You may think today’s cities would be nothing like ancient cities. Yet, they are.

Last year, a team of researchers led by Scott Ortman – an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Department of Anthropology, showed ancient cities and modern cities followed a certain set of rules coined urban scaling. Basically, as the population of a city increases, people tend to live closer together.

A new paper shows the people living in these denser, ancient cities also became more productive as the size and density of their settlement grew. Just like in modern cities.

Why is this? The urban scaling theory points to the increase in social interactions.

“As the population of a community or settlement grows, the total production of that group grows even faster,” Ortman said. “Urban scaling theory makes the argument that the increase in productivity emerges from the increased rate of social interactions that occur. It’s cheaper for people to interact with each other because they are physically closer.”

With more social interaction comes more ideas.

To find the link, researchers poured over extensive survey data of settlements, temples and more near modern day Mexico City. Data from more than 4,000 settlements was looked at ranging from tiny villages to ancient capitals.

The results showed the more people in the city, the more productive it became. And, the rate of this productivity increased at exactly the same rate as seen in cities today.

“It was amazing and unbelievable,” says Ortman. “We’ve been raised on a steady diet telling us that, thanks to capitalism, industrialization, and democracy, the modern world is radically different from worlds of the past. What we found here is that the fundamental drivers of robust socioeconomic patterns in modern cities precede all that.”

In the paper, the researchers cite Tenochtitlán as one of the “most famous examples of the structuring of urban space in early civilizations.”

Tenochtitlán was one of the greatest cities of its time. When Hernan Cortes arrived in the city in November 1519, the population was estimated to be around 200,000 – 300,000. Only Europe’s biggest cities, Paris or Constantinople, would have rivaled it. The invading Spanish were in awe of the city. Cortes wrote back to the Spanish king and said it was as large as Seville or Cordoba, two of Spain’s biggest cities at the time.

Check out the reconstruction of Tenochtitlan below from the National Museum of Anthropology of Mexico City. Doesn’t look too different from a city you see today does it?


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