An archaeologist examines the deep history of the world’s cities.
The late comedian George Carlin had a routine positing that we need houses to keep all our junk in and that a major torture of going on vacation is to decide what fraction of that junk to take with us. Smith (Anthropology/UCLA; A Prehistory of Ordinary People, 2010, etc.) offers reinforcement for that proposition: “there were only so many things that people could carry around at once,” she writes of early human life, “with possessions limited to lightweight, handheld items that were not very visible beyond a small group of people.” Enter architecture, which brought humans out of caves and into free-standing structures of various kinds—and then, 6,000 years ago, enter cities, an innovation that brought with them the bad (bureaucracy, crime, epidemic disease) as well as the good. In the author’s calculus, the good is weightier than the bad. In the life of villages, things are pretty dull, without much “ethnic or social diversity” and little need for economic ingenuity, with shamans or chiefs living the good life but everyone else toiling away. As Smith notes, archaeological lessons learned from the ancient past, applicable to the present as well, are that “there are always socioeconomic hierarchies.” In cities, the demands of social and economic life yield an “upward spiral” that affords diversity and rewards creativity. In its broadest outline, Smith’s argument isn’t new; Lewis Mumford was making similar observations half a century ago while, in recent years, Richard Florida has taken up the cause of cities as creative engines. Still, her points are well-taken: Cities are “now so widespread that we have a hard time ‘unseeing’ them from the landscape,” and increasingly they have become conurbations, with hundreds of cities, especially in Asia, having attained populations of more than 1 million people and vast metropolitan belts running down river valleys and coastlines.
Students of world history, urban studies, economics, and similar fields will find Smith’s book to be a thought-provoking, useful survey.