Some cities last only a century or two, while others last a thousand years or more. Often there are no clear records explaining why. Instead, archaeologists piece together clues from the remains of the cities to look for patterns that explain why certain locations have retained their importance longer than others. In a new study published in the journal Frontiers in ecology and evolutionResearchers examined 24 ancient cities in modern-day Mexico and found that the cities with the longest standing showed evidence of collective forms of governance, infrastructure investment, and collaboration between households.
“For years, my colleagues and I have studied why and how certain cities remain relevant or collapse,” says Gary Feinman, lead author of the study and MacArthur Curator of Anthropology at the Field Museum in Chicago.
In previous studies, Feinman and his colleagues cast a wide net in the cities they studied, spanning thousands of years across Mesoamerica. They found a broad pattern of societies with good governance that fostered the well-being of their people longer than those with autocratic leaders and large wealth inequalities. This new study sharpens the focus on cities from similar places and times: All 24 cities analyzed were in the western half of Mesoamerica and were built between 1000 and 300 BC.
It may seem like an impossible task for a non-archaeologist to look at ancient ruins and try to extrapolate what their government was like. But remains of the buildings, layouts, squares and monuments of the cities contain clues.
“We looked at the public architecture, we looked at the nature of the economy and what supported the cities. We looked at the signs of domination, whether or not they seemed highly personalized,” Feinman said. Art and architecture celebrating larger-than-life rulers are indicative of more autocratic or despotic societies, while the depiction of leaders in groups, often masked, is more indicative of shared power arrangements.
Feinman and his co-authors David Carballo of Boston University, Linda Nicholas of the Field Museum, and Stephen Kowalewski of the University of Georgia found that among the 24 ancient cities they analyzed, those with more collective forms of government tended to stay longer at the power than the autocratically governed cities, sometimes by a thousand years. But even among places that were likely to have had good governance, some cities outlasted others.
To find out why these similarly governed cities fared differently, the researchers looked at other aspects of their composition, including infrastructure and evidence of household interdependence. “We looked for evidence of path dependency, which basically means that the actions or investments people make end up limiting or enhancing their response to subsequent dangers or challenges,” says Feinman.
Early efforts to build dense, interconnected living spaces and the construction of large, central, open spaces were two of the factors that the authors believe contributed to the greater sustainability and importance of early cities.
To study sustainability in the past, most research looks for correlations between specific climate or environmental events and human responses. This approach might make sense, but it’s hard to know if the timing is reliable. Such studies often emphasize a link between environmental crisis and collapse without also considering how other cities have successfully met the challenges and maintained their position as important population centers.
The authors take a different approach. Knowing that residents faced hazards including drought, earthquakes, intermittent hurricanes/heavy rains, challenges from competing centers and groups, they examined the long history of the 24 centers and what factors fostered their sustainability. Finding that governance plays an important role in sustainability shows that “responses to crises and disasters are political to some extent,” says Linda Nicholas, associate curator at the Field Museum and co-author of the study.
The cities that survived the longest had a combination of infrastructure investment and collective governance. It’s a lesson that’s still relevant today. “You can’t evaluate responses to disasters like earthquakes or threats like climate change without considering governance,” says Feinman. “The past is an incredible resource for understanding how to approach current problems.”