In Four Lost Cities, a historical analysis of the growth and decline of civilizations on different continents over the millennia

Newitz tells fascinating stories about the people of these metropolises and how researchers understood how they lived their lives. Many finds are not only the result of traditional archaeological investigations, but also of new technologies and methods of analysis.

By Susan Cozier

A city, as defined by Australian archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe in the 1950s, is a densely populated settlement. It has monumental buildings. Its inhabitants create art and writing and use money and taxes. They trade long distances, create surplus goods and exist in a complex social hierarchy.

Every urban center, whether it existed 9,000 years ago or thrives today, has its own history, writes Science, technology and culture journalist Annalee Newitz in Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Era. Yet, no matter why they form or how they flourish, all cities suffer the same fate: they perish.

“It’s terrifying to realize that most of humanity lives in places destined to die,” Newitz writes. Some archaeologists have claimed to have found so-called lost towns covered with sand or vines, a fate conducive to adventure stories and mythology. These places, however, were more often simply abandoned: “The myth of the lost city obscures the reality of how people destroy their civilizations.

The four old towns of Newitz focus on “a common ground of failure,” they write. “Each has suffered from prolonged periods of political instability coupled with an environmental crisis.” Each also offers lessons on how to live with other people, exist in the natural world, and adapt to changing political landscapes and environmental conditions.

Newitz highlights four places built and deserted on different continents over the millennia. They combine historical descriptions with first-hand accounts of each of these places, often highlighting the work of anthropologists and archaeologists conducting cutting-edge research into how these ancient societies grew and withered.

Descendants of nomadic tribes lived from around 7,100 to 5,700 BC in Çatalhöyük, in central Turkey, one of the first cities in the world. Described by some archaeologists as a collection of villages, the city bustled with activity before succumbing to flooding and growing frustrations among neighbors. Entrepreneurs from a number of social classes thrived for centuries in the Roman city of Pompeii before Vesuvius buried it in volcanic ash in AD 79. Angkor in Cambodia (circa 800 to 1431 AD), once the capital of the Khmer Empire, relied on a massive network of canals and retention basins built by indentured servants or slaves before dissolving due to conflicts with an indebted workforce and failing infrastructure. And along the flood plains of the Mississippi River, the city of Cahokia (circa 1050 to 1350 AD) attracted people from all over the region who gathered for religious and cultural ceremonies, its population may have dispersed. as rulers became more authoritarian and climate change may have caused the drought. and famine.

Cover of the Four Lost Cities by Annalee Newitz. Image Courtesy: Amazon

Newitz tells fascinating stories about the people of these metropolises and how researchers understood how they lived their lives. Many finds are not only the result of traditional archaeological investigations, but also of new technologies and methods of analysis.

The female figurines that archaeologists continue to unearth in Çatalhöyük, for example, illustrate a belief system that appears to have spread throughout the region, and evidence of fires started over time helps demonstrate how the city has changed. over its nearly 1,500 year history. In Pompeii, researchers are using “big data” – the aggregation of many smaller data sets into a larger collection – to paint a more complete picture of everyday life there.

“It’s terrifying to realize that most of humanity lives in places destined to die,” Newitz writes.

Data-driven archeology uses everything from marks on rock to inscriptions on paper. Analysis of the wear and tear of paving stones and street edges in Pompeii can provide a wealth of information: the grooves made by thousands of vehicles traveling the streets, for example, indicate standardized spaces between the wheels of the trolleys. The cutouts on the high curbs that prevented pedestrians from walking in the sewage circulating on the streets show that the Romans probably drove on the right side of the road. Sarah Levin-Richardson, an archaeologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, studied pornographic graffiti in Pompeii and found that many of them were written by women proud of their trade from former slaves to sex workers.

“In a sense, data archeology represents the democratization of history,” Newitz writes. “It’s about looking at what the masses have done and trying to reconnect their social and even psychological lives.”

In Angkor, archaeologists use lidar, a technique that uses lasers to map geographic shapes hidden in the earth. Here too, computers are used to analyze lists of workers, the majority of whom, it turns out, were women.

In Cahokia, archaeologists used magnetometers – instruments used to detect changes in the Earth’s magnetic field – to “sniff buried structures, as they can detect anomalies that may represent disturbed earth, burnt objects, and metals in many ways. meters below the surface, ”Newitz explains, helping them better understand the mounds that once stood there.

Whenever researchers discover something new about these cities – whether it’s a deeper insight into Roman sexuality in Pompeii or human sacrifices in Cahokia – their revelations are inevitably colored by what our present societies are. deem acceptable, says Newitz. The penis sculptures, believed to bring good luck, are still kept in a “Secret Cabinet” section of the Naples Museum, although traders have brought them to light in ancient Pompeii.

Newitz also examines how our ideas about the disappearance of urban places evolved. In scientific circles, the idea that civilizations fell solely because of human interaction with the environment was fading before Jared Diamond reinvigorated the theory with his 2004 book. Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed. “Diamond is right to point out that the environment is a contributing factor to urban dissolution, but that’s only part of the story,” says Newitz. “Abandonment is above all a political process. “

City rulers or royalty often want to invest in “great entertainment,” Newitz says, rather than in the things people need to thrive, like functioning infrastructure and secure markets. Without these elements, cities are often more vulnerable to environmental disasters that can lead to political unrest when homes are flooded or crops wither.

Diamond also argued that a city’s culture dies when the colony disappears, but Newitz cites researchers who instead say that people who migrated out of ancient cities generally brought their values, art and technology with them and assimilated them into their new homes.

In the case of Pompeii, for example, those who survived the volcanic eruption often moved to other towns colonized by the Romans. The former residents of Cahokia may have spread and formed smaller communities across the Midwest and formed smaller communities. Osage’s oral histories, Newitz writes, explain how migrants stopped in Cahokia for centuries before continuing west. “Today, the Osage are one of many tribes whose culture and ideals were shaped by the people who abandoned Cahokia,” they say.

“Metropolitan areas expand and contract with waves of immigration over time,” Newitz writes. “When the population of a city divides into smaller villages, it is not a failure. It is simply a transformation, often based on strong survival strategies. The culture of this city is carried on in the traditions of the people. people whose ancestors lived there, many of whom will continue to build new cities in his image. “

Even if they don’t last forever, successful cities need certain things to thrive: resilient infrastructure, areas accessible to the public, domestic places for all, social mobility, and leaders who respect community workers. city. Ultimately, Newitz concludes: “It is not such a difficult task, especially considering that thousands of years ago our ancestors managed to maintain healthy cities for centuries at the time. times.”

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Susan Cozier is a Chicago-based writer who covers science and the environment. His work has appeared in Scientific American, Science, The New York Times for Kids, The Guardian, and Audubon, among other publications.

This article originally appeared on Undark. Read the original article.

In Four Lost Cities, a historical analysis of the growth and decline of civilizations on different continents over the millennia


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