Modern cities offer insight into how Ancient settlements developed

February 12, 2014

Feb. 12, 2014                                                    Scott Ortman

The old French saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same…” could apply to cities – modern or ancient. That’s because a new study led by Scott Ortman, assistant professor of anthropology at CU-Boulder, found that development patterns in modern urban areas are similar to ancient cities settled thousands of years ago.

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Modern cities offer insight into how Ancient settlements developed

Feb. 12, 2014                                                    Scott Ortman

          The old French saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same…” could apply to cities – modern or ancient. That’s because a new study led by Scott Ortman, assistant professor of anthropology at CU-Boulder, found that development patterns in modern urban areas are similar to ancient cities settled thousands of years ago.

CUT 1 “Many people think that modern cities are something unique and that are a radically new kind of human organization. (:10) What our studies suggest is that it might be better to view modern cities as lying on a continuum with human settlements throughout the course of our history in all context across time and space.” (:21)

           Ortman’s colleagues at the Santa Fe Institute have developed mathematical models that describe how modern cities change as their populations grow. For example, scientists know that as a population increases, its settlement area becomes denser, while infrastructure needs per capita decrease and economic production per capita rises.

CUT 2 “Patterns from contemporary cities show that as the population of a city doubles the productivity of the group goes up 115 percent but the energy needs of the group only go up 85 percent. So the modern data suggests that there is a strong economy scale in contemporary cities. (:22) The question is whether those same kinds of economies were there in the past or whether there is something specific to modern cities that generates that.” (:30)

          To answer that question, Ortman used data that had been collected in the 1960s from about 1,500 settlements in central Mexico that spanned from 1,150 years B.C. through the Aztec period, which ended about 500 years ago. The data included the number of dwellings identified, the total settled area and the density of potsherds scattered on the surface. Taken together, these artifacts give an indication of the total population numbers and settlement density of the ancient sites.

CUT 3 “What we found in our work is that it appears that the economies of scale that emerge in modern cities emerge from the same processes that lead to the same economy in ancient societies, too.” (:10)

          Ortman says the findings of the new study may also be useful to studies of modern societies. Because ancient settlements were typically less complex than today’s cities, they offer a simple “model system” for testing the equations devised to explain modern cities.

CUT 4 “In many other fields of science great insights come from working with relatively simple examples of a phenomenon and to the extent that ancient cities were smaller and simpler than modern ones there is a sense in which they provide an especially clear way of testing our emerging ideas about what makes modern cities work. (:20) So the idea that archaeological studies might help us design better cities for our future is a striking thought and one that I find pretty exciting.” (:30)  

-CU-

The study is available at http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0087902.

Contact:

Scott Ortman, 303-492-6064

Scott.Ortman@colorado.edu

Laura Snider, CU media relations, 303-735-0528

Laura.Snider@colorado.edu

 

 

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