The cradle of civilization just got rocked.
As school kids everywhere can tell you, humanity's first cities and history - defined as a written record - sprouted in Mesopo-tamia, along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates, and spread to the rest of the world.
But now, an international archaeological team says it has unearthed a nearly 6,000-year-old city in the northeast corner of Syria that challenges long-cherished notions about the beginnings of civilization.
While researchers are wary of abandoning old theories completely, the site at Hamoukar has yielded evidence that government and industry existed in a place - and time - where few had expected them. As a result, scientists are revising their ideas about when and how cities spread.
"It's actually quite amazing," says Clemens Reichel, a team member from the University of Chicago. "We have to accept that Hamoukar development happened contemporaneously and independently from Mesopotamia."
Scientists define the notion of city and civilization in a number of ways. Most important, they look for specialization of labor and a governmental structure. Among the indicators found at the tell, or mound, at Hamoukar is the outline of a wall and sophisticated potterymaking that shows division of labor. Large ovens hint at industrial cooking and brewing, and seals, which were a precursor to writing and were used for administrative control, point to the development of an elite class and some form of government.
For some time, archaeologists had believed that such sophistication - so long ago - could not have existed in far-flung Syria. Widely accepted theories held that civilization spilled north from what is now Iraq around 3500 BC, following trade routes out of Uruk, the Rome of ancient Mesopotamia.
Situated in southern Iraq, not far from the head of the Persian gulf, Uruk lacked almost all the raw materials needed to fuel a city - timber, stone, and metal. So it established caravan routes that brought raw materials from the north and east. The finished goods were manufactured in the south, then sold or traded back to the outlying areas, principally benefiting Mesopotamia.
But the evidence uncovered at Hamoukar, on an arid plain about five miles from the border with Iraq, shows clear evidence of a city already in existence by at least 3700 BC.
The find, which will be presented at a conference in Denmark this week, has led to widespread speculation. Some researchers have suggested that cities may not have spread from south to north - or even sprung up simultaneously - but rather spread from north to south.
Others, however, are hesitant to drop the old model. "It seems to be an extremely important site for our understanding of the fourth millennium, but they've had [only] one season of excavation, and we're already starting to speculate on how it's going to change our understanding of Mesopotamia," says Richard Zettler, an archaeologist from the University of Pennsylvania, who has done extensive work in the region. "In a sense I think we're jumping the gun."
To help establish fact, researchers are already turning their sights to the previous epoch, which is known as the Ubaid period and stretched from 7500 to 6000 BC. It was during this period that a type of pottery that originated in the south spread across the Middle East, including Hamoukar.
"That suggests to me that clearly the people in the north are emulating the pottery being made in the south," says Mr. Zettler. "So I would not necessarily give up the idea that southern Mesopotamia was the dominant cultural, economic and political entity."
The Chicago teams' finding at Hamoukar didn't come as a complete surprise to archaeologists. "Hamoukar confirms what we recently started to think was happening," says Mitchell Rothman, an anthropologist at Widener University in Chester, Pa.
For the past decade or so, evidence of early city development in the north has been accumulating. Recently, top researchers gathered in Santa Fe, N.M., to meld crumbling old theories about the dawn of civilization with fast developing new ones.
Mr. Rothman says a loose consensus developed around the idea that the period of contact and trade between the north and south, rather than lasting for approximately 200 years around 3500 BC, was much longer, on the order of 500 to 700 years, stretching back further in time.
Most archaeologists still believe cities originated in the south and that further excavation will prove they developed in the Ubaid period. But making that determination is a challenge both physical and political. Although some European teams have reportedly gone back into the territory of ancient Sumeria recently, American archaeologists don't figure to return to Saddam Hussein's Iraq any time soon.
The depth of archaeological evidence at many sites is likewise daunting. In some areas of Mesopotamia, 6,000-year-old proto-cites lie under 90 feet of debris. Digging an exploratory shaft to that depth isn't difficult, but excavating dozens of acres to that level becomes a monumental earth-moving challenge in a discipline largely given over to trowels and dusters.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society