Humans began to live in urban settlements about 7 thousand years ago. As humans continued to evolve over the millennia, so too did our cities. Now, our cities are about to change again — and they’re going to look more like ancient Machu Picchu than the gleaming towers of glass and steel we have today.
Illlustration by Olga Idealist on Deviant Art
As any urban dweller can tell you, the one thing that’s constant in city life is change. Buildings rise up and are torn down; parks bloom out of old train tracks; swimming pools become ice rinks that become arcades and then turn into Whole Foods. For this reason, urban historian Spiro Kostof calls the city a “process.” Cities change with the peoples that live in them, but they are also a repository of history. Even as we relentlessly build new structures, we prefer to remain in these old places where we can live in what’s left of cities and cultures that are hundreds or even thousands of years gone.
Some of the earliest cities, in regions that are now called Turkey, Syria and Peru, were probably built at roughly the same time that humans were developing agriculture. As anthropologist Elizabeth Stone has found, many of the earliest city jobs probably involved farming. In the Mesopotamian cities she studies, people worked in orchards and farms just outside the city walls. These farmers built their homes from mud and brick, and as buildings crumbled into dust, they built new ones on top of the old.
As a result, many of these early cities eroded into mounds of earth over time. But even in their heyday, they would have probably looked a bit like clay boxes atop an earthen mound, surrounded by the plants, trees, and dairy animals that their inhabitants cultivated.
Like the people of the Middle East, the groups who later became the Inca in South America also built cities as an extension of their farms. Living as they did in a mountainous, coastal region, the Inca’s forebears and the Inca themselves had to create agricultural technologies on nearly vertical landscapes. They learned which crops could thrive in valleys, and which would survive in terraced farms that looked like vast steps cut into the slopes of their mountain cities. And they experimented with elaborate irrigation systems that relied on gravity to bring water to their farms.