The Rise of Cities

catal huyuk

Nearly all humans in the modern world live in some kind of a permanent residence. But it hasn't always been like this. Our species started out as hunter gatherers and began to make permanent settlements mostly due to the rise of agriculture. Only 3% of the world's population lived in cities in 1800. Since then we have urbanized our existence more and more.

Archeological evidence indicates that domestication of various plants and animals began around 12,000 years ago, starting the Holocene epoch. However the Neolithic Revolution involved societies radically altering their natural environment by means of deforestation and irrigation for the purpose of food crop cultivation. This required societies to spend nearly all of their time and resources in one location. The conventional view holds that cities first began to form after the Neolithic revolution, around 5,500 BC. The earliest known permanent human settlement is Sumer in present day Southern Iraq. It was settled between 5500 and 4000 BC.

Nailing down a date for the initial founding of a city can be somewhat tricky. As with the city of Munich, Germany, the first permanent settlement in its location was of Benedictine monks in the 8th century. By 1158, Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria, had built a new bridge over the river Isar near the existing monastery. This was part of the Old Salt Route, and a toll bridge. Henry granted Munich the right to mint its own currency and to hold markets, thus driving more traffic across his new bridge, and more income into his coffers. And so the foundation date of the city of Munich is assumed to be 1158.

And so it is that the founding of a city does not imply the beginning of human civilization in a particular area. It only implies the start of substantial sustained habitation.

Unique Characteristics

It is interesting to note that individuals in different civilizations organize themselves in unique ways. Historians generally note how Western Civilization is much more rural than most other civilizations. This is partly due to geography and partly due to culture. The deciduous forest environment of Western Europe provided a much more uniform distribution of necessary resources such as wood, potential farm land, and water supplies, thus allowing much less centralized societies to form. In the Middle East, however, available water supplies exist in more centralized locations, requiring a much more centralized society.

The immortal Roman historian Tacitus routinely comments in his annals how the German tribes were well known not to live within cities. Cities in Europe were generally settled far later in history than those in other parts of the world.

Sub-Saharan Africa has traditionally not been home to large cities. In the modern world however, the continent is urbanizing faster than any other. In addition to the usual factors favoring urbanization, Africa currently has the highest birth rate in the world, greatly contributing to increased urbanization. The fertility rate in Sub-Saharan Africa stood at 5.11 children born/woman in 2012, compared to a world average of 2.43.

Future Trends

The very simple exercise of plotting the total world population vs the combined population of the world's cities gives us a better picture of the rate of urbanization. In this case we will start in the year 500 BC. The trend indicates that that at some point, nearly all humans will live in some kind of a town or city. To what extent this trend will play out remains to be seen. I for one will choose not to live in a city, simply as a matter of preference.

Future predictions for population growth range from a continuation of the current trend upwards, to a population in decline by 2060. Most expect our population to plateau at about 11 million people sometime around 2100. Either way, the trend towards the continued expansion of cities is expected to continue.

2008 marked the first time in human history that greater than 50% of people on Earth lived in towns or cities. This certainly has an impact on culture as a whole. And so to get a better grasp on just how our planet was settled I have created a list of major cities with their corresponding dates of settlement.

city_count Click for full size image. Source: United Nations

Settlement Dates

Name Location Year of Settlement
Catal Huyuk Turkey 7500 BC
Sumer Iraq 5500 BC
Byblos Lebanon 5000 BC
Faiyum Egypt 4000 BC
Luxor (Thebes) Egypt c. 3200 BC
Jerusalem West Bank 2800 BC
Luoyang China c. 2070 BC
Balkh Afganistan 1500 BC
Varanasi India c. 1200-1100 BC
Xi'an China c. 1100 BC
Cadiz Spain 1100 BC
Beijing China c. 1045 BC
Sparta Greece 900's BC
Zeila / Avalite Somalia c. 800 BC
Carthage Asia Minor 814 BC
Rome Italian Peninsula 753 BC
Amesbury UK 700's BC
Athens Greece 400-300 BC
Alexandria Egypt 332 BC
Guangzhou China 214 BC
Djenne-Jeno Mali 200 BC
Cholula Mexico c. 100 BC
Paris France 52 BC
Ghadames Libya 19 BC
Seoul South Korea 18 BC
London UK 43 AD
Old Cairo Egypt c. 100
Kismayo Somalia 300
Easter Island (Rapa Nui) 300-400
Osaka Japan c. 400
Hanoi Vietnam 454
Glasgow Scotland c. 500's
Mogadishu Somalia c. 700
Fes Morocco 789
Kyoto Japan 794
Upper Xingu Brazil c. 800
Sao Paulo Brazil 1532
Taos Pueblo New Mexico c. 1075
St. John's Newfoundland c. 1540
Singapore 1170
Munich Germany 1158
Mexico City Mexico 1325
St. Augustine Florida 1565
Jamestown Virginia 1607
Quebec City Quebec 1608
Albany New York 1614
Plymouth Massachusetts 1620
New York City New York 1624
Montreal Quebec 1642
San Diego California 1769
Los Angeles California 1781

Originally published


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