What Is the Difference Between a City and a Settlement?

Fragment of the Old Great Wall of China
Fragment of the Old Great Wall of China. CC gin_e at Flickr.com

Damascus, in ancient Syria, is said to have been inhabited by perhaps 9000 B.C., yet it wasn't a city before the third or second millennium B.C. Is there a significant difference between a settlement and a city?

This is mostly the province of anthropologists and archaeologists since settlements tend to precede writing, so please take this as no more than a preliminary and general answer -- requiring further research on your part if you are interested.


When Does a Settlement Become a City?

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. 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 given or chosen 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."
~ The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects, by Lewis Mumford

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 in ascribing dates, and so, 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.

This answer is based primarily on my notes taken in a 2013 anthropology class taught by Peter S. Wells, at the University of Minnesota. Errors are mine, not his.