Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Urban Revolution, now online

V. Gordon Childe at Skara Brae in Orkney
The journal Town Planning Review is making articles from its special 100th Anniversary issues, (the "Centenary papers") available online without charge. Take a look. This journal published V. Gordon Childe's very important and influential paper "The Urban Revolution" in 1950. When I heard they were soliciting papers for this anniversary celebration, I suggested that an update on the Urban Revolution would be appropriate. They agreed, and in 2009 published my paper, "V. Gordon Childe and the Urban Revolution: An Historical Perspective on a Revolution in Urban Studies." Now you can access that paper, and the other centenary papers, for free at the journal. One thing I pointed out in my article was that Childe's 1950 article was one of the most widely-cited papers published by an archaeologist, even though it was in a planning journal rather than an archaeology journal.

Pyramid at Teopanzolco, an early Aztec city
Many people remain confused about just what is meant by the phrase "Urban Revolution." Childe did NOT use the phrase to describe the origins of cities. Rather, he used it as a label for the transition from smaller-scale societies to urban, state-level societies. In other words, the Urban Revolution refers to much larger societal changes, such as the growth of social inequality, the formation of centralized governments, the origins of writing, and the development of specialized economies. And, of course, the rise of the first cities. Childe's point was that the Urban Revolution signaled a series of fundamental and related social changes, and not just the origins of cities.

While Childe's model of the Urban Revolution remains important and influential today, I now tend to see urbanism as a broader phenomenon that just cities in state societies. I think that a number of non-state level societies (many chiefdoms) have urban centers, and that the various characteristics of the "Urban Revolution" in fact developed at different rates in different areas. That is, they did not come as a single package, all developing at the same time. But still, the end result of the transformation from small-scale societies to early urban states  was a radical new kind of society. The Urban Revolution was, in my mind, the single greatest social transformation in the history of our species.

Check some of my former posts on the Urban Revolution, check out Childe's paper, and take a look at mine too:

"Myths of the Urban Revolution"

"Was the Urban Revolution really a revolution"

 Childe, V. Gordon  (1950)  The Urban Revolution. Town Planning Review 21:3-17.

Smith, Michael E.  (2009)  V. Gordon Childe and the Urban Revolution: An Historical Perspective on a Revolution in Urban Studies. Town Planning Review 80:3-29.  You can get this paper on the TPR site, or on my website.

Ur, one of the earliest cities

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Teotihuacan and the origins of market economies

Teotihuacan from the air; old photo
The great ancient city of Teotihuacan is of crucial importance for understanding how market economies originated and grew in ancient times. When and how did commercial institutions such as marketplaces, shops, money, and merchants develop? There are only a few places in the world where archaeologists have identified a trajectory that goes from early non-commercial economies to later commercialized societies, and Teotihuacan sits right in the middle of one of those sequences. Prior Mesoamerican societies such as the Olmec almost certainly lacked commercial institutions, but by the time Cortés conquered Mexico, the Aztecs had active marketplaces, entrepreneurial professional merchants, money, and a profit motive. How and when did these institutions develop? Teotihuacan is key to answering this question. Archaeologists have some information about the city's economy, but not enough to determine its level of commercialization.When this gap is filled, it will greatly illuminate our understanding of how market economies developed in the ancient past.
Aztec merchants (Sahagún)

Today the market runs the world. Capitalism has triumphed, and it is now so pervasive that many people have trouble even thinking about what a non-market economy would look like. Our most recent examples are the socialist countries of eastern Europe and Asia, and in those cases state-controlled, non-market economies have either failed or they have transformed into some variant of capitalism.

What about ancient societies? How far back can market economies be traced? Before the Urban Revolution, markets were either absent, or else they played a very minor role. Societies and economies were small and organized through face-to-face contacts. It is often difficult to even single out "the economy" as a distinct sphere in these small-scale societies, since production and exchange were deeply embedded within kinship groups and customary practices.

Some of the early states had commercial institutions like markets, money, and merchants, but how common were these? For decades archaeologists, anthropologists, and ancient historians were locked in a rather narrow academic debate about such economies. On one side were the "formalists," who claimed that modern economic rationality is universal in human societies, and that the models and methods of economics can be applied to all societies. The market is (and was) everywhere. On the other side were the "substantivists" (e.g., Karl Polanyi) who insisted that the market was a capitalist invention of the past few centuries, and that ancient states lacked markets and commercial economies. As in many such debates, both sides were right, and both sides were wrong (see basic textbooks in economic anthropology on this; Wilk and Cligett 2007 is probably the best one).

Today we know that ancient states had widely varying economic systems. The Mesopotamians and Aztecs had commercialized economies, but the Egyptians and Inka lacked markets and commercial institutions; they were command economies (see Smith 2004). The Greeks and Romans lined up with their ancestors, the Mesopotamians, but we still haven't figured out the level of commercial development in ancient China and India. Or Teotihuacan.
Pre-coinage silver money from Eridu

The ancient Mesopotamian economy featured money for millennia before the (Greek) invention of coinage. Babyloniam merchants were highly entrepreneurial. Money-lending was common, as was a real estate market and other commercial practices and institutions. One of the truly fascinating aspects of this economy is that commercial institutions developed as part of the state and large temples. The market did not originate in opposition to the state, but as PART of the state! Try telling that to laissez-faire capitalists today! Later, of course, markets became independent of governments, but things were not always that way. See Michael Hudson's works on this (listed below).

What about ancient Mesoamerica? The first Mesoamerican peoples seen by a European--in Christopher Columbus's fourth voyage--were Maya merchants, paddling a huge canoe in the Caribbean, filled with trade goods, money, and metal smelting supplies. At that time, commercial institutions were widespread, not only in Aztec central Mexico, but from northern Mexico to Costa Rica. Frances Berdan and I (Smith & Bercan 2003) suggested that market economies developed after the fall of Teotihuacan, during the period when the Aztecs rose to prominence; other archaeologists place the transition earlier. But the fact is that we really don't know, and Teotihuacan is the key here.

Aztec market (from Durán)
Why don't we know much about the economy of Classic-period Teotihuacan? First, we need better data. Most of the excavations at Teotihuacan have simply not targeted the kinds of contexts, or recovered the kind of materials, needed to determine the level of commercialization of the economy. We know that Teotihuacan ruled a small empire, that its craft specialists produced many goods, and that its merchants traded widely in Mesoamerica. But these and other features of the city are consistent with both a commercial economy and a command economy. We need more excavations of residential compounds, with full quantification of the artifacts.

The second reason we are still in the dark about markets at Teotihuacan is methodological. Scholars need to apply current models for the identification of market economies to Teotihuacan. As summarized by Feinman and Garraty (2010), and the papers in Garraty and Stark (2010), many of these models focus on the quantitative analysis of household artifacts. The idea is that commercial economies affect the kinds and quantities of goods consumed by commoners, and therefore commercial market exchange can be identified by the quantitative analysis of domestic inventories. In spite of an active program of research on the economy of Teotihuacan (Carballo 2013; Cowgill 2008), the new models have not yet been applied to the site. This work will require rigorous analysis of artifacts, using the ASU Teotihuacan Research Facility at the site.

Suppose that Teotihuacan turns out to have a highly commercialized economy. That would suggest a deep history for markets in Mesoamerica, with the implication that markets may have developed in early, pre-urban societies. But if the economy of Teotihuacan turns out to be only weakly commercialized, then the origin and spread of market systems was probably linked to the processes of population growth, political centralization in small polities, and growing inter-regional connections that characterized Postclassic Mesoamerica (Smith and Berdan 2003). It would mean that Mesoamerican urban state societies were perfectly capable of operating successfully without the strong markets that came along in the Aztec period.

But whichever of these pictures turns out to be more accurate, data from Teotihuacan will go a long ways toward answering some of the fundamental questions on human society and its development over the long run. Stay tuned; I plan to explore the relevance of Teotihuacan for other basic human questions in future posts. As a prominent component of the Wide Urban World, Teotihuacan has much to teach us.


Carballo, David M.  (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.

Cowgill, George L.  (2008)  An Update on Teotihuacan. Antiquity 82:962-975.

Feinman, Gary M. and Christopher P. Garraty  (2010)  Preindustrial Markets and Marketing: Archaeological Perspectives. Annual Review of Anthropology 39:167-191.

Garraty, Christopher P. and Barbara L. Stark (editors)  (2010)  Archaeological Approaches to Market Exchange in Ancient Societies. University Press of Colorado, Boulder.

Hudson, Michael  (2004)  The Archaeology of Money: Debt versus Barter Theories of Money's Origins. In Credit and State Theories of Money: The Contributions of A. Mitchell Innes, edited by L. Randall Wray, pp. 99-127. Edward Elgar Publishing, Northamton, MA.

Hudson, Michael  (2010)  Entrepreneurs: From the Near Eastern Takeoff to the Roman Collapse. In The Invention of Enterprise: Entrepreneurship from Ancient Mesopotamia to Modern Times, edited by David S. Landes, Joel Mokyr and William J. Baumol, pp. 8-39. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Hudson, Michael and Baruch A. Levine (editors)  (1996)  Privatization in the Ancient Near East and Classical World. Peabody Museum Bulletin vol. 5. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge.

Smith, Michael E.  (2004)  The Archaeology of Ancient State Economies. Annual Review of Anthropology 33:73-102.

Smith, Michael E. and Frances F. Berdan (editors)  (2003)  The Postclassic Mesoamerican World. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Wilk, Richard R. and Lisa C. Cliggett  (2007)  Economies and Cultures: Foundations of Economic Anthropology. 2nd ed. Westview Press, Boulder, CO.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Urban scaling: Cities as social reactors

Classes are back in session, so it’s time to get this blog back in gear. (NOTE: I made some updates to correct a few things on September 24.)

I’m going to start with one of the most exciting areas of research today: the scaling of city size. The basic paper is Bettencourt et al. (2007), which started the current wave of scaling work. The major players have been physicists Luis Bettencourt and Geoffrey West, and economist José Lobo. Luis Bettencourt's recent paper in the journal Science (Bettencourt 2013) is an attempt to develop a formal model of how urban scaling works. See also a number of associated works (Bettencourt et al. 2007; Bettencourt et al. 2010; Gomez-Lievano et al. 2012; Lobo et al. 2013). The math of these models is far beyond me, but I think I am beginning to understand the basic ideas and concepts.

Scaling research begins with the observation that urban social and economic phenomena increase or become more intensive with city size. Larger cities not only have more people and cover larger areas, but they have more economic activity, more buildings and roads, more crime, more coffeehouses, more banjo-pickers, more drug addicts, and so on. While this is hardly anything new or exciting, it turns out that the mathematical relationships between population and urban phenomena follow two distinct patterns—both are power laws, expressing exponential change—that are called sublinear scaling and superlinear scaling. The first remarkable finding of scaling research is that these two patterns are numerically consistent, regardless of the sample of cities one considers, or which urban factors one is measuring.

Fig. 1. Sub-linear scaling. From Bettencourt 2013
Let’s consider sublinear scaling first. Power law relationships are often portrayed on a double-logarithmic graph (each unit on the axes represents an increase of a power of ten), where the values will fall on a straight line whose slope is equal to the power law’s exponent. Sublinear scaling refers to relationships whose exponent is less than one. Bettencourt and colleagues found that urban infrastructure scales with population in a sublinear pattern, with an exponent approximately equal to 5/6, or 0.83. That is, whether one considers the length of roads, the total length of electrical cables or pipes, or paved area, these quantities exhibit sublinear scaling with urban population in a range of samples of modern cities (Figure 1, where infrastructure is compared to the gray line with an exponent of one). These patterns are analogous to the way that metabolism scales with body size across animal species, a body of research known as metabolic scaling theory (Mitchell 2009:chaps. 16, 17). This makes sense in that the body’s metabolic infrastructure (circulatory and nervous systems) consists of branching patterns, much like roads and cables in cities.

Fig. 2, Superlinear scaling. From Bettencourt 2013.
The second pattern of urban scaling is superlinear scaling. In this pattern, the social outputs have an exponent greater than one, a pattern not found in the nonhuman animal kingdom. Whether you plot income, patents, GDP, crime, or poverty, these social outputs increase at a rate much faster than the increase in population. Even the number of rock bands in a city scales with population in a superlinear pattern! (José Lobo, personal communication). Figure 2 shows this pattern, with an exponent of 1.13 (compared to the black “linear” pattern of exponent one). In urban economics, these results are described as productivity gains that result from economies of scale, the mobility of labor, knowledge spillovers, and other effects of agglomeration economies (Krugman 1991; Storper 2010).

But in fact the causes of superlinear scaling of social outputs are more fundamental than urban agglomeration economies. They lie in the nature of human interaction within a given space. As the number of people in a settlement increases, the number of potential human interactions increases exponentially. This fact, which underlies the superlinear scaling of cities, was used earlier by Roland Fletcher (1996) as the basis of a model describing how behavior and the built environment change with increasing settlement size.This is the sense in which cities are “social reactors” (Bettencourt’s term) that magnify the effects of spatially-delimited social interaction to create even greater levels of social output, whether positive (such as wealth and innovation) or negative (e.g., crime and poverty). One implication of this research is that there is no fundamental difference between large and small cities in the nature of their growth and the role of social interactions (thanks to José Lobo for pointing this out to me).

From Bettencourt and West's paper in Nature.
Physicists Luis Bettencourt and Geoffrey West talk about these patterns as “laws” of urbanism (Bettencourt and West 2010). The patterns seem consistent, and together with José Lobo and others, they have come up with mathematical formulae to predict or capture the scaling results. My first reaction to all this, when I started reading this material, was negative. As a social scientist, the notion that human social behavior follows universal “laws” seems seriously misguided. But the kind of regularities described by urban scaling laws are not patterns of actual human behavior; rather they are patterns in the aggregate outcomes of large numbers of social interactions.

One requirement of these laws is that people must move to larger cities. But they do that for many different reasons. There is no “law” describing how or why people move to cities. Not only is each decision unique, but the patterns of movement have many different social causes (e.g., employment needs; desire for a more varied social setting; following family members; etc.). But if and when people do move to larger cities, and if certain other conditions are met, then the resulting regularities can be described as laws that operate on a higher level of generality than the actual behavior and institutions studied by social scientists. In short, I no longer see a contraction between the messy but patterned realities of social life as described by sociologists, anthropologists, and others, and the existence of laws of city size at a higher (or perhaps I should say, a more fundamental) level.

I’m sure that the burning question on everyone’s mind right now is whether premodern cities conform to the same scaling laws. Do the sizes, infrastructures, and social outputs of cities before the modern era fit the pattern?  I think they should, but this must be addressed as an empirical question before going too far with the theory. The problem is that while it is not too hard to estimate the populations of past cities, it is really difficult to measure social outputs. Stay tuned...


2013    The Origins of Scaling in Cities. Science 340: 1438-1441.

2007    Growth, Innovation, Scaling, and the Pace of Life in Cities. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104: 7301-7306.

2010    Urban Scaling and its Deviations: Revealing the Structure of Wealth, Innovation and Crime Across Cities. PLoS One 5 (11): 1-9.

2010    A Unified Theory of Urban Living. Nature 467: 912-913.

1995    The Limits of Settlement Growth: A Theoretical Outline. Cambridge University Press, New York.

2012    The Statistics of Urban Scaling and Their Connection to Zipf’s Law. PLoS ONE 7 (7): e40393.

1991    Increasing Returns and Economic Geography. Journal of Political Economy 99: 483-499.

2013    Urban Scaling and the Production Function for Cities. PLoS ONE 8 (3): e58407.

2009    Complexity: A Guided Tour. Oxford University Press, New York.

2010    Why Does a City Grow? Specialisation, Human Capital or Institutions? Urban Studies 47 (10): 2027-2050.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Ancient Maya cities are being destroyed

Maya pyramid being destroyed in Belize
A Maya pyramid (well, an ex-pyramid) at the ancient Maya city of Nohmul in Belize, Central America, is in the news this week. It seems that a local road builder decided the pyramid was the most convenient place to get road fill, so he went along merrily destroying the ancient pyramid. The main story is here; you can also check out a slightly earlier news story from Belize.

Unfortunately, this kind of thing goes on all the time. Hundreds of sites are seriously damaged, and even destroyed, every year. It turns out that most of the areas with the richest record of ancient urban sites happen to be some of the poorest countries in the world today. Belize has thousands of Maya ruins, but the country only has the resources to protect a small number of them. Mexico is a far richer country, with a far larger government archaeological agency to protect sites. But Mexico is also a very large country, with many tens of thousands of sites. There is no way that any of these countries can actively protect even a small part of their archaeological heritage.

Maya polychrome vase
Why should sites need protection? While the Maya site apparently was destroyed for the convenience of a local company, most of the sites are destroyed for international commercial interests. Looters find valuable artifacts, which they sell to antiquities traffickers, who in turn sell the objects to private galleries, mostly in the U.S., Europe, and Japan. If you can get a Maya polychrome vase to New York, Sotehby's can auction it off for anywhere from $10,000 to $300,000. Make that an Egyptian statue, for sale in London or Tokyo, and you are talking millions of dollars. Now the rich art collectors aren't the ones out there looting sites in the jungle. Big bucks are dangled in front of poor local people, who are happy to destroy a site or two for the boost in income it brings.
Egyptian statue

In Columbia, the big targets are deep tombs (called "shaft tombs") whose offerings contain many objects of gold. There is a recognized occupation of tomb robber in the country; they are called "huaqueros" ("huaca" means shrine or tomb). The huaqueros are better at locating tombs than are archaeologists.

Huaquero at work, looting a tomb in Colombia
 Even though looting sites and tombs is illegal in most countries (but NOT in the U.S !!!), their governments cannot protect all the sites. If sites are going to survive, it is up to local people to protect them. Many governments, schools, and other organizations sponsor public education programs to enlist people in the task of appreciating and protecting their local archaeological heritage. I directed excavations in Yautepec, Mexico, an Aztec city that was located under a modern city. We gave lots of lectures at the local schools, and we participated in a program where 6th grade classes visited our
I'm talking to school kids in Yautepec
excavations every Friday to learn what we were doing and why the site is important. We excavated Aztec houses in two schoolyards in Yautepec, and hundreds of kids got a close-up view of how we were uncovering the city built by their ancestors. I'm talking to some elementary-school kids in the photo, and a U.S. undergraduate (Nili Badanowski) is screening dirt in the background.

Many people got the message: the ruins in and around town were built by the ancestors of the people of Yautepec. This is their history, their heritage, and they need to protect it. There are few written documents, so archaeology is the only way to learn about the city's past. In Yautepec, the local equivalent of the YMCA (actually, a government health and recreation center, IMSS) put up an exhibit of artifacts from the excavations, where everyone in town got a chance to see them (and, my daughters, Heather and April, went to summer camp there!).
Looters at a site in the United States

Looted site in Iraq

There is information about Yautepec on this website, or see my book, The Aztecs (3rd edition, 2012, Blackwell Publishers). For looting and the antiquities trade, check out some of these books:

Atwood, Roger
2004    Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World. St. Martin's Press, New York.

Brodie, Neil and Kathryn Walker Tubb (editors)
2002    Illicit Antiquities: The Theft of Culture and the Extinction of Archaeology. Routledge, New York.

Renfrew, Colin
2000    Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership: The Ethical Crisis in Archaeology. Duckworth, London.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Cities outside of history?

Mayapan, a Maya city
Did cities exist in the New World prior to the European conquest? Of course they did! If you have any doubt, take a look at some of my books or my articles as posted on my website (and much other work on Mesoamerica and the Andes). But according to a new reference work, the Oxford Handbook of Cities in World History (Peter Clark, editor, 2013, Oxford University Press), either there were no cities in the ancient New World, or else those cities were not part of "World History." Hmmmmmm. I don't much like either choice.

The first section of that work, called "Early Cities," has five survey sections:
Where are the cities of the Aztec, Maya, or Inka? What about the Zapotec or the Moche, the Toltec or Tiwanaku, the Mixtec or Chimu? Would it have been that hard to solicit some chapters on these urban traditions? It would be hard to argue that there were cities in ancient Africa and South Asia, but not the ancient New World. Was this a deliberate exclusion of the New World as unwelcome in a volume on "world history," or was this just laziness and ignorance?
Tiwanaku, and Andean City

So I did some checking. The chapter "Introduction" (by Peter Clark) contains this sentence:

"in Latin America Mayan, Aztec, and Inca urban networks appear to have grown in the Yucatán and Guatemala, in the Mexico valley, and in present-day Colombia (see Ch. 20)."

So it looks like the editor, Peter Clark, does acknowledge "urban networks" in the New World (although they don't warrant chapters of their own). But take a closer look. What could he mean by the phrase "appear to have grown"? This seems to suggest that perhaps they did not grow (and, by implication, that these societies were non-urban). And the geographic terms show a real ignorance of
Tenochtitlan, Aztec imperial capital
the distribution of New World urban traditions. Maya cities thrived not only in "the Yucatan" (an archaic phrasing, apparently referring to the Mexican state of Yucatan, or perhaps the Yucatan Peninsula) and Guatemala, but also in Chiapas, Belize, and Honduras. The homeland of Aztec cities was the
"Valley of Mexico", not "the Mexico valley"; yes this is a minor point, but one term is correct and the other is incorrect. And the Inka did NOT flourish in Colombia. The Inka were based in Peru, and their empire (and its imperial cities) reached into Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina, but NOT Colombia. Now maybe I am being overly-picky here, but I think the phrase quoted above shows a serious ignorance of New World societies, geography, and urbanism.
Machu Picchu, Inka royal retreat

The Oxford Handbook of Cities in World History does not completely leave out Mesoamerica and the Andes. The chapter referenced in the quote above, chapter 20, is by Felipe Fernández-Armesto; the chapter is called "Latin America." The main focus of that chapter is Latin America AFTER the Spanish conquest, but Fernández-Armesto does begin with a competent section called "Indigenous traditions" that does review the Maya, Aztec and Inka urban traditions. This chapter is from a section titled "Pre-Modern Cities."

According to the scheme set out in this reference work, the New World joins "World History" only after
Monte Alban, Zapotec city
 1492, when the Europeans arrived. The native urban traditions are not worth chapters or sections of their own; rather, their only value is to set the scene for the development of the colonial societies after European conquest.

This isn't the only time I've seen works in the field coming to be known as "World History" that are ignorant of native New World societies. Perhaps this is the difference between comparative schemes by anthropologists (these are almost always truly world-wide in coverage) and those by historians (many such works see "history" as only pertaining to the western tradition, its antecedents, and sometimes places like Africa or Asia.)

To  my mind, the Wide Urban World covers the entire world, through time from the earliest cities to the present. If we really want to comprehend cities and urbanism, a broad perspective is essential. Archaeologists have long appreciated the value of an inclusive comparative framework, and scholars of contemporary urbanization are starting to look to ancient and premodern cities as a source of ideas to better understand cities and their problems today and in the future (I'll blog about that before long). In contrast, it seems like some scholars of "world history" have not yet gotten the news. Do you want to know, for example, about the role of cities in imperial expansion? Why not take a look at the ruins of Pikillakta and other cities built by the Wari Empire of the Middle Horizon Andes. This is only one of many examples of New World urbanism that can illuminate broader questions in ancient and modern society and urbanism, as part of the wide urban world.

Piquillakta, administrative city of the Wari Empire

Some sources on Pikillakta and the administrative cities of the Wari Empire:

 Isbell, William H. and Gordon McEwan (editors)
1991    Huari Administrative Structures. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC.

Jennings, Justin (editor)
2010    Beyond Wari Walls : Regional Perspectives on Middle Horizon Peru. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

McEwan, Gordon
1996    Archaeological Investigations at Pikillacta, a Wari Site in Peru. Journal of Field Archaeology 23: 169-186.

McEwan, Gordon F.
1987    The Middle Horizon in the Valley of Cuzco, Peru: The Impact of the Wari Occupation of the Lucre Basin. BAR, International Series, vol. 372. British Archaeological Reports, Oxford.

Schreiber, Katharina J.
1992    Wari Imperialism in Middle Horizon Peru. Anthropological Papers, vol. 87. Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

2001    The Wari Empire of Middle Horizon Peru: The Epistemological Challenge of Documenting an Empire Without Documentary Evidence. In Empires: Perspectives from Archaeology and History, edited by Susan E. Alcock, Terence N. D'Altroy, Kathleen D. Morrison, and Carla M. Sinopoli, pp. 70-92. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Teotihuacan, Ancient Mesoamerican Metropolis

Here are the top ten reasons why Teotihuacan is the most important ancient city of the Americas.
View down the Avenue of the Dead, from the Pyramid of the Moon


(1) Teotihuacan was one of the earliest cities in the New World.

I hesitate to call Teotihuacan THE earliest city, for several reasons. First, that designation depends on one's definition of city and urbanism; and second, archaeologists continue to locate new cities and provide better dating for known cities. Nevertheless, Teotihuacan ("Teo" for short) was AN early city in central Mexico, certainly the earliest large city in the region. Teo was founded several centuries before Christ, and it reached its height between about 200 and 600 AD.

(2) Teotihuacan was one of the largest cities in the world.

Population estimates for Teotihuacan range from under 100,000 to as many as 200,000 residents, living in an urban area larger than 20 square km. Early in its period, Constantinople had over 400,000 residents, and by the end of Teo's height Chang'an in China had that many people or more. Teotihuacan was not far behind, and it was clearly the largest city in the New World.

(3) Teotihuacan was the most extensively planned ancient city in the New World.

Central Teotihuacan

After an initial period of settlement, the city of Teotihuacan was rebuilt following an orthogonal grid plan. Nearly every one of the several thousand buildings was lined up with the approximately North-South alignment of the "Avenue of the Dead." While I have written articles arguing that ancient urban planning was far more varied than just the grid plan (see article here), the degree of central political control implied by the Teo grid is impressive. The city's rulers clearly had considerable power to enforce their will, destroying irrigated farmland for urban development, and making all buildings conform to the main grid. Urban planning in ancient cities can be measured by the degree of coordination among buildings and spaces (very high at Teo), and by the area to which the planning is applied (again, large at Teo).

(4) Teotihuacan looked more like a modern city than other ancient cities did.

Of course past cities should be judged on their own merits, and their resemblance (or not) to modern cities is irrelevant to how we understand their operation and significance. But on the other hand, the resemblance of Teotihuacan to modern cities is striking, and that is an interesting observation. The major features that the city shares with U.S. grid-planned cities (such as Phoenix) include: its use of orthogonal grid planning; its large size; its overall spatial pattern, with big civic buildings in the center and low-rise residences spreading out for miles; and its location in a semi-arid environment where irrigation agriculture was important. So what do these similarities imply? Good question. Minimally, this is just one of many fascinating traits of Teotihuacan.


(5) Teotihuacan was the setting for a radical social experiment.

Apartment compound
Apartment compound
Teotihuacan stands out as radically different from most Mesoamerican cities along a number of social dimensions. First, the orthogonal planning is highly distinct. Second, the housing (large multi-family apartment compounds) is far more standardized and regimented than in other cities. Third, many of the artifacts seem greatly standardized. And fourth, we have virtually no information about the rulers of Teotihuacan. There are no sculptures or paintings of their faces, and archaeologists are not even sure which building was the royal palace. Many Teotihuacan scholars think that these features are evidence for a radical social experiment in regimented and anonymous living. From my perspective as an urban scholar, I am impressed by the complete divergence of Teotihuacan from older and established canons of Mesoamerican urban planning (I have an earlier post on this). Again, the urban layout points to a radical social change early in the city's history.

(6) Teotihuacan influenced later societies such as the Toltecs and the Aztecs.

The Teo feathered serpent evolved into the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl

The capital cities that followed immediately upon Teotihuacan's collapse--Xochicalco, Teotenango, Cacaxtla, Xochitecatl--all returned to ancient Mesoamerican principles of urban planning and layout. Their rulers apparently rejected the Teo innovations (grid planning, arranged around an avenue rather than a plaza, etc.). While some of my colleagues have claimed that the next really large city--Tula (height, AD 900-1100)--was a copy of Teotihuacan, in fact Tula fits in with those other cities listed above in following the basic Mesoamerican urban plan. The rulers of Tula evidently rejected the Teo innovations also. But when the Aztecs came along (they were immigrants from northern Mexico), they were really impressed with the ruins of Teotihuacan and Tula. While the Aztecs invented stories that their kings were descended from the kings of Tula, they looked to Teo as the origin of the universe. Several of the Aztec origin myths were set in Teotihuacan, and the names we use today (such as "Pyramid of the Sun" and "Avenue of the Dead") were in fact the names that the Aztecs gave to the ruined features of Teotihuacan. Aztec kings even went to excavate at Teo, and brought back Teo objects to bury as offerings at the major temple.

(7) Teotihuacan’s trading and conquests affected much of Mesoamerica.

Tikal (Maya city): the platform at left was built in Teo style
The foreign influence of Teotihuacan was greater than any other Mesoamerican city. First, Teo was capital of a small empire that conquered much of central Mexico. While this empire was far smaller than the later Aztec empire, two other kinds of Teo influence stretched farther afield than the Aztecs managed to go. Teotihuacan engaged in trade with most of the known parts of Mesoamerica. Its merchants or officials controlled the major obsidian quarries near Pachuca, and the distinctive green-tinted Pachuca obsidian was traded by Teotihuacan merchants to the Maya region and beyond. Indeed, even a central Mexicanist like me managed to excavate some green obsidian blades in the six months my wife and I worked at the Maya city of Copan in Honduras. And then another kind of Teo influence--architectural and royal styles--also spread throughout Mesoamerica, including the Maya realm. Teo style was the "in" style, the "Gangnam style," of its period. Kings all over Mesoamerica built temples in the distinctive Teo style, and Teotihuacan royal costume elements became the rage among Maya kings. No Aztec empire, trade, or stylistic influence spread nearly so far as that of Teotihuacan.

(8) Teotihuacan is one of the most extensively studied ancient cities in the Americas.

19th C. painting by José María Velasco

Countless archaeologists have worked at Teotihuacan over the decades. Formal archaeological work started in the nineteenth century. Mexican teams cleared much of the architecture along the Avenue of the Dead in preparation for the Mexican Olympic Games in 1968. René Millon and George Cowgill mapped the city in its entirety in the 1960s and 1970s.  William Sanders surveyed the surrounding countryside in the 1950s and 1960s. Many projects by Mexican, U.S., European, and Japanese archaeologists have uncovered the apartment compounds and temples of Teotihuacan. Rubén Cabrera has excavated counless buildings at Teo, and Linda Manzanilla has directed a varied program of high-quality recent fieldwork at the site. Several excavation projects have located royal tombs under the  main pyramids at the site. There are two major continuously-functioning laboratories at the site, one sponsored by the Mexican government and one by Arizona State University. My colleague George Cowgill is the preeminent Teo scholar today, and his publications give the best overviews of the site.

(9) Teotihuacan is a World Heritage Site visited my millions of tourists each year.

Tourists climb the Pyramid of the Moon

The importance of Teotihuacan is recognized all over the world, and millions of tourists visit the site each year. While this volume of visitors can damage the ruins, there are many benefits of public exposure. People learn about the Mexican past, about the work of archaeologists, and about the distinctiveness of a great ancient city. The site is an official UNESCO World Heritage site.

(10) I wrote my senior honors thesis on Teotihuacan

My first season in Mexico (at Tula)

Okay, so this is not really a reason for the greatness or importance of ancient Teotihuacan. But for me, writing a senior honors thesis on Teotihuacan (directed by George Cowgill at Brandeis University) was a transformative experience. Intellectually, that project stimulated and cemented my interests in Mesoamerican archaeology and in the study of ancient cities. I lived for a summer in San Juan Teotihuacan, a village built on top of the ancient city, and split my time between working in the Teo laboratory and doing fieldwork with William Sanders (and visiting Tula; see photo). I left Mexico that year in love with the country, the people, the food, the music, and (especially), the archaeology. And after several decades, I am still going back to central Mexico every year.

A Few Publications on Teotihuacan:

Cowgill, George L.
1997    State and Society at Teotihuacan, Mexico. Annual Review of Anthropology 26: 129-161.

2007    The Urban Organization of Teotihuacan, Mexico. In Settlement and Society: Essays Dedicated to Robert McCormick Adams, edited by Elizabeth C. Stone, pp. 261-295. Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, UCLA, Los Angeles.

2008    An Update on Teotihuacan. Antiquity 82: 962-975.

Manzanilla, Linda (editor)
1993    Anatomía de un conjunto residencial teotihuacano en Oztoyahualco. 2 vols. Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico City.

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

Millon, René
1992    Teotihuacan Studies: From 1950 to 1990 and Beyond. In Art, Ideology, and the City of Teotihuacan, edited by Janet C. Berlo, pp. 339-429. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC.

Millon, René, R. Bruce Drewitt, and George L. Cowgill
1973    Urbanization at Teotihuacan, Mexico, Volume 1: The Teotihuacan Map, Part 2: Maps. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Sugiyama, Saburo
2004    Human Sacrifice, Militarism, and Rulership: The Symbolism of the Feathered Serpent Pyramid at Teotihuacan, Mexico. Cambridge University Press, New York.