Sunday, August 26, 2018

Classic Maya Urban Demography

Two factors conspire right now to emphasize to me the importance of ancient Maya urban demography. First, I finished reading David Webster’s new book, The Population of Tikal (Webster 2018). Second, today I returned from a Working Group of the Social Reactors Project at the Santa Fe Institute , where our focus was on Maya cities and settlements. Needless to say, we talked a lot about population.

One of the most important things one can know about a city or settlement is its size. How many people lived there? Over what area? (and, consequently, What was the density and how did it vary?) These are fundamental observations in many disciplines that study cities and settlements, from urban history to urban economics, to urban geography. In chapter 3 of my current book, Urban Life in the Distant Past, I make the case for the importance of knowing the sizes of cities in the past (Smith n.d.).

Webster’s book reviews past population estimates for Tikal (and other Maya sites and regions). These are judged to have been too high, largely on the basis of comparative studies of regional population densities of early states in other parts of the world. “By overestimating Classic Maya populations, we have created problems that do not exist” (p. 3):
1.       Why were Maya populations so large and dense compared to other early states
2.       How could the landscape support so many people,
3.       How can we explain the huge population drop with the Classic Maya collapse?

But wait, how can you compare an urban density at Tikal to a regional density for other regions? Isn’t that a comparison of apples and oranges? Those familiar with David Webster’s past work will get this right away: The Maya did not have cities, and therefore the concept of urban population density is moot!  “I prefer not to call any part of this landscape a ‘city’.” (p. 35). OK, maybe instead of “urban” we should call inner Tikal, “The area close to the pyramids that had a higher density than the outlying areas.” But this would still cast doubt on many of Webster’s comparisons.

Another problem I have with the new book is that much of the quantitative data are presented within the text, and not in tables. Yes, there are a few data tables with some pertinent information. But I get confused, for example, when he gives a population estimate for Tikal of 10,000 (p. 52, paragraph 2), an area estimate of 452 square km (p.52, paragraph 7), and an overall density of “100-175 people per sq. km” (same paragraph). Huh? 10,000 people divided by 452 sq km is a density of 22.1 persons per sq km. One of these figures must be off.

I must admit that this is a pet peeve: If you use quantitative data, put them in a table! I struggled throughout the book with this. Yes, there are a couple of tables with data. But where making detailed comparisons and analyses of population and density data throughout the book, the figures are only found in the text, not in tables. Putting quantitative data into the text but not in a table makes it difficult for readers to re-use or analyze the data.

I’ll stop here, this is not a book review. The book is fun to read, like most of David Webster’s work, and I learned a lot. But the basic quantitative treatment, and the lack of a good conceptual framework for urbanism, or for regional settlement variation, limits the value of the book.

Our working group on Maya settlement included my colleagues in the Social Reactors Project, plus Jerry Sabloff, Bernadette Cap, Adrian Chase, Julie Hoggarth, and Heather Richards-Rissetto. Sarah Klassen, who works on urban issues at Angkor, also participated. See a short description of the session here.

Instead of giving a report of our workshop on Maya settlement, I’ll just mention a few key points.

First, we have found data on several regional settlement systems where area scales with population in a superlinear fashion. That is, larger sites are LESS DENSE than smaller sites; This is the opposite of all other agricultural societies we have studied (see our papers here). So, Maya settlement differs from other agricultural societies in ways that remain hard to pin down. We have a paper in the works, and plans for more collaborations and research in the future.

Second, some Maya settlements are very much like settlements in other areas, and some are very different. Not too surprising, I guess, but we discussed some of the patterns.

Third, Angkor looks very different from the Maya cities. It had a very dense urban core, with planned orthogonal neighborhoods surrounding major temples, surrounded by a large sprawling area of temples, houses, and reservoirs, In comparison, Maya urban cores seem only slightly higher in density than their outer neighborhoods. I’m starting to wonder about the usefulness of Roland Fletcher’s (2009; 2012) concept of “low-density urbanism” as a category that includes the Classic Maya and Angkor.

Fourth, we discussed the use of LiDAR for analyzing the sizes and layouts of Maya cities.

We spent some time comparing Tikal and Caracol. My view is that Caracol was a large, integrated urban center, while Tikal was a much smaller city of ca. 16 sq km. (I know the Chases will agree about Caracol, but I’m not sure of their views of Tikal). A key question – indeed, one of our targeted themes at the working group – is the nature of settlement boundaries. I don’t see any evidence for clear boundaries at Tikal. However, there does seem to be a drop-off in density beyond the central 16 sq km mapped by Carr and Hazard, which favors bounding the city there (see table).

Whereas Caracol has various features that seem to signal a spatial and social integration over a large area (causeways, replicated patterns of civic architecture pointing to the integration of different areas, and a continuous stretch of agricultural terracing). Outside of the core area, Tikal lacks these things. All those areas beyond several km from downtown Tikal – these must have been rural areas, the hinterland of the city of Tikal. This is a provisional analysis. I want to analyze the density patterns objectively (kernel density analysis), to see whether there is indeed a zone of declining density (well, more precisely, I want a student to do this…). We should do such analyses for all of the Maya (and other!) sites that are well mapped. Intra-urban density distributions are a big unknown for ancient cities, but we now have the data and methods to work on this question.

This  table shows a bit of density data. I was having trouble finding the information, buried in Webster’s text, so I got the Maya figures from a nice table in a paper by Barbara Stark (Stark 2014). Note the drop of 50% in density beyond the central 16 sq km. Teotihuacan figures are from a paper now under review (Smith, et al. n.d.).

I think it would help if archaeologists could agree on a series of zones over which to calculate population density. Density is, in fact, a very complex phenomenon for modern cities, with lots of relevant measures (Campoli, and MacLean 2007; Dovey, and Pafka 2014). But for archaeology, it is best to concentrate on straight population density (persons per hectare), calculated over one of several spatial units (depending on available data and on research questions). I suggest five relevant units, as follows:

1.   Regional density, 1: Large area. For a large zone including several urban centers. E.g., the southern Maya lowlands. Useful for large-scale comparisons (of the type Webster makes with other regions).
2.   Regional density, 2: Urban hinterland. Density over the hinterland of a city. E.g., Copan Valley. Useful to compare settlement in, say, the Copan Valley with the Belize River Valley.
3.   Urban density: whole city (all of Tikal or Caracol, or Teotihuacan). This is probably the most useful measure for urban comparisons. Of course, one must first identify the boundaries of the urban settlement….. We discussed this at SFI, and I am working on some methodological guidelines.
4.   Epicenter density: The population density of residences clustered around the ceremonial core. Not sure if this should include the civic areas or not. I am less confident in this unit, compared to the others.
5.   Neighborhood density: Density of a delimited neighborhood or zone. This is useful for several reasons: (1) To compare neighborhoods within a city; (2) To generate density data where whole-site information is not available. For example, consider Mohenjo-daro. Several neighborhoods have been completely excavated, but the residential patterns of the entire site are not clear.

If you were looking for solid data or conclusions about Maya urban demography here, I am sorry to disappoint you. This field is in its infancy. Culbert and Rice (Culbert, and Rice 1990) was a crucial work, but there has been very little work since then. Webster’s new book is a step in the right direction, but we need many more such analyses (with lots of data in tables!). But I am more optimistic now than I’ve been for some time now. The session at SFI made some progress, and I see some good research coming out of these and other archaeologists in the near future. I am itching to work on settlement delineation at a variety of sites, using quantitative spatial methods. And, finally, I know that a number of prominent Mayanists agree that urban demography is important, and I look forward to more work in the near future.


 Campoli, Julie and Alex S. MacLean  (2007)  Visualizing Density. Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, Cambridge, MA.
Culbert, T. Patrick and Don S. Rice (editors)  (1990)  Precolombian Population History in the Maya Lowlands. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.
Dovey, Kim and Elek Pafka  (2014)  The Urban Density Assemblage: Modelling Multiple Measures. Urban Design International 19:66-76.
 Fletcher, Roland  (2009)  Low-Density, Agrarian-Based Urbanism: A Comparative View. Insights (University of Durham) 2:article 4.
Fletcher, Roland  (2012)  Low-Density, Agrarian-Based Urbanism: Scale, Power and Ecology. In The Comparative Archaeology of Complex Societies, edited by Michael E. Smith, pp. 285-320. Cambridge University Press, New York.
Smith, Michael E.  (n.d.)  Urban Life in the Distant Past: Archaeology and Comparative Urbanism. (book in progress).
 Smith, Michael E., Abhishek Chatterjee, Sierra Stewart, Angela Huster and Marion Forest  (n.d.)  Apartment compounds, households, and population at Teotihuacan  (paper under review).
Stark, Barbara L.  (2014)  Ancient Open Space, Gardens, and Parks: A Comparative Discussion of Mesoamerican Urbanism. In Making Ancient Cities: Space and Place in Early Urban Societies, edited by Kevin D. Fisher and Andy Creekmore, pp. 370-406. University Press of Colorado, Boulder.
 Webster, David  (2018)  The Population of Tikal: Implications for Maya Demography. Archaeopress, Oxford.

Urban toilet at Mohenjo-daro

Monday, July 30, 2018

Resources on Teotihuacan (revised yet again)

Teotihuacan was one of the major cities of the ancient world, and the available materials on the internet are scattered around. The Wikipedia entry is not very good. I have not seen a good bibliography of works for someone who wants to know about research at the site as written by the relevant archaeologists or good journalists. I am going to use this blog post to create a bibliography and guide to materials on Teotihuacan. It may take me a while to get it all together, so please check back periodically. If you have suggestions, please send them to me.

The Best Book on Teotihuacan !!!

Some Good Journalist Articles on Teotihuacan REsearch

Wade, Lizzie

Moran, Barbara

Wade, Lizzie
Vance, Erik

Some Good Videos on the ASU Teotihuacan Lab:

Check out our lab's website. In this photo, I am sitting in front of a wall of groundstone crates. It is an attractive backdrop, but I doubt our employee Oscar would agree (he is moving these crates around this week).

Other recent internet articles

My paper in Slate:
 “In this ancient city, even commoners lived in palaces:

Spanish version of the above (in HuffPost-Mexico), "Lacuriosa leccion de igualidad social que revela Teotihuacan

Review Articles (articles that review many recent works, with long bibliographies)

*** I have taken the liberty of posting the more relevant papers by Millon and Cowgill. If there is not a link, and you want a copy, please contact the article's author directly.

Nichols, Deborah L.
2016 Teotihuacan. Journal of Archaeological Research 24 (1): 1-74.

Millon, René

Millon, René

Millon, René

Cowgill, George L.

Cowgill, George L.

Select List of publications on Teotihuacan

Aveni, Anthony F.
2005 Observations on the Pecked Designs and other Figures Carved on the South Platform of the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan. Journal for the History of Astronomy 36 (1): 31-47.

Cabrera Castro, Rubén, Sergio Gómez Chávez, and Julie Gazzola
2007 New Findings of Mural Painting. In Museo de murales Teotihuacanos Beatriz de la Fuente, edited by María Teresa Uriarte and Tatiana Falcón, pp. 229-239. Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico City.

Carballo, David M.
2007 Implements of State Power: Weaponry and Martially Themes Obsidian Production near the Moon Pyramid, Teotihuacan. Ancient Mesoamerica 18 (1): 173-190.

2013 The Social Organization of Craft Production and Interregional Exchange at Teotihuacan. In Merchants, Markets, and Exchange in the Pre-Columbian World, edited by Kenneth G. Hirth and Joanne Pillsbury, pp. 113-140. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC.

Clayton, Sarah C.
2015 Teotihuacan: An Early Urban Center in its Regional Context. In Early Cities in Comparative Perspective, 4000 BCE - 1200 CE, edited by Norman Yoffee, pp. 279-299. The Cambridge World History, volume 3. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Cowgill, George L., Jeffrey H. Altschul, and Rebecca S. Sload
1984 Spatial Analysis of Teotihuacan, a Mesoamerican Metropolis. In Intrasite Spatial Analysis in Archaeology, edited by Harold J. Hietala, pp. 154-195. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Evans, Susan T.
2016 Location and Orientation of Teotihuacan, Mexico: Water Worshsip and Processional Space. In Processions in the Ancient Americas, edited by Susan T. Evans, pp. 52-121. Occasional Papers in Anthropology, vol. 33. Department of Anthropology, Pennsylvania State University, State College, PA.

Fash, William L, Jr., Alexandre Tokovinine, and Barbara W. Fash
2009 The House of New Fire at Teotihuacan and its Legacy in Mesoamerica. In The Art of Urbanism: How Mesoamerican Kingdoms Represented Themselves in Architecture and Imagery, edited by William L Fash, Jr. and Leonardo López Luján, pp. 201-229. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC.

Gazzola, Julie
2009 Características arquitectónicas en algunas construcciones de fases tempranas en Teotihuacan. Arqueología 42: 216-233.

Gómez Chávez, Sergio
2013 The Exploraiton of the Tunnel under the Feathered Serpent Temple at Teotihuacan: First Results. In Constructing, Deconstructing, and Reconstructing Social Identity: 2,000 Years of Monumentality in Teotihuacan and Cholula, Mexico, edited by Saburo Sugiyama, Shigeru Kabata, Tomoko Taniguchi, and Etsuko Niwa, pp. 11-18. Aichi Prefectural University, Cultural Symbiosis Research Institute, Aichi.

Gómez Chávez, Sergio and Julie Gazzola
2015 Un posible cancha de juego de pelota en el área de la Ciudadela, Teotihuacan. Anales de Antropología 49 (1): 113-133.

Helmke, Christophe and Jesper Nielsen
2013 The Writing on the Wall: A Paleographic Analysis of the Maya Texts of Tetitla, Teotihuacan. In The Maya in a Mesoamerican Context: Comparative Approaches to Maya Studies, edited by Jesper Nielsen and Christophe Helmke, pp. 123-166. Acta Mesoamericana, vol. 26. Verlag Anton Saurwein, Markt Schwaben.

López Luján, Leonardo
2017 Life after Death in Teotihuacan: The Moon Plaza's Monolilthis in Colonial and Modern Mexico. In Visual Culture of the Ancient Americas: Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Andrew Finegold and Ellen Hoobler, pp. 59-90. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Manzanilla, Linda R.
1996 Corporate Groups and Domestic Activities at Teotihuacan. Latin American Antiquity 7: 228-246.

2004 Social Identity and Daily Life at Classic Teotihuacan. In Mesoamerican Archaeology: Theory and Practice, edited by Julia A. Hendon and Rosemary Joyce, pp. 124-147. Blackwell, Oxford.

2009 Corporate Life in Apartment and Barrio Compounds at Teotihuacan, Central Mexico: Craft Specialization, Hierarchy, and Ethnicity. In Domestic Life in Prehispanic Capitals: A Study of Specialization, Hierarchy, and Ethnicity, edited by Linda R. Manzanilla and Claude Chapdelaine, pp. 21-42. Memoirs, vol. 46. University of Michigan, Museum of Anthropology, Ann Arbor.

Manzanilla, Linda R. and Leonardo López Luján
2001 Exploraciones en un posible palacio de Teotihuacan: El Proyecto Xalla (2000-2001). Mexicon 23: 58-61.

McClung de Tapia, Emily
2012 Silent Hazards, Invisible Risks: Prehispanic Erosion in the Teotihuacan Valley, Central Mexico. In Surviving Sudden Environmental Change, edited by Jago Cooper and Payson Sheets, pp. 143-166. University Press of Colorado, Boulder.

McClung de Tapia, Emily, Elizabeth Solleiro-Rebolledo, Jorge Gama-Castro, José Luis Villalpando, and Sergey Sedov
2003 Paleosols in the Teotihuacan Valley, México: Evidence for Paleoenvironment and Human Impact. Revista Mexicana de Ciencias Geológicas 20: 270-282.

Murakami, Tatsuya
2015 Replicative construction experiments at Teotihuacan, Mexico: Assessing the duration and timing of monumental construction. Journal of Field Archaeology: published online first.

Nielsen, Jesper
2015 Where Kings Once Ruled? Consideration on Palaces and Rulership at Teotihuacan. In Palaces and Courtly Culture in Ancient Mesoamerica, edited by Julie Nehammer Knub, Christophe Helmke, and Jesper Nielsen, pp. 7-22. Archaeopress, Oxford.

Nielsen, Jesper and Christophe Helmke
2011 Reinterpreting the Plaza de los Glifos, La Ventilla, Teotihuacan. Ancient Mesoamerica 22 (2): 345-370.

Ortega Cabrera, Verónica
2013 Los conjuntos habitacionales: Ejemplos de arquitectura urbana. In Teotihuacán. Nueva mirada al pasado: Arqueología de Salvamento, edited by Verónica Ortega Cabrera and Aldo Díaz Avelar, pp. 38-55. Editorial Académica Española, Madrid.

Robertson, Ian G.
2015 Investigating Teotihuacan through TMP Surface Collections and Observations. Ancient Mesoamerica 26 (1): 163-181.

Robertson, Ian G. and M. Oralia Cabrera Cortés
2016 Teotihuacan pottery as evidence for subsistence practices involving maguey sap. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 9 (1): 11-27.

Smith, Michael E.

Smith, Michael E. and Clara Paz Bautista
2015 Las almenas en la ciudad antigua de Teotihuacan. Mexicon 37 (5): 118-125.

Somerville, Andrew D., Nawa Sugiyama, Linda R. Manzanilla, and Margaret J. Schoeninger
2016 Animal Management at the Ancient Metropolis of Teotihuacan, Mexico: Stable Isotopoe Analysis of Leporid (Cottontail and Jackrabbit) Bone Mineral. PLOS-One 11 (8): e0159982.

Spence, Michael W.
2015 Personal Art in Teotihuacan: The Thin Orange Graffiti. Ancient Mesoamerica 26 (2): 295-312.

Storey, Rebecca
2006 Mortality Through Time in an Impoverished Residence of the Precolumbian City of Teotihuacan: A Paleodemographic View. In Urbanism in the Preindustrial World: Cross-Cultural Approaches, edited by Glenn R. Storey, pp. 277-294. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.

Sugiyama, Nawa and Andrew D. Somerville
2017 Feeding Teotihuacan: Integrating Approaches to Studying Food and Foodways of the Ancient Metropolis. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 9 (1): 1-10.

Sugiyama, Saburo
2010 Teotihuacan City Layout as a Cosmogram: Preliminary Results of the 2007 Measurement Unit Study. In The Archaeology of Measurement: Comprehending Heaven, Earth and Time in Ancient Societies, edited by Iain Morley and Colin Renfrew, pp. 130-149. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Sugiyama, Saguro, Nawa Sugiyama, and Alejandro Sarabia G.
2014 En interior de la Priámide del Sol en Teotihuacan. Arqueología Mexicana 125: 24-29.

Taube, Karl A.
2011 Teotihuacan and the Development of Writing in Early Classic Central Mexico. In Their Way of Writing: Scripts, Signs, and Pictographies in Pre-Columbian America edited by Elizabeth H. Boone and Gary Urton, pp. 77-109. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC.

White, Christine D., Michael W. Spence, and Frederick J. Longstaffe
2010 The Teotihuacan Dream: An isotopic study of economic organization and immigration. In In "The “Compleat Archaeologist”: Papers in Honour of Michael Spence, edited by Christopher J. Ellis, Neal Ferris, Peter Timmins, and Christine C. White, pp. 279-297. Ontario Archaeological Society, London, ON.

Some Books on Teotihuacan (a small sample...)

Headrick, Annabeth
2007 The Teotihuacan Trinity: The Sociopolitical Structure of an Ancient Mesoamerican City. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Manzanilla, Linda R. (editor)
2012 Estudios arqueométricos del centro de barrio de Teopancazco en Teotihuacan. Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico City.

Matos, Eduardo
2009 Teotihuacan. Fondo de Cultura Económica, Mexico City.

Pasztory, Esther
1997 Teotihuacan: An Experiment in Living. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Robb, Matthew H. (editor)
2017 Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, De Young, and University of California Press, San Francisco.

Scott, Sue
2001 The Terracotta Figurines from Sigvald Linné's Excavations at Teotihuacan, Mexico. Monograph Series, vol. 18. The National Museum of Ethnography, Stockholm.

Smith, Michael E.
1975 Temples, Residences, and Artifacts at Classic Teotihuacan. Senior Honors Thesis, Department of Anthropology, Brandeis University.  *** HA HA HA, HOW DID THIS OLD THING GET INTO THE LIST ???

Staines Cicero, Leticia and Christophe Helmke (editors)
2017 Las Pinturas Realistas de Tetitla, Teotihuacan: Estudios a través de la obra de Agustín Villagra Caleti. Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and Intituto Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico City.

2005 Human Sacrifice, Militarism, and Rulership: The Symbolism of the Feathered Serpent Pyramid at Teotihuacan, Mexico. Cambridge University Press, New York.

AND: Coming October 6 to the Phoenix Art Museum: A fantastic exhibit of art and artifacts from Teotihuacan:

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Defining Cities and Urbanism (2018 version)

I go back and forth about the importance of defining cities and urbanism. Sometimes I think it is crucial to have a valid and useful definition, and I spend time talking or writing about definitions; other times, I get sick of it and try to avoid definitions—I just want to get on with the research. Of course, when I am in the latter mold, reviewers are sure to complain that I don’t define urbanism. So, I drag out some boilerplate text to insert into a manuscript and hope it doesn’t push the paper too far over the journal’s word limit. I can pull handy text and ideas from a bunch of my prior works, including these: (Smith 1989; Smith 2001; Smith 2002; Smith 2007; Smith 2008; Smith 2016).

Wow, my reaction in looking at that list of citations is, “Can’t Smith make up his mind?” I guess not. My 2011 post, “What is a city? Definitions of the Urban,” is still the most widely read post on this blog (probably from students writing papers for archaeology classes). I also discuss issues of definition in a number of other posts as well:

My views on this topic have changed considerably in the past few years, and it just occurred to me that I had not put them down in writing for a while. I started writing a new book this summer at UrbNet in AarhusUrban Life in the Distant Past: Archaeology and Comparative Urbanism, and the process of giving lectures and organizing the book outline required rethinking my approach to urbanism. I started writing with chapter 3, leaving the conceptual and definitional material to write later!

So, here are some of my current ideas about definitions of city and urban. I will organize my thought around four statements or propositions.

     1. There are three primary dimensions of premodern settlements (urban and non-urban); institutions and activities in these dimensions are the main drivers of change in settlements. These primary dimensions are:

a.   Social life and society. This is a complex dimension that includes institutions, activities, and processes concerning life and social patterns within settlements. It includes things like social heterogeneity (wealth inequality, ethnicity, division of labor), households and neighborhoods, markets and workshops, and urban services. Here are two interesting things about this domain. First, none of these things are exclusively “urban” traits that occur only in cities and not in villages or rural areas (see more below). Second, the variation among settlements is so great that I can point to only a very small number of urban universals, or features found in all cities, ancient and modern. I’ve talked about these universals on and off in this blog; one of them is neighborhood organization.

b.   City size and population. This domain includes the areal extent of settlements, their population, and density. Large, and/or dense, populations in settlements, have profound social impacts, as analyzed by Roland Fletcher (1995), me (Smith 2018), and others (e.g., Bettencourt 2013).

c.   Urban functions. Urban functions are activities and institutions based in a settlement that affect life and society beyond the boundaries of that settlement (Fox 1977; Trigger 1972). Urban functions address the regional or macro-regional context of settlements (as opposed to the first 2 dimensions, which describe the nature of settlements themselves).

     2. Other dimensions of settlements cut across these three. They play important roles, but they have less causal impact than the three primary dimensions:

a.   The built environment
b.   Urban meanings
c.   Urban growth

     3. Definitions are tools; their usefulness depends on one’s questions, goals, and interests.

a.   There is no single, “best” definition of city, urbanism, or any social phenomenon. Definitions are tools that allow scholars to accomplish intellectual goals; they are not meant to capture the “essence” or most important features of a phenomenon. (The use of definitions in everyday discourse, or in writing for the public, is somewhat different, a topic I will leave for later).
b.   Standard definitions for premodern cities differ in their emphasis on the primary urban dimensions. As I cover in my 2011 blog post (and will not repeat here), two definitions are most common and most useful in discussions of premodern cities:
                                   i.    Louis Wirth’s sociological definition. “For sociological purposes a city may be defined as a relatively large, dense, and permanent settlement of socially heterogeneous individuals.” (Wirth 1938:8)
                                  ii.    Functional definition. A city is a central place; that is, it is a settlement that provides goods and services for a hinterland that extends beyond the city itself. (Fox 1977; Trigger 1972)
                                  **    Although I have argued in various publications that one or the other of these provides the best definition for archaeology, I now realize I was epistemologically mistaken. Read my lips: There is no “best” definition. (A challenge: can you find the publication where I argue for Wirth’s definition and disparage the functional definition? Ah, the follies of youth!)
c.   If you really need a single definition of city/urban, how about this underwhelming concept: An urban settlement is one that has reached a high level on one or more of the three major dimensions of urbanism. Is that vague enough? Do you sense my ambivalence about definitions? Read on.

       4. Don’t reify “city” and “urban.”

a.   Settlements—places where people live—are empirical phenomena that exist in the world. They have measurable attributes that we can study. In contrast, “city” and “urban” are concepts or categories that depend on one’s goals and definitions. Our understanding will be greatly improved if we focus on settlements, not on cities or urbanism.
b.   When one analyzes settlements using the primary dimensions, definitions of city and urban just get in the way. This is because many “urban” phenomena (e.g., high density, a division of labor, or place-based social complexity) can also be important in small and non-urban settlements. One of the profound and exciting results of the settlement scaling research of the Social Reactors Project (see our website for citations and papers) is that we have shown—quantitatively and with rigor—that this assertion is correct. The same, or very similar, socially transformative attributes of settlement size are fond in contemporary urban systems, ancient urban systems, and village (non-state) settlement systems. These findings do not rely in any way upon defining city or urban; they are empirical results of quantitative analyses of settlements.

I should probably publish an expanded version of this as a journal article.


Bettencourt, Luís M. A.  (2013)  The Origins of Scaling in Cities. Science 340:1438-1441.
Fletcher, Roland  (1995)  The Limits of Settlement Growth: A Theoretical Outline. Cambridge University Press, New York.
Fox, Richard G.  (1977)  Urban Anthropology: Cities in their Cultural Settings. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs.
Smith, Michael E.  (1989)  Cities, Towns, and Urbanism: Comment on Sanders and Webster. American Anthropologist 91:454-461.
Smith, Michael E.  (2001)  Urbanization. In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures: The Civilizations of Mexico and Central America, edited by Davíd Carrasco, pp. 290-294. vol. 3. Oxford University Press, New York.
Smith, Michael E.  (2002)  The Earliest Cities. In Urban Life: Readings in the Anthropology of the City, edited by George Gmelch and Walter Zenner, pp. 3-19. 4th ed. Waveland Press, Prospect Heights, IL.
Smith, Michael E.  (2007)  Form and Meaning in the Earliest Cities: A New Approach to Ancient Urban Planning. Journal of Planning History 6(1):3-47.
Smith, Michael E.  (2008)  Aztec City-State Capitals. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.
Smith, Michael E.  (2016)  How Can Archaeologists Identify Early Cities: Definitions, Types, and Attributes. In Eurasia at the Dawn of History: Urbanization and Social Change, edited by Manuel Fernández-Götz and Dirk Krausse, pp. 153-168. Cambridge University Press, New York.
Smith, Michael E.  (2018)  The Generative Role of Settlement Aggregation and Urbanization. In Coming Together: Comparative Approaches to Population Aggregation and Early Urbanization, edited by Attila Gyucha. State University of New York Press, Albany. In press.
Trigger, Bruce G.  (1972)  Determinants of Urban Growth in Pre-Industrial Societies. In Man, Settlement, and Urbanism, edited by Peter J. Ucko, Ruth Tringham and G. W. Dimbleby, pp. 575-599. Schenkman, Cambridge.
Wirth, Louis  (1938)  Urbanism as a Way of Life. American Journal of Sociology 44:1-24.

EXTRA CREDIT, #1: Name the artist of the city on a hill image.

EXTRA CREDIT, #2: Name the city of the shantytown image.