There’s much to wonder about in archaeologist Monica L. Smith’s thought-provoking, capacious, often witty new book, Cities: The First 6,000 Years. Why is it, for example, that in the very long history of the human species, cities—beginning with Tell Brak in Mesopotamia—are only 6,000 years old? What confluence of events helped urbanism arise at roughly the same time in many different places? And why are cities here to stay?
That is only the beginning of my questions. An archaeologist and professor of anthropology at UCLA, Smith has excavated ancient sites around the world and brings her wide and deep experience to her perspective on urbanism. Throughout her engaging book, she also affords the casual reader a glimpse of the tools and techniques of her trade.
Cities, Smith posits, were our first internet. They offered connectivity. They required dense, migratory populations where unfamiliarity became a measure of human relations. They also needed diverse economies and ritual buildings like churches. They were defined by verticality and a different scale of human experience than was available to rural populations. If that is obvious, less so are Smith’s ideas about consumption. In a chapter called “The Harmony of Consumption,” she asserts that “trash is an affirming badge of affluence” and digs among ancient trash heaps—surprising for their density of castoff human-made things—to prove it.
In other chapters, again drawing on her knowledge of ancient civilizations, she notes the vital importance of infrastructure. She observes that someone had to manage these projects: dams, pyramids, city grids, water supplies and trash removal. She describes these projects and project managers in surprisingly, almost shockingly contemporary terms. Can it be that ancient city-dwellers were not so different from 21st-century urbanites? Cities, it seems, have always required a level of middle managers and technocrats. Then, as now, there was a population of people from different backgrounds, vitally concerned with the nuts and bolts of life.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Monica L. Smith for Cities.