Challenging Previous Theories on the Origins of Urbanization

Jason Ur, Philip Karsgaard and Joan Oates write in the August 31st issue of Science, that ancient cities did not form because of a centralized political power, as commonly believed, but as the outgrowth of decisions made by smaller groups or individuals. Their paper is titled, “Early Urban Development in the Near East.”

Jason Ur comments,

“The results of our work show that the existing models for the origins of ancient cities may in fact be flawed. Urbanism does not appear to have originated with a single, powerful ruler or political entity. Instead, it was the organic outgrowth of many groups coming together.”

What they did to understand patterns of population growth in the early urban areas, was to survey the spatial distribution of artifacts at Tell Brak,Roads Radiate to Tell Brak an ancient pre-Akkadian and Akkadian city on the Khabur River in northeastern Syria. The site is now distinguished by a 40 meter high and 1 kilometer long mound and is one of the tallest archaeological mounds in the Middle East. It forms the remains of one of the largest urban sites in northern Mesopotamia. The work was based on observation of surface objects at the site, along with satellite imagery and GIS spatial analysis. To your right is an aerial photo of Tell Brak showing how ancient roads radiate from Tell Brak suggesting that the settlement was an important city. The surface artifacts included bits of broken pottery and other ancient garbage, which indicate where the inhabitants of the city lived. In this survey, the patterns of distribution of these objects were examined over an 800-year period.

According to the survey of distribution of artifacts, around 4,200 BCE the “central mound” was suddenly surrounded by these clusters, suggesting immigration to the city. These clusters were separated from one another, indicating social distance among the groups, possibly because the social mechanisms that allow strangers to live together in an urban environment had not yet evolved. The patterns of settlement and distance from the “central mound” also signified autonomy from the political center of the city.

The theory of a singular leader as the catalyst for urbanization has been widely supported in part because it is reinforced by the story of Gilgamesh, who “built” the city of Uruk. Uruk, located in what is today southern Iraq, had been considered the world’s oldest city. The field survey, along with recent related excavation by the University of Cambridge, has shown that the urban development of Tell Brak was concurrent with, or may have been earlier than, the development of Uruk.

Ur comments,

“Ours is a largely urban society, and the nascent urbanization of Tell Brak tells us about the formation of the very first cities in the world.”

Adapted from this press release.

4 thoughts on “Challenging Previous Theories on the Origins of Urbanization

  1. First, I just want to say the study’s underlying findings are fascinating and intriguing and I hope to see follow up on this.

    However, I take issue with the concept that 8,000 years ago humans did not possess the ability to live in large societies, merely because the groups immigrating into Tell Brak developed separated clusters around the city. We see this same phenomenon, to some extent, in many third world cities today with immigrants coming into the city, and to a slight degree in first world countries with different neighborhoods of all one ethnic group living together.

    While I concur the ability to live close together in large groups is a very human-specific ability that we had to evolve over thousands of years, I don’t think 8000 years gives us enough time to develop this capability, although I would totally buy that it wasn’t as refined back then as it is today.

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