GaWC Research Bulletin 359

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Note: Research Bulletins 359 and 360 are source papers for an article published in International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 36 (3), (2012), 415-447 under the title 'Extraordinary Cities: Early "City-ness" and the Origins of Agriculture and States'.


Please refer to the published version when quoting the paper.


Extraordinary Cities I: Early ‘City-ness’ and the Invention of Agriculture

P.J. Taylor *


This is the first of two papers that explore the ramifications of applying sme recent research on cities, built on the work of Jane Jacobs, to early city development. A communications theory of ‘city-ness' is offered as a way of understanding cities as qualitatively new social contexts that are enabling of economic expansion. Returning to Jacobs' use of Çatalhöyük to push back the timing of early cities, I review recent work on the site to support her thesis. In the process I also argue in favour of her controversial thesis of cities inventing agriculture using Sahlin's ‘stone age economics'. In a generic conclusion I extend the range of cities in the ‘wrong place at the wrong time' beyond western Asia to a worldwide distribution.

Introduction: taking cities extremely seriously

Let me start with an admission: my main title is a non sequitur. This paper is not about a select number of ‘great cities', say the cities Sassen (1991) famously designated ‘global', rather I follow Jacobs (1969) in arguing that the inherent complexity of cities distinguishes them from all other settlements: every city is extraordinary. Unlike ‘simple towns', cities are astonishing in their growth potential and amazing in their resilience. Thus the fundamental premise of this paper is that all cities are extraordinary; my title is for emphasis.

The corollary of this premise is that cities are so special that they should be taken extremely seriously. By this I mean moving cities to centre stage to create a city-centric, and therefore a very different, new geohistorical social science. Thus this paper is part of an intellectual experiment in putting cities first for understanding macro-social change. As such it is firmly located in the spirit of Wallerstein's (1991) oeuvre in which he reveals the limits of nineteenth century paradigms to argue for ‘unthinking social science'. It is surprising how influential ideas from a century or more ago still predominate in much of contemporary social science. This is certainly true in urban studies; we need look no further than The City Reader (LeGates and Stout 2000) which begins with Gordon Childe's (1950) evocation of a Mesopotamian first ‘urban revolution' that is suffused in Victorian progressive (as progression) thought. This otherwise splendid volume offers no alternative to Childe's very traditional ideas on urban origins. I will. Further, since arguments about the coming of cities are close entwined with the origins of both agriculture and states, these also form part of my subject. This is the first of two related essays that take the urban theory of Jane Jacobs (1969, 1984) and relates it these matters of key changes in economy and society. I reaffirm Jacobs' argument that cities are implicated in the invention of agriculture in this essay. In the second essay I go beyond Jacobs to argue that cities are also locales where states were invented. This is what I mean by taking cities extremely seriously.

The essay divides into four parts. First I provide an outline of a basic communication theory of ‘city-ness' to indicate how early cities represent qualitatively new social worlds. Second, I contrast the orthodox interpretation of the relationship between early cities and agriculture with Jacobs' thesis of ‘cities first' based upon findings from excavations at Çatalhöyük in Anatolia. Third, I bring the story up to date by reviewing interpretations from the latest dig at Çatalhöyük and reaffirm the possibility of Jacobs' thesis. Finally, in a generic conclusion, I suggest that Çatalhöyük as a city in ‘wrong place at the wrong time' has many equivalents in other regions across the world.

A Communication Theory of City-ness

As a form of human settlement, cities exhibit several unique features. Recently Ivan Turok (2009, 14) has presented these very clearly and succinctly:

“Cities are complex adaptive systems comprising multitudes of actors, firms, and other organisations forming diverse relationships and evolving together. Frequent face-to-face contact and other cooperative and competitive interactions enabled by proximity help to increase people's knowledge and skills, to improve their capacity to respond creatively to economic challenges, and to develop new and improved products, processes and services. Other places cannot easily replicate these conditions ….”

Accepting this position, I will add a further dimension. I interpret my specification of the contemporary world city network (Taylor 2001, 2004) as representing generic inter-city relations (Taylor et al 2010a). Cities have always constituted networks interlocked by economic practices: commercial ‘agents' and merchant ‘houses' in multiple city locations are historically ubiquitous. Such linking creates an incessant turnover of non-local actors who join in the processes that Turok describes above. The effectiveness of the density of interactions he identifies is hugely enhanced by the cosmopolitan nature of a city's residents and visitors. Thus the complexity of cities includes both internal links reflected in (clusters/agglomeration) and external links (networks/connectivity). It is this combination that makes cities so special.

This general description of the nature of cities has been theorised in two largely separate sets of literature. For the last two decades and more clusters/agglomeration activities have been a major research focus in urban economics (e.g. Fujita and Thisse 2003) and the new economic geography (e.g. Storper 1997). More recently, and at a much smaller scale, network and connectivity activities have been central to understanding cities in globalization (Taylor et al 2006, 2010b). Jane Jacobs (1969, 1984) is the one urban theorist who brings these two strands of work together (Krugman 1995; Taylor 2004). She defines cities as process that generates rapid economic expansion (Jacobs 1969). This is modelled as an import replacement and shifting mechanism in which agglomeration and network activities are combined. This is what I term ‘city-ness' to emphasize that we are dealing with a process. Although these literatures can be applied to early cities in a descriptive manner to interpret change (e.g. Algaze 2006a & b), it is relatively difficult to document and measure these agglomeration and network processes when focus moves away from contemporary cities. This is particularly the case for very early human settlements where the archaeological evidence is inherently limited. But it is precisely in situations of empirical poverty that theoretical guidance is most needed. To counter this conundrum it is necessary to devise a very basic model of the nature of cities, based upon Jacobs, but which will be relevant to the type of data that is available.

The Difference that Size Makes

My solution is a simple communications theory. The areal extent of sites is the one bit of information that we can find for all known settlement sites. And, importantly, these physical measures have been used to provide estimates of the demographic size of settlements. From population figures it is possible to produce broad relative estimates of the potential quantity of communication that is generated within and through a settlement. These empirical derivations are of theoretical interest because communication is central to both the cluster/agglomeration activities and the network/connectivity activities that define cities as process. In other words the uniqueness of cities as special creative locales should be discernible in terms of measures of potential communications.

Table 1: The communicative potential of early cities.


Measured geographical size
of urban site [hectares]*

Estimated demographic size
[200 persons per hectare]**

sociological size
[square of population]***

[double sociological size]****

Hunter-gatherer band

Çatalhöyük [7000 BC]

Eridu (Early Uruk)

Ur [Ur Dynasty III]

Mohenjo-daro [2000 BC]

Uruk [3000 BC]

Uruk (Early Dynastic I]





























*Taken from data in Modelski [2003 Table 1, p. 8] except for Ç atalh ö y ü k which is from Hodder (2006, p.7)
** this is the site-density multiplier used by Modelski [2003], for Ç atalh ö y ü k I use the midpoint of the range of estimates given by Hodder (2006, p. 7)
*** this is the total number of potential contacts
**** this is a new measure that tries to incorporate additional external contacts. through networks using the assumption that internal and external linkages are equally weighted (a ‘double Metcalf' in network theory terms).

Settlement size can be measured in four basic ways as illustrated in Table 1. This table features several ancient settlements that will feature in the two essays.

  1. Geographical size, the measurement of area. When measuring the area of a settlement site, a decision has to be made on where to draw the boundary. This may be easy if we are dealing with just a walled settlement, but what about suburbs on or near the wall?
  2. Demographic size, the counting of people. Areal site measures are the basis for settlement population estimates by Modelski (2003). The demographic size estimates are derived by assuming a population density of 200 persons per hectare.1
  3. Sociological size, the computation of individual internal social relations. Here size represents potential contacts between people, it relates to economic opportunity and innovation potentials. This is what Urry (2003, 52) means when he relates size to complexity: it is a network measure known as ‘Metcalf's law' in which size is computed by the square of the number of members. This defines the total potential number of connections in a local network.2
  4. Jacobsean size is how settlements are understood from the full communication perspective. This is an attempt to combine internal links with external connections to other cities in a city's network. Obviously this generates many more contacts than sociological size alone. There is no straightforward way to estimate this addition. Assuming external contacts are as equally important as internal ones, I simply double sociological size to generate this new measure.3

The purpose of this exercise is to show how this basic communication theory of city-ness produces such excessively large quantitative sizes in communication potentials that cities can be represented as completely new social worlds of human experience.

To make this point I have added a ‘hunter-gather group' that has a population of 150 persons; such groups constituted the common human experience for the vast majority of the modern human species' existence. The communication difference that city-ness makes can be found in the fourth column of Table 1. For the smallest settlement in the table, Çatalhöyük, its effective Jacobsean size makes it 5,688 times larger than our ubiquitous passing band. This differential connectivity illustrates the new economic and innovative power that comes with even the earliest cities. For the later Uruk, the enhanced communication potential is really staggering: 568,889 more potential communication than a hunter-gatherer band. Of course, the exact numbers listed in Table 1 are to be treated as simply indicative not as definitive. This is why precise numerical comparison is not the key point, what I am showing is evidence to support the notion that cities represent a qualitative change from life in a small relatively isolated band. The numbers in Table 1 give a sense of this world-changing difference of human experience, so that from this communication perspective, we can argue that an innovation as fundamental as agriculture could only have been invented and diffused as part of a city-ness process. Similarly, looking forward to the next essay, it may be that an innovation as fundamental as state formation required the very large Jacobsean sizes recorded fot Uruk in Table 1.

City-ness and Town-ness

The communication theory use of sizes of settlements is not the only theoretical framework that uses such information. Areal and demographic sizes are commonly used to rank settlements that are then interpreted as urban hierarchies in central place terms. Since this is a completely different interpretation of the one proposed here, some clarification is required.

Central place theory was originally devised in 1933 to show how the market areas of urban settlements are organized (Christaller 1966). Basically these were modelled as a hierarchy with larger settlements servicing larger market areas, and with tiers of lesser central places and their smaller market areas arranged below them. This model has dominated how inter-urban relations have been treated, being extended to national urban systems, with national urban hierarchies, in the 1960s. However, this is not the inter-urban relations that are central to Jacobs' (1969) thinking: no city ever grew from only trading with its hinterland. The inter-city relations she deals with are between cities across many sizes, not arranged in a simple hierarchical format. The differences between these two conceptions of inter-urban relations can be viewed as the difference between town-ness and city-ness (Taylor et al 2010a)

Central place theory is essentially about the local relations of urban places, albeit at different scales of ‘local' as the urban hierarchy is ascended. The focus is on the central place as it services its local area. This process can be equated with town-ness, a relatively simple flow of people to the ‘town centre' to receive public goods or buy private goods. City-ness, on the other hand, deals with non-local flows of people, commodities and information between cities, which has been termed ‘central flow theory' (Taylor et al 2010a). This terminology indicates that as a network process, the emphasis is on the flows rather than cities as places per se. The important point is that since both town-ness and city-ness are processes they can and do occur simultaneously in urban settlements. Typically big cities have their central place functions of shopping and entertainment (“downtown”) that are their town-ness, which operate alongside the wider economic links that are their city-ness. Because I am interested in macro-social change, and following Jacobs, it is central flow theory – city-ness – that is used below. But central place theory has had to be introduced here because this has been the theory of choice for inter-urban relations in archaeology. Clearly choice of theory makes a big difference to interpretation of evidence as will become apparent as the argument proceeds.

Cities and Agriculture: Two Revolutions or One?

When did cities first become part of human society? For most people, both experts and the interested public, the answer to this question is straightforward: Mesopotamia in the fourth and third centuries BC. Thus is Gwendolyn Leick's (2001) book on Mesopotamia is subtitled ‘The Invention of the City'. She is part of an almost unanimous archaeological tradition that goes back many decades.

The Conventional Thesis

The most famous statement of this tradition is that of the Marxist Gordon Childe (1950) who coined the term ‘urban revolution' to describe the rise of cities in the alluvial civilizations of the Nile, Indus and Tigris-Euphrates, the latter being the earliest. His ideas have been so influential that they deserve quoting at length:

"About 5,000 years ago irrigation cultivation (combined with stockbreeding and fishing) in the valleys of the Nile, the Tigris-Euphrates and the Indus had begun to yield a social surplus, large enough to support a number of resident specialists who were themselves released from food- production. Water-transport, supplemented in Mesopotamia and the Indus valley by wheeled vehicles, and even in Egypt by pack animals, made it easy to gather food stuffs at a few centres. At the same time dependence on river water for the irrigation of the crops restricted the cultivatable areas while the necessity of canalizing the waters and protecting habitations against annual floods encouraged the aggregation of population. Thus arose the first cities – units of settlement ten times as great as any known Neolithic village.”

Despite the massive increase in our knowledge of the subject matter since then, his framework for understanding the origins of cities prevails: cities appear with Bronze Age civilization and not before. As part of his recovering of ‘pre-civilization' peoples achievements and skills, Rudgley (1998, 209) refers to this position as ‘the ideological wall … that has been placed at 5.000 years ago to represent the beginning of history'. I am mindful to breach this wall as far as cities are concerned.

From the perspective being deployed in this essay, Childe's final sentence above is intriguing with its reference to a tenfold difference between his ‘first cities' and Neolithic villages. In fact in his list of ten traits to identify a city, ‘size' is the ranked first. But a multiple of ten is a far cry from the massive multiples derived from the communication theory reported above (Table 1). The Childe approach is wedded to place-based explanation for the first cities as, indeed, his use of a list of traits to identify cities confirms.4 Cities are deemed to have first appeared in special places where food surpluses released people to congregate in new large settlements that were not sustainable under ordinary (non-irrigated) agriculture. In this argument, agriculture had been around for many thousands of years before the emergence of cities. Thus the convention is for two key transformations, ‘agricultural revolution' first, followed some millennia later by the ‘urban revolution'5.

Figure 1: Origins: Two Settlement Development Sequencies.

In Figure 1(a) I have described this conventional position as basic evolutionary thinking stripped to its essentials in terms of a settlement sequence. The key transformation is the invention of agriculture by hunter-gathers that leads on to agricultural villages. Evolution is indicated by increasing size of settlement consequent upon agricultural improvements (adding to the food supply) leading first to market towns when production exceeds subsistence needs, and finally to Childe's cities where surpluses are much greater due to irrigated agriculture. This is clearly a supply-side model; it is not obvious where the demand comes from, a point I will develop later.

Jacobs' Alternative Thesis

For Jacobs (1969, 1984) cities are the crucibles of fundamental economic change and this includes agriculture. In Figure 1(b) I provide another schematic based on her ideas: this is a communication alternative sequence that is demand-led. Here the trading networks of hunter-gathers are emphasized leading to economic specialization at trading posts – transfers of commodities with possible modification of products. These may in relatively rare circumstances, but they lead to unprecedented population concentrations of several times more than the 150 norm of hunter-gather bands. If several such posts generate a strong and permanent trading network, these populations can grow to have a communication potential that qualifies them as small cities. Such cities are the critical step, they usher in Jacobs' explosive economic expansion. The point of the two diagrams in Figure 1 is to contrast the two ‘pivotal' steps: complex cities seem much more likely locales for agricultural invention than conventional evolution from hunter-gatherers.

It is this link to agriculture that is the really controversial step in Jacobs' thesis. Within the trading networks, the posts (that are to become cities) originally imported their food in exchange for their trading goods but with population growth the demand for food begins to outstrip what hunter-gathering can provide. Thus is agriculture invented as an import replacement, opening up more growth through new import shifts (extra commodities entering the settlement). With growth of agriculture (and herding) keeping up with the consequent new population growth, the amount of food production will necessitate workers being located outside the city: villages are created. If the food-producing hinterland grows further there may be the need for some urban functions to be transferred to the hinterland to service the villages: market towns are created. Thus the initial ‘common-sense' evolutionary sequence of increasing size – village to town to city – is replaced by a communication-led sequence – city to village to town.

This is all very well in theory but where is the evidence for cities many thousands of years before the rise of Mesopotamia's great Bronze Age cities? For Jacobs (1969) the answer is Çatalhöyük, which she refers to as ‘the earliest city yet found' (p. 31). This site, a large mound of some 32 acres in Anatolia, was excavated by James Mellaart in the 1950s and 60s. He estimated the population of the settlement possibly as high as 10,000. And he dated it at 7,000 BC, four millennia before the Mesopotamian cities. Jacobs calls it ‘a city of crafts, of artists, manufacturers and merchants' (p. 32) and the evidence does seem to show strong city-ness characteristics. Specifically, Mellaart (1964, 1965a) provides descriptions of how Çatalhöyük functioned both internally and externally. In terms of the internal relations of cities, Jacobs famously quotes Mellaart as follows:

‘… the weavers and basketmakers; the matmakers; the carpenters and joiners; the men who made the polished stone tools (axes and adxes, polishers and grinders, chisets, maceheads and palettes);the beadmakers who drilled in stone beads holes that no modern steel needle can penetrate and who carved pendants and used stone inlays; the makers of shell beads from dentalium, cowrie and fossil oyster; the flint and obsidian knappers who produced the pressure-flaked daggers, spearheads, lanceheads, arrowheads, knives, sickle blades, scrapers and borers; the merchants of skin. Leather and fur; the workers in bone who made the awls, punches, knives, scrapers, ladles, spoons, bows, scoops, spatulas, bodkins, belt hooks, antler toggles, pins and cosmetic sticks; the carvers of wooden bowls and boxes; the mirrormakers, the bowmakers; the men who hammered native copper into sheets and worked it into beads, pendants, rings and other trinkets; the builders; the merchants and traders who obtained all the raw materials; and finally the artists – the carvers of statuettes, the modelers and the painters.' (p. 32-3 from Mellaart (1964))

I have quoted this at full length to show the detail of the complex division of labour from Mellaart that so impressed Jacobs. But elsewhere, in terms of fuller exposition of the external relations of Çatalhöyük, Mellaart considered that trade might be ‘the most important source of income' because the city held ‘the monopoly of obsidian trade with the west of Anatolia, Cyprus and the Levant' (Mellaart 1965b, 84). He describes a classic case of entwining trade with production:

‘In exchange for obsidian, the fine tabular flint of Syria was obtained and widely used for manufacture of daggers and other tools. Sea shells, especially dentalia, were imported in great quantities from the Mediterranean for the manufacture of beads and stones of great variety were brought to the city for manufacture of stone luxury vessels, beads and pendants, polishers, grinding stones, pounders, mortars and querns, or to be used (like alabaster and marble, black and brown limestone) for the manufacture of small cult statues. Greenstone occurs on a ridge in the plain and it was used for fully polished adzes and axes, and for jewellery. Ochres and other paints came from the hills around the plain together with fossil shells, lignite, copper and iron ores, native copper, cinnabar and galena.' (pp. 84-5)

For Mellaart this makes Çatalhöyük to be ‘worthy of a metropolis' (p. 134) but Jacobs (1969, 35) is more theoretically specific: the settlement exhibited that most ‘valuable' and ‘wondrous' resource: ‘a creative local economy' (p. 35). For this to have emerged she conjectures a city network: ‘several little cities were simultaneously serving as expanding markets for one another' (p. 35). Thus, she concludes, ‘it was the fact of sustained, interdependent, creative city economies that made possible many kinds of new work, agriculture among them' (p. 36).

On reading Mellaart (1964, 1965a & b) his findings at Çatalhöyük appear to fit Jacobs' ideas on city as process almost to the letter. However, I would put it the other way around. Her ideas about city economies in The Economy of Cities (Jacobs 1969) are so far advanced from those initially developed in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Jacobs 1960), I would wager that Çatalhöyük had a prime role in developing her theory of cities. This may explain why, in the later book (Jacobs 1969), she she took the surprising decision to begin with ancient history in a first chapter entitled ‘Cities First – Rural Development Later'. It is here that she presented her outlandish idea that agriculture was invented in cities in order to produce the food such new large settlements required (as sketched out in Figure 1(b)). Thus was Mellaart's empirical challenge to archaeological orthodoxy supplemented by a new and original urban theory that remains important in urban studies today (Glaeser et al 1991; Soja 2000; Taylor 2006). But the undermining of the sequence of two ‘revolutions' in archaeology's evolutionary thinking appears to have been a step too far in historical studies. In this area of research Hansen (2000, 11) assesses that her ideas have ‘been rejected almost unanimously'. For instance, in a typical dismissal, Balter (2005, 112) describes Mellaart's claim of finding the first city as being ‘ a notion popularized by Jane Jacobs' thereby revealing a total lack of knowledge of her social science status as an important urban theorist.

And so two parts of academia have parted when it comes to appreciating the work of Jane Jacobs. For my part I do think a communications approach to the rise of cities, and a concomitant view on the invention of agriculture, remains far more compelling than the archaeologists' basic model (Figure 1(a)). As a social scientist, I look for credible mechanisms of social change; this is what Jacobs provides but they appear conspicuous by their absence in evolutionary thinking. This is indicated in the spatial framework they use: instead of central flow theory their interpretations remain wedded to central place theory.

Downgrading Çatalhöyük6

One very obvious indication that archaeologists have a problem dealing with Çatalhöyük is they don't know what to call it. Here are some descriptions of Çatalhöyük that indicate the conceptual confusion that has been generated. Mellart (1965) uses both city and town in his initial descriptions – indicating ‘urban' - but later on, it appears that, under the pressure of orthodoxy, he preferred the non-committal term ‘settlement' (Balter 2005, 296). Renfrew (1975, 7) refers to Çatalhöyük as an ‘early farming village … almost urban size'. Bairoch (1988, 9) coins the strange term ‘preurban town'. Both Nissen (1988) and Hodder (2006) consistently call it a ‘town' but with the quotes emphasizing its problematic nature. The ‘official biographer' of the current evacuations translates Hodder's ‘town' into ‘an enormous village' (Balter 2005, 3). Yet when the new excavations began at the site, two publications introducing the work trumpeted the ‘first city' claim in their titles (Balter 1988; Shane and Ku ç uk 1988)! These equivocal positions are well represented in The Times Atlas of Archaeology: the section on Çatalhöyük uses the phrase ‘a farming village' for its title (Scarre 1988, 82) but quickly finds ‘many features … puzzling' so that it is later referred to as a ‘highly sophisticated early town' (p. 83)7. I think this conceptual confusion can be traced back to using the wrong inter-urban theory: archaeologists have been searching for town-ness rather than city-ness.

The very influential archaeologist, Colin Renfrew (1975), using quantitative methods ‘inspired by geography' (p. 3), has argued that ‘a permanently functioning central place is a feature of every civilization' (p. 12). This implies a system of related settlements in contrast to a landscape of isolated settlements, which is ‘the very antithesis of civilization' (p. 7). This argument has been developed in full by Nissen (1988) in his early history of ancient Western Asia. For the period 9000 to 6000 BC he traces the development of permanent settlement but notes the lack of ‘systematic mutual connections' (p. 33). He calls the next period, 6000 to 3200 BC, ‘‘from isolated settlement to town' (p. 39) in which he traces the evolution of settlement systems (p. 41) through three tiers of central places to four. The latter first appears in Sumer with ‘Uruk at its head' (p. 66) indicating the emergence of ‘early high civilization' (p. 65) and therefore cities. It is from this perspective of a central place system history that Nissen engages with the problem of how to interpret the ‘type of settlement, sometimes called a “town”' (p. 36) represented by Jericho and Çatalhöyük.

Basically the argument is that these large Neolithic settlements differ from towns ‘in one decisive criterion': they are ‘not the center of a settled countryside' (p. 36). Thus Jericho, for example, ‘was not part of a settlement system' (p. 36-7); it exhibited no ‘real centrality' (p. 37). Thus he is able to comfortably conclude:

‘The special development of Jericho and, to a limited extent, also of Çatalhöyük, in no way therefore changes anything in our general characterization of the period as one of separate open settlements. If Jericho shows anything, it demonstrates how wide the spectrum of possibilities at the beginning of a new phase of development, in this case, permanent settlements, can be. However, further development seldom proceeds from the extremes of such a spectrum. Jericho developed into a special form right on the edge of the spectrum. Hence further development to higher forms of political organization did not lead via Jericho, Catal Huyuk, or other similar, but yet unknown, settlements, but took the very slow way round, via the development of structured relationships between individual settlements and of settlement systems. (p. 37-8)

This is also why Emberling (2003, 258) rejects Jericho and Çatalhöyük's city credentials: neither developed ‘a differentiated rural hinterland'. In other words, central place theory rules out Jericho and Çatalhöyük as urban settlements.

Notice that in the long quotation from Nissen above, the ‘isolated settlements' he identifies for the time of Jericho and Çatalhöyük are characterised as ‘separate open settlements' and it is the openness (trade) that we have previously emphasized. From the perspective of central flow theory, Çatalhöyük, Jericho and their ilk represent the beginnings of city-ness. They are unusual from our current understanding of cities in that in these relatively small urban settlements, city-ness appears to dominate town-ness. This is consistent with the communication model where city precedes hinterland and the creation of ‘lower order' towns (Figure 1(b)). But there is now a fascinating new episode to this debate. Since the work reported above there has been new excavations undertaken by Ian Hodder. It is, perhaps, ironic that he is the person who first introduced and promoted central place theory in archaeology (Hodder and Orton 1976, 55-66). But in this new assessment of Çatalhöyük he goes beyond central place theory to reinterpret the internal relations within the settlement.

Return to Çatalhöyük: from domestic mode of production to city-ness

The second excavation of Çatalhöyük has been described as ‘the greatest concentration of scientific fire power ever focused on an archaeological dig' (Balter 2005, 4). What has all this new research revealed? Hodder (2006) provides a fascinating report on the work that focuses on ‘the mysteries of the elaborate symbolism at Çatalhöyük' and ‘how people were living' (p. 18). Hodder reports new estimates of the population size of the settlement – varying over time between 3,500 and 8,000 – and then states his key argument against Çatalhöyük being a city or town:

‘So in terms of size, we might call this settlement a ‘town'. But it has few of the other characteristics that we might mean by that term. Despite careful sampling of the surface of the mound, we have found no public spaces, administrative buildings, elite quarters, or really any specialized functional spaces. … Indeed in 2004 we undertook excavation specifically to explore the idea that there might be some centralized functions at the site. … What we found was more prosaic. … all there is at Çatalhöyük are houses and middens and pens. There is none of the functional differentiation that we normally associate with the term ‘town'. Çatalhöyük is just a very large village – it pushed the idea of an egalitarian village to its extreme. Most production, even where there is some specialization of production, is carried out at the house level. And indeed, this is perhaps the greatest enigma of Çatalhöyük – that given the domestic scale of production and much social and economic life, why did people aggregate into such a major centre?' (p. 95, 98-9)

This is similar to Nissen's earlier interpretation of such large settlements being extreme cases and with ‘centralised functions' are missing. There is also an emphasis on place. In this case there is a list of specialised places that he expects in a town or city. I think this shows a lack of appreciation of city-ness as a process. After all Çatalhöyük had little or no streets, roofs were used for inter-urban movement in their stead. Given use of roofs, it seems there would be little need for dedicated public spaces for public gatherings. As Moore (2003, 97-8) has noted

Minimally, if prehistoric urban environments lack massive public monuments, large public plazas, or wide straight boulevards, we should not assume that those societies lacked the wherewithal for public works, the love of order, or the gumption to build. It may be that alternative conceptions of social order are being expressed'

But the critical argument is about the nature of production; this goes to the heart of Jacobs' division of labour interpretation drawn from results of the earlier excavations by Mellaart.

Çatalhöyük as Domestic Mode of Production?

Hodder's (2005) describes ‘an internal organization of the “town”' that is ‘so atomised and small-scale' (p. 107). The houses were all largely separate – with few ‘party walls' - and each was largely self-sufficient in function. Thus the production processes described in detail by Mellaart appear to occur in every house. For instance, there are no general builders of houses, each has bricks of ‘different composition or shape' (p. 94). Thus, ‘it is as if, despite the dense packing, each house retains its autonomy' (p. 95). Since Jacobs' division of labour requires specialization this is a powerful argument against. However, once again we must see city-ness as an on-going process. Here skills are being honed and, in fact, Hodder presents evidence for supporting Jacobs. As well as house-based activity there are also ‘plenty of evidence of collective behaviour' (p. 107). For instance, ‘there is much evidence for long-distance trade and exchange' (p. 80) which would have been done collectively like planting and herding (p. 94). Obsidian was an important traded good and there is evidence of possible value-added production in this case:

‘It seems clear that obsidian came as pre-forms from the sources in Cappadocia 170 km (105 miles) away, and was taken into the house where it was buried. People then dug up and excavated pieces when they needed them and worked them nearby inside the house.' (p. 173)

There appears to be some tension in Hodder's argument between ‘town-wide' and house-based activities:

‘Undoubtedly, some specialization of production does occur, but in most such cases, such as bead or bone tool production, or obsidian mirror manufacture, the specialization seems at best part-time, and fully embedded within a domestic mode.' (p. 179)

In fact, Hodder identifies two important trends: ‘specialization of production may have increased through time' (p. 182), and there may have been ‘a shift away from the centrality of the house to the importance of exchange between houses' (p. 177). Thus with more specialization, particularly skilled people may have supplied neighbours with bone tools and obsidian mirrors (p. 182). Here we have traces of a possible transition from a domestic mode of production to a city-ness division of labour.

I think there is enough evidence from the new excavations to warrant keeping to Jacobs' sophisticated process of city-ness, with the emphasis on process. But the more radical part of her argument – cities inventing agriculture – appears to be more difficult to sustain. To begin with there is a straightforward empirical issue to confront. Hodder (2005) does not deal with the Çatalhöyük – agricultural revolution link for the simple reason that the settlement is only 9,000 years old which is much later than the domestication of animals and plants (Hodder 2006, 18). Where does this leave Jacobs' controversial thesis? In fact Jacobs (1969) does not tie her theory down to this one particular settlement creating the new work that is agriculture. She refers to ‘cities such as Çatalhöyük' (p. 37) in her discussion remembering that this is only the ‘earliest city yet found' (p. 31). To find the putative ‘first city' (but it would be in a network of cities), Jacobs invents a fictitious city ‘New Obsidian', and it is here that she describes how ‘hunter- gatherer' city dwellers invent agriculture. Thus, as common in archaeological disputes, we are in the unknown, perhaps unknowable; as one critic of Jacobs, Bairoch (1988, 17), concedes: ‘while her arguments do not prove that agriculture was invented in the city, the margin of uncertainty around that period is such that the hypothesis cannot be rejected outright' (p 17).

But we cannot just leave it there. In such situations of knowledge uncertainty, it is the plausibility of theoretical positions that matter. Hodder (2005, 250) briefly refers to Sahlins' (2004) concept of domestic mode of production as the structure of Çatalhöyük's house-based organization. And this seems to be appropriate for Hodder's interpretation: Sahlins describes the mode of production as ‘a kind of petite economy' (p. 78) that was ‘atomized and small scale' (p. 79). I will use and elaborate on Sahlins' ideas on ‘stone age economics' to explore further Hodder's (2005, 99; Balter 1998) question of why people aggregated into places like Çatalhöyük. There are two steps in the argument, one casting doubt on the conventional idea of the agricultural origins of cities, and the other introducing trade as a better candidate for stimulating aggregation.

Sahlin's ‘Stone Age Economics'

Sahlins (2004, 1) has famously described hunter-gatherer societies as the ‘original affluent society'. By this he means that their ‘wants are finite and few' and therefore their simple means for attending to these wants is generally adequate: ‘a people can enjoy unparalleled material plenty - with a low standard of living' (p. 2). This interpretation is the opposite of our usual Hobbsian views of ‘primitive peoples' living ‘brutish' lives. But anthropological studies of work in hunter-gather societies show that rather than struggling for subsistence, these peoples spend only two or three days a week satisfying their needs (pp. 14-26). They have much leisure time; they appear to be lazy (p. 26). The question is, therefore, why should such affluent leisure societies want to domesticate plants and animals. As Sahlins says of a contemporary group of hunter gatherers, ‘tutored by life and not by anthropology (they) reject the Neolithic revolution in order to keep their leisure' (p. 27). Given that Palaeolithic hunter gatherers, unlike their contemporary representatives, were not reduced to living in marginal lands, it follows that their ‘pristine affluence' (p. 29) would likely make them be even more sceptical of the benefits of farming. Thus Sahlins concludes:

‘The Neolithic saw no particular improvement over the Palaeolithic in the amount of time required per capita for the production of subsistence; probably with the advent of agriculture, people had to work harder. (p. 35)

Why and how the Neolithic agricultural revolution therefore? Why bother?

Another Hobbesian denigration of hunter-gatherers is that they live isolated lives: Sahlins (2004) also disputes this. There was no ‘domestic autarky', the households were not self-sufficient and therefore there was exchange (p. 83). But the key point for the domestic mode of production is that production remained for use and not exchange (pp. 83-4). This is because this mode of production ‘is intrinsically a anti-surplus system' (p. 82). The result is that Sahlins develops a ‘theory of value in nonexchange' (p. 277). Thus although there are examples of long distance trade, trade networks, and even supply and demand effects (p. 280), it is ‘social relations, not prices, (that) connect “buyers” and “sellers”' (p. 298). He interprets this being ‘the diplomacy of exchange' (p. 303) rather than an economic market of exchange.

The obvious place to search for new social practices, such as commercial diasporas or networks (Curtin 1984), is in the complexities of different spatial forms of trading as portrayed by Renfrew (1975, pp. 41-5). As previous argued (Figure 1(b)), the most likely source of change would seem to come from the rise of large aggregations of people, perhaps trading posts adding production to their activities, wherein the enhanced Jacobsean size facilitates the rethinking required to overcome cultural resistances to creating surpluses for gain. This is such an immense turnaround in making a living that it requires an immense level of social contact to emerge as a new way of doing production. And this is what cities are about; this is where the ‘finite and few' wants of the old world could be ditched and spiralling new needs and wants created and acted upon. Something with new communication potential is needed to first create a commercial way of life. It is the latter that would then enable the innovation for farming to happen along side hunter gathering as the latter failed to keep up with city food demands. In other words, Jacobs' (1969) conjecture of ‘cities first; agriculture follows' is not all that implausible after all. In fact we can develop the evidence further.

Çatalhöyük's Neighbours

Here is the story so far. For a few score millennia, human beings had been hunter-gatherers, with some minor trade and production activities. Settlements would have been small, transitory but not isolated. Despite the latter, the scale of making a living would mean a somewhat uninspiring social context despite all the leisure time. At some point about ten or so millennia ago in Western Asia, the trade and production came together in a few places to create new settlements. This additional work created larger settlements and some were able to reach a population threshold where the quantity and quality of social contacts generated communication potential that enabled a completely new social context: cities in city networks. The critical size can be debated but it is probably somewhere between settlements of 2,000 and 5,000 people in a network of 5 to 10 such places. This would create a new knowledge-rich environment and make possible the creation of new work as the initial trade network morphed into a small city network. This is economic expansion. Agriculture was among the new work inventions. The evidence presented for this process has been limited to just two well-known examples, mainly Çatalhöyük plus some references to Jericho. Although Nissen (1988, 37) dismisses these as being extreme cases (‘dead ends') of a pervasive small-scale, isolated settlement pattern, it seems the two examples are not really that extreme or rare. In fact Soja (2000) fits them into what he interprets as a ‘first urban revolution' before Mesopotamia. Here are his additional cases of potential cities:

‘During these four millennia (of Jericho's occupation, 9000 to 5000 BC), a number of other urban centers developed in a broad T-shaped region and became linked together in an expansive trading network of cities: Abu Hureyra (even larger in size than Jericho), Bouqras, and Mureyra along the upper reaches of the Eyphrates and Ras Shamra on the coast of present-day Syria; Ain Ghazal, Abu Gosh, and Beidha in the southern Levant; Zawi Chemi, Jarmo, and Ali Kosh in the borderlands of Iraq and Iran drained by the Tigris; and, from east to west in Anatolia, Çayönü, Asikli Hüyük, Çatalhöyük (probably the largest … of the first cities), and Haçilar.' (pp. 28-9)

This is a totally different world from that described by Nissen (1988) covering the same region; it is not a stagnant world of isolated settlements, it is a new, creative world of economic expansion.

Generic conclusion

Accepting Soja's characterization of early settlement in western Asia does not mean I follow his thesis of three urban revolutions, the early one above, Childe's Mesopotamian urban revolution, and the modern industrial urban revolution. Soja's historiography incorporates a rather traditional trajectory to the modern world starting in western Asia; this is far too geographically limiting for my liking. An alternative approach is to ask whether there are possible cities that existed before the ‘rise' of accepted ‘civilizations' elsewhere in the world? The basic argument I am presenting is not just about the case study of Çatalhöyük, it aspires to be a general argument about the rise of cities and agriculture (Figure 1(b)). Therefore this generic conclusion consists of searching for early signs of city-ness and concomitant agriculture in many other regions across the world. I am looking for claims of finding cities in the wrong places at the wrong time.

Table 2: Possible early cities beyond western Asia.







Sannai Maruyama



35 hectares; over 1000 buildings

Jomo culture of hunter-gatherers (pottery-makers)

Hudson (2006); Keally (2005); Ridgeley (1998)

Middle Yangtze Valley



50 sites, many large-scale structures

Pre-dynastic. neolithic

Shen (2003)



Indus Plains

Jacobs processes

Pre-Indus civilization; early cotton and copper work

Mithan (2003)

South Bug-Dnepr region



3 cities each up to 10,000

Public works

Modelski (2000)

“ Celtic” oppida



Central Europe

Large fortified sites

Economically: trade with food imported

Collis (2000)

‘Monastic towns' of the Irish ‘golden age'



Up to 2,000

Centres of population, markets, schools and prisons

Butlin (1977); Corráin (2005); Doherty (1985); Edwards (2005); Valente (1998); Wilkinson (1987)

Great Zimbabwe



Central southern Africa

Largest centre (estimates 11,000 to 18,000) of 150 stone ruins

Trade links to Indian Ocean

Coquery-Vidrovitch (2005)

Middle Niger urban complexes


First millennium AD, possibly earlier

West Africa

Clustered cities with central mounds 20 to 80 hectares

Pre-Saharan trade (i.e. indigenous product)

McIntoch and McIntoch (2003)

Pampa de la Llama-Moxeke


North Peru

2,000 to 2,500

Inter-valley exchange networks

von Hagen and Morris (1998); Wilson (1997)

Tlatilco, Coapexco and Tlapacoya


Central Mexico

‘Quite large'

Possibly replaces Monte Alban as earliest Mexican city

Charlton and Nichols (1997); Sabloff (1989)



Mississippi Basin

10.200 to 15,300 (AD 1050); 20,000 log wall (AD1150)

Riverine mercantile centre

Dincauze and Hasenstaub (1989); Kelley (1991); Pauketat (2004); Peregrine (1992)

This search has resulted in Table 2. Here I provide brief indications of more than a dozen settlements outside western Asia that may well be cities before there should be cities. I do not have the space to describe these cases in any detail but the simple fact that I can list this many is itself potentially informative. Also their world-wide distribution is impressive. Obviously they vary somewhat in their credibility to fit the sort of role Jacobs would expect of them, but the idea that cities start only in western Asiais clearly undermined.

To end this essay I will draw important lessons from two of the better documented early cities in Table 2 that are from opposite sides of the world: Sannai Maruyama in Japan and Cahokia in the USA. Both cases inform the question of why there are so few ‘precocious cities' given that every one of my examples is presumed to be part of a network of cities.

The first reason is that the incomplete nature of archaeological evidence that is inevitably more fragmentary the further back we look. Sannai Maruyama illustrates the serendipity at play in finding these early cities. Sannai Maruyama is impressive and famous for its size, 35 hectares in which over 1,000 buildings have been found (Rudgley 1998, 31). Part of the pottery making, hunter-gathering Jomon culture, the settlement existed between 3500 and 2000 BC (Hudson 1996). Hudson is impressed by the ‘scale and complexity' and expects other large settlements will be found; Ridgley (1998, 32) describes the craft specialization using exotic minerals such as obsidian and amber indicating ‘clear evidence of long distance trading networks'. This is a very clear example of a pre-Neolithic city in the Jacobs' mode. And yet we only know of this site because of luck. If a new baseball stadium had not been planned in Aomori City in 1992, the surveying work that led to finding the site of Sannai-maruyama would not have happened. And with this very large settlement remaining unknown, the ‘dramatic reappraisal of Jomon culture' that it necessitated would not have occurred (Rudgley 1998, 30). The point is that we do not, and will never know the full extent of other lost ‘Sannai Maruyamas' across the world. We have hints of further examples: Mithen (2003) bemoans the general lack of knowledge of early African settlements (p. 503) and, for another region, he goes as far as saying: ‘While substantial settlements most likely existed in the New Guinea lowlands at 6000 BC, archaeologists have yet to find them' (p. 339). Similarly, in his brief discussion of ‘astonishingly early settlements' (Çatalhöyük and Jericho), Southall (1998, 23) alludes to numerous other equivalent settlements ‘few of which may ever be known to us'.

But there is a second reason there might be many sites that will elude our knowledge. Cahokia, in the Mississippian culture, appears to be a perfect replication of Jacobs' (1969) urban process. According to Pauketat (2004, 79), there was a ‘historical disjuncture' (p. 67) when the population of Cahokia, near the junctions of the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio rivers, ‘more than quadrupled over a fifty year period' to about 10,200/15,300 by AD 1050. Coincidently, there was a ‘transformation of the rural countryside that accompanied the AD 1050 flashpoint', (p. 99). This ‘resettlement of farmers that accompanied the Cahokia-centric restructuring of the regional landscape.'(p. 97) resulted in them being ‘tethered in some way' to Cahokia and other settlements (p.97). With Cahokia being at the centre of a huge natural water transport system, there are plenty of examples of both large-scale, non-local patterns of both raw material procurement and production distribution (p. 121 and Figure 6.1, p. 122). Dincauze and Hasenstaub (1989), Kelley (1991) and Peregrine (1992) interpret Cahokia as a mercantile centre controlling large riverine commercial networks. But Cahokia declined as quick as it rose: it was abandoned by AD 1300 and ‘a huge fourteenth- to sixteenth century “Vacant Quarter” opened up across the middle-river regions' (Pauketat 2004, 41). It is this latter feature I want to discuss. Kennedy (1994, 244) describes this as ‘a cyclical history of the Great Valley before the coming of the Europeans' - a ‘flowering' followed by a ‘period of exhaustion'. Pauketat (2004, 158) suggests soil erosion or political unrest as the cause: it seems to me that desiccation of the land would undoubtedly lead to political conflicts. If such a pattern is typical, then early cities become relatively short historical records with consequent less evidence left for us to find.

Figure 2: Bifurcation: Economic Contraction or Economic Expansion.

I think the rise and fall of Cahokia may not be that unusual. Thus I will use this example to develop further Figure 1(b) in which farming was invented in cities. We can envisage a situation where the demand for food in early cities creates new agricultural practices with little or no knowledge of how to maintain soil fertility, techniques essential for sustainability. With land desiccated around the city, agriculture moves further away in a process that may contribute to the demise of the city. With the city gone, most people will migrate to other sites and the new farmers are likely to create ‘subsistence villages or hamlets' largely separate from urban worlds. This is illustrated in Figure 2(a) that shows how an urban network can be reduced to a landscape of agricultural villages without cities. The alternative, Figure 2(b) is for sustainable agriculture to be developed so that food production intensifies and keeps up with urban growth. Innovations such as terracing and irrigation are the sorts of developments I am thinking of here. Of course, some millennia after the demise of Çatalhöyük, it was irrigation that characterised the agriculture supporting the great cities of Mesopotamia. Childe emphasizes the food surpluses this generated; the argument developed in this paper is that sustainability, river replenishment of fertility, may have been the crucial feature of this later and very successful city network.


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* Peter J Taylor, Department of Geography Loughborough University, Lougborough, UK, email:

1. Obviously the population density assumption is vital for the demographic estimates and will be culture-sensitive. This is well discussed by the producers of such estimates – see Modelski (2003, 7-12) and Chandler (1987, 6-7), the two most comprehensive sources. I will draw on the work of both below. However, their results should never be treated as exact measures; despite the massive amount of work involved in producing estimates for hundreds of cities, Modelski (2003) remains modest in his description of the outcome: ‘estimates are necessarily speculative, and basically belong to the category of educated guesses' (p. 9).

2. The sociological size measures are merely potentials and no more. They reflect ‘a multiplication of interactions' consequent upon increasing urbanization (Algaze 2005b, 21). Arguments can be made to both lower or raise the figures. Obviously divisions in a city (segregation, ghettoes) will lessen contact but on the other hand cultural variety will enhance the value of contacts.

3. Although overall external connections will likely be smaller than internal city contacts, they are especially crucial for Jacobs' (1969) key process of economic expansion via import replacement. Therefore, combining potential internal and external linkages are treated as equal components.

4. The penultimate trait is ‘long-distance trade' which defines flows but this is not an important feature as witnessed by its omission in the above key quote

5. For Childe in the period before the agricultural revolution, humans were in a state of savagery, between the two revolutions they were in a state of barbarism, reaching civilization only with Bronze Age cities. See discussion by Haywood (2005) for discussion of equivalent current terminology.

6. There was another ‘city' that joins Çatalhöyük in this discussion; Jericho was also an inconveniently early city (Kenyon 1960).

7. Here is the description of Çatalhöyük that led to the changed interpretation from farming village to sophisticated town:

‘With the exception of obsidian, available from the nearby volcano of Hasan Dag, raw materials had to be imported. Catal Huyuk became the centre of a trading complex, dealing in a wide range of items – timber, obsidian, flint, copper, shells. Cowrie shells were imported from as far afield as the Red Sea. With access to raw materials assured, the craftsmen of Catal Huyuk became increasingly skilled and specialised, producing a wide variety of goods: arrowhead, lanceheads and daggers of flint and obsidian, stone maceheads, baked clay and carved stone figurines, textiles, wooden vessels and coil-built pottery. Trinkets such as copper beads and lead pendants were also produced, and copper smelting at Catal Huruk provides some of the earliest evidence of metallurgy in the Near East.' (Scarre 1988, 82)

This empirical description of a trading/production centre is pure Jacobs' city-ness, although she is not referenced.


Edited and posted on the web on 17th August 2010

Note: This Research Bulletin and RB 360 are source papers for an article published in International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 36 (3), (2012), 415-447