Journal of World History 14.4 (2003) 551-553
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Breakout: The Origins of Civilization. Edited by Martha Lamberg-Karlovsky. Peabody Museum Monographs, 9. Cambridge, Mass.: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, 2000. xx + 131 pp. $25.00 (paper).
This book is a collection of articles on the origins of civilizations, beginning with a remarkable article by the American-Chinese archaeologist K.C. Chang (1931-2001). In 1983 he had published a small book, Art, Myth, and Ritual: The Path to Political Authority in Ancient China,1 in which he described the origin of civilization in China as the rise of political authority and explained this rise in terms that were almost purely nonmaterial. In the Bronze Age of China (perhaps 2200-500B.C.) the two great technological advances, bronze and writing, were insignificant for the economy and served only to support the ideological underpinnings of political authority. Agriculture remained essentially Neolithic, and writing was used for purposes related to religion and politics rather than production and economics. Stated in this bald way, Chang's thesis is difficult to accept—bronze weaponry must have been important, the question of bronze implements has still not been settled to everyone's satisfaction, and we cannot know what sort of things might have been written on perishable materials. Nevertheless the case he makes for this view of the early Chinese polity has proved to have lasting heuristic value.
In the article reprinted in the present book, originally published in 1984,2 Chang summarizes the findings of the 1983 book with the [End Page 551] statement that in ancient China the rise of civilization was associated with a differentiated access to the means of communication rather than the means of production (p. 3), then makes a breathtaking speculative leap. He points out a number of similarities between ancient China as he describes it and several other ancient civilizations, specifically the Maya and the Mesopotamian, and goes on to suggest that communication was more important than production in all ancient civilizations except one, the Mesopotamian civilization from which the modern West derives. It was there that the "breakout" of this book's title occurred: "The ancient inhabitants of Mesopotomia of the late fourth millennium B.C. underwent a transformative process, which too resulted in a civilized state, but nevertheless involved a wholly new set of changes . . ." (p. 9). These included new production technologies, long-distance trade, and the use of writing to facilitate economic transactions.
One important implication of K.C. Chang's ideas is that the current definition of "civilization" among archaeologists is based on a special case, theWestern "breakout," to the detriment of our understanding of other civilizations (p. 10). And they have an immediate practical implication for policy: "If these ideas are valid, the modernization of the developing world of today may be seen as an effort—definitely belated and possibly not yet thought through—on the part of the rest of the world to catch up with theWest in a fundamental realignment of cosmology, as well as in technology, after a bifurcation more than five thousand years old" (p. 10).
Chang ends his article with a challenge to his colleagues working in other areas to confirm or modify his two hypotheses: the "China- Maya continuum" and the "Near Eastern breakout." The rest of the book is devoted to comments on Chang's article by specialists on other parts of the ancient world: the Near East (C. C. Lamberg-Karlovsky, Gordon R.Willey, David H.P. Maybury-Lewis, Mogens Trolle Larsen), the Maya (Linda Schele), Israel (William G. Dever), Egypt (Mark Lehner), and the Indus Valley (Gregory L. Possehl). These generally cultivate their own gardens, but here and there they add new evidence to confirm or modify Chang's thesis, and will no doubt be interesting to those who find nonmaterial answers to material questions interesting. The editor's introduction reviews the history of the historiography of the ancient world, concentrating largely onWestern European thinkers, but with a brief nod to their Arabic predecessors. Mogens [End Page 552] Trolle Larsen provides...