In either case, nabbing food or finished goods may have been a motive for the bloodshed. (Two years ago, grain shortages during a drought led to riots in this part of modern-day Syria.) Brak’s obvious concentration of wealth would pose a temptation to outsiders.
Soltysiak and McMahon agree on what happened next. The victors or perpetrators left their victims on the field for weeks or even months. The rotting corpses were eventually hauled to the shallow depression at Majnuna and unceremoniously dumped. The total body count is clearly in the hundreds, though for now excavations there have ceased. About 10 yards from the mass grave, the team found another cache of bones that are probably the result of the same incident: mostly skulls and femurs, stacked in relatively neat piles. Two dozen of the femurs were whittled at one end to a point, perhaps to dig around in the skulls of the dead, but for what purpose is unknown. Soltysiak recalls being startled to discover the human bones that had been made into tools here.
Then came a massive feast. Mixed on top of the death pit were the bones of cows, sheep, and goats along with broken plates. “The animals were cut in about the same place on a large scale, in an industrialized way,” says Jill Weber, the team’s zooarchaeologist. “Not necessarily by the same person, but in the same way.” In her mud-brick laboratory on the mound, she pulls out massive scarred cow bones. Such wholesale slaughter would have been unusual, she says, particularly the slaughter of cows, which were typically considered too valuable to kill because of milk production and plowing. “No expense was spared,” Weber says. “This was an important event.”
And it was just the start of a series of violent acts that shook ancient Brak. Back at Majnuna, McMahon points out another mass grave, dating to a century or so later, adjacent to the first pit. One clump of bones looks as if it had been piled into a bag that decayed. Just a few yards away is another mass of human bones, dating to about 3600 B.C. The victims in both slaughters appear to be young, the skeletons are jumbled, and there are no grave goods, which would have been typical in a formal burial.
Along with the bones are all manner of refuse, such as broken pottery and flint tools. Majnuna seems to have been one of Brak’s main dumps. One possibility is that the waves of enemies who threatened the city—whether rebellious locals or foreign raiders—were treated like garbage. As we step off the mound, the man who owns the area containing the mass graves pulls up in his new GM pickup. “Come for breakfast!” he insists with typical Arab hospitality. As we walk down the dusty road to his home, he pulls a gun from his holster to admire it.
Violence at the dawn of civilization was not unique to Brak. An hour’s drive to the east is Hamoukar, which was a thriving settlement during the early and mid-fourth millennium B.C., around the time that Brak arose. Echoing the sophistication of its neighbor, Hamoukar had well-planned houses with courtyards, large ovens, seal impressions in the form of lions killing deer (a style seen at Brak as well). Recently a joint Syrian and American team found evidence of a battle around 3500 B.C. in which Hamoukar buildings were destroyed.
This attack may have been more than an incursion by marauders looking for food or goods. At that time, the southern city of Uruk began to expand its influence, and Uruk-style pottery appears throughout the Middle East. Possibly those southerners ran into opposition from the formidable northern settlements of Hamoukar and Brak, whose inhabitants may have resented the growing power of Uruk and its allies. Brak and Hamoukar were burned around the same time, but “evidence of both northern and southern material suggests a peaceful coexistence afterward,” Oates says. “The ‘destroyers’ could well have come from Anatolia or anywhere else.” By 3400 B.C., pottery typical of Uruk predominated, and Brak’s Eye Temple had been renovated in a southern Mesopotamian style. When Brak appears in the historical record in the third millennium, it is as the important city of Nagar. Overwhelmed by superior technology, better military organization, or a persuasive new ideology, the pioneering civilization at Brak and its environs became an adjunct of the south, which went on to create even grander city-states, bureaucracies, and empires.
Violence and cultural sophistication may in fact have gone hand in hand in creating the first urban societies. “Tell Brak is not just another archaeological site but a place where new aspects of humanity emerged, and our work has the potential to explain them,” Ur says. Finding answers in Iraq may not be possible for a very long time, given the political troubles there. This gives the exploratory digs in Syria a special urgency.
Brak’s independent advances in the north came to an abrupt end, but perhaps not a dead end. Maybe the interaction between the two competing visions, whether through trade or warfare (or both), helped spur the innovations that changed our world. “Civilization spreads like a virus. It happens in clusters and not in isolation,” says Guillermo Algaze, an archaeologist at the University of California at San Diego. In the past decade, excavators have begun to find evidence to support this idea around the globe. A thousand years after Brak lost its independence, an astonishing array of urban sites sprang up across the Iranian plateau, central Asia, and the Arabian Peninsula. In the following 1,000 years, a host of interacting cultures contributed to what emerged as Chinese civilization.
In exposing one of the world’s earliest experiments in urban living, Oates and her team are illuminating both the creative and violent tendencies of humanity and painting a much richer picture of how our species left the country for life in the city, a process that is still in full swing today. “In textbooks you learn that civilization starts with Sumer, and everything else is peripheral,” says Algaze, who was once an outspoken advocate of the dominance of the south. “But Brak shows a picture more complex than that. It has forced us to think differently.”
Eyes peeled, Oates continues her push to dig even deeper into Brak’s past. “She’s brilliant—and she’s changed the field,” Algaze says. “And she’ll get to those earlier levels.” Unlike her old friend Agatha Christie, Oates is after bigger game than a single murderer. In the ultimate whodunit of civilization, the ancient people of Tell Brak were, at the very least, important accomplices.