Built on Bones: 15,000 Years of Urban Life and Death

By Brenna Hassett

Bloomsbury Sigma, 2017; 320 pages; $27.00

Civilization: curse or blessing? Some wax nostalgic for an age of innocence, when Paleolithic hunter-gathers lived in supposed harmony with nature and everybody glowed with the health brought on by balanced diet and unpolluted air and water. Others view history as an unbroken upward trajectory from the first permanent agricultural settlements in the early Neolithic to the foundation of great cities and the rise of modern urban society. For members of both camps, archaeologist Brenna Hassett provides an evidence-based reality check. “The idea of a steady march of progress as a straight line between the invention of farming and the height of modern civilization has been shown to be more of a St. Vitus’s dance—jittery, unpredictable, and with a pretty high body count at the end.”

The evidence Hassett draws on comes from bones, teeth, and artifacts dug up at scattered sites around the globe. Statistical studies of remains found at Mediterranean sites, for instance, show that Neolithic farmers were shorter and smallerboned than their Paleolithic ancestors. They had a greater incidence of dental caries, perhaps as a result of a heavy reliance on the single carb-rich grains that supplanted the dietary variety of their more opportunistic forbears. The jaws of agriculturalists also grew shorter on these diets, leading to problems with accommodating a full regiment of teeth.

Admittedly, there were some—mainly the wealthy and the ruling classes—who benefitted immediately from the establishment of cities. Archaeological evidence, Hassett notes, clearly indicates that social and physical inequality was a hallmark of advancing civilization. Nutritional deficiencies and epidemic diseases left characteristic marks on skeletons, providing forensic archaeologists data on the spread of poverty among the lower classes at various stages of development. Interpersonal violence, harsh punishments, and warfare left even more dramatic scars. Paleolithic humans suffered all of these ills, but cities probably made them worse: trade in raw materials and luxuries spread disease, especially quickly in congested urban neighborhoods; inequities between rich and poor led to excesses in civic oppression and military engagement. Ironically, at the same time that increased specialization brought riches and vitality to city life, it also brought a large measure of physical misery to the masses. Thus, Hassett concludes that “inequality is the defining feature of city life when it comes to our bodies and their health.”

Yet, Hassett remains strong on cities, believing the arc of progress does bend upward. For all its liabilities, urban life has been able to adapt to its challenges. It has fostered the growth of specialized knowledge, linked humanity into a global network, improved health and longevity for a growing fraction of the population, and even provided work for people like Hassett, who seek an understanding of the human condition in the subtle clues scattered in the dust of bygone ages. Footnote: don’t feel compelled to read all the footnotes. A few joking and irrelevant asides enliven the narrative, but they become intrusive when they interrupt nearly every page.

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