Are modern and ancient cities so different?

Cosmos Magazine


Cosmos is a quarterly science magazine. We aim to inspire curiosity in ‘The Science of Everything’ and make the world of science accessible to everyone.

By Cosmos

The skyscraper-filled, overpopulated, electricity-guzzling cities of our modern era, while noticeably different in appearance and governance, may function in similar ways to ancient human settlements.

Researchers at the Sante Fe Institute and the University of Colorado (CU) Boulder tested the idea that trends described in previous research on ‘urban scaling’ (that is, a mathematical regularity and predictability in a city’s population, efficiency and productivity growth) are not particular to modern times.

Urban scaling attempts to predict and describe things such as how a city’s population outpaces its development of urban infrastructure, or how its production of goods and services outpaces its population. In other words, as a modern city grows in population so does its efficiencies and productivity.

The team examined archaeological data from the Basin of Mexico, spanning back to ancient civilisations, and used it to analyse the dimensions of hundreds of ancient temples and thousands of ancient houses to estimate populations and densities, as well as aspects such as size and construction rates of monuments and buildings, and intensity of site use.

Their results, published in Science Advances, indicated that the bigger the ancient settlement, the more productive and efficient it was.

Scott Ortman, an Assistant Professor at CU Boulder expressed his disbelief at the findings, “We were raised on a steady diet telling us that, thanks to capitalism, industrialization, and democracy, the modern world is radically different from worlds of the past. What we found here is that the fundamental drivers of robust socioeconomic patterns in modern cities precede all that.”

Luis Bettencourt of the Sante Fe Institute added, “Our results suggest that the general ingredients of productivity and population density in human societies run much deeper and have everything to do with the challenges and opportunities of organizing human social networks.”

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