At almost the instant when humans started building cities, we figured out ways to put walls around them. The often violent history behind those walls is still affecting urban life today, in ways you may not realize.
Illustration by Mark Molnar
In the early 1960s, eminent scholar Lewis Mumford published a massive tome called The City in History. He argued that cities evolved largely as military entities, and their walls were the most obvious sign of their profoundly warlike character. Undeniably, early city walls were built as social armor, sometimes protecting a single settlement and sometimes an entire region. The Great Wall of China is the city wall writ large.
Mumford's great insight was that these walls weren't just for defense. They were also an early form of surveillance technology. Authorities used these walls to watch who exited and entered through the gates. Their eyes were trained on the enemies within, as well as those without.
But Mumford was also wrong about the origins of city walls.
The Truth About the First Walls
Human settlements grew walls long before the imposing fortifications of ancient Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome. And even during the period of monumental city wall building, those walls had many non-military uses.
Evidence of city walls dates back over 9,000 years ago to the Neolithic period, thousands of years before the rise of famously fortified ancient cities like Babylon and Athens. Almost none of these walls seem to have had a defensive purpose. Even the famous walls of Jericho, whose destruction is recounted in the Old Testament, were not originally built as a defensive perimeter. Instead, they were to prevent the low-lying city from being flooded by a nearby river during the rainy season. This fits with evidence excavated at the oldest parts of the site, which contains no remains of weaponry — but does show evidence of a build-up of silt and other debris from water at the base of the city walls.
Photograph of the walls of Jericho, via Braman's Wanderings
In a paper about the remains of Jericho, archaeologist Ofer Bar Josef concludes simply:
Given all the available data, it seems that a plausible alternative interpretation for the Neolithic walls of Jericho is that they were built in stages as a defense system against floods and mudflow.
Privacy and Neighborhoods
When we contemplate the origin of early city and village walls, it's important to remember that they were being built at a time when walls themselves were a relatively new invention. Hunter-gatherer groups began living year-round in settlements roughly 10-12 thousand years ago. This move from a nomadic life, where we owned nothing but what we could carry, set off what could be called a domestic revolution. Suddenly, people began building permanent hearths, planting farms, and constructing homes.
These villagers' ancestors may have had light tents, but Neolithic people had walls of mud, wood and thatch. They could hide from their neighbors. For the first time, people could begin to develop a sense of privacy. In Peter J. Wilson's book The Domestication of the Human Species, the anthropologist argues that humans first walls were probably a social or cultural development. They allowed people to develop a sense of individual and group identity in villages and cities that grew far beyond the size of any hunter-gatherer group. It's possible that humans needed walls to deal with the psychological stress of living in bigger groups; they gave people separate spaces where they could cool off from conflicts or share their feelings without social judgments.
In the years since Wilson's book came out, archaeologists have confirmed that many city walls appear to serve a social purpose rather than a military one.
In the Neolithic village Ilıpınar, located in the Anatolian region of Turkey, walls helped villagers consolidate their identity as a community. These people's biggest threat was not a military incursion, but fragmentation into hunter-gatherer groups. And indeed, it seems that Ilıpınar's inhabitants did eventually return to a semi-nomadic way of life. The village was slowly abandoned after several hundred years of permanent settlement. But first, it was occupied by people who only lived there for part of the year. It's as if they became partial nomads, then abandoned village life altogether.
Illustration by Miguel Salvatierra Cuenca
Early walls in cities were also used to enclose small groupings of homes rather than the entire settlement. Perhaps these internal walls were used to separate powerful groups from everyone else. Or maybe they were more like neighborhood boundaries that kept people from wandering into the pottery-makers' quarter and messing things up.