Evolution in the air: the urban conundrum

Rubina Raja and Søren M Sindbæk delve into the secrets and mysteries surrounding the subject of cities, settlements, and their networks.

Rubina Raja is professor of classical archaeology and director of the Centre for Urban Network Evolutions, Aarhus University, Denmark. Together with Søren, she is founding editor of the Journal of Urban Archaeology.
Søren M Sindbæk is professor of medieval archaeology at Aarhus University, Denmark, and co-director of the Centre of Urban Network Evolutions.

Much of the human past is a foreign country, as the novelist L P Hartley once commented. Archaeologists around the world continue to be reminded how our views are sometimes no more than stories that we have come to accept without questioning them thoroughly enough. Narratives concerning the origins of cities offer a fine example of this. Over coming issues, this column will delve into the secrets and mysteries surrounding the subject of cities, settlements, and their networks. This focus is in part because there is so much to say, with researchers currently returning to the theme of urbanism with great zest, but also because it reveals what archaeology can tell us about seemingly familiar subjects. After all, towns loom large in many modern lives, with commuters and farmers, among others, all feeling the powerful draw of jobs and markets many kilometres distant.  

This subject can also tell us something about the role of archaeology itself. We all know it offers an apparently inexhaustible wellspring of exciting stories. Some are the tales of fieldwork – the personal anecdotes about discovery and camaraderie in pursuit of the past. Participating in such adventures can remind us why we do archaeology, and why we find it so fascinating. The excitement of fresh discoveries is an important reason why archaeology features prominently in newspapers, radio programmes, and on the screen – as both documentaries and epic blockbusters, such as The Northman. These thrills alone, though, are hardly the reason why we need archaeology. Archaeology is about gathering knowledge of humans in the past using the full range of modern research tools. The often-surprising results can provide valuable food for thought in the present.

The origin of cities is one of archaeology’s most-famous conundrums. In the Old and the New World alike, people created large and complex settlements, sometimes with striking similarities in form and function. Early European visitors to the New World, for example, instantly recognised Maya or Aztec centres such as Iximche or Tenochtitlan as cities. These great settlements were strikingly reminiscent of those they knew from home. This pattern, the development of urbanism, is regarded by most archaeologists as a major turning point for societies. But why did it happen?

The fights over urbanism and its evolution

One possible answer was recently outlined in Greg Woolf’s grand synthesis The Life and Death of Ancient Cities (2020). Woolf sets out to understand ancient urban societies from the point of view of modern evolution theory. Seen this way, the appearance of cities is not just a predictable stage in a civilising process, as was once thought, but a result of constant cycles of variation and selection. Nothing, he argues, is predetermined. Instead, selective pressure is and was everywhere, and it tends to nudge people towards certain responses. The human ape, with our big, social brain, is well suited to a life of dense social interaction. So, when faced with limited resources and growing populations, similar solutions tend to present themselves – in very different corners of the planet. This, Woolf holds, is why cities have appeared in so many widely different societies, and why they often seem to share so many traits: street grids, residential neighbourhoods, and monumental centres, to mention just a few popular physical hallmarks. These pressures also explain the social hierarchies and signs of inequality that are often assumed to go hand in glove with cities.

Yet an entirely different view was recently taken by David Graebner and David Wengrow in their manifesto The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021), a book that has attracted a level of attention and debate rarely seen in archaeology. Graebner and Wengrow shun the idea that applying evolution to societies presents the answer. In their view, notions of pressure, selection, and adaptation only serve as a handy way to make ancient societies look more like our own, thus reassuring us that the current world order is, well, the natural order of things. Humans, they believe, are free to develop their own social frames. By that reading, hierarchies based on power and wealth are no more than habits we could break away from if we chose.

Trypillia megasites: endangered locations in a modern conflict zone

To reinforce their point, Graebner and Wengrow argue that archaeologists routinely ignore the fact that large urban societies could exist in the past, without noticeable signs of hierarchies or inequality. In essence, there were places where people simply decided to live together and cooperate without any need for dominance or oppression, and all the trappings of great monuments and trophy homes that go with it. Exhibit A for Graebner and Wengrow can be found in the Neolithic period, specifically in what is now Ukraine. This is home to the so-called ‘Trypillia megasites’. The Trypillia settlements are certainly extraordinary. They were already flourishing around 4000 BC, which places them further back in time than the cities of Mesopotamia, even though the Mesopotamian cities are usually claimed as the earliest. Some of the largest Trypillia sites, such as Nebelivka and Talianki, extended over hundreds of hectares, and contained enough buildings to house thousands of inhabitants. How could anyone fail to see them as cities? And yet these settlements do not seem to feature temples, monuments, or marked differences in the size or layout of buildings that would point to social hierarchies.

Drawings by Susanne Beier of the Trypillia megasite at Maidanets’ke, Ukraine. Should these huge settlements be seen as cities? IMAGES: courtesy of Johannes Müller, drawings by Susanne Beier, Kiel University, Germany.

So, who is right? To Woolf, the Trypillia sites are simply big villages, confirming a general evolutionary trend towards large and dense settlements, which sometimes leads to urban societies. To Graebner and Wengrow, they strike a fatal blow to the evolution model and prove that humans have the freedom to create societies of whatever form they want to live in. This hypothesis – and the debate it is generating – has already put archaeologists to work across the world. Unfortunately, due to the tragedy of war in Ukraine, there will be few opportunities to investigate the questions raised by Graebner and Wengrow in the field anytime soon. Indeed, a frequent consequence of conflict is that cultural heritage and archaeological sites suffer terribly, leaving an already devastated civilian population with fewer opportunities for understanding their material past when the conflict is over.

Meanwhile, researchers can plunge into the details of the existing evidence from these sites. Just how densely settled were the Trypillia sites? How were they sustained? Were they occupied permanently or seasonally? For how long? How did they emerge and why did they disappear? In a recent blockbuster volume of scholarly papers, Early Urbanism in Europe: the Trypillia Megasites of the Ukrainian Forest-Steppe (2020), two key researchers, Bisserka Gaydarska and John Chapman, explore factors such as distributed power, assembly, and pilgrimage. Such factors might explain why vast numbers of people could come together periodically under ostensibly egalitarian arrangements. Meanwhile, René Ohlrau’s thesis on ‘Maidanets’ke: development and decline of a Trypillia megasite in Central Ukraine’ (2020) reconstructs the demography and spatial arrangement of sites, to find that small sites are structurally surprisingly similar to large ones. Are the megasites really cities, or just inflated rural settlements, he asks? This form of nuance takes us beyond ideological battles and brings us much closer to the human past – and towards genuinely new discoveries.

Such studies and the debates they raise underline the crucial importance of close analysis of the nitty-gritty of the available archaeological evidence. This frequently unglamorous pursuit is how we can build up a picture of what the Trypillia sites truly were. Often, though, there is little room for delving deep into the data when sweeping theories are being forged. So how do we ensure that comparisons across cultures and chronologies can be made without overly simplifying the subject? One answer is presented by the introduction to this piece: we must never forget that some of the things we take for granted about the past are simply wrong. We need to keep on questioning established narratives, but that questioning must be rooted in the available evidence.