Cities and Settlements

The Great Wall of China shrouded in fog.
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Damascus, in ancient Syria, is said to have been inhabited by perhaps 9000 B.C., however, it wasn't a city before the third or second millennium B.C.

Though settlements often predate writing, there seem to be many substantial differences between early settlements and cities. Settlements, in this context, are part of a stage after the hunter-gatherers, who are generally characterized as nomadic. The stage of the hunter-gatherers also precedes subsistence on farming, a normally settled style of life.

Early Cities and Settlements

The earliest cities are believed to have started in the Mesopotamian area of the Ancient Near East by the fifth millennium B.C. (Uruk and Ur) or in Catal Huyuk in Anatolia in the 8th century B.C. Early settlements tended to have very small populations, only a few families, and they worked cooperatively to make all or almost all they required to survive. Individuals had their chosen or given tasks to perform, but with the small population numbers, all hands were welcome and valued. Gradually, the trade would have evolved, along with exogamous marriage with other settlements. Between settlements and cities are increasingly urban communities of various sizes, like villages and towns, with a city sometimes defined as a large town. Lewis Mumford, a twentieth-century historian, and sociologist traces settlements even further back:

"Before the city there was the hamlet and the shrine and the village: before the village, the camp, the cache, the cave, the cairn; and before all these there was a disposition to social life that man plainly shares with many other animal species."​
Lewis Mumford

Differentiating a City From a Settlement

Besides having a substantial and often dense population, a city—as an urban area—can be characterized as having food distribution and supply setups, with food produced beyond the densely inhabited regions—in the country. This is part of a larger economic picture. Since the denizens of the city do not grow all (or any of) their own food, hunt their own game, or herd their own flocks, there must be ways and structures to transport, distribute, and store food—like the pottery storage vessels. Archaeologists and art historians use these in ascribing dates, and there is specialization and division of labor. Record keeping becomes important. Luxury goods and trading increase. In general, people do not readily surrender their accumulations of goods to the nearest marauding band or wild wolves. They prefer to find ways to defend themselves. Walls (and other monumental structures) become a feature of many ancient cities. The acropolises of ancient Greek city-states (poleis; sg. polis) were walled high places selected for their ability to provide defense, although, confusing issues, the polis itself included not just the urban area with its acropolis, but the surrounding countryside.


Peter S. Wells, anthropology class, the University of Minnesota, 2013 

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Gill, N.S. "Cities and Settlements." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, August 27). Cities and Settlements. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Cities and Settlements." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).