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Urban Gilgamesh: What the earliest epic tells us about living in an ancient city (laphamsquarterly.org)
137 points by Vigier 37 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 65 comments

3000-2500 BCE is such an interesting time period. Civilization and technology somewhat inexplicably pick up throughout the world within just a few centuries. For example, coinciding with the Gilgamesh time period (around 2800 BCE to 2500 BCE) the major pyramids in Egypt pop up, and so do the Caral / Norte Chico pyramids and cities in Peru.

History Channel says the only possible answer is aliens.

Or maybe it’s an adjacent possible thing and the ancient world was far more connected by trade than we often think. It’s easy to forget that these were “just” neighboring countries/kingdoms back then. A lot like today.

The illusion of linear progression we get from history class is largely an effect of “You can’t learn everything at once”

> Or maybe it’s an adjacent possible thing and the ancient world was far more connected by trade than we often think.

Custard Apples, which are native to Central America, were thought to have been introduced to India in the 1500's through Portuguese contact. A few years ago, they found a custard apple seed carbon dated to 1800 BC at an archaeological site in Northern India [1]. Researchers still have no idea how it got there.

[1] https://www.academia.edu/25089948/Custard-Apple_existed_in_I...

> A few years ago, they found a custard apple seed carbon dated to 1800 BC at an archaeological site in Northern India [1]. Researchers still have no idea how it got there.

Seed dispersal has been extensively studied, so I’m confused by this paper. I took a glance at it and noticed it said nothing about birds or water. In the case of Hawaii, one of the most isolated archipelagos in the world, many plants arrived by water and birds. Wild strawberries in Hawaii, for example, have been traced to the Pacific Northwest, and are assumed to have started from the passing digestive tract of birds flying over the volcanoes from that direction. More recent research has given rise to a new theory of seed dispersal mutualism between plants and animals, since seeds passing though bird guts have an almost 400% increase in survival, due to various survival benefits arising from their storage in the digestive tract.

Agreed; I don't think that constitutes a highly significant discovery about the history of trade unless you found what is a hand- or pouchful of seeds together.

> were thought to have been introduced to India in the 1500's through Portuguese contact

Funny how everything was introduced by us white european folk to the rest of the world. I wonder who wrote that version of history.

How much stuff do you think happened before we got there to see it happening and write about it for our branch of global science? We know for example that China had massive 14 mast ships and global-ish trade back when Europe was barely doing 3 masts as state of the art. And we know that Ancient Egypt traded as far as India

We also know that China considered itself "All under Heaven" and that in Ancient Egypt Pharaohs were thought to maintain the cosmic order.

I understand that hating themselves is a favorite pastime of upper-middle class white Americans, but there is no reason to denigrate all white people for what was a very common attitude among all cultures.

Oh I know everyone does it. I’m just pointing out the silliness of being surprised when it turns out history didn’t start with us. No denigration intended

Haha yeah, totally. Modern Western culture as we know it is only about 500 years old, though it arguably takes influences from the Greeks and Romans back another 2500 years. Even 500 BC though isn't that old in the grand scale of things. It's interesting how we refer to everything before ~500 AD as "ancient" when civilization really began around 3000 BC—that is to say, the "ancient" period is more than double the length of the post-ancient. It's mindblowing to think what could've happened in those entire centuries during which we just don't have records of certain areas. Partly the reason why I'm super interested in archaeogenetics, revealing the tremendous amount of history locked away in our very own DNA.

> Modern Western culture as we know it is only about 500 years old, though it arguably takes influences from the Greeks and Romans back another 2500 years.

That would be a difficult argument to make; classical Greece only goes back to about the eighth century BC. Mycenaean Greece goes much further back, but we can't observe most of the cultural continuity (though obviously there was a decent amount of it), because between Mycenaean Greece and classical Greece there was the Greek Dark Age of about 400 years when they forgot how to read and write. A cultural legacy of 2500 years total is a much fairer estimate than one of 3000 years.

As you note, though, the legacy of the classical world was itself interrupted and then purposefully reimported into Renaissance Europe. This is rather different from how, in the 4th century AD, there were still priests of the old religion in Babylon, reading tablets written thousands of years before them thanks to a historical tradition that had, at that point, never been interrupted.

Something I found charming from the wikipedia article on Sargon the Great is that the Babylonian king Nabonidus (6th century BC, "ancient" by any modern standard) sponsored archaeological research into his life. And well he might, since Sargon preceded Nabonidus by about 1800 years. But you just don't think about one ancient king supporting archaeology concerning another ancient king. Ancient is ancient, right?

Hm, I think we have to be a bit careful about the legacy of the classical world being "interrupted". This may be true in part (wasn't it that central heating was lost to Britain even though it had been known in Roman times?), but contrary to popular belief, the middle ages were in many respects also a continuation of the classical world.

For one thing, the Eastern Roman empire continued to exist until the 15th century and it is there that e.g. the Justinian code of law was devised, which, as far as I know, is still the basis of many modern legal systems, while itself being built upon ancient Roman law.

But even in Western Europe, Christianity can be seen as a continuation of the Roman Empire: It's not as if the religion hadn't been substantially changed and "romanised" after Constantine made it state religion. Also, in terms of scholarship, many key classical philosophers / scientists were never forgotten; Aristotle in particular remained a key influence. And, contrary to popular belief, middle ages scholars knew perfectly well that the earth was round, as had been shown by Ptolemy and others before him (they thought it was at the center of the universe, but as far as I know, nobody had successfully proven otherwise in antiquity either).

> Hm, I think we have to be a bit careful about the legacy of the classical world being "interrupted". This may be true in part (wasn't it that central heating was lost to Britain even though it had been known in Roman times?), but contrary to popular belief, the middle ages were in many respects also a continuation of the classical world.

I agree with you. We have to be careful, and the middle ages were in many respects a natural development out of the classical world.

But they were a natural development that saw a radical upheaval in the culture. The organization that the Romans put in place largely fell apart, forgotten. Industrial production crashed. There was not a continuous transmission of tradition -- a large part of the Renaissance really was reading ancient texts to discover what they said. They had vanished from the living tradition.

> (they thought it was at the center of the universe, but as far as I know, nobody had successfully proven otherwise in antiquity either)

That's not something that -- to the best of our knowledge today -- it's possible to prove or disprove. (Similarly, if you conceive of "the earth" as the spherical surface rather than the solid ball, you'll be perfectly correct if you say that Rome is at the center. You'll also be correct if you say any other point is the center.)

What evidence we do have, interestingly enough, points towards the earth really being at the center of the universe. Redshift in every direction! We reject that conclusion for philosophical reasons, not because it's been disproved.

Yup, you're totally right, I misspoke—I meant to say that the furthest you can trace back Western history is 2500 years [total] back to the Greek "golden age" ~500BC.

> Something I found charming from the wikipedia article on Sargon the Great is that the Babylonian king Nabonidus (6th century BC, "ancient" by any modern standard) sponsored archaeological research into his life.

Wow, never knew about this. I really want a term to come into the vernacular to describe history before ~800BC, because things really were completely different across Eurasia. In the Mediterranean and Middle East it was the revival of civilization after the Bronze Age collapse, in India it was the beginning of the Upanishadic era, and in China it was the beginning of the Spring and Autumn period. This [1] is sort of relevant.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Axial_Age

One of the things I find really interesting about Chinese history is that Sima Qian, writing in the second and early first century BC, recorded a number of Shang kings reigning almost a thousand years before his time. For quite a while they were considered legendary, lacking any other corroborating sources -- but the Shang oracle bones eventually confirmed that kings matching the names Sima Qian gave reigned in the order in which he listed them.

(The Shang kings' names are actually ordinal markers -- something like Shang Fifth, Shang Second, etc -- but they did not reign in the order suggested by their names.)

Sima Qian, like Herodotus, receives a lot of credit for establishing history as a thing people kept track of. But he must have been working from some now-totally-lost fairly faithful sources.

And speaking of the coincidence between the recovery from the Bronze Age collapse and the Spring and Autumn period, I'm intrigued by the rough coincidence between the beginning of the Bronze Age collapse and the fall of the Shang dynasty. In that case, the coincidence is much rougher, though -- the Shang dynasty appears to fall about 100 years after the collapse.

>ancient," from Vulgar Latin *anteanus, literally "from before," [1]

I guess ancient is used to mean before 500BC because it has always meant that. It's a Roman word used by them to reference the time before them. As long as we use that word we already accept their point of view.

[1] https://www.etymonline.com/word/ancient

Ancient usually refers to the period before 500 AD (not BC) as indicated in my original comment. 500 AD is roughly the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, but definitely not the marker for before the Romans. It'd be nice if that explained it though.

It's demonstrably true that there was a significant period of introduction of new foodstuffs from the Americas into Eurasia in the wake of Columbus, in a phenomenon known as the Columbian Exchange: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columbian_exchange. Since custard apples are native to Central America, it's the natural hypothesis.

Well we also state that the indigenous populations introduced, say, potatoes to Europe. No need to push an innocuous observation onto a racial framework.

14 masts? That seems... excessive. Most I can find a reference of is 4, the "Treasure Ships".

"the treasure fleet consisted of several distinct classes of ships:

- "Treasure ships" (宝船, Bǎo Chuán) nine-masted, 44.4 by 18 zhang, about 127 metres (417 feet) long and 52 metres (171 feet) wide



Oh wow, one on that list has 9 masts! That’s incredible.

I always assumed the aliens hypothesis was halfway racist as in "how could a non-white culture build things we don't know how to do, ah yes it must be otherworldly".

The remnants of early European propaganda that justified a lot of their conquest is still strong today, we just forget it's origins.

I find it quite disturbing now that everything seems to be racist and this needs to be brought up as a cause of any issue. As a European, I always thought and always had the general impression as we are fully aware of the ups and downs and what a shithole the geographic location of current Europe was for a long time, while other places of the world thrived or had quite advanced civilisations. Things like "aliens" building the pyramids or other structures in South America are just extreme topics you used to find in weird magazines or entertainment shows on TV.

I'm pretty sure I've seen the ancient alien hypothesis applied to Stonehenge too.

In any case, I just don't think there wasn't a lot going on in Europe at this time for the "ancient alien" folks to attribute to aliens.

The problem is that people don’t consider Stonehenge to be part of Western civilization. The latter is usually traced back to the beginning of Mycenaean Greek civilization

> The problem is that people don’t consider Stonehenge to be part of Western civilization

I’m not sure I agree with this. As someone living in Britain, I can attest to the fact that the people living on this island definitely consider it an integral part of their own cultural heritage.

You said "non-white culture", not "non-western culture". The Celtic Britons (or whoever built it) would certainly count as white.

As the other commenter said, I think most would consider it a part of Western culture.

Stonehenge predates Celtic presence in Great Britain by at least a thousand years.

This can be interpreted as racist, as you do, but it can also be interpreted as religious proselytism pushing 'intelligent design' against the idea of random and continuous human improvement.

My example here is 2001: A Space Odyssey. It all happens because of the monolith. Without it, we would surely still be monkeys killing each other with bones and stones. It's easy to see the monolith as symbolism for one or other religion.

And I hate that this is repeated through many other science fiction works.

>History Channel says the only possible answer is aliens.

One part of me always enjoyed those theories for the science fiction-ness of it. Some writeups i've seen about it read better than some science fiction books i've read.

The other part of me dislikes them though because it discounts the sheer human ingenuity, craftsmanship and skill that went into these things. It discounts the amazing things people are capable of and discredits our ancestors. I feel kind of the same way about the Roswell ufo tech leading to modern computers theories. They make light of the work of so many people and wave it off as being impossible without aliens.

I'm actually just watching Aliens in the History Channel, lol.

What would be the other plausible explanation though? Considering fermi paradox etc...

That people didn’t suddenly become competent in the last 200 years? Humans haven’t really changed anatomically for many tens of thousands of years

> What would be the other plausible explanation though?

Other plausible? However "Aliens" isn't the plausible explanation at all. The series' producer has a very specific agenda: to train the viewers to not believe the science (1) in his own words:

"It’s really a show about looking for God. Science would have you believe we are the result of nothing more than a chance assemblage of matter. The real truth is we don’t know."

Whereas in fact, science is also very much about knowing exactly what we don't know and where the limits of our knowledge are. Some people find that unsatisfying, compared to the wrong answers but giving assuring "certainty."

It particularly catches the people who won't attempt to analyze what is actually claimed there. 082349872349872 here (2) comments about how the claims in the series are constructed. I'd say "required reading" only to study how the underlying untrue "message" is packed in the series of non-sequitur claims, effectively navigating in the direction opposite of logic.

1) https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/21/style/ancient-aliens.html

2) https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=23721423

I'd like to see what HN thinks of "Symbols of an Alien Sky" [0]. Sounds like you would enjoy this.

[0] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t7EAlTcZFwY

Anti-gradualist explanation of history is an alternative and more likely explanation.

Gradualism means a version of history in which civilisation progresses gradually from less to more civilised over time. The opposite is a history in which there could have been moments when human civilization was more advanced way before our notion of recorded history, but suffered a massive hit to its existence. Then the civilisation after got rebuilt but with the previous culture and technological knowledge forgotten.

One such theory is by Graham Hancock and Randall Carlson [1]. They present an explanation of history in which there could have been a more technologically advanced human culture even during ice age which got wiped out when ice age ended.

The end of ice age was completely sudden, which they explain by a meteor crash into the huge ice sheets causing large tsunamis and sudden ocean level increase which wiped out majority of advanced population living in cities right by the sea - same as today. Causing the advanced culture and its knowledge to cease to exist with remains being picked up or reused by more primitive people living in mainlands and forming cultures which are now basis of our civilisation.

Their version explains currently unexplained phenomena such as

1. sudden extinction of ice age animal species. Hordes of mammoths found dead with broken femur bones (killed by massive tsunami vs killed by mammoth hunters as explained by current dogma)

2. Big Flood myths found consistently across many independent cultures around the world

3. Technological regress in Egyptian culture - pyramids and pottery way more advanced in older periods than in later periods (forgotten technology)

4. Way more advanced technology of construction in older structures in Latin America (Cusco, Machu Picchu, Sacsayhuamán, Pumapunku) with advanced construction techniques unexplained still until today

5. Geological evidence of massive tsunamis such as large travelling stones (sliding on melting ice sheets) deep into mainland North America or massive water erosion corridors also possibly explained by large tsunamis

[1] https://youtu.be/0H5LCLljJho

Graham Hancock is a fun fictionalist, the Erik Von Danikan of our time.

Some of his claims are quite far-fetched and esoteric. However, even Michael Shermer, head of Skeptic magazine, recently admitted (https://twitter.com/michaelshermer/status/123755946996742144...) that there is some plausibility for the younger dryas impact hypothesis, which is currently an important part of Hancock's lost civilization claims. Such a major catastrophe would of course have a reset effect on any existing advanced civilization. This alone is not proof that there was one, of course.

Dismissing a hypothesis just on the basis of sticking to the baseline works in 99% cases. Then there are the 1% Galileos and Keplers which get dismissed too because their argument is not heard out.

And yes in such limiting circumstances you need to develop a fringe fan base or let your findings die out.

As John Anthony West puts it

"... it was Victor Hugo who wrote the famous line there's one thing stronger than all the armies in the world and that is an idea whose time has come. You know that line was that the second strongest thing in the world is an idea whose time has not yet gone ..." [1].

[1] https://youtu.be/bGu7MLp574A

Yes it is likely trade, for we know these time periods had some great surges of trade compared to times before.

If you listen carefully, History Channel doesn't actually say that. (implied heavily, and maybe it was different in earlier seasons, but I think "Ancient Aliens" ought to be required viewing for anglophone school children[1], because each episode starts from presenting factual information and slowly works its way towards very carefully hedged wild "conclusions"[2]. as with the sorites paradox the question to keep in mind while viewing is: when does the shark jump occur?)

[1] compare interpretation of reported speech in https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=23614277

[2] "Ancient alien theorists conclude X. What if it were true?"

Global trade was a thing back then. It collapsed around 1200 BC, but before it did, there was a lot of knowledge (and probably cultural phenomena) spreading around amongst much of humanity.

I doubt we'll ever know half of it.

doesn't explain Peru

No, that's likely to end up in the half we'll never be able to figure out. Unless the aliens are good at record-keeping and decide to tell us one day. :D

Could you expand on this? My knowledge is severely lacking wrt the Americas during this period.

Assume the OP's point is that American civilisations developed without being plugged into a Eurasian 'global' trade system, starting in Peru. The Norte Chico system is generally believed to have developed cities and monumental architecture over a broadly similar time period as the Middle Eastern civilisations without any contact with them at all. They even built superficially similar step pyramids.

That's also the time period of the invention of both cuneiform writing in Sumeria as well as "probably" separately, Egyptian hieroglyphs.

I highly recommend Drawing History, easy to read comics on a wide range of history: https://tapas.io/episode/1214161

Don't forget Greece, who might have invented the first analog computer 2000 years ago.

( In Antikythera )

That's a couple of thousand years later.

It’s interesting to consider the centrality of the city in ancient literature, and the equation of civilization with urban life. In modern American political discourse, it feels as if the city is constantly slandered or considered alien or “un”-American, in contrast to purported “authentic” rural areas. The city is seen as debauched and somehow apart

It is because in Middle East and Central Asia and the enormous cities like Merv or Balkh included farmlands - agriculture was done intramuros with irrigation, channels. That was to protect farmland from deserts and steppe outside. Merv for example kept 800 divers to mantain its extensive network of water channels.

The ideal of bucolic, rural life on a farm outside of hustle of a big city is part of Greek or Roman (and later European) culture. It wasn't a thing in literature of Middle East or Central Asia.

So the Roman or Greek intelectual will escape city in summer for his summer villa where he will still enjoy intelectual life with friends or through letters and write about pleasures of simple life. Intelectual in Middle East or North Africa will simply look down on nomads living extramuros as uncouth and illiterate.

Source: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17847856-lost-enlightenm...


"Alabama's state legislature resisted redistricting from 1910 to 1972 (when forced by federal court order). As a result, rural residents retained a wildly disproportionate amount of power in a time when other areas of the state became urbanized and industrialized, attracting greater populations. Such urban areas were under-represented in the state legislature and underserved; their residents had difficulty getting needed funding for infrastructure and services. They paid far more in taxes to the state than they received in benefits in relation to the population."

Taking that a step farther, the entire bicameral federal legislature could be seen as a weighting of rural over urban in the US.

Haven't cities always been centers of trade, power, and innovation?

See book reference in https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=23549551

I think the historical political reasons for favouring landed interests[1] is one of commitment: (a) as the spartan proposal of using a currency of iron implies, it's much easier for an urban magnate to "sell out" on short notice and continue trading in exile than for a rural magnate (consider the pejorative "rootless cosmopolitan"), and (b) that innovation is often greeted with scepticism: urban traders are sometimes interested in disrupting markets, agricultural[2] producers are almost always for the status quo.

[1] from a game theory perspective, the urbanite would also prefer to defend their own city and either pay besiegers to go away or wait for their logistics to fail. if one is a monarch raising an army, rural dwellers would be more interested in travelling to defend their land (or even to acquire foreign land. cf "filibuster").

Compare "no viet cong ever called me", uttered by someone whose profession could be conducted anywhere there was a large venue.

[2] if one believes US political memes, ag policies favour the "family farm" and small towns. if one follows the money, they tend to favour the likes of Archer Daniels Midland.

Don't throw a steak, you're barbecuing, at the face of the Goddess of love. They'll be consequences.

12 beers, and 12 prostitutes, repeated for 12 nights, is the civilizing process. As Enkidu discovered and Gilgamesh already knew.

Take the stairway of a bygone era, draw near to Eanna, the seat of Ishtar the goddess, that no later king could ever copy! Climb Uruk's wall and walk back and forth! Survey its foundations, examine the brickwork! Were its bricks not fired in an oven? Did the Seven Sages not lay its foundations? [A square mile is] city, [a square mile] date-grove, a square mile is clay-pit, half a square mile the temple of Ishtar: [three square miles] and a half is Uruk's expanse.

The thing that always stuck with me about the Gilgamesh story was the way gilg and enkidu fought.

All of my best friends were people i had tension with first.

Familiarity or something


Not sure about mesopotamia but there's evidence of indoor plumbing for sewage distribution in Knossos (Minoan civilisation - 3000 BC to 1100 BC).


There's also plenty of examples of different kind of early toilets/sewage systems from 3000 BC in different cultures: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_water_supply_and_sa...

I think you're conflating an image of victorian england with a world that existed 4000 years before.

Edit: as says the wikipedia article:

The Mesopotamians introduced the world to clay sewer pipes around 4000 BCE, with the earliest examples found in the Temple of Bel at Nippur and at Eshnunna,[13] utilised to remove wastewater from sites, and capture rainwater, in wells. The city or Uruk also demonstrate the first examples of brick constructed Latrines, from 3200 BCE.[14][15] Clay pipes were later used in the Hittite city of Hattusa.[16] They had easily detachable and replaceable segments, and allowed for cleaning.

that's why they needed big city walls - to make sure that their own subjects won't run away (also to defend against Enkidu and his friends). The invaders used to come from the Zagros mountains and took over several times, but would invariably turn into the new elite - like the Hittites and the Kassites - and later the Sassanids.

Actually ancient civilization used to be very fragile entities that were collapsing on a regular basis. Quite amazing that the state didn't disappear as a concept - the concept was attractive to rulers and states came back invariably after yet another deluge.

i got this perspective from “Against the Grain - a deep history of the earliest states” by James C. Scott . Wikipedia has more about it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Against_the_Grain:_A_Deep_Hist...

The viewpoint that hunter gatherer societies had healthier diets and lifestyles than sedentary societies is something I've seen expressed in various places. But the argument that what initially promped hunter gatherers to become a farmers is coercion by the state isn't very fleshed out. In a world where everyone is a hunter gatherer, how did the first small and outnumbered proto-state have the power to coerce them into settling?

The following is a hypothesis for how this could have occurred.

1. Hunter gathering requires a wider range of skills and knowledge than sedentary farming, such as knowing how to identify wild foods, being able to herd, ride, and hunt, and being self-sufficient with resources gathered on the move. If a generation of hunter-gatherers is prevented from living a nomadic lifestyle, this survival knowledge is lost and cannot be regained without costly and deadly trial and error. Moving from a nomadic to sedentary lifestyle is a one-way trip.

2. The environment hunter-gathers live in may suffer occasional periods of prey shortages due to unusual weather cycles causing ripples through the food chain. Although hunter-gathers can travel to find more food, there is a limit to how far they can search before resorting to drastic changes to their nomadic lifestyle in order to survive.

The first sedentary civilization could have been a band of hunter gathers that, during a period of prey shortages or simply because they were less skilled at hunting than competitors, resorted to farming in order to survive and forgot the skills they needed to revert to a nomadic lifestyle. But once they locked down a piece of fertile land and built up a food surplus, they could force other hunter-gathers to settle and farm during times of prey shortages as they would be the only source of stockpiled food in the neighborhood. Their descendants would be the first sedentary civilizations, and although they had less nutritious food and more labor-intensive lifestyles, it was more resilient to black-swan events that would wipe out a hunter-gatherer tribe and required less skill and knowledge in return for a life of hard labor. Once the first sedentary civilizations had a stable foundation, their high population growth and the inability of sedentary peoples to switch to a nomadic lifestyle and escape their rulers would set the historical trend.

> In a world where everyone is a hunter gatherer, how did the first small and outnumbered proto-state have the power to coerce them into settling?

I read that in Mesopotamia what came first was an economy centered around the temple, kings and state were a later invention. so it was probably a gradual build up. The temple economy may have been slightly less coercive,

Also there is the curious tale of Urukagina and his reforms - (has some parallels to the story of Akhenaten in Egypt) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urukagina ; incidentially the reformer guy Urukagina was not quite as tough as his predecessor and lost out to his external competitors. Having been seen as a lenient ruler was probably not a winning strategy

also keeping grain reserves was probably the killer application of ancient civilizations; (you can also read about that in the Bible - on Joseph and his brothers), being able to weather the occasional famine was probably worth much more than the increased risk of disease in crowded and dirty cities or the cost of bondage/servitude (in these times that is) - alternatively it may be that this perception was a matter of perceived risk vs. known risk; the certain risk of famine had more weight than the uncertain risk of disease and loss of freedom; hard to say.

But these are all speculations.

Some things never change, right?

Fortunately they did! Cities were really insalubrious places for most of human history.

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