Social Networks and Mathematical Patterns Behind Human Cities, both Modern and Ancient
The 15 th century city Tenochtitlán was once a bustling hub - the religious center and capital of the Aztec civilization, and the most complex society in Mesoamerica. Big cities today are sometimes assumed to be far removed from ancient times as centers of advanced technology, cutting edge planning, and developed economic structures. However, research now shows that both ancient and modern cities follow the same predictable patterns of growth.
When Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and his men encountered Tenochtitlán in 1519 they were surprised by its impressive development and large scale. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a foot soldier in Mexico, wrote later in ‘The Conquest of New Spain,‘ “When we saw so many cities and villages built in the water and other great towns on dry land we were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments (...) on account of the great towers and cues and buildings rising from the water, and all built of masonry.”
The orderly streets, high temples, canals and courthouses reminded the conquistadors of European cities - but neither civilization had based their city planning on the other.
Now anthropologist Scott Ortman and complex systems researcher Luis Bettencourt have analyzed and compared archeological data from thousands of ancient, pre-Hispanic sites in the Basin of Mexico. The colleagues have found that those dwellings and public monuments were built in predictable, mathematical ways, not dissimilar to those of modern centers, reports LiveScience.
Painting illustrating the relationship between the ancient and modern cities of Mexico. ‘Fundacion Tenochtitlan’ by Roberto Cueva Del Río. Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0
A study published this month in the journal Science Advances reports their findings. In the bigger ancient cities, there were larger monuments, and more of them per person, explains the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). “Meaning that the cities received a productivity boost beyond that provided by the increased number of workers. The trend was evident across a wide range of settlement sizes—from villages of a few hundred people to capital cities of hundreds of thousands: the larger the city, the bigger the boost,” AAAS continues.
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According to LiveScience, “Cities magnify opportunities for social interaction; as they grow, they become more efficient, and the productivity of their resources and labor grows in predictable ways. For instance, when a city's population doubles, there's typically about a 15 percent increase in the city's ‘output’ per capita — a 15 percent increase in wages, a 15 percent increase in GDP, a 15 percent increase in patents. (There's also a 15 percent jump in violent crime; not all of the outcomes of cramming people together are good.) The researchers refer to this phenomenon as ‘urban scaling.”
The researchers propose that the scaling phenomenon is not a modern construct, hinging on capitalism or industrialization. Instead, they theorize that human urban societies self-organize in this fashion no matter the economic or political systems.
Model of the Aztec City of Tenochtitlan at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Public Domain
Bettencourt, Ortman and colleagues conclude, “Our findings, from an urban settlement system that evolved independently from its old-world counterparts, suggest that principles of settlement organization are very general and may apply to the entire range of human history.”
Ortman tells LiveScience, “It implies that some of the most robust patterns in modern urban systems derive from processes that have been part of human societies all along. I just think that's an amazing concept."
It turns out that the more humans change, the more we stay the same.
This research may help modern planners improve the efficiency of today’s urban centers, and bring us improved, more interactive living spaces. This may be more important than ever, as the United Nations cites that 54 percent of the world’s 7 billion people live in cities.
Featured Image: The ancient city of Tenochtitlán, Mexico. Credit: www.mexicomaxico.org
By Liz Leafloor