists as yet; the highest office is ensi ("steward").  On behalf of the gods, they are proprietors of land, employers, alms providers; their need for record keeping metastasizes into writing, arithmetic, and astrology.

The largest settlement in Sumer now is Uruk, Biblical Erech, which covers maybe 50 hectares, with perhaps 6000 inhabitants and a miniature mountain "ziggarut" to uphold its chief temple.  Eridu may be half this size, Nippur and a handful of other sites smaller yet.  Ur "of the Chaldees" and Abraham is still a village, as is Nineveh, far to the north and Tell Brak in Syria.  Agade, the world's first "capital city", will not be dreamt of for a thousand years; Rome, nearly three thousand.

In the next five hundred years, craft specialization appears.  Cylinder seals show pigtailed women-- slaves perhaps (the word is invented about this time)-- at work in groups, weaving or baking or firing pottery.  Trading posts exist in Nineveh and Brak and Charchemish.  The communities of Sumer have probably begun to war among themselves.

In 3100 BC, Tell Brak holds 12,000 to 15,000 people, Anshan (in Elam) perhaps 6000.  Sumer proper has maybe 200,000 residents.  Uruk has doubled in size, to 10,000 or maybe 15,000 inhabitants, then doubled again.  Between 2900 BC and 2700 BC (the "Early Dynastic I" period), it increases to perhaps 50,000 inhabitants, and in the years of the legendary king Gilgamesh surrounds itself with a 6 mile long wall of baked brick.  The Urban Revolution is thus begun, and humanity has yet to learn how to undo the mischief.

All this is context and (mostly) unquestioned.  Now the questions:


Population estimates used above were drawn indiscriminately from Redman (1978), Adams (1981), Algaze (1994), Modelski (1997), and are often based on estimates of settlement size.  Whenever possible, I have adjusted figures to match Adams's low estimate of 125 residents per hectare of urban area for Ubaid and Uruk periods, and used his high figure of 200 residents per hectare for the Early Dynastic in the city of Uruk.

Finally, any attempt to mentally reconstruct the Late Uruk-Early Dynastic period of Mesopotamia would be incomplete which fails to mention Robert Silverberg's Gilgamesh the King.

2. Actually the logical export items were people, but the Mesopotamian cities took slaves rather than selling them, and put them to work.  The implication is that feeding and housing slaves cost less than their labor brought in.   Putting it crudely, the goods they made for export consisted of little more than embodied labor; the surplus value of their labor was exploited.  Or:

"The contrast between Mesopotamia and her highland neighbors was not just one of unequal access to raw materials but also of unequal degrees of socioeconomic organization and complexity.  The urban crafts and industries of Mesopotamia were as dependent on the highly organized labor of those who produced but did not participate in the consumption of what was traded as they were on sustained access to foreign materials...." ( Moorey 1994: 5)

3. Marxist in choice of subject matter, rather than prescription I would say, although any work which refers with a straight face often enough to the bourgeoisie, capitalism, and dialectic inevitably begins to reek of class conflict, no matter what the intentions of its author.  Wallerstein apparently does foresee a much improved and socialistic world ahead for us, but this shows in his text chiefly as a fondness for French historians of the Annales camp (whose Marxism and history are discussed with something less than loving-kindness in Cantor 1991: 148-160).  All the same, it's very hard to imagine a contemporary conservative intellectual writing such a book, or even wanting to write such a book.  (But see Schortman and Urban, 1987: 57)

4. That said, I register the suspicion that the rise of the capitalistic world order as a subject of intellectual interest owes much to a vaguely pre-Millennial apprehension that the whole house of cards is about to come tumbling down.

I also note that Wallerstein is not quite as pleasurable a read as Braudel, who covers much of the same ground in Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century (1981, 1982, 1984), but who chose straight narrative for presenting his material rather than Wallerstein's massing of quotations and footnotes.  This is a boon to non-sophisticates such as I although real afficionados of "world- systems theory" in their Internet discussions have been known to sneer at "Braudel's comic book."

5. A possible third form, a socialistic world state, Wallerstein notes, "is not a form that presently exists and it was not even remotely conceivable in the sixteenth century." (1974: 348) Nor, apparently, would it have been advisable, nor is the millennium near:

"In the sixteenth century, Europe was like a bucking bronco.  The attempt of some groups to establish a world-economy based on a particular division of labor, to create national states in the core areas as politico-economic guarantors of this system, and to get the workers to pay not only the profits but the costs of maintaining the system was not easy.  It was to Europe's credit that it was done, since without the thrust of the sixteenth century, the modern world would have not been born and, for all its cruelties, it is better that it was born than that it had not been.

"It is also to Europe's credit that it was not easy, and particularly that it was not easy because the people who paid the short-run costs screamed lustily at the unfairness of it all...

"The mark of the modern world is the imagination of its profiteers and the counter-assertiveness of the oppressed. Exploitation and the refusal to accept exploitation as either inevitable or just constitute the continuing antinomy of the modern era, joined together in a dialectic which has far from reached its climax in the twentieth century." (1974: 356-7)

What makes the modern world system unique is its duration and extent and that it has not coalesced as have past world economies into a world empire-- "a peculiarity that is the secret of its strength..... the political side of the form of economic organization called capitalism." (1974:348)

6. After Nikolai Dmitrievich Kondratieff (1892- 1935?), a Soviet economist who first discussed "long-wave" business cycles lasting 50-60 years, and which may be traceable as far back as the 14th century.  (Braudel 1984: 77-81, 609-618; Schumpeter 1950: 67-68).  Not all economists are convinced of the existence of such cycles, and among who do believe, consensus upon dates is far from common, although it is generally agreed that 1929 was a trough; there is less agreement that 1974 (associated with the Arab oil embargo) was also such a trough.

The point of interest for Wallerstein's analysis is that the peaks of the most recent Kondratieff cycles have been associated with massive investments in new technology (and equally massive write-offs of old technologies and industrial obsolescence).  Personal computers, the Internet, virtual reality, robotics, artificial intelligence, biological engineering, and new modes of entertainment ("cyber sex") represent the new technologies of the present cycle, according to this analysis, and the famed "Industrial Revolution" of the early 19th century was simply another Kondratieff peak.

7. The inadvisability of the latter course emerges when one considers the following, where the authors have convinced themselves that very long wave cycles ("pulsations") can be found in prehistory:

"Bennyhoff and Hughes show that a trade network that linked the Western Great Basin to the coast of Northern California expanded from 2000 BCE to 200 BCE and then contracted from 200 BCE to 700 CE and then expanded again from 700 CE to 1500 CE.  After 1500 CE there was a major expansion within California based on a different kind of shell (clam disk beads), but this network did not extend into the Great Basin." (Chase-Dunn and Hall, 1997:20)

What on earth are we supposed to make of this? The economic data are of interest, but it can hardly be said that a regular and periodic cycle of trade expansion and retrenchment has been demonstrated, and it would be most astonishing if this 3500 year period, with considerable climatic and cultural variation, did not include evidence of both advances and retreats.  We do not have a breakthrough in theory here, nor is the data sufficient to eliminate any other theories.

8. Being emasculated and sold into slavery by your chieftain to finance his consumption of luxuries (Finley 1982: 175) might be quite as demoralizing as employment by an American corporation, and perhaps equally productive of new insights and lifestyles.

9. I forego extensive quotation, but the general tenor of messages on the Internet's WSN (World Systems Network) mailing list suggests a system dominated by China ("East Asia"), which after a certain unimportant interruption is seen returning to its rightful core position, restoring the peripheral interloper ("the Far West Asian peninsula" a.k.a. Europe) to its deserved insignificance.  Ethnocentricism has blinded us.  Wallerstein, though a great man, had it all wrong.  Ditto Weber.  Ditto Marx.

"What the sequel to the theory of EuroAmerican Exceptionalism will look like is at this point open.  But what is clear is that to continue with the categorical edifice of the 1750-2050 Interlude is now a fetter to further theory and progressive thought in general." (Albert Bergson, cited by Salvatore Babones, 3 March 1997 19:41:53)

The Millennium Approaches, even for sociologists.

10. Something very wicked within me wants to insert a footnote which makes reference to "the Asiatic mode of production." But of course I shall resist to the limits of my strength.

11. And discussed in Schortman and Urban 1987, and Renfrew and Bahn, 1996: 364-367.  As for how one gets from Adena-Hopewell to Mesopotamia via Mesoamerica and the Aegean, see Trigger 1989:331.

Talk about diffusion!

12. Actually, I suspect Kohl finds world- systems a convenient hook for writing about his real enthusiasm, the Transcaucasus.   Which is not discreditable, but if the world- system model doesn't fit the evidence, why not just describe what the evidence does show? Is straight narration beneath the dignity of a Wellesley professor?

13. But not sufficiently different from past methods of viewing history or so persuasive as to create a "paradigm shift." There has been no Wallerstein-ian Revolution in the social sciences; there has been no outpouring of significant new results, only a flood of papers and e-mail messages promising that once we get enough data, the Revolution will be at hand.

It won't be.  Copernicus made the sun and earth change positions.  Newton explained why they were hung together, and Einstein explained Newton.  Hutton and Playfair gave us a world of almost infinite duration, and Darwin created species out of time and biology.  Napoleon battled and Columbus sailed on and Manet painted and Stravinski composed and Hemingway wrote and Marx theorized and they all created, or epitomized, revolutions.  Will schoolchildren learn a different history in the wake of world-systems theory's triumph? Not a chance!

14. It's a well made point, especially from the point of view that "trade is trade." The difficulties of transport were such that very little but luxury goods were carried over great distances until comparatively recent times, and until the 19th Century water borne transport over great distances was generally cheaper than land transport over short distance. (Braudel 1981:415-430, 1982: 349- 372) On the other hand, Braudel makes a strong case for the opposite view in his portrayal of world trade ("commerce") as essentially independent of the local market economies known to ordinary people in the pre-industrial world.

Of course, this is also a matter of perspective.  Archaeologists probably correctly suspect that a dollop of wine and a few gold trinkets could produce major changes in the structures of peripheral societies-- look how far 24 bucks worth of beads and baubles once went in New York! And Wallerstein is probably just as right in arguing that in the core of his world-state, such fripperies mattered very little.  It was the bulk shipment of Polish wheat to the Netherlands and England that let those countries free up land in the 17th century for non-food production; that was the sort of commerce which let Europe rebuild itself as the engine of the world, not the pepper trade. His point is supported by M. I. Finley:

"We are too often victims of that great curse of archaeology, the indestructibility of pots.  As R. M. Cook has observed, it is only 'because pottery survives that its industrial importance has appeared great.' In the fifth century BC Athens supplied much of the fine pottery for the whole Greek world and for the Etruscans, and the total production at any one time was the work of about 125 painters working with a still smaller number of shapers and assistants.  Furthermore, the evidence is that 'a regular connection between a potter and a merchant or market was unusual.' In the following century this trade died because demand disappeared, but the Athenian economy was not visibly affected, nor was its prosperity any more than Corinth's had been in the earlier age when Athens replaced it in the world market.  A few craftsmen were displaced, quality dropped sharply-- that is all." (Finley 1982: 191)

Finley goes on to state the unimportance of the luxury trade in general in the early Roman Empire.  Of one documented case of overproduction and market collapse, he notes

"All that happened was that a few minor trades overreached the market, some hundreds of craftsmen in the western empire in a few cities were displaced by some hundreds in a few other cities, and nothing else.  They were no bourgeoisie to begin with and imperial society was both oblivious to, and unharmed by, the displacements.... the minimum technology and small amounts of capital required, the wide diffusion of craft skills, and the excessive costs of transport by land, all combined to promote diffusion of manufacture when the population spread away from the Mediterranean coasts..." (Finley 1982:191)

On yet another hand, Woolf (1990) makes the point that both Finley and Wallerstein have been strongly affected by Karl Polyani's substantist economic theories. (Trigger 1989:24-25, Hall and Chase-Dunn 1993: 128-131, Finley 1982: xix) At the very least, substantivism would suggest that in different societies, different notions of economic rationality prevail.  This is in opposition to a formalist position that sees the same economic laws in operation at all times in all societies, and there have been long standing debates between formalists and substantists about the nature of the ancient economy. Interestingly, as the portrait of a 5000 year old world-system emerges from Internet discussion, formalist arguments are frequently made (although not labeled as such).

15. Summarizing a number of messages posted on the ANTHRO-L and WSN mail lists by Dr. Daniel Foss.

16. Or one can draw unwelcome parallels.   How many troops does the USA now maintain overseas, and what are the arrangements for financing this? What is the Federal government supposed to do to control the trade deficit? Should Alan Greenspan be better leashed by the Clinton Administration? Etc.

What else is a sense of history for?


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