Complexity Explorer Santa Few Institute

Dr. Annalee Newitz's lecture: The Urban Species: How Domesticated Humans Evolved

07 Apr 2016

Can an ancient city give us clues to the future of our species in megacities?  Journalist Annalee Newitz was in Santa Fe to give a community lecture regarding the transition our species took as it went from hunter-gatherer to living in permanent dwellings.  Annalee Newitz is the technology culture editor at Ars Technica. She holds a PhD in English and American Studies from UC Berkeley. Her most recent book is "Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction".  She is interested in the relationship between culture and social change and as a journalist writes about the connections between science, technology and culture.  In this capacity she traveled to an archeological site in Turkey to learn more about how humans went from being nomadic hunters to living in a city in the hopes of finding clues to our future selves as we migrate into megacities.

Catalhoyok is in central Turkey and is an active archeological site being overseen by Ian Hodder of Stanford.  9000 years ago it was the home to 5-7000 people, the first large settlement to be discovered.  This site gives us insight into the transition between hunter-gatherers to a settled lifestyle.  It appears that they maintained their belief systems of hunter-gatherer but in the confines of houses and settlements.  After about 1000 years of continuous living, Catalhoyok was abandoned and became a ‘lost city,’ meaning that the cultural significance of the features of the community became incomprehensible to us.  If we can understand what made it incomprehensible, might this help us understand our current transition to megacities?  

While there is no true definition to a city, Dr. Newitz referenced the work of V. Gordon Childe who identified 10 necessary elements to define a city which include: social hierarchy, money, a written language, high density of people, art, monumental architecture, division of labor and long distance trade.  Catalhoyok had many of these characteristics but lacked money, a written language and monumental architecture (all houses had a similar size and layout).  During the Neolithic Revolution there was a sociocultural evolution as humans went from being primarily nomadic to agricultural villages to urban societies.  This transformation took place in different parts of the world and some of the technological revolutions that happened were clay fired pottery for cooking, building cities and domestication of animals leading to eating dairy products.  As a result of our more settled lives, there were biological changes that occurred.  Our faces became more infantile (paedamorphism) and we gained lactose tolerance in adulthood.

Shift in culture as settlements occur

The culture that humans had as hunter-gatherers had to change as they settled in villages and eventually in cities.  For the first time they had walls and privacy.  During this transition, people treated their houses as a symbolic structure and the art at Catalhoyok often showed miniature houses and cities.  The wall decorations had horns of domestic animals, they buried their dead under their sleeping area and occasionally dug them up, sometimes moving their skulls to other houses.  This is seen to be an attempt at understanding human history and making sense of the passage of time.  Given their art and burials, it is clear that they were thinking deeply about their houses and were very attached their dwellings.  But eventually the city was abandoned.  Although there was a climatic shift about 8200 years ago, this does not sufficiently explain the lost city.  The abandonment of large settlements during the Neolithic period happened at other locations at different times and followed a similar pattern.  For instance in England, the Neolithic period came later to this island and even without a change in climate, their original protocities were abandoned.  (see the graph of how cities change in size over time:

Dr. Newitz feels that the culture these people had wasn’t the right fit to sustain life in a city.  The people of Catalhoyok moved away and the city was lost, not due to destruction but possibly due to not having the right cultural criteria to make it thrive.  Perhaps it was the lack of money, social hierarchy and no monumental structures that prevented this city from thriving longer.  It wasn’t until 4000 years ago that the next city emerged, Uruk.  However, this urban site seem to have all of the necessary elements that allowed it to thrive for many thousands of years into our current times.  

Megacities and the future- Similarities to Chatalhoyok’s path?

According to Dr. Newitz we are in a similar transition as the people of Catalhoyok but this time we are going from rural villages to cities to megacities and this is a new phenomena for us as a species and as a culture.  Is this a similar transition between hunter-gatherer and settlements and will it bring a similar interim protocity like Catalhoyok that was created but then abandoned?

We currently have a few dozen megacities around the world and they are only a few decades old.  Do we have the best cultural system in place to see this transition be successful?  Our current megacities are just cities that are bigger, their structures aren’t much different from what already exists.  It is important for us to take stock of our own cultures and the transitions that we are experiencing in megacities.  With a higher density of people and more arriving every day, it is imperative that we understand these new urban phenomena and consider the cultural aspects that are needed to sustain them.  She ended with a provocative look at an ant city in Brazil and discussed the social safety net of the ant colony: the division of labor, the farming that they do, the communal way of securing food and raising the young, maintaining shelter and defending the nest.  As we move to a more dense, urban lifestyle, will we think of ourselves as a social organisms?  If we don’t create the right culture for a megacity, is it likely that we abandon them in the future only for our species to create a new lifestyle?


Watch the video of her lecture here:

by Paige Prescott

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