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An archaeologist identifies urban areas as key aggregators of human social experience

Cities: The First 6,000 Years

Monica L. Smith
Viking
2019
301 pp.
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As global urbanization continues unabated, the common gesture in urban planning, urban ecology, and urban studies is to think—and often worry—forward, not backward. Analysts tend to focus on what is unprecedented in this “Urban Age,” a posture that can sometimes obscure our view of historical processes. Monica L. Smith’s Cities: The First 6,000 Years invites readers to consider instead how many of the conditions we regard as novel are deeply rooted in the genesis of the city itself. To do this, the book revisits the rise of the first known urban developments, asking anew why they came into being.

Thinking globally about urbanism, and doing so across six millennia, requires the reader to think of “the city” as a singular category: a universal type of human settlement with characteristics that defy specific geographic places or cultural contexts. Once one suspends the impulse to focus on what makes the rise of particular cities distinct, Smith guides her reader to notice the common attributes that make them commensurate as “cities.”

The city here is a place where opportunities for intense interactions and diverse experiences are constantly present, be they social, economic, or political. It is a place in which, according to Smith, “unfamiliarity became the measure of human relations”—the opposite of the rural village context, where social experiences are considered more homogeneous. Although drawing a clean conceptual binary between the rural and the urban is quite uncommon in contemporary urban studies, doing so, to follow Smith’s arguments, illuminates patterns and continuities that are often overlooked.

The book engages a simple question: “‘Why cities?’ Are they a natural step in human habitation’s evolution or a response to something else?” Drawing from decades of field and analytical work in archaeology and weaving with it a rich exploration of history, geography, and current research, Smith’s argument places cities at the center of human social experience. For her, the city is a social and material gesture that crosses the many and varied forms of human social difference, a modality of interconnection and mutual dependence.

To illustrate this, the book points to instances of the first meeting between representatives of entirely different societies, such as the Spanish at Tenochtitlan. The Spanish were immersed in unknowns of all kinds: landscapes, languages, foods, animals, and plants. And yet, when they arrived at Tenochtitlan, “…they knew exactly what they were looking at and how it functioned.” Although they may not have instantly understood how cultural and political life there operated, Smith argues that its infrastructure and built form features were “instantly readable” as a city. This, and many other examples, lead Smith across her sweeping history of the “universality of the urban form.”

The question is especially compelling when explored through the eyes of an archaeologist such as Smith. Throughout the book, the reader comes to know the city through artifacts, guided to appreciate them as signposts of urbanization alongside the contemporary challenges of unearthing them.

The book does not attempt a linear timeline of city development, and so there is no definitive first city here. Smith selects a good example of an early city instead, using Tell Brak—an ancient city in northeastern Syria—to illustrate one place that offered those who lived there new economic and social trajectories, new forms of entrepreneurship and strategies for living close to unfamiliar people, and new architectural forms.

We are further reminded that the earliest cities did not always rise in the most habitable locales; Mesopotamia, for example, was hot and dry, and farming failed on an unpredictable basis. Early cities, then, may have witnessed the rise of strong social connections across differences in part because of the challenging circumstances they presented; people had to be creative, entrepreneurial, and interdependent in order to flourish.

Cities is an unusual and compelling journey from city life in ancient urban centers to the present and beyond. It explores the emergence of language, through which humans could interact in larger and larger groups, and probes the human propensity to seek out novelty within the context of routines. Smith examines a range of urban collective spaces and built forms that have come to characterize distinctly city interactions, reminding her reader throughout that city life enables a “scaling up” of human sociality itself. Cities aggregate and expand the reach of human life lived beyond our individual selves.

By the time the book reaches the Urban Age anxieties of the present, we not only appreciate their proper place within the complex trajectory of cities and their rise, we are compelled to consider Smith’s assertion that cities were, and continue to be, central to human ascendancy—for better or worse.

About the author

The reviewer is in the Departments of Environmental Studies and Anthropology, New York University, New York, NY 10003, USA.