Ancient Cities Developed in a Surprisingly Similar Way to Modern Ones

The same mathematical equations that describe patterns of modern urban sprawl are equally suited to explaining the development of ancient cities

Teotihuacan ruins in Mexico. Photo: JackHynes

Visiting the ruins of an ancient city can help modern viewers imagine what life was like hundreds or thousands of years ago. While these centers of ancient civilization can seem remote and detached from the complexities of the modern world, it turns out that they are surprisingly similar to the way we organize and develop urban centers today. 

Researchers developed mathematical equations and models to describe the way modern urban centers form, develop and spread. Looking at the input data needed to explain urban growth—population and geographic size, moving costs, interpersonal interactions—the researchers realized that the parameters dictating how cities function today really have nothing to do with technology. “I realized that if these models are adequate for explaining what’s going on in contemporary cities, they should apply to any settlements in any society,” lead author and anthropologist Scott Ortman said in a release

Ancient cities, he figured, should also fall into this category. To test this hypothesis, Ortman and his colleagues acquired data from 1,500 settlements in Mexico spanning a 2,000-year period. The diverse cities occupied four different cultural periods marked by different types of politics, agriculture and market systems. 

The same models used to describe modern cities, they found, applied just as well to those ancient cities. Knowing how a city is most likely to scale itself—including where roadways develop, how population density is distributed and pattens of building—could be useful for helping archaeologists uncovering ancient cities target dig sites that are most likely to yield artifacts. On the flipside, if archaeological evidence has already been exposed, the equations could help extrapolate what that society was like in its heyday, including how many people lived there and what sort of activities were common. 

"There is a level at which every human society is actually very similar," Ortman said. "This awareness helps break down the barriers between the past and present and allows us to view contemporary cities as lying on a continuum of all human settlements in time and place.” 

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