George Walford: The New Janolatry

We have just closed down our Research Department, firing the staff, selling the buildings and disposing of all the computers and other equipment. Drastic, certainly, but there was no alternative; only last week did they bring us news of Jane Jacobs’ The Culture of Cities, published by Jonathan Cape in 1970.

It has long been an unquestioned dogma (we have been no more critical of it than anybody else) that agriculture developed out of hunting and gathering, producing a surplus which made cities possible. Jane Jacobs had the insight and initiative to question this. She asked anthropologists and archaeologists how they knew agriculture came before cities; when they got their breath back they answered that the economists had proved it. Asking the economists, she was told the anthropologists and archeologists had decided it. She makes out a startlingly good case for holding that cities arose among the hunter-gatherers as trading centres, agriculture originating there and being transplanted to the countryside.

She posits a settled tribe who had become go-betweens in the barter between a group controlling supplies of obsidian (the tool-steel of its time) and the hunter-gatherers of the surrounding area. (There is good evidence, for example in [Flood’s] Archeology of the Dream Time, that some hunter-gatherers did engage in barter). These took the materials they wanted to trade to the settlement, New Obsidian, whose occupants preferred imperishable foods, meaning, under the conditions of the time, seeds and live animals.

This hypothesis offers an answer to the question lying at the beginning of agriculture: How did selective breeding and cultivation get started? With animals being kept for a period in the city it would be the most troublesome ones that were first killed for food, therefore those best suited to domestication that got the better opportunity to breed. The different types of seed brought in by inhabitants of different areas, with different soils and conditions, would be mixed – no point in keeping them separate – providing the conditions needed for cross-fertilization to occur as some of them sprouted, grew and flowered. With people present engaged in handling plants and animals under conditions of domestication, everything necessary for the emergence of cultivated varieties was at hand. As cultivation and herding expanded, requiring more space, they were transferred outside the city, but they originated within it, and since then the cities have continued as the source of innovation, even in activities now carried on in the countryside. “Rural work is city work transplanted.”

We have only recently encountered the theory and responses can change with longer reflection; at present it looks like the brightest shaft of intellectual sunlight to have struck us for quite a while. And, adding pleasure to information, Jane Jacobs, who appears not to be an academic, writes not in sociologese but English.

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OUR FAVOURITE book title has long been Beachcomber’s Sideways Through Borneo; Malcolm Bradbury (in The History Man) now runs it close with The Beduin Intelligentsia.

from Ideological Commentary 20, September 1985.