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Comparing early phases of urban development in four regions – the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, China, and Mesoamerica – this essay offers a global perspective on the origins of civic life. While we may never be able to reconstruct the unwritten constitutions of these earliest cities, or the reforms undergone in their first centuries, we can hardly doubt that these existed. Consideration of archaeological and written evidence from across the four areas suggests in every case, that significant checks and balances were placed on the centralisation of power and wealth during the early development of urban societies. Increasingly, the burden of proof lies with theorists who argue for causal or evolutionary connections between the origins of cities and the rise of stratified states.