History Society

Read Four Lost Cities

Read Four Lost Cities

A quest to explore some of the most spectacular ancient cities in human history—and figure out why people abandoned them. In Four Lost …

Took me a long time to get through this (3 library check-outs) but I enjoyed it! Interesting to examine four disparate cities to analyze their culture, how it changed, and how the city faded or generally disbanded (or was wiped in the case of Pompeii).

Key Notes

Emphasis mine.

The “lost city” is a recurring trope in Western fantasies, suggesting glamorous undiscovered worlds…

A “First” City: Çatalhöyük

“When people passed through one of Çatalhöyük’s thousands of rooftop doorways, they entered a new phase in human society. They found themselves in an alien future where people’s identities were tied to a fixed location; the land was theirs, and they were part of the land.”

This was perhaps the first time in human history when the question “Where are you from?” came to matter as much as “Who are your ancestors?”

“We’ve learned that the transition from nomadic life to mass urban society was very gradual, with many stops and starts over thousands of years. Also, it didn’t begin in the Middle East and radiate to the world; the set of practices we dub Neolithic emerged in multiple places independently, from Southeast Asia to the Americas.”

We domesticated ourselves: “Domestic animals like dogs, sheep, goats, and pigs changed during thousands of years of domestication, too. Perhaps the most obvious change is called neoteny, or the process of becoming more childlike. Domestic animals tend to be smaller, developing softer facial features like floppy ears and short snouts.” “Neoteny has made human faces more delicate and thinned out our body hair. Our jaws became shorter and more rounded…” “Domestication appears to be a self- reinforcing process: humans were drawn to domestic foods, which transformed our bodies, and over time our bodies were better suited to those foods, which made them all the more alluring.”

“Anthropologist Peter J. Wilson writes in The Domestication of the Human Species that cities like Çatalhöyük existed at the dawn of the concept of privacy. As nomads, humans had very little alone time. Space was shared, and houses were collapsible, providing courtesy screens rather than actual separation from the group.” “the concept of privacy had arrived, and with it the concept of a public.”

“Hodder and other archaeologists describe this way of thinking as “material entanglement,” when our identities become bound up in the physical objects around us.

Humans had the technological ability to build houses long before we started living in them full time. So it wasn’t as if we had a technological breakthrough that led to a new way of thinking. Indeed, it might be the reverse. As societies became more complex, we needed more permanent objects to think about ourselves.

“Freie Universität Berlin archaeologist Marion Benz has been fascinated by this question for most of her career. She told me that settled life caused a culture shock that’s still reverberating across human civilizations today. To cope with that, or perhaps to express it, people built monumental structures that converted ordinary stretches of land into fantastical landscapes. Stone monoliths, pyramids and ziggurats, and even today’s mega- skyscrapers express the same impulse to tie humanity to a specific, special place.” “Benz argued that we see outbreaks of monumental architecture at tipping points in human civilization, when we move from one mode of community- building to the next.

Symbolic landscapes replaced the nomadic tribe, both literally and emotionally.

“State University of New York at Buffalo anthropologist Peter Biehl suggested that the act of rebuilding a house repeatedly is the first step toward creating an idea of history.” “History, he said, is an “externalization of memory” that lasts beyond one lifetime.

“People today are attracted to cities because they feel an affinity for subcultures or groups that don’t exist in smaller communities organized mostly around families.”

Angkor Wat: A Not Lost City

“The khñum debt slavery scenario sounds brutal until you consider that most capitalist cultures in the West use a similar system. In the United States, it’s not unusual for people to graduate from college with so much debt that they have to work their whole lives to pay it off. Others take on debt to pay for a house or buy a car.” Ooh, turning around cultural ‘othering’ and judgment into empathy instead.

“Angkorian society was built on debt slavery, but the idea of indebtedness permeated every layer of public life.”

Repercussions of climate change… “UC Berkeley public policy researcher Solomon Hsiang studies the economic effects of climate disasters, using examples that are both ancient and modern. When regions are hit repeatedly by storms, he told me, “no matter how wealthy a country is… they never quite make it back to baseline GDP.” Repairing the infrastructure is so expensive that it’s impossible to return to their previous economic baseline.”


“All cities offer their residents a chance to experience public identity—Çatalhöyük had its history houses, Pompeii its streets, and Angkor its temple complexes. But at Cahokia we see purpose-built structures throughout the city devoted entirely to the masses.” “This was a city devoted to the transformative power of public life, full of carefully crafted meeting places where individuals could come together and become something greater than themselves.”

“Unlike Pompeii, Cahokia didn’t have streets lined with shops. What archaeologists know of its urban plan includes no permanent marketplace, nor merchant halls. And yet early 20th-century anthropologists had a hard time believing such a major city wasn’t centered around commerce or mercantilism.” Can you imagine… a city without permanent trade?

Though it was massive, Cahokia’s Grand Plaza was kept mostly empty, as if part of its function was to suggest all the ways that people might be joined together.

“Unlike indigenous farmers to the south, the people of Cahokia didn’t plant maize until later in the city’s development. Instead, they ate domesticated North American plants like goosefoot, little barley, marshelder, maygrass, and erect knotweed (not to be confused with its invasive cousin, Asian knotweed). These plants are sometimes called “lost crops” because they were once farmed intensively but have gone wild again.

Why Cities Disband

“Though contractions in the cities’ populations had different causes and effects, each was precipitated by the thorny problem of managing an enormous piece of human-built infrastructure in a constantly changing environment.”

“Globally, we’re in a period of political instability and authoritarian nationalism. Unfortunately, evidence from history shows that this can be a death knell for cities. Though powerful leaders can mobilize labor for massive infrastructure projects, this kind of top-down system of urban development rarely remains stable for long. An abused labor force is an unhappy labor force, and that’s how abandonments start—especially when politics steer city design, rather than sensible engineering.”

Humans have been building cities for over 9,000 years, but it’s only in the past few decades that the majority of us have lived in urban areas. With so many people flocking to our modern-day versions of Cahokia, cities seem inevitable—but they aren’t.

Looking back on Çatalhöyük, Pompeii, Angkor, and Cahokia, it’s not hard to figure out what keeps a city vital: resilient infrastructure like good reservoirs and roads, accessible public plazas, domestic spaces for everyone, social mobility, and leaders who treat the city’s workers with dignity.

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

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