Home Books Four Lost Cities: by Annalee Newitz

Four Lost Cities: by Annalee Newitz

Those of us old enough to remember the scares surrounding Bird Flu, SARS and Ebola will recall that, as the threats ebbed away, scientists could be relied on to comment that, at some point there would be the kind of pandemic we all feared, the kind that haunted the popular imagination in movies like Outbreak and Contagion; and here we are. In Annalee Newitz’s fascinating book, the author does something similar, examining four once-populous cities and investigating the reasons that they were deserted and all but forgotten. It’s an important question, because history never ends; as with pandemics, the assumption should be that it will happen again.

The real strength of the book is that it doesn’t just document the process of how the cities became ‘lost’ – a problematic term that is addressed throughout – but the process of how they got there in the first place and how they functioned. In doing so, it tells apparently disparate stories which all serve to reveal the same truth; that cities are manifestations of the needs and beliefs and culture of human societies, and that on the whole they last as long as they are fit for their purpose. The cities are an ancient but diverse group; Çatalhöyük, in what is now Central Turkey, the Roman city of Pompeii, the vast metropolis of Angkor in ancient Cambodia and the North American city now called Cahokia, which lay along the Mississippi. The timescales involved are as vast as the cities themselves; Çatalhöyük’s heyday lies almost 10,000 years in the past, while Pompeii flourished until its abrupt and premature death in 79CE and Cahokia and Angkor lived on until what would Eurocentrically be termed the medieval period (around 1350 in the case of the former and 1431 for Angkor).

Çatalhöyük is, from a modern, urban perspective, the most enigmatic of these cities. Building gradually over time in what seems an almost modular way, the society it represents seems to be among the first human attempts to move away from nomadic hunter/gatherer lifestyles into something which was markedly different, but almost as alien to the centrally-governed modern city we are now familiar with; not least because ideas of state and even country still lay in the far future. Nowadays we think of farming and agriculture as the opposite of urban life, but the truth is that without cultivating the land, no urban society can exist. Çatalhöyük covers a vast area of land, but feels more like a network of villages than a city as we know it today. It’s a way of life that, from the physical evidence, seems both remote and familiar; homes were rebuilt, reused and redecorated just as today – and, just as today, living in a metropolis meant venturing into a world where you would routinely encounter strangers on a daily basis. Obviously this has massive implications for the kind of society they were building, but for the early pioneers of urban living, it seems like things we take for granted; the concept of material wealth, or even of a roughly hierarchical society, if they existed, left no trace. On the other hand, the slow progress of Çatalhöyük shows human beings beginning to control their environment and in doing so changing not just their surroundings, through agriculture and animal farming, and their society, but even their own physiology as their bodies adapted to their new lifestyle over centuries.

In examining these societies, Newitz is also examining the way they have been interpreted and re-interpreted by generations of historians and archaeologists with evolving ideas of what civilization means. As the western world moves away from the colonial viewpoints of the 19th and 20th centuries, historians move away from a top down, anachronistic view of past cultures. What is revealed incidentally in the book again and again is that archaeology has often consisted of finding what people expect to find, based on the society they themselves come from. From the discovery of some female figurines at Çatalhöyük in the early 1960s, a prominent archaeologist extrapolated, based on minimal evidence, a theory of a matriarchal, goddess-worshipping society, which has subsequently been proved to be a misreading. But it was also exactly what a scientist at that time, when ideas of Imperialism and male-dominance were being questioned and when interest in all-encompassing, mythologizing ideas of anthropology like Frazer’s Golden Bough and Graves’s The White Goddess was at its height, might be expected to find. Equally, it’s entirely likely that many of the discoveries of today, which have a tendency to be filtered through the understandable desire to erase judgements tainted by two millennia of Christian morality might eventually prove to be similarly flawed. Although Çatalhöyük is most definitely not a blank canvas – both the site and its finds are unique and distinctive – its apparent simplicity seems to invite speculation. In the end, as the author suggests, its demise may be as illusory as its apparent loss (local people always knew it was there) and subsequent ‘discovery’. The people of Çatalhöyük were not wiped out by an asteroid or a volcano; for a variety of reasons, environmental, but almost certainly societal too, the urban life became less desirable and possibly less sustainable than living on a smaller scale and people seem to have drifted back into a more fragmented village life.

Pompeii is far easier for us to understand. Partly this is because the Romans – an urban, clearly hierarchical society with a retail culture, currency and written language – were far more like us, but it’s also because we understand disasters. In building a rich picture of Pompeii, the thriving, multicultural and diverse city, Newitz heightens the horror of what happened when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79CE. Pompeii is a city which we would recognise; one with a street life, a night life, a political life. It had restaurants, realtors, rioting sports fans; it even had traffic. All of which came to an end – in that location at least – over the course of just a couple of days. The weakness of Pompeii – essentially, that it was built on a fundamentally insecure site, is, crucially, one that exists across the world to this day, Tokyo and Los Angeles being just the most famous of many examples.

Now, as then, people are prepared to overlook the risk for as long as the city remains economically viable. What the author surprisingly leaves unmentioned is the closest modern day equivalents to Pompeii, which highlight both the similarities and differences between the modern and ancient world. In modern times, capitalism has been the driving force in ensuring that cities aren’t abandoned, even when logic suggests that – as with post-Katrina New Orleans – they possibly should be. Because we – that is, the majority of people – can’t afford to abandon them. They are only decisively abandoned, as with the Chernobyl-adjacent town of Pripyat – when humans can’t afford not to abandon them. An interesting but unanswerable hypothetical question is what had happened had Pripyat been in a modern, capitalist country and not the Soviet Union. Pompeii itself was abandoned not just, or not even mainly because of the destruction of the city and the practical difficulties of digging it out before the machine age, but because, as with Pripyat, the land was ruined and made toxic, probably for generations.

The case of the vast megalopolis of Angkor, once the heart of the Khmer kingdom, now in modern Cambodia, is at the heart of the book’s main message, which is part warning and part reassurance. It’s also the part of the book where the author dissects most clearly the problematic concept of cities or civilisations being ‘lost’ or ‘discovered.’ Our ideas of urban development are inevitably shaped by our own experience and surroundings; we can see that ancient Rome was an urban civilisation by its ruins. But many – or most – ancient civilisations would have built mainly from perishable materials, wood and earth, and left no obvious mark on the land, so that the tendency has been to believe these people were less ‘advanced.’ Among other things, Four Lost Cities makes the reader consider just what we mean by terms like ‘advanced civilisation’ and where these terms come from. In fact, it took modern technology to establish what essentially should have been known already – that Angkor – as inscriptions on its temples clearly state – had a vast population, somewhere around a million inhabitants at its height and was one of the biggest cities of its time, making its apparent disappearance all the more mysterious.

In fact, Angkor, like each of the cities in the book, was never really lost; local people at least, always remained aware of what was around them. Their ‘discovery’ really marks the point at which outsiders – often with their own colonial or Imperialistic agenda or viewpoint – became aware of them. Sometimes that rediscovery was part of a larger cultural programme, often itself a kind of expansionist one, even if only intellectually. “Discovering” the remains of Angkor and rescuing it from the neglect of contemporary “primitive” Cambodian society was an aspect of French imperialism, just as taking (and keeping) the Parthenon Marbles from Greece, in part supposedly to protect them from neglect in Greece was an aspect of British Imperialism. In the 21st century, the politics surrounding these kinds of issues have become more complex, but Newitz’s implication that we must remain aware of the subtexts underlying relations between different cultures, past and present is a timely and valuable one.

The discoveries about Khmer society that continue to emerge from the study of Angkor are illuminating, not just about the history of Cambodia, but about more universal aspects of human history. Perhaps because they were investigating a culture alien to them, archaeologists were surprised to find that inscriptions on Khmer temples divided into two main types; bureaucratic and religious inscriptions tended to be written in Sanskrit, whereas inscriptions relating to day to day life were in the native Khmer language, which no non-Cambodian archaeologist had tried to translate. This led to a highly distorted idea of a society that was overwhelmingly shaped by the influence of India – a strange mistake, given that western historians only needed to look to their own past to see that there was often a division between official and local language that was not necessarily reflected in actual culture, whether it be Latin vs. European languages in the medieval period, or even English or French vs. local languages in ex-colonies the world over.

As with all of the stories here, the end of Angkor as a city was not really a decisive one. The desertion of the city has historically been considered to be catastrophic; years of drought leading to ever more elaborate canal networks which themselves became disastrously overwhelmed in years of flooding – but as Newitz points out, this marks the beginning of centuries of decline and not the end. Decline, that is, from the viewpoint of hierarchical societies, where the abandonment of the city by the monarchy and ruling class – for whom the monumental architecture which remains was built – is seen as terminal. In fact, the city evolved into something quite different in the hands of those who were left – that is, the majority of the people, since the ruling class can only ever be a minority in a pyramidal social hierarchy. It was only much later, when life in the city became unsustainable due to a combination of environmental and political factors, that people in general dispersed and moved on; an occurrence of huge significance, as Newitz points out. “In the soft apocalypse at Angkor, we can see directly what happens when political instability meets climate catastrophe. It looks chillingly similar to what cities are enduring in the contemporary world. But in the dramatic history of the Khmer culture’s coalescence and survival, we can see something equally powerful; human resilience in the face of profound hardship.”

The book’s final section concerns the vast North American urban settlement of Cahokia – whose real name is long-forgotten and is, typically, named now for a local tribe who never claimed to have built it. Cahokia was built along the Mississippi in southern Illinois and in the 11th century was bigger than Paris, homing around 30,000 people. By the time European settlers arrived in the 16th century, Cahokia had already been abandoned for centuries, though its vast earth pyramids were still visible. Almost everything about Cahokia seems to be speculation and educated guesswork, but it appears that the city was built quickly in emulation of earlier North American mounds and possibly influenced by Central American architecture, but was perhaps never intended to be permanent. This itself seems a strange concept to us today, until you consider the vast, semi-permanent settlements we now call shanty towns that cluster around so many cities across the world. The reasons for building Cahokia at all are obscure and likely to remain so; but although it can be difficult to divorce the reasons for settling from modern ideas of commerce and government, or modern fantasies about tribal societies, it’s just as likely that the city’s genesis was spiritual or cultural in nature as much as commercial or practical.

The book – and the archaeologists working at Cahokia – quite rightly seek to separate Native American culture from earlier colonial/settler perceptions of it as savage or primitive, but sometimes in doing so, they can reinforce those stereotypes. In the chapter “America’s Ancient Pyramids” Newitz parallels Cahokian human sacrifice with contemporary European practises at the time: “Human sacrifices were no more out of the ordinary to Cahokians than the grisly executions of infidels were to their contemporaries in Europe […]Like these European executions, human sacrifices at Cahokia may have served to reinforce a social hierarchy whose rulers stood on top of Monks Mound.”

This may be entirely true, but as far as one can tell from the evidence presented in Four Cities the whole idea of ‘human sacrifice’ is extrapolated from the mere existence of corpses; and ‘sacrifice’ is quite a different concept from ‘execution’, with very different cultural connotations. Executions existed and continue to exist around the world in great numbers, but very few of them can be characterised as sacrifices except in the most abstract way; it’s certainly a stretch to characterise Henry VIII’s execution of his political enemies and wives as sacrifices, a comparison that’s made in the book. Isn’t the assumption that the bodies found in Cahokia are human sacrifices itself an instance of characterising an ancient society as ‘other’ in just the way that the settlers did, an extension of manufactured cultural divisions, rather than an erasure of them? Possibly not; but if not it would be nice to have some historical context to explain the theory. Especially as other aspects of Cahokian culture (to use an anachronistic term) tend to reinforce its similarity with other cultures around the world, regardless of geography; for instance, we discover that they had an ‘upper world of spirits and ancestors, an underworld of earth and animals and a human world in between.’ As in fact most societies had, and to a large extent, still have.

As with Angkor and Çatalhöyük, it seems that Cahokia as a city came to an end because people found better, or different, or more convenient ways to live. Environmental factors like drought, changes in religious practices and political hierarchies may well have played a role, but again it’s essentially a story of a gradual moving on rather than a cataclysmic ending. Even with Pompeii, the exception throughout the book, the destruction of the city is no apocalypse; the resettlement and assimilation of its many survivors into other towns mirrors the stories of the other cities. The extent to which the history that Newitz is charting is, in its fine detail, unknowable is highlighted by an ironic passage concerning Cahokia. 40 years ago, the former city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, part of which entailed buying land from local residents and clearing away urban structures in the area. Although we can probably be fairly sure that exactly this kind of thing wasn’t going on a thousand years ago, it shows how random and particular the reasons for depopulation can be.

At times, Four Lost Cities feels very US-centric for a book with such a global scope and universal message – such as a passing reference to the “Spanish Flu epidemic of 1919, which slaughtered over 675,000 Americans in a matter of months” (in fact a pandemic which killed an estimated 20–50 million people worldwide from 1918 to 1920), but it’s absorbing, fascinating and very readable and its strengths vastly outweigh its weaknesses. In the book’s superb conclusion, the author draws parallels between the lost cities of the title and our own troubled age. Every factor that contributed to the demise of the cities in the book – environmental change and disaster, unstable political and social conditions, fluctuations in population and religious belief – is present today, almost as never before and when the author states that “The combination of climate change and political instability we face in many modern cities suggests that we’re heading for a period of global urban abandonment” it doesn’t feel like an exaggeration. Despite this note of warning though, Four Lost Cities is as much an inspirational narrative as a cautionary one. If our ancient forebears could be resilient in the face of change and disaster, Newitz suggests, then we – who are, technologically at least – so much better armed to face these difficulties, can be too.

A fascinating, occasionally speculative examination of “lost” cities which also dissects just where murky concepts like ‘lost civilisations’ really come from
80 %
Absorbing History
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