Monday, April 21, 2014

The one percent and the ninety-nine percent in ancient cities

What was the level of social inequality in ancient cities? Were these places of luxury and misery, where wealthy elite neighborhoods were separated from squalid slums? Or did the economic activity of cities help everyone achieve a reasonable quality of life? For a number of reasons, it is difficult to answer these questions clearly and simply. Ancient cities varied greatly in their extent and nature of social inequality. Furthermore, there have been very few rigorous analyses of inequality in individual ancient cities, and even fewer comparisons among cities in different regions and in different time periods.

I've been working on this topic lately, and here are some thoughts on ways we can look at ancient inequality. I'll outline two perspectives on wealth inequality in ancient cities. One focuses on elite-commoner differences, and the other on quantifying the level or extent of inequality (irrespective of social class).

View 1: Elite-Commoner Differences

Bruce Trigger's (2003) massive volume, Understanding Ancient Civilizations, is probably the best book about ancient urban societies. In chapter 8, he points out features of inequality shared by many or most ancient states. First, the most important social division was between a small elite class and the mass of commoners:

“Usually this involved distinguishing an upper class, free commoners, and slaves. Since slaves, if any, tended to be few, the bulk of the population was divided into two groups: upper class and commoners.” (p.145)

“Inequality was regarded as a normal condition and injustice as a personal misfortune or even as an individual’s just deserts rather than as a social evil ... The general pervasiveness of inequality ensured that its legitimacy went unquestioned.” (p. 142)

Some archaeologists have suggested that in a few ancient cities there was a "middle class" of people better-off than most commoners, but not at the level of the elite. My answer to this idea is both yes and no. First, the negative reply. Given the limitations of archaeological data, it is rarely possible to show the clear presence of a middle group between the elite and the commoners. We need quantitative data to discuss this issue, and I haven't seen anyone who claims to have found an ancient "middle class" show the quantitative data to substantiate their claim.

Second, my positive reply is not precisely an agreement for the existence of a middle class. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that in any given case, inequality was much more complex and multi-stranded than a simple two-class model allows. Frannie Berdan and I explore this in a paper now under review (Smith & Berdan n.d.), where we apply Charles Tilly's (1998) model of "durable inequality" to the Aztecs. We use ethnohistoric data than archaeological data, and we find a variety of separate, yet linked, systems of inequality operating at various levels of Aztec society. There isn't a clear "middle class," but there are many more wealth and power categories than just the nobility and the commoners.

Commoner house and noble house at Cuexcomate

While that paper reveals a complex system of social inequality, my own archaeological data point pretty clearly to two very distinct social classes, elite and commoner. At Cuexcomate and other Aztec sites in the state of Morelos, commoner houses averaged around 25 square meters in size. Noble's houses were in the range of 400-500 square meters (with no "middle class" houses in the middle!), and royal palaces were over 6,000 square meters (Smith 2008:117). The houses of commoners and nobles were radically different, and there is no "middle" category of house size between the small commoner houses and the large noble residences. I presented these data many years ago (Smith 1992), but I am now writing a paper with my former student, Jan Olson, that shows how the people who lived in these two categories of residence used different kind of artifacts (Olson & Smith n.d.).

For Aztec society, both the archaeology and the ethnohistory describe the presence and importance of two major social classes, nobles and commoners. But the greater detail of the ethnohistory shows that this class distinction is only one part of a more complex and widespread system of durable social inequality.

View 2: Quantifying Inequality

How do ancient levels of inequality compare to the modern world? The elite-commoner perspective on ancient inequality isn't much help here. We don't have a hereditary nobility in the U.S. today, but we certainly have a significant level of (increasing) social inequality. One of the main techniques for comparing inequality levels is the Gini index. This measures the concentration of wealth (or income) among the members of a population. If everyone had an equal share of the wealth, the Gini index would be zero. If one person owned ALL of the wealth, the index would be 1.0. The Gini index in the U.S. today is between 0.4 and 0.5, depending on how it is calculated. The blue map shows the Gini indices for U.S. states.
Gini index for U.S. states today

The Gini index is very easy to calculate. The problem is getting a complete coverage of the population. If you can measure all of the houses in a settlement, and then assume that house size is a measure of wealth, it is possible to calculate the Gini index for that settlement. I just submitted paper to a journal, with several students, that calculates Gini indices for a number of Precolumbian communities in central Mexico (Smith et al. n.d.). I had published one set of these data years ago (Smith 1992), but for this paper we recalculated the house areas and also calculated the volume of the architecture for each structure. Nor surprisingly, the sites I mention above, with lots of small commoner houses and one or two large noble residences, have moderately high levels of inequality (Gini indices around 0.45). And a small village without any large houses has a very low Gini index (surprise, surprise), close to 0.10.
Inequality at an Aztec town (Cuexcomate) and village settlement

The Lorenz curve is a graphical presentation of the Gini index. If the distribution is equal (Gini=0), then the graph will lie along the diagonal. The greater the inequality, the more the graph of wealth will drop below the diagonal. In addition to getting a number of measures from Aztec sites in Morelos, we also calculate a Gini index for Teotihuacan, the huge Classic period urban center. We were quite surprised by the result, but I'm going to leave you guessing here.....
Teotihuacan: How much inequality?

The study of wealth inequality in ancient cities is only just beginning. We need far more studies of the sizes of houses, the value of possessions, the types of grave goods, and other archaeological measure of wealth. And we need to devise and adapt more methods, like the Gini index, to explore such data. Ancient cities were not all the same. Some were more egalitarian in their distribution of wealth, while others were sharply divided with extremely wealthy nobles sharing the city with indigent paupers. Inequality was clearly a significant part of the Wide Urban World.


Milanovic, Branko  (2011)  The Haves and the Have-Nots: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality. Basic Books, New York.

Olson, Jan Marie and Michael E. Smith  (n.d.)  Material Expressions of Wealth and Social Class at Aztec-Period Sites in Morelos, Mexico ( ms. in preparation).

Smith, Michael E.  (1992)  Archaeological Research at Aztec-Period Rural Sites in Morelos, Mexico. Volume 1, Excavations and Architecture / Investigaciones arqueológicas en sitios rurales de la época Azteca en Morelos, Tomo 1, excavaciones y arquitectura. Memoirs in Latin American Archaeology vol. 4. University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh.

Smith, Michael E.  (2008)  Aztec City-State Capitals. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Smith, Michael E. and Frances F. Berdan  (n.d.)  Durable Inequality in Aztec Society. Paper under review at a journal.

Smith, Michael E., Timothy Dennehy, April Kamp-Whittaker, Emily Colon and Rachel Harkness  (n.d.)  Quantitative Measures of Wealth Inequality in Ancient Central Mexican Communities.Paper under review at a journal.

Tilly, Charles  (1998)  Durable Inequality. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Trigger, Bruce G.  (2003)  Understanding Early Civilizations: A Comparative Study. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Cities of Tipis?

Comanche camp (George Catlin)
The Native Americans of the North American Plains were some of the better known nomads of recent centuries. Groups like the Crow, Cheyenne, and Sioux took advantage of the horses brought to the New World by Europeans to forge a successful way of life hunting bison on the plains. They moved their settlements of tipis throughout the year, following the requirements of bison hunting. Life alternated between small camps of  five or ten tipis and larger camps of up to 100 tipis. Some of the larger camps ("cluster camps" in the language of Banks and Snortland 1995) had an unorganized arrangement of tipis, and some ("circular camps") were ceremonial in orientation and the tipis were arranged in a huge circle.

Is there anything "urban" about these big circular camps? Archaeologist Alice Kehoe thinks so. In her textbook, North American Indians, she says:

Nomad peoples were constrained to adapt social affairs to ecological cycles: most of the business that in towns [in other cultures] occurred over the year had to be compressed by the nomads into the few summer weeks when grass was most lush on the open plains. Trading, gambling, visiting friends from other bands, games and sports competitions, and seeking a compatible spouse or comrade were individual incentives to rendezvous in large camps. Adjudicating disputes, discussing policies and strategies for allied bands drew leaders to these camps. Above all, participation in rituals was a magnet (Kehoe 1981:
295). This is the first edition of the book; I have not had the opportunity to check this quote in the more recent 3rd edition.

Lakota camp, 1891
 I really like Kehoe's observation that activities that can be spread out through the entire year in permanent settlements must be concentrated into a few weeks in these large camps.  A few years ago I talked about three major dimensions of urbanism that are used in defining cities: population, complexity, and influence. Big tipi camps did not have urban functions. That is, they were not the setting for activities and institutions that affected  a hinterland. Nor were they permanent settlements, part of Louis Wirth's influential demographic definition of urbanism.
Cheyenne village

On the other hand, these large tipi camps were large dense settlements (if not permanent), and they certainly had a level of social complexity and intense social interaction that was not present in the smaller regular camps. This is the feature described in Kehoe's quotation above. And this is why I have called these tipi aggregation camps "semi-urban settlements," comparable  to pilgrimage sites, festivals, camp meetings, refugee camps, and some contemporary RV camps. These are places that are formed rapidly by an influx of people, who live in a densely-arranged form for a few days to a few weeks before dispersing. See my previous post on semi-urban settlements.That post describes an article I wrote with a bunch of students on neighborhood organization in semi-urban settlements. That paper is STILL in press; the journal is taking forever to get the paper into print. Arrrrrgh........
Quartzsite, AZ: A modern nomad camp?

I've listed below some sources on Plains tipi camps. Roland Fletcher's paper first suggested to me that this kind of settlement was relevant to concepts of urbanism. Banks and Snortland is a fantastic study that uses historic photographs to work out the nature and size of Plains settlements. Hassrick and Oliver are standard monographs on Plains Indian groups. Scheiber and Finley use advanced methods to identify the archaeological remains of ancient tipi sites.

Sioux camp, 1891
Examples like these Plains circular tipi camps are fascinating for illuminating the nature of urbanism. They have some but not all of the traits we normally associate with cities and urban places, and as such they help us understand the nature of human society and how it works out in spatial terms. When large number of people gather quickly, whether in a tipi camp or at the Burning Man festival today, certain kinds of interactions take place and certain kinds of social dynamics play out.

While no one would call a tipi camp a "city", these settlements are certainly part of the Wide Urban World.

Banks, Kimball M. and J. Signe Snortland  (1995)  Every Picture Tells a Story: Historic Images, Tipi Camps, and Archaeology. Plains Anthropologist 40(152):125-144.

Fletcher, Roland  (1991)  Very Large Mobile Communities: Interaction Stress and Residential Dispersal. In Ethnoarchaeological Approaches to Mobile Campsites: Hunter-Gatherer and Pastoralist Case Studies, edited by Clive Gamble and B. Boismer, pp. 395-420. Prehistory Press, Ann Arbor.

Small tipi camp
Hassrick, Royal C.  (1964)  The Sioux: Life and Customs of a Warrior Society. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Kehoe, Alice B.  (1981)  North American Indians: A Comprehensive Account. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs.

Oliver, Chad  (1962)  Ecology and Cultural Continuity as Contributing Factors in the Social Organization of the Plains Indians. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Scheiber, Laura L. and Judson Byrd Finley  (2010)  Domestic Campsites and Cyber Landscapes in the Rocky Mountains. Antiquity 84:114-130.

Stone circle, "tipi ring" from the Rocky Mountains (Scheiber & Finley)
Smith, Michael E., Ashley Engquist, Cinthia Carvajal, Katrina Johnston, Amanda Young, Monica Algara, Yui Kamoda and Bridgette Gilliland  (2014)  Neighborhood Formation in Semi-Urban Settlements. Journal of Urbanism 7 (STILL in press, maybe 2014 will be lucky).

Friday, January 31, 2014

Cities without streets, cities without cars

Great Zimbabwe, a city without streets
Most cities today have streets. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a city not having any streets. If you have driven on some of the muddy tracks called streets in shantytowns in the developing world (as I have many times in Mexico), you may wonder whether "street" is an appropriate label for these lanes. But can there be cities that lack streets? In the ancient world, street-less cities are actually quite common. Most of the cities in ancient Mesoamerica, where I work, did not have streets. People walked on paths, and there were no wheeled vehicles. These were cities without streets, cities without cars.

A Maya city without streets. Map by Ed Barnhart
Some ancient Maya cities did have constructed roads or causeways between sectors of the sity, used for ceremonial processions (and probably mundane foot traffic as well). But no vehicles drove on these roads, that are called sacbes in Maya. Even cities built with an orthogonal layout, such as Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlan, had very few streets. Teotihuacan had ONE street, known informally as the Street of the Dead. The island city of Tenochtitlan had causeways to the shores of the lake, and these fed into streets that led to the center of town. Such streets followed canals, and the orthogonal layout of this city, "Venice of the New World," was due more to canals than to streets.
Vehicle ruts at Pompeii

While streets serve as place for walking,  and as connectors within the city, the main reason for the existence of streets in cities is to accommodate wheeled transport, whether ox-carts or automobiles. Chariot movement and other wheeled cart traffic in Pompeii was so extensive that the stone streets have deep wheel ruts. If wheeled transport was not important in a region, then the cities in that area don't have streets. This fits for ancient Mesoamerica and the Andes, and for much of sub-Saharan Africa. Inka cities are a partial exception. The Inka built an extensive road system for administration of their empire, and many of their cities had streets. But this is one of the few cases where urban streets developed prior to the introduction of wheeled transport.

But why didn't the peoples of ancient Mesoamerica have wheeled transport? They had a vibrant commercial economy, with lots of long-distance trade, periodic marketplaces, and professional merchants. They had two types of money. But they didn't use wheeled carts. The surprising thing is that the Mesoamericans DID invent the wheel. They made wheeled toys - mostly small clay animals with holes in the legs for an axle and wheels. These were most abundant in sites of the Toltec period (AD 900-1100), including Tula in central Mexico. I recovered some of these wheels and one of the legs in my fieldwork in the Yautepec Valley (see the photo).

If they knew the concept of the wheel, and they had lots of things worth transporting, why didn't the ancient Mesoamericans build carts? Two answers are usually given to this question. First, they lacked the appropriate draft animals. The major domesticated animals in Mesoamerica were the dog and the turkey. Turkeys don't make very good draft animals. And as anyone who ever tied up his or her dog to a wagon can attest, dogs aren't very good at pulling vehicles either. The second answer is that Mesoamerica consists mostly of rough, mountainous terrain. It would be costly and difficult to build the kinds of roads needed to move wheeled carts from one region to another. People carried burdens on their backs (using a tump-line that went across the forehead); indeed professional carriers were
Wheels and animal leg from Yautepec
common in and around Aztec cities.

Aztec merchants carrying loads
Since I deal quite a bit with cities without streets, this limits some of the concepts and methods commonly applied to cities in the modern world. I can't trace precise travel routes, and I can't apply space-syntax models of urban street layouts. Thus just goes to show that the wide urban world has a great diversity of cities and urban places, and we can't judge that whole urban world from the kinds of cities we happen to build today. 

Some sources on Toltec wheeled toys:

Diehl, Richard A. and Margaret Mandeville
1987    Tula and Wheeled Animal Effigies in Mesoamerica. Antiquity 61: 239-246.

Linné, Sigvald
1951    A Wheeled Toy from Guerrero, Mexico. Ethnos 16.

Stocker, Terry, Barbara Jackson, and Harold Riffell
1986    Wheeled Figurines from Tula, Hidalgo, Mexico. Mexicon 8 (4): 69-72.