A primary focus of urban anthropology and the archaeology of complex societies is the history of the concept of a city. Scholars generally cite the first city as emerging in 3500 BC in Mesopotamia. Discussions of the city have emerged in anthropological literature in association with that considered urban, both as process and spatial locus. Useful distinctions, first drawn by Kemper within this context, are between anthropology in cities versus anthropology of cities. Equally important are those distinctions between the preindustrial, modern, and postmodern exemplifications of the city. Understanding the process, growth, or history of the city includes consideration of the public and private use and organization of space, architecture, and the economic and sociopolitical life of the inhabitants.
Scholarship focusing on the city began with sociologists locating “society” as being indicative of changes collective humans underwent that ultimately became the city. Early urban sociologists included F. Tonnies (1887), who established the difference between Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society); E. Durkheim (1897), who introduced the concepts of mechanical and organic society; M. Weber (1904), who considered the social structure of a city; L. Wirth (1938), who developed a theory of the characteristic influences of urban life on social organization and attitudes; and R. Redfield (1947), who built on Wirth’s ideas to introduce the folk-urban continuum concept. It was in the 1920s that the Chicago School of Urban Ecology (with R. Park at the University of Chicago) began to focus on issues such as demography, census information, interviews, and historical data, with an emphasis on the social problems within cities, as opposed to the theory of processes of urbanization.
Early Cities in the Old World
The earliest examples of cities in the archaeological record are found in the Old World and date to the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age. Located close to waterways, these cities show evidence of increases in population, centralization of power, organization of trade, and the development of communication and mobility.
In explaining the urban phenomenon, archaeologists first looked to prime movers for theories on why the geopolitics of river valleys would lead to the emergence of a city. Key prime movers were increase in population, the technological advancement of irrigation systems (K. Wittfogel’s “hydraulic society”), and warfare. As opposed to single-factor and linear reasoning, multicausal theories explaining the development of settlements to urban sites are now commonly accepted. One of the key texts for archaeologists has been V. Gordon Childe’s The Urban Revolution (1950), which lists criteria for considering a site “urban.” This list includes domestication of agriculture, change to sedentary lifestyle, monumental and public architecture, burials, craft specialization (ceramic and metal), and the centralization of power. Sites in the Old World such as Jericho, Catal Ho”yu”k, and Mehrgarh are generally thought of as illustrative of the development of urban-ism. The first cities are located within river valley civilizations during the Bronze Age: Mesopotamia (Ur), Egypt (Abydos), the Indus (Harappa), and China (An’Yang). These cities were engaged in the storage of surplus, centralization of power, urban planning, and the establishment of long-distance trade.
Early Cities in the New World
In the Oaxaca Valley, one of the earliest examples of settled trading communities is the Zapotec Culture (2000 BC). Monte Alban was an administrative center that was architecturally developed and politically dominant; however, it was abandoned by 750 BC. In lowland Mesoamerica, the Olmec Culture preset the oncoming Maya as a political force. The city of Tikal (c. 800 BC-AD 900), one of the largest Maya cities, emerged as a powerful political force in Central America. In the highlands, one of the largest cities that emerged in the Valley of Mexico was the site of Teotihuacan (200 BC- AD 750). Teotihuacan is over 21 sq km, and has over 600 pyramids built in its city limits.
In South America, the site of Caral, Peru, demonstrates some of the earliest dates for a city in the New World. Recent dates suggested date Caral to 2600 BC. This 150-acre site consists of a complex of pyramids, plazas, and residential buildings. Other early cultures that demonstrated urban processes were those of El Paraiso (800-500 BC), Chavin (1500-300 BC), and Nazca (600 BC-200 AD). These cities illustrate civic planning and monumental architecture, in addition to evidence of trade and agricultural surplus.
Early Cities: Mediterranean
A major political innovation in Greece (800-700 BC) was the development of the city-state, or polis. These political units were centrally based on a single city. A main characteristic of the city-state was its small size, which allowed for political experimentation. It was within this framework that democracy (primarily during Periklean government, ca. 462-431 BC) first came to be developed as a system where free male citizens constituted a small enough body that policy decisions were able to be made effectively.
Concurrently, in Italy, the Etruscans had established city-states, which ultimately formed into confederacies. These became powerful through trade and political connections. Scholars contend that Etruscan city-states provided the framework for the later Roman Empire. It was during the Roman Empire that individuals living in cities commented upon its sociological effects. Writers such as Cicero (106M3 BC) and Livy (64 or 59 BC-AD 17) began to discuss the various hazards of living in cities (such as Rome), including problems with the lack of urban planning, traffic, noise pollution, predominance of unsanitary areas, fires, collapsing buildings, theft and general crime issues, expressing the need to find meaning in life through “retreats” from city life.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, city-states such as Venice began to flourish around the 6th century AD. The city became associated with maritime powers and controlled trade that flowed from East to West, and vice versa. Venice, as a city-state, was never part of the old Teutonic Empires, but rather maintained its allegiances for centuries with Byzantium. As a city, the interesting aspect of Venice are the more than 200 canals that net-work the city, increasing internal mobility.
Another example of a varied concept of the city is found in the Vijayanagar Empire (AD 1336-1565), which provides the blueprint for a cosmic city in South India. The planned city of Vijayanagara reproduces, in material form, a pattern that can exist in the cosmic realm and a pattern of celestial authority, characterized by three features: a clear orientation and alignment with the cosmos, a symbolism of centrality, and the throne of the sacred king. The city of Vijayanagara is one of the most architecturally elaborate examples of the cosmic city in the world today.
It should be noted that some early scholars of urban anthropology (mis)used the term preindustrial cities to refer to third-world cities in the modern world instead of as a chronological marker, as used in this context.
One of the key examples of the progression to an industrial city is that of Chicago. Chicago was incorporated as a city in 1837. Soon after, the railroad arrived, and Chicago became the chief railroad center for the United States. Due to rapid overpopulation and factory booms, new industrial cities were always in danger of fires. This was an acute problem for cities such as Chicago and Philadelphia, because adequate water systems had still not been put into place, nor were fire houses close to some areas of the city. Chicago saw its big fire by 1871. By the time Ford Motors began the factories for the building of motor vehicles, Chicago had rebuilt itself, extended itself out, and created some of the first evidence for a suburban sprawl. The development of the city of Chicago, and of the diametrically opposite inner cities and suburbia, was directly related to the industrialization of the city and the booming of factory businesses.
The establishment of a planned city is indicative of centralized control and power. Many ancient cities demonstrate evidence of planning and standardization, although the type of urban planning varies region to region. The Indus cities of Mohen-jo-Daro and Harappa are good examples of standardization of building materials and of main aerial streets off which smaller streets emerge. Ancient Rome is another example of the manner in which urban planning was used for civic convenience and military defense purposes. This is in contrast to cities that emerge from organically settled clusters. Despite the ancient illustrations of planned cities, the 5th-century Greek architect Hippodamus (planned the Greek city of Miletus) is often called the “father of urban planning.” Modern examples can be found in most capitals of nations. “New Towns” in Great Britain were developed by long-term loans from the central government and were first authorized by the New Towns Act of 1946. The idea is traced back to a book by E. Howard on garden cities (1898). Other examples of planned cities are Chandigarh, India (planned by Le Corbusier); Brasilia, Brazil (planned by Niemeyer Soares); Queenstown, Singapore (planned through the “New Towns” initiative); and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (initially planned by William Penn).
The Global City
The concept of the “global city” brought forth by S. Sassen (1991) refers to a type of city that is a prominent center for trade, banking, finance, and, most important, markets. These global cities have much more in common with each other than with other cities within their own countries. For example, cities such as New York City, Tokyo, London, Karachi, Paris, and Moscow would be considered global cities. This type of city clearly privileges economics over other forms of sociocultural affiliations. Sassen’s typology, however, may be extended into various genres of global cities; for example, cities of high religious importance might be grouped into Vatican City, Mecca, Varanasi, Jerusalem, and so on.
Current research on cities extends from ancient cities to the cities of tomorrow. Such research must combine understandings of the histories of both the theory of the city and the illustration of urban phenomenon with the spatial location. Definitions of the city depend on the context; however, in each, the core understanding of an urban space remains.
- Hannerz, U. (1980). Exploring the city: Inquiries towards an urban anthropology. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Low, S. (Ed.). (1999). Theorizing the city: The new urban anthropology reader. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
- Sassen, S. (1991). The global city: New York, London, Tokyo. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.