Settlement Networks and Sociocultural Evolution

Elizabeth Bogumil and Christopher Chase-Dunn

Sociology, University of California-Riverside

Edward Elgar Handbook on Cities and Networks

Editors: Zachary Neal, Michigan State University and Celine Rozenblat, University of Lausanne

v. 8/27/18 11342 words  This is IROWS Working Paper #127 at

Abstract: Settlement networks provide a fundamental window on human social structures and their connections with the biosphere. We present an overview of the roles that human settlement interaction networks have played in the sociocultural evolution of human societies since the Paleolithic Era using the comparative world-systems perspective.  We also summarize research on the location and timing of changes in the scale of settlements and polities since the Bronze Age, the emergence of the contemporary global city system and discuss possible futures for the city of humans.

Keywords: world-system, sociocultural evolution, settlement, interaction networks, cities, comparative

Anthropologists and historical comparative social scientists have seen value in understanding not only how different locations and cultures are distinct but also where and when sociocultural complexity and hierarchy have emerged over the past twelve thousand years. Knowledge of where and when the sizes of human settlements[1] have changed over time is useful for testing aspects of general models of sociocultural evolution.[2] This chapter examines the roles of settlement networks in sociocultural evolution using the comparative world-systems perspective. The first section focuses on settlements, and the interaction networks built amongst them, before the emergence of states. The second section describes how interaction networks were involved in the rise and fall of large settlements and polities and in the emergence of settlements that were larger than any that had existed before. The third section discusses the early emergence of cities and states in Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus River Valley, the Yellow River Valley, Mesoamerica and the Andes. And the expansion of empires and their building of empire cities. The fourth section considers the emergence and spread of semiperipheral capitalist city-states and their roles in the construction of commodity trade networks and the spread of commercializations networks in world-systems in which state power and tributary accumulation remained the main instruments of reproduction. And then we consider how the emergence of the Europe-centered capitalist world-system drove and was driven by the establishment of core world cities and dependent colonial cities.  Finally, we conclude by providing an overview of the implications of research on the evolution of settlement systems for understanding the contemporary global system of city-regions and possible futures for the world city system.

Anthropological and World Historical Frameworks of Comparison

The emergence of sedentism, the growth of settlements and interaction networks among settlements and polities[3] are fundamental processes of social change that required the invention of institutions that could facilitate cooperation and enable polities to effectively compete with one another for resources, including territory. The study of settlement size distributions – the relative sizes of interacting settlements – within polities and in networks of independent interacting polities -- provides another important window for viewing and comprehending the emergence and growth of human organizational complexity and hierarchy.

            An anthropological and world historical framework of comparison allows us to study the evolution of small-scale (prestate) polities as well as the emergence and growth of cities and the rise of more hierarchical of settlement-size distributions.  Ethnographers and archaeologists have studied small-scale nomadic polities of foragers (hunter-gatherers). All humans lived in small-scale nomadic polities until about 12.000 years ago. Nomadic foragers lived in temporary camps, but they tended to follow yearly migration circuits that brought them back to the same seasonal locations, and so they too had “settlement systems” in the sense that they utilized geographical space in a patterned way. About 11,000 years ago nomadic foragers in the Levant (present day Lebanon) began staying longer in winter hamlets.  This was the beginning of sedentism. Termed the “Natufian culture” by archaeologist, these first sedentary people gathered natural stands of grain that grew in the rain-watered valleys of the Levant and stored this food so that they could remain in one location through the winter. These were the first villagers on earth. They were not horticulturalists. They were sedentary hunter-gatherers, and polities of this kind continued to exist in certain locations, such as California, until they were colonized by the expanding modern world-system in the 18th and 19th centuries of our era.  An anthropological framework of comparison allows us to analyze the settlements systems of nomads and the emergence of sedentism and the roles that nomads and small-scale polities and interaction networks have played in the emergence of larger settlement systems based on horticulture and agriculture.  But in order to comprehend the long-term processes of the development of complexity and hierarchy we need to combine the study of small-scale systems with a world historical framework that examines regional systems in which cities (settlements with at least 50,000 residents) emerged. This occurred in Mesopotamia and Egypt in the early Bronze Age and these civilizations also invented writing, so now we have both archaeological and documentary evidence for studying them.

The Comparative Evolutionary World-Systems Perspective

Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997) reconfigured the world-system perspective that had emerged to study the modern global system (Hall et al. 2013; Shannon 1992) to compare spatially small world-systems with medium-sized regional systems and the now-global world-system of today. They defined world-systems as systemic interaction networks that link settlements and polities in reciprocal interaction webs (networks) that condition the reproduction and change of local social structures.[4]  The word “world” here refers to the world of real interactions (trade, warfare, communications, intermarriage) that reproduce the social structures and institutions of human groups. In this sense “worlds” were small when transportation and communication technologies imposed a tyranny of distance that constrained the consequences of interaction to extend relatively short distances. These were the small social worlds in which people lived (see also Chase-Dunn and Mann 1998 and Chase-Dunn and Lerro 2017).

Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997) noted that different kinds of systemic interaction often have different spatial scales in small and medium-sized world-systems. Bulk goods (food) networks were usually smaller than political/military networks in which independent polities were making war and security alliances with one another. And, these political/military networks were smaller than prestige goods trade networks in which goods that were very valuable relative to their weight were traded in down-the-line[5] exchange networks or carried by long-distance traders.  The spatial bounding of world-systems must choose a focal locale and then use the principal of “fall-off” to determine the distances from that point to the outer edge of the interaction system (Renfrew 1975, 1977). This is usually at most two or three indirect (non-contiguous) links. The important point here is that the networks in which individual settlements are linked with other settlements typically cross the borders between independent polities ( and so they are “international.”)

            Once one has spatially bounded the interaction networks starting from a focal settlement, then the issue of core/periphery relations can be examined.  The modern core/periphery hierarchy is often discussed in terms of the Global North and the Global South. World-systemists see the Global South as being composed of small, poor and relatively powerless peripheral countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America and larger semiperipheral countries (i.e. Mexico, Brazil, China, Indonesia, India, Russia), or smaller countries at middle levels of economic development (i.e. Taiwan, South Korea, Israel, South Africa) that are in the modern semiperiphery. The core is composed of most of the national societies in Europe and North America, but also Japan and Australia. But core/periphery relations may also be studied in earlier world-systems.[6] Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997) distinguish between “core/periphery differentiation,” which exists when polities with different degrees of population density[7] systemically interact with one another, and “core/periphery hierarchy” which exists when some polities exploit and dominate other polities. Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997: Chapter 5) also propose that the phenomenon of “semiperipheral develop” is an important cause of sociocultural evolution in which polities in semiperipheral positions often are the agents of increases in the scale and complexity of world-systems.

Human settlements before the rise of states

       As we have said above, the anthropological framework allows us to study the “settlement systems” of nomads. Nomads do not wander aimless across the face of the Earth.  They move to most easily obtainable and desireable food, water and other necessities. They harvest nature, but nature is seasonal and the harvesting depletes some of the resources that are being taken. The hunting of big game depletes the local supply and so it is easier to move the camp than to travel long distances to hunt. Camps are the settlements of nomadic peoples. And seasonal migration routes are their patterned settlement systems.  Camps and migration circuits are the patterned ways in which nomads utilize space in socially constructed ways (Dodgshon 1987).  Archaeologists have discovered that seasonal migration circuits became smaller as the population density of North American nomadic foragers rose (Fagan 1991; Nassany and Sassaman 1995) in the transition from Paleoindian big game hunters to Archaic hunters who were still nomads but were hunting smaller types of game (see Figure 1).  The Archaic nomadic bands developed spear point styles that were distinctive from those of their neighbors, whereas Paleo spear points were much more similar across wide regions of North America. Nassaney and Sassaman (1995) suggest that these regional tool kit distinctions mean that the Archaic bands were forming distinct local and regional cultural identities.  

Figure 1: Paleo and Archaic migration circuits

The shorter migration circuits were a step on the way to sedentism in which nomadic bands move down the food chain from hunting large game to relying on smaller game (which depletes more slowly) and on more vegetable foraging. Population density (the number of people per area of land) went up and resource use became more diversified. Both nomadic and sedentary foragers are known to have used fire to increase the growth of food-producing plants and grazing areas attractive to game. This kind of activity has been called “protoagriculture” (Bean and Lawton 1976).

The First Villagers

          It is commonly believed that all hunter-gatherers were nomadic and that sedentism emerged with horticulture during the “Neolithic revolution.” But this is wrong. Sedentism emerged before horticulture and sedentary foraging societies survived into recent centuries in certain ecologically abundant locations such as California and the Pacific Northwest. Some hunter-gatherers in prime environments figured out how to exploit less vulnerable natural resources such as seeds, tubers, small game, and fish. They were able to live much of the year in semi-permanent winter villages without depleting the environment. These Mesolithic diversified foragers moved to other locations during the summer for seasonal hunting or gathering.  Some of the population of the winter villages moved to seasonal camps during the spring and summer. Thus, the emergence of sedentism that began with the transition to smaller seasonal circuits continued in small steps until the winter village became the permanent home of most of the population. The transition from nomadism to sedentism was a matter of seasonal camps becoming occupied for longer and longer periods of time, and with some of the population remaining, while others went off to other locations during special seasons. The earliest sedentary societies were of diversified foragers in locations in which nature was bountiful enough to allow hunter-gatherers to feed themselves all year without migrating. These early villagers continued to interact with still-nomadic peoples in both trade and warfare. This was the first instance of core-periphery differentiation.

In many Mesolithic world-systems the largest villages had only about 250 people. In other regions there were larger villages, and regions with different population densities were often in systemic interaction with one another (Chase-Dunn and Mann 1998). Settlement size hierarchies emerged when a village at a crucial location, often located at the confluence of two streams, became the home place of important personages and the location of larger non-residential ritual spaces such as sweat lodges. Sedentary foragers developed long-distance trading networks, and the shift from nomadism to sedentism can be understood as a transition from a system in which people moved to resources to one in which resources were moved to people.

The spatial network aspects of this transition are interesting. As we have seen above in the description of the emergence of smaller seasonal migration circuits and regionally differentiated tool styles, nomadic systems went from spatially very large (in the sense that people used larged territories on a part-time basis, to smaller, and to very small with the emergence of sedentism. But the settlement systems of sedentary peoples began again to get larger if we consider the rise of trade networks that emerged to link settlements that were distant from one another (see Figure 2). Exchange between settements and polities allowed for the emergence of greater population density because villagers were able to obtain needed food during periods of scarcity without resorting to the raiding of neighboring settlements for supplies.  These reciprocal exchange networks grew and grew, though they also occasionally shrank, repeating pattern that Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997) have called “oscillation.”  Eventually, the systemic interaction networks became global (Earth-wide) in extent, and it is then that we call them globalization. So networks first shrank with the coming of sedentism, and then expanded again to eventually become completely global with the arrival of intercontinental oceanic voyaging.

Figure 2: Spatial networks shrank and then expanded with the emergence of sedentism

Sedentism also increased the population growth rate because village life was much more conducive to child-rearing than was the life of nomads. Families living in permanent villages could afford to have more closely spaced children than nomadic peoples could manage (McNeill and McNeill 2003).

This speeded up the repeated emergence of population pressure on resources which was a major driver of sociocultural evolution (Kirch 1984, 2017; Johnson and Earle 1987).

The Hilly Flanks

Sedentism arose in multiple locations throughout the world, which had no known interaction or communication with each other.  This is an example of parallel or convergent evolution in which somewhat similar circumstances led to somewhat similar developmental outcomes. It was in regions adjacent to those that first developed sedentary diversified foraging that Neolithic horticulture first emerged.  In the Levant it was neighbors of the Natufians who occupied less naturally fecund upland valleys that first went to the trouble of planting fields of grain (Moore 1982).

When the nomadic foragers in neighboring areas tried to emulate the sedentary life-style of the Mesolithic villagers, they found that their less abundant natural stands of grain were quickly eaten up. To increase the productivity of their lands they experimented with planting some of the seeds that they had gathered. This intervention in nature’s production of food resources increased the productivity of land, but required more labor. It allowed more people to be fed per area of land, once again increasing population density (Hayden 1981). This emergence of horticulture in the “hilly flanks” near the earlier emergence of sedentary foragers was an early instance of semiperipheral development in which jealous hill dwellers were willing to work harder to catch up with neighboring village-living low landers.  The emergence of horticulture was a continuation of the trend from large nomadic circuits to smaller circuits to sedentism and then to intensified production. Horticulture allowed villages to be larger in population size. As with sedentism, horticulture emerged independently in at least eight world regions, another instance of parallel evolution.  

The next steps in intensification of production and the emergence of yet larger settlements occurred with the formation of chiefdoms on the Susiana Plain (in what is now Iran) that used small-scale irrigation systems to increase the productivity of agriculture. The organization and coordination of irrigation projects is favored by the emergence of hierarchy within polities, as has been shown in a recent study of 155 small-scale polities in Austronesia (Sheehan et al. 2018). But the first chiefdoms on Earth were in a region in the fertile crescent not far from where sedentism and horticulture had first emerged. The rise of chiefdoms produced the first two-tiered settlement size hierarchies.

Settlement Size Hierarchies

The spatial aspect of population density is one of the most fundamental variables for understanding the constraints and possibilities of human social organization. The “settlement size distribution”—the relative population sizes of the settlements within a region—is an important and easily ascertained aspect of all sedentary social systems. And, the functional differences among settlements are a basic feature of the division of labor that links households and communities into larger polities and interpolity networks. The emergence of social hierarchies is often related to and inferred from the size hierarchy of a set of settlements. The building of monumental architecture in larger settlements has been closely associated with the emergence of more hierarchical social structures—complex chiefdoms and early states.

The spatial relationships among settlements in a region and their relative sizes can be infered from archeological evidence, and so this is an empirically useful pattern that allows us to compare preliterate systems with those for which we have documentary evidence. Figure 3 below shows Hans Nissen’s drawings of 1-tiered (a), 2-tiered (b), 3-tiered (c) and 4-tiered (d) settlement size hierarchies.


Figure 3: Settlement size hierarchies (Nissen 1988:42)    

        Settlement size distributions are often graphed to show the relative population sizes of the settlements in a region. Figure 4 shows a steep settlement size distribution in which the largest settlement is much larger than the second largest, and a flat distribution in which all the settlements are about the same size. Urban geographers suggest that a spatial size hierarchy is often related to the distribution of functions across settlements and transportation costs (Christaller 1966). Production of goods and services that can easily be distributed across a whole region from a central place will tend to be located in the largest settlement, whereas products that cannot easily be stored or transported will be produced locally in the smaller settlements. The “range of goods” creates the space economy. This approach was developed to describe market societies, but is also relevant for understanding settlement systems in which exchange was organized as reciprocity, because transportation costs and labor time had to be considered in the effort to be generous.

            Urban geographers contend that there is a tendency for settlement size hierarchies to approximate a rank-size or lognormal size distribution. A rank-size distribution exists when the 2nd largest settlement is ½ the size of the largest, the 3rd largest is 1/3 the size of the largest, etc. A lognormal distribution is similar in shape. It exists when the ranked population sizes of settlements in a region fall on a straight line when the population sizes have been transformed to a logarithmic scale. “Urban primacy” is said to exist when the largest city in a region is larger than would be expected based on the rank-size or lognormal distributions – larger than twice the size of the second largest settlement. Empirical studies have shown that many settlement size hierarchies do approximate the rank-size rule, but some are flat (as with a 1-tiered size distribution) and many are primate (e.g. Chase-Dunn 1985). 



















Figure 4: Flat and steep settlement size distributions

The rise of cities and states

The original gardening (horticulture) in the Levant spread both west into the valley of the Nile and east toward Mesopotamia. Larger villages and towns emerged in rain-watered regions and population growth led to the migration of farmers away from the original heartland of gardening.  Horticultural techniques also diffused from group to group and were combined with the domestication of pigs, sheep, and goats. Domestication of animals and the use of dairy products and meat from domesticated animals eventually made it possible to move a few notches back up the food chain, reversing some of the descent that had followed the depletion of big game. Still-nomadic hunter-gatherers traded with the Neolithic towns, and new forms of specialized pastoral nomadism developed based on the herding of domesticated animals in areas that were adequate for pasture but not for farming.

The simple model here is that technological development (planting and animal husbandry) increased population density and this facilitated the emergence of larger settlements and social hierarchies. McNeill and McNeill (2003) noted that state formation in East Asia followed the spread of rice cultivation (e.g. from China to Korea to Japan). They contend that storable and tradable grain is far more conducive to state formation than are crops that are not easily stored (such as yams).[8]  But there is evidence from the Chesapeake region of indigenous North America that the adoption of planting of storeable food does not always immediately lead to greater complexity and hierarchy (Chase-Dunn and Hall 1999).

The arrival of maize planting in the Chesapeake region allowed the formerly Mesolithic diversified foragers living in rather large villages to redisperse into widely spread farmsteads and to reduce the intensity of their trading and ritual symbolization of group identity and social hierarchy. So, increasing productivity can, under some conditions, lead to deconcentration and less social hierarchy. The ability to produce a surplus does not automatically lead to hierarchy formation. Surplus production must be possible in order to support non-producers, but hierarchy formation tends to occur when population pressures have led to increasing levels of conflict. In the case of the Chesapeake, the arrival of maize reduced population pressure and so those hierarchies and larger villages that had already emerged went into decline. It was not until population pressure had returned after a period of population growth and increasing competition for land that villages and hierarchies grew again. New hierarchies emerged to regulate access to scarce resources and to reduce the intensity of conflict (Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997: Chapter 6).

As villages eventually grew larger, so did trade networks. Craft specialists began producing for export and importing raw materials.  Trade networks expanded and intensified, but not permanently. All networks exhibited a pattern of expansion and contraction (oscillation), and these waves were punctuated by occasional upward sweeps that connected much larger regions. Thus, the waves of globalization and deglobalization that have been shown to have occurred in the last 150 years (Chase-Dunn, Kawano and Brewer 2000), are only the most recent and largest instances of a much older pattern of  exchange network expansion and contraction.

To the Flood Plain

According to Nissen (1988: Chapter 3) the first three-tiered settlement system in Southwest Asia emerged on the Susiana Plain (in what is now in Iran adjacent to the Mesopotamian flood plain) during the Ubaid period (5500-4000 BCE).  This would indicate the presence of complex chiefdoms, and Wright (1986) points to the importance of the existence of complex chiefdoms in a region as the necessary organizational prerequisite for the emergence of pristine states (states that emerge in a context in which there have been no previous states). In other words, the first states did not emerge directly from egalitarian societies. Evidence from Uqair, Eridu and Ouelli shows that there were also Ubaid sites on the Lower Mesopotamian flood plain that were as large as the sites on the Susiana Plain. The Early Ubaid phase at Tell Ouelli shows remarkably complex architecture as early as anything on the Susiana Plain. Thus, there was an interregional exchange and warfare network of chiefdoms based on a mix of rain-watered and small-scale irrigated agriculture. This was the context in which cities and states first emerged on Earth.

In the next period (Uruk or Late Chalcolithic from 4000-3100 BCE) the first true city (Uruk) grew up on the floodplain of lower Mesopotamia, and other cities of similar large size soon emerged in adjacent locations. Uruk had a peak population of about 50,000.  Surrounding these unprecedentedly large settlements were smaller towns and villages that formed the first four-tiered settlement systems (Adams 1966).  Other cities soon emerged on the floodplain constituting a world-system of city-states. For seven centuries after the emergence of Uruk, the Mesopotamian world-system was an interactive network of city-states competing with one another for land, glory and for control of the complicated transportation routes that linked the Mesopotamian floodplain with the peoples and natural resources of adjacent regions.

Mesopotamia was the original heartland of “civilization” understood as the combination of irrigated agriculture, writing, cities, and states. States also emerged somewhat later in the Uruk period on the Susiana Plain (Wright 1998) and these also developed four-tiered settlement systems (Flannery 1998:17). This was an instance of uneven development -- the transition from an inter-regional interchiefdom system to an inter-city-state system that emerged first in Mesopotamia and then spread to the adjacent Susiana plain.

Both cities and states got larger with the development of social complexity, but they did not grow smoothly. Rather there were cycles of growth and decline and sequences of uneven development in all the regions of the world in which cities and states emerged. It was the invention of new techniques of power, production and exchange that ultimately made possible the more complex and hierarchical societies that emerged. The processes of uneven development by which smaller and newer semiperipheral settlements overcame and transformed larger and older ones has been a fundamental aspect of sociocultural evolution since the invention of sedentary life. And sociocultural evolution is somewhat analogous to ecological succession. Higher levels of complexity cannot emerge directly out of low levels. Production of surplus and the formation of chiefdoms must form the “institutional soil” out of which state formation can grow. But states do not form automatically. They are the products of human innovation in a situation in which they have been made possible by earlier developments, and in which they can solve problems that are posed under current conditions. Thus, there is a degree of historical contingency and agency in the process, and this is very evident in the pattern of semiperipheral development, because it is not all semiperipheries that transform the systems of which they are a part.

Sedentary/Nomadic Coevolution

Sedentary societies interacted with still-nomadic societies from the beginning of sedentism.  The original core/periphery division of labor was between sedentary and nomadic foragers. As sedentary societies developed horticulture, they also domesticated both plants and animals, especially in ancient Southwest Asia and Egypt. Domesticated wheat and barley retain their grains longer and are easier to harvest than the wild varieties. Foragers had lived with dogs for millennia, but goats, sheep, pigs, cattle, donkeys, horses and cattle were domesticated by either sedentary peoples, or by nomadic peoples who became pastoralists in interaction with sedentary farmers. Archaeologists have studied farmer-forager interactions in many contexts (e.g. Gregg 1988, 1991). Nomadism co-evolved with sedentism, a process most famously described for East and Central Asia by Owen Lattimore (1940) where Central Asian steppe nomads became specialists in the herding of sheep and horses, trading meat and animals with farmers along the steppe frontier. Nomadic pastoralists played an important role in the formation of sedentary states and empires because they not only supplied meat and animal products, but they soon underwent political evolution as well. The Central Asian steppe nomad confederacies were able to mobilize large cavalries to attack agrarian empires, and they both pillaged and extracted tribute in a process most clearly described by Thomas Barfield (1989). It was also former nomadic pastoralists who formed sedentary semiperipheral states on the edges of old core regions, and who were often the protagonists of empire formation when they conquered adjacent core states. Thus, the dynamics of sedentary/nomadic relations played an important role in the evolution of the tributary modes of accumulation – the uses of institutionalized coercion to structure a system of hierarchical exploitation and domination.

Power and size: cities and empires

            What is the relationship between the sizes of settlements and power in intergroup relations? Under what circumstances does a society with greater population density have power over adjacent societies with lower population density, and when might this relationship not hold?  Population density is often assumed to be a sensible proxy for relative societal power. Indeed, Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997) employ high relative population density as a major indicator of core status within a world-system. But Chase-Dunn and Hall are careful to distinguish between “core/periphery differentiation” and “core/periphery hierarchy.” Only the latter constitutes actively employed intersocietal domination or exploitation, and Chase-Dunn and Hall warn against inferring power directly from differences in population density.

In many world-systems, military superiority is a key dimension of intersocietal relations. Military superiority is generally a function of population density and the proximity of a large and coordinated group of combatants to contested regions. The winner of a confrontation is that group that can bring the larger number of combatants together quickly.  This general demographic basis of military power has been transformed by military technology, including transportation technologies. Factors such as better weapons, better training in the arts of war, faster horses, better boats, greater solidarity among soldiers and their leaders, as well as advantageous terrain, alter the simple correlation between population size and military power.

Ironically, George Modelski’s (2003) important study of the growth of world cities completely ignored the growth of states and empires, though Modelski is himself an astute scholar of international relations and geopolitical power. Modelski contended that cities were the most important driving force of world system evolution and that we may conveniently ignore states and empires. The relationship between political power and settlements itself evolved over the millennia, so that analysis of the relationship between size and power is necessary to understand what happened.

The most important general exception (in comparative evolutionary perspective) to the size/power relationship is the phenomenon of semiperipheral development mentioned above.  The pattern of uneven development by which formerly more complex polities lost their place to “less developed” polities has taken several forms depending on the institutional terrain on which interpolity competition was occurring.  Less relatively dense semiperipheral marcher chiefdoms often conquered older core chiefdoms to create larger paramount chiefly polities (Kirch 1984). Likewise, semiperipheral marcher states, usually recently settled peripheral peoples out on the edge of an old region of core states, frequently were the agents of a new core-wide empire based on conquest (Mann 1986; Turchin 2003).

Another exception is the phenomenon of semiperipheral capitalist city-states –polities in the spaces between tributary empires and states that specialized in long-distance trade and commodity production.[9]  Though these were rarely the largest cities within the world-systems dominated by tributary empires, they played a transformational role in the expansion of production for exchange and commodification in the ancient and classical world-systems. And, less dense semiperipheral Europe was the locus of a virile form of capitalism that condensed in a region that was home to many unusually proximate semiperipheral capitalist city-states. This development, and the military technology that emerged in the competitive and capitalist European interstate system, made it possible for less dense Europe to erect a global predominance over the more densely populated older core regions of Afroeurasia (Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997; Chase-Dunn and Lerro 2016). The more recent hegemonic ascent of formerly semiperipheral national states such as England and the United States are further examples of the phenomenon of semiperipheral development. 

The phenomenon of semiperipheral development does not totally undermine the proposition that societal power and demographic size are likely to be correlated. What it implies is that this correlation can be overcome by other factors, and that these processes are not entirely random. Denser core polities are regularly overcome or out-competed by less dense semiperipheral polities, but it does not follow that all semiperipheral or peripheral regions have such an advantage. On the contrary, in most world-systems most low-density polities are subjected to the power of more dense polities.  Semiperipheral development is a rather important exception to this general rule.

Why should a settlement system have a steeper size distribution when there is a greater concentration of power? The simple answer is that large settlements, and especially large cities, require greater concentrations of resources to support their large populations. Therefore, population size has itself been suggested as an indicator of power (Morris 2010, 2013; Taagepera, 1978: 111). But these resources may be obtainable locally and the settlement size hierarchy may simply correspond to the geographical distribution of resources. People cluster near oases in a desert environment. In such a case it is not the political or economic power of the central settlement over surrounding areas that produces a centralized settlement system, but rather the geographical distribution of necessary or desirable resources (water). In many systems, however, we have reason to believe that relations of power, domination and exploitation do affect the distribution of human populations in space. Many large cities are as large as they are because they can draw upon far-flung regions for food and raw materials. If a city can use political/military power or economic power to acquire resources from surrounding cities, it will be able to support a larger population than the dominated cities can, and this will produce a hierarchical settlement size distribution.

Of course, the effect can also go the other way. Some cities can dominate others because they have larger populations, as discussed above. Great population size makes possible the assembly of large armies or navies, and this may be an important factor creating or reinforcing steep settlement size distributions.

The relationship between power and settlement systems is contingent on technology as well as political and economic networks manifested through their institutions. Thus, the relationship between urban growth and decline sequences and the growth/decline sequences of empires varies across different systems or in the same regional system over time as new institutional developments emerge. We know that the development of new techniques of power, as well the integration of larger and larger regions into systems of interaction, production and trade, facilitate the emergence of larger and larger polities as well as larger and larger cities. Thus, there has been a secular trend at the global level and within regions between settlement sizes and polity sizes over the past six millennia.

Studies of the relationship between the rise and fall of empires and the growth/decline phases of the largest cities in the same regions have found differences in the temporal relationship between the growth and decline of largest cities and largest empires. Partial correlations that take out the long-term trend show that the medium-term relationship between city and empire growth is significantly positive in Mesopotamia (2800 BCE-650 BCE), South Asia (1800 BCE-1500 CE), and Europe (430 BCE-1800 CE), but not in Egypt, West Asia, and East Asia (Chase-Dunn, Alvarez, and Pasciuti 2005: Table 5.2). In the regions in which there are significant correlations this is sometimes due to the big empires building their own big capital cities, but at other times a big city appears that is outside of the largest empire. This suggests that regions go through general phases of expansion and contraction in which both cities and empires grow and then decline, and this supposition is confirmed by the finding in all regions of high partial correlations between the growth/ decline phases of largest and second largest cities (Chase-Dunn, Alvarez, and Pasciuti 2005: Table 5.3). And, rather surprisingly, there is a similar set of significant positive partial correlations in all five regions studied between the growth/decline phases of largest and second largest empires (Chase-Dunn, Alvarez, and Pasciuti 2005: Table 5.4). This latter is surprising because territorial growth is a zero-sum game among adjacent empires, and yet the medium-term temporal correlations are positive, indicating that empires get larger and smaller together within regions. This is strong evidence that regions experience cycles of growth and decline that affect both cities and states.

We should also note an important finding reported in Gilbert Rozman’s (1973) comparison of the rise of cities in Japan and China. Rozman notes that in China early dynasties built large primate capitals in a context of agricultural villages, but it took 2000 years for this to evolve into a log-normal city-size distribution with middle-sized cities performing intermediary roles linking the capital with the villages. In Japan the process started later but the emergence of middle-sized cities occurred much more quickly because the Japanese adopted the Chinese organizational and institutional feature that facilitated the emergence of middle-sized cities.

To better understand the timing and location of scale changes in the sizes of cities, George Modelski (2003) improved Tertius Chandler’s (1987) compendium of the population sizes of largest cities since the Bronze Age.[10] Studies of the populations sizes of the largest cities in world regions show that there have been cycles in which the largest city in each region increased in size and then decreased in size and these cycles were punctuated by occasional upsweeps in which the largest city increased to a size that was a lot bigger than that of the earlier size peaks.[11] From studies of the growth and decline of large cities Modelski (2003) and Fletcher (1995) both noticed the emergence of size ceilings before an upsweep to the next larger ceiling. Fletcher contended that, in addition to resource constraints on the sizes of settlements, large settlements require the invention of institutions that allow large numbers of people to live close to one another. Settlement sizes increased when one polity in a region figured out how to make a large city work, and then other polities in adjacent regions copied, and sometimes improved upon, these techniques and so their cities were able to catch up in size with the earlier large city.  A size ceiling was reached because of both resource and institutional constraints.

The SetPol Research Working Group has identified those instances in which the scale of cities significantly changed (upsweeps and downsweeps) (Inoue et al. 2015) and has begun testing the hypothesis that these scale changes were caused by semiperipheral marcher states (Inoue et al. 2016).  In our studies of upsweeps and non-core (peripheral and semiperipheral) marcher states we examined four regional world-systems (Mesopotamia, Egypt, East Asia, and South Asia) as well as the expanding central political/military network that is designated by David Wilkinson’s (1987) temporal and spatial bounding of state systems since the Bronze Age. We found that nine of the eighteen urban upsweeps we studied were produced by noncore marcher state conquests and eight directly followed, and were caused by, upsweeps in the territorial sizes of polities (Inoue et al. 2015).  Whereas about half of the upsweep events were caused by one or another form of non-core development, there were a significant number of upsweep events in which the causes seem to be substantially internal to the polity that carried out the upsweep (Inoue et al. 2016).  Another important finding is that collapses, in which the largest settlements in a region go down below the level of the earlier trough, and stay down for a long period, are rather rare. Individual cites collapse, but systems of cities rarely do.

The modern world city network

The problem of sustainable urbanization is crucial for the human encounter with the consequences of our ballooning environmental footprint (Gruebler and Buettner 2013).  Over half of the human population of the Earth now lives in very large cities, and these have spread rapidly over the land as population densities within cities have decreased (suburbanization) and cities have become interconnected into huge city-regions. The size hierarchy of world cities has been flattening as megacities in the non-core countries have caught up in terms of overall population size with the global cities of the core. This flattening has important implications for theories of urban growth, globalization and the future of global inequalities.  This section considers the conceptualization of world cities and city-regions and the idea of a global system of cities. We shall consider the global city-size distribution and the implications of its flattening for the question of the limits of settlement size and the problems of how to spatially bound cities and city-regions. And, we further discuss the emergence of low density and multicentric cities.

The role of city systems in the reproduction and transformation of human social institutions was altered by the emergent predominance of capitalist accumulation. Whereas most of the important cities of agrarian tributary states were centers of control and coordination for the extraction of labor and resources from vast empires by means of institutionalized coercion, the most important cities in the modern world have increasingly supplemented the coordination of force with the manipulations of money and the production of commodities.  Many of those who studied the early modern world-system noted the importance of cities as primary nodes through which goods and services flowed and the importance of finance capital and its relationship with state power in the core (Arrighi 1994; Braudel 1984).

        The long rise of capitalism was promoted by semiperipheral capitalist city-states, usually maritime coordinators of trade protected by naval power. The Italian city-states of Venice and Genoa are perhaps the most famous of these, but the Phoenician city-states of the Mediterranean exploited a similar interstitial niche within a larger system dominated by tributary empires.  These capitalist trading city-states rewired, expanded and intensified the existing networks of exchange. The niche pioneered by capitalist city-states expanded and became more predominant in the guise of core capitalist nation-states in a series of transformations from Venice and Genoa to the Dutch Republic (led by Amsterdam) and eventually the Pax Britannica coordinated by the great world city of the nineteenth century, London (Chase-Dunn and Willard 1994). Thus, did capitalism move from the semiperiphery to the core, constituting a world-system in which the logic of profit making had become more important than the logic of tribute and taxation. In 1900 CE London was still the largest world city, but New York was coming up fast (see Figure 5).

Figure 5: The world city size distribution in 1900 CE

Within London the political and financial functions were spatially separated: empire in Westminster and money in the City. In the twentieth century hegemony of the United States these global functions became located in separate cities (Washington, DC and New York). Thus, the role of cities in world-systems changed greatly as capitalism became the predominant mode of accumulation over the last 500 years.  In the tributary world-systems the biggest cities were the capitals of empires based on their ability to extract resources using institutionalized coercion (armies, bureaucracies, etc.) Capitalist cities existed, but they were in the semiperipheral interstices between the large tributary empires. With the rise of Europe, capitalist cities became the most important cities in the whole world-system. Amsterdam, London and New York have been the global centers of the modern world-system.

But the relationship between power and size continued to operate (until recently) in the modern system. Figure 6 displays changes in the settlement size distribution of the largest cities in the European-centered world-system since 800 CE (Chase-Dunn and Willard 1994). The city size distribution of interstate systems is almost always flatter than the size distributions of settlements within a single polity, because the multicentric political structure of interstate networks affects the size distribution of settlements (e.g. Figure 5). Figure 6 uses the “Standardize Primacy Index,” a measure of deviation from the lognormal rule (Walters 1985).  The Europe-centered city system was never steeper than the lognormal distribution and it was occasionally much flatter. The periods of flatness mainly correspond with times of political decentralization in which there was the absence of a hegemonic core power (Chase-Dunn and Willard 1994). The descent into city-size flatness that began in the last half of the 20th century has continued since then.

Figure 6: Changes in the city-size distribution of the Europe-centered system, 800 to 1975 CE

World cities and the global settlement system

According to the theorists of global capitalism it was during the 1970’s that the world-system entered a new period in which the system’s structure was qualitatively altered by the rise of the neoliberal globalization project (Castells 1996; Robinson 2014). This new model of development displaced the Keynesian national development model that had been hegemonic since World War II. Neoliberalism attacked, and tried to dismantle, the institutions of reformed capitalism that had been built in response to the World Revolution of the 1917 – the welfare state, labor unions that had succeeded in obtaining middle class incomes for primary sector workers, progressive tax policies, controls on currency manipulations and capital flows, and public education institutions that had expanded access to formerly excluded groups. The neoliberals used advantages stemming from new information and communication technologies to financialize and globalize the world economy, with the export of manufacturing jobs from the core to the semiperiphery and periphery and the rise of global cities exercising economic power over the global economy (Sassen 1991). John Friedmann’s (1986) “world city hypothesis” identified a set of world cities and the contradictory relations globalized production and management and the territorialized political networks of the international system of states.

Although the global city network in recent decades is hierarchical, with “world cities” at the top (Friedmann 1986; Sassen 2001), according to Alderson and Beckfield (2007) this hierarchy does not exactly mirror the tripartite core/periphery hierarchy because the world city network became partially decoupled from the geopolitical network of states over the course of 20th century globalization. But, contrary to the neo-liberal claim that there is now a level playing field (Friedman 2006), the structure of the world city system network has not become less hierarchical across the era of globalization (Alderson and Beckfield 2007). In fact, the world city network became more unequal when some cities such as New York, London, and Tokyo gained more control over the finances of the world economy relative to other megacities such as those in Latin America (Timberlake and Smith 2012).

Saskia Sassen and others have further developed the global city hypotheses. Global cities acquired new functions beyond acting as centers of international trade and banking. They became: (1) concentrated control locations in the world-economy that use advanced telecommunication facilities, (2) important centers for finance and specialized producer service firms, (3) coordinators of state power, (4) sites of innovative post-Fordist forms of industrialization and production, and (5) markets for the products and innovations produced (Brenner 2004; Sassen 2006). These structural shifts in the functioning of cities “impacted both the international economic activity and urban form where major cities concentrate control over vast resources, while financial and specialized service industries have restructured the urban social and economic order” (Sassen 1991: 4). During the 1990’s New York became specialized in equity trading, London in currency trading and Tokyo in large bank deposits (Slater 2004).

 Beaverstock, Smith and Taylor (1999) and Taylor (2003) used Sassen’s focus on producer services to classify 55 alpha, beta and gamma world cities based on the presence of office networks and headquarters of accountancy, advertising, banking/finance and law firms (see Figure 7.)

Figure 7: Alpha, beta and gamma world cities according (Beaverstock, Smith and Taylor 1999)

The hierarchy of global cities shown in Figure 7 provides an important insight into the world settlement system that has emerged in the period of neoliberal global capitalism. Though the world city-size distribution based on the population sizes of the largest cities has flattened since 1950, this has not produced a flat globalized world in which a core/periphery hierarchy no longer exists. Rather the world cities of the Global North continue to concentrate the command and control functions of the world economy, while joined to some extent by megacities in the rising countries of the semiperiphery in Asia and Latin America and including a third tier of megacities in peripheral countries -- huge metropoli containing vast numbers of recent migrants from the country-side who subsist in informalized slums lacking regular employment and urban services (Davis 2006). [12]

Much of the research on the global city system and affiliated networks has been based on case studies of individual cities that seek to identify the processes leading to their emergence and positioning within the larger system. Janet Abu-Lughod (1999) traced the developmental histories of New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles through their upward mobility in the world city system (see also Taylor and Lang 2005)  While these U.S. metropoles share similar characteristics with other world cities, they have substantial differences in geography, original economic functions, transportation, and political history that make the stories of each fascinating instances of globalization and local peculiarities (see also Davis 1992).

City Regions  

Another phenomenon of recent urbanization is the emergence of city-regions, large areas in which big cities are located rather closely to one-another and intervening areas are mainly suburbanized. Urban geographers have noted that populations in the rural areas and small towns of core countries are thinning and people are concentrating in these city regions (Scott 2001; Simmonds and Hack 2000; Segbers 2007). The city region phenomenon is made plain by observing global maps that show city lights at night produced from satellite and shuttle images (see Figure 8).

            All the continents have city regions, but the largest are those found in the eastern half of the United States and the western portion of Europe, with several other regions also displaying this phenomenon. These city regions are linked together spatially by overlapping suburban areas.


Figure 8: City lights photographed from satellites and shuttles

            The flattening of the global city-size distribution since 1950, shown in Figure 6 above, has several causes. As in earlier periods, the city-size distribution became less hierarchical (flatter) during times in which a global hegemon was in decline. The cities of challenging powers grow, and the cities of the former hegemon cease to grow as fast. The recent descent into flatness of the world city size distribution is partly due to the declining hegemony of the United States and the rise of challengers with very large cities. Many of the world’s largest cities are now in the semiperiphery and the periphery.  Changes the city-size distribution reflect to some extent changes in the distribution of economic and political/military power. The flattening since the 1950s is partly due to the rapid growth of large cities in Japan and China. But megacities in the Global South have also grown greatly during the period of recent globalization. As mentioned above, these megacities in non-core countries are very different animals, despite their large size. The neoliberal structural adjustment policies of the International Monetary Fund, which were part of the globalization project, imposed austerity on countries of the Global South and encouraged large-scale export agriculture that drove small farmers from the land into the Planet of Slums (Davis 2006).  Another factor that accounts for cities in the Global South catching up with core cities in population size has to do with differences in the demographic transition. Most core countries have achieved a replacement fertility rate, but most of the Global South still has a higher fertility rate and faster population growth, boosting the growth of megacities.

Roland Fletcher (personal communication) contends that contemporary institutional and infrastructural inventions only allow for megacities to function at maximum populations of around twenty million and this serves as a kind of ceiling effect which has allowed cities in the Global South to catch up in terms of population size with the largest cities in the core states. Fletcher’s notion of an upper limit on the size of large cities may also be part of the explanation for the emergence of city-regions rather than gigacities.  

      The size and density of city-regions are related to global differences in the level of economic development. The global city-region-size hierarchy is related to differential economic and political/military power. Countries in the periphery have succeeded in producing very large megacities, but their city-regions are not as large and dense as those in the core (see Figure 8 above).

The future city of humans

          Over half of the 7.6 billion people on Earth now live in cities. The low-density suburban sprawl that has taken over the process of urban growth in the core is immensely expensive in terms of resource use. Urbanization has a huge direct effect on the environment, as cities absorb heat from the sun and then release it, and humans use great amounts of energy in cities, which contributes to global warming. The “urban heat island,” in which urban regions are hotter than surrounding areas because of energy usage and because building materials absorb more heat from the sun (Sailor 2011), is an important phenomenon that is contributing to warming.

 While many core cities have deindustrialized, large cities in the semiperiphery have industrialized and are now the new sites of intense labor struggles (Silver 2003). The global “reserve army of labor” (rural people still not employed in the formal economy) is still large but the long-run tendency for wages, materials and taxes to rise will likely resume and continue, eventually causing a crisis for capitalist accumulation (Wallerstein 2003). The expansion of the sharing economy during the neoliberal crackdown on wages will also challenge the logic of capitalism (Mason 2015).

Peter Taylor (2003) contends that globalization has decreased the importance of nation-states and increased the importance of cities, and that this may be a good thing because cities are more easily governable by communities of citizens. Human settlement systems have been strongly involved in the processes of sociocultural evolution for thousands of years as both cybernetic nodes of innovation, and in the processes of uneven development that have led to the rise and fall of states, empires and modern hegemons. Regarding the latter, we can expect that new forms of governance relevant to solutions of the emergent problems of the twenty-first century may be invented and implemented in the cities of the Global South, especially Brazil, India, Mexico and China. Curitiba, Brazil has already successfully demonstrated a new form of sustainable urbanism that will become increasingly relevant as the natural resources that have been the basis of urban sprawl become further depleted (Rabinowitz and Leitman 1996). The Pink Tide left populist regimes that emerged in Latin America in reaction to neoliberal globalization (Rodrik 2018) were important supporters of transnational global justice movements that have contested neoliberal global governance and pushed toward a new kind of globalization from below.  The cities of the Global South remain fertile spaces for finding solutions for our increasingly urbanized planet.

The world settlement system has become a network of large cities and city regions that contain over half of the human population. There are immense inequalities between those powerful global cities that control global financial and military apparatuses that affect everyone and the huge cities of the Global South that face growing problems of poverty, disease and insecurity. The modern world-system has, over the past several centuries, exhibited cycles of globalization (Chase-Dunn, Brewer, and Kawano 2000), the rise and fall of hegemonic core powers, and upward trends in population growth and economic development. The massive global inequalities that emerged during the 19th century have not been reduced despite the rapid economic development of India and China (Bornschier 2010).

The three main challenges of the 21st century are:

   addressing huge environmental issues and moving in the direction of sustainable development; and

   addressing the issue of huge inequalities between the global North and South.

   restructuring global governance to prevent a recurrence of warfare among the great powers and to improve the capacity for managing the other two challenges.

All the large cities of the world will be affected by the timing and rapidity of these emerging crises and so a plan for restructuring the global system to more effectively meet these challenges is greatly needed. The strengthening and democratization of the United Nations would enhance global cooperation for meeting these challenges and for supporting the empowerment of the peoples of the world.


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[1] The term “settlement” includes camps, hamlets, villages, towns and cities. Settlements are spatially bounded for comparative purposes as the contiguous built-up area.


[2] The term “evolution” still requires explanation. Here we are discussing sociocultural evolution, not biological evolution. Social science can discover the causes of changes in the degree of complexity and hierarchy of human societies without taking a position on whether or not this has been a good or a bad thing,

Ideas about progress and regress are important matters of values but they need not be settled in order to know the causes of patterned social change.

[3] We use the term “polity” to generally denote a spatially-bounded realm of sovereign authority such as a band, tribe, chiefdom, state or empire. 

[4] The important insight is that all human polities have systemic interactions with their neighbors, so it does not make sense to study them one at time.

[5] In down-the-line exchange goods move from group to group to group.

[6] Core, semiperiphery and periphery are relational concepts whose empirical content varies across systems. 

[7] The size of the largest settlements is one fairly reliable indicator of population density and of core-periphery differentiation. Core polities have larger settlements. Peripheral polities are nomadic or have smaller settlements.

[8] E.N. Anderson’s (2019:xxx) study of climate change and dynastic cycles in East Asia says “Overall, in the last analysis, the dominance of wet-rice agirculture allowed a centralized imperial agrarian regime to dominate even if it had a rather small land base, such as the Kanto Plain in Japan and the Red River Valley in Vietnam.” 


[9] We define capitalism generally as the accumulation of wealth by means of the production and distribution of commodities and financial services.  When the rulers of a specialized trading state obtain most of their wealth from trade and the production of commodities it is a capitalist state. 

[10] Modelski (2003) used population cut-offs that increase with time to designate world cities. During the ancient era (3000 BCE to 1000 BCE) world cities must have had a population of 10,000 or more. During the classical era (1000 BCE to 1000 CE) they must have had 100,000 people, and in the modern era (1000 CE to present) they must have had at least a million.

[11] These swings and sweeps are being studied by the Settlements and Polities (SetPol) Research Working Group at the Institute of Research on World-Systems at the University of California-Riverside. The project web site is at



[12] Another important hypothesis of the global cities literature is based on Saskia Sassen’s (1991) observations about class polarization and the casualization of work within globalizing cities. The research of Gareth Stedman Jones (1971) on Irish immigration into London’s East End in the mid-nineteenth century shows that a somewhat similar process of “peripheralization of the core”  and precarious labor was occurring during the  midst of the Pax Britannica.