Visitors to the ancient city of Teotihuacan—with its pyramidal structures arranged in careful geometric patterns, its temples, and its massive central thoroughfare, dubbed Street of the Dead — in Mexico may have the sensation they’re gazing at the remains of a society profoundly different from their own.
But new research from anthropologists armed with a bevy of recently derived mathematical equations shows that in some fundamental ways, today’s cities and yesterday’s settlements may be more alike than different.
In a new study led by a University of Colorado Boulder researcher and published in the journal PLOS ONE, scientists show that the same equations used to describe patterns of development in modern urban areas appear to work equally well to describe cities settled thousands of years ago.
“This study suggests that there is a level at which every human society is actually very similar,” said lead author Scott Ortman, assistant professor of anthropology at CU-Boulder. “This awareness helps break down the barriers between the past and present and allows us to view contemporary cities as lying on a continuum of all human settlements in time and place.”
Over the last several years, Ortman’s colleagues at the Santa Fe Institute (SFI), including Professor Luis Bettencourt, a co-author of the study, 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.
Ortman noticed that the variables used in these equations, such as cost of moving around, the size of the settled area, the population, and the benefits of people interacting, did not depend on any particular modern technology…
To test his idea, Ortman used data that had been collected in the 1960s 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…
“We started analyzing the data in the ways we were thinking about with modern cities, and it showed that the models worked,” Ortman said…
In the future, the equations may also guide archaeologists in getting an idea of what they’re likely to find within a given settlement based on its size, such as the miles of roads and pathways. The equations could also guide expectations about the number of different activities that took place in a settlement and the division of labor.
I have serious questions; but, no interest in pursuing the answers – right now. They come back to that division of labor and the basis of the economy. Are there no qualitative differences between a slave-based economy, a feudal economy, either the pre-industrial or industrial version of capitalism?
How many slaves were necessary to provide Aztec aristocracy with a satisfactory lifestyle? How many serfs tilling the soil of agrarian feudalism – and how were they housed, where were they housed? Will the current generation of plutocrats maintain their disdain for 21st Century workers and diminishing opportunities, a diminishing middle class?
Even the contrast between European and American concepts of where to enjoy luxurious living – with appropriate servants and service doesn’t seem to be mentioned. Yet, here in the United States once you’re away from the unique environs of Wall Street, the suburbs are the accepted direction of growth for most of the upper class. In Europe, that’s considered exile.
Maybe my questions are as much a reaction to reporting as analysis. There are few intellectual bodies I respect more than SFI.