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Four Lost Cities (A Secret History of the Urban Age)
by Annalee Newitz

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted April 26, 2022

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Another non-fiction book, by an author who has also written SF fiction. Along with those novels, Annalee Newitz has been a journalist for tech magazines, both print and online, and was co-founder of the io9 media website, now part of the Gizmodo group. Four Lost Cities examines historical sites that were significant examples of urban life thousands of years ago, but which dwindled in population for various reasons. When did certain groups abandon nomadic life, where and for what reasons? Why were the cities abandoned? None of the four were ever actually "lost" since there are historical records of their existence afterwards, and they are still being studied and excavated today. I started with the audio book, narrated by Chloe Cannon, but as usual I had a hard time following it, especially for pronunciations. I got the hardcover from the library, which has numerous illustrations and maps, as well as an index of terms, and sources for the many footnotes. Not that I'm going to track down those other books and academic papers, but I did make note of several that deserve more attention. I won't go into much detail, just an overview of the four sites, but I recommend this for anyone interested in history, archaeology, or anthropology. It could also be a good resource for writers of fiction, either past, present, or near future, or the far future in SF or Fantasy settings. My only reservation is it's short, with still a lot of conjecture about timelines and causes, but as with any science, research will always be an ongoing endeavor. Presented mostly in chronological order, with the first being the only one I had not heard of before, or at least I don't recall it.

Çatalhöyük, in modern day Turkey, is one of the oldest known cities. It was established in approximately 7100 BCE, then abandoned about 1400 years later. It consisted of tightly packed individual rooms, all very similar in layout, with access to them via ladders through openings in the roof. Most cooking and socializing was done on the roofs, the lower rooms for sleeping and other family activities. Burials were normally underneath the living quarters, which begs the question as to how they prepared or preserved the bodies. Another puzzle is why many of these rooms were burned or demolished, with almost identical rooms built atop them. The land around the city was used for farming, mostly grains, and herding of cattle, goats, pigs, etc. Why the city was abandoned is still a mystery, the most prevalent theory being the stress of close proximity led to people longing for the nomadic nature of their ancestors, although one might think a lot of that had been forgotten after more than a millennium. Many much smaller settlements were created close to the old city, with farming and herding in much the same areas as before. Another place in Turkey is mentioned, but briefly since it was not a habitation. Göbekli Tepe, about 400 miles to the east of Çatalhöyük, was apparently only a ritual site, but it predated the city by almost 2500 years.

Pompeii, on the other hand, is well known by almost everyone, excepting those with limited historical education or no interest in reading. Buried under volcanic ash from the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, the city was not rebuilt at that time due to the toxic gases emitting from the ash. There had been enough warning that many of its citizens had abandoned it prior to the eruption, but others remained, probably mostly slaves or the poor who had few options to leave. They may have even been ordered by their owners to stay. A prominent market town in the Roman Empire, enough was known about it before its destruction, and careful excavations in more recent times give us a fairly clear picture of life in the city in its heyday. As many businesses were owned and operated by freed slaves as by noblemen, and if not for the volcano it may have become the most democratic city in the empire.

The demise of the next city to be examined had similarities to the previous two, as well as differences. Angkor in Cambodia consisted of several settlements, Angkor Wat being the most famous. Established around 800 CE, then (mostly) abandoned 600 years later, it was also never lost. The colonial French wanted everyone to think so, that it was only their superior knowledge and skills that "saved" it. But even when the French discovered it the temple at Angkor Wat was still being used by Buddhist monks. Prior to that it was a hotbed of production and trade throughout Southeast Asia, including with settlements in India. Various rulers, several of whom rose to power through wars of succession rather than inheritance, moved their residences between Wat and Angkor Thom, and to other locations, so the population of the region varied greatly over the years. The main reason for its diminished use was likely climate disasters, both floods and drought, and poor engineering of its many canals and barays.

There is either a misprint about Cahokia, or confusion on the part of the author or the editor. I originally thought a synopsis said Cahokia was the oldest city in Pre-Columbian North America, but the statement is actually that it was the largest, with a population that may have exceeded 30,000. It is noted that was more than Paris at the same time, around 1000 CE. But there is a later mention of the Aztec city of Teotihuacan, much older than Cahokia, said to have been home to as many as 120,000. Either the number for Cahokia was wrong and should be higher, or lower for Teotihuacan, or there was a mixup in editing. Cahokia is in the Mississipi valley near what is today East St. Louis, Illinois. The heighth of occupation was a bit later than for Angkor, although it didn't last as long. It is not the only example of mound culture in the US, but was probably the influence for many other similar communities throughout the Midwest and South. The original name of its inhabitants is unknown, since they had no writing, but the name Cahokia derives from the tribe living in the area when the French came in the 17th Century. The reasons for Cahokia's fall is only in the realm of theory. It was apparently just a ritual site, not a trade or manufacturing community. The leaders lived atop the pyramid-like mounds, and other areas seem to have been for ritual purposes as well. Since we know the Mississipi has changed course multiple times, it is possible major floods led to the abandonment, or it might have been the people rejecting their leaders due to the many blood sacrifices conducted.

There are parallels to the problems faced by these four cities with many in the modern world, mainly concerning infrastructure and governance. The more sharing of property, resources, and maintenance, the stronger the group, and the longer those communities lasted. Other factors that either contributed to success, or led to problems, were decisions by leaders or the collective as to how resources should be used and distributed. Outside forces, such as rivalries with other groups, or changing climate, also figured into a city's longevity. As mentioned above, there is still a lot that is not known about these places. The book is not only a glimpse into how people lived during these times, but also the rigors of science utilized to ferret out details. Problems can arise there too, with pre-conceived biases shaping the interpretations of information. Whether you are a history buff, or curious about archaeology/anthropology, you should enjoy this book. Like me, you might also wish it was longer, with looks at even more cities, but maybe Annalee will do that in the future. The way past peoples faced hardships, how they bonded together for mutual aid, even how they resolved conflicts (or not), should give us insight into how we should tackle the multiple problems facing us today.


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Annalee Newitz

February 2, 2021

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