Uneven Urban Development:

Largest Cities since the Late Bronze Age*

Christopher Chase-Dunn, Hiroko Inoue,

Alexis Alvarez, Rebecca Alvarez, E. N. Anderson and Teresa Neal

Institute for Research on World-Systems

University of California, Riverside

Yin, the last capital of the Shang dynasty


An earlier version was presented at the annual conference of the American Sociological Association, Chicago, August 24, 2015.  v. 8-30-15, 11312 words

*We are indebted to those intrepid estimators of the population sizes of cities who made quantitative studies possible: Tertius Chandler, George Modelski and Ian Morris. Thanks also to Dmytro Khutkyy for helpful comments and suggestions on an earlier draft.


This is IROWS Working Paper # 98 available at https://irows.ucr.edu/papers/irows98/irows98.htm Data appendix for this paper is at https://irows.ucr.edu/cd/appendices/worregs/worregsapp.htm



This is a study of the growth of settlements in ten world regions over the past 3500 years. We compare East Asian urban growth with the original heartland of cities and states in West Asia and North Africa, as well as Europe, the subcontinent of South Asia, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and the Americas. This quantitative study of the trajectories of city growth and the changing relative scale of social organization in the different world regions provides an overall picture of the long-term patterns of uneven development in human sociocultural evolution and has important implications for prehension of the similarities and differences between the developmental trajectories of the world regions studied. This paper focusses mainly on the age-old comparison between East Asia and the West.

            The study of the long-run growth of settlements and polities is an important basis of our understanding of comparative sociology and human sociocultural evolution.[1]  The processes by which a world inhabited by small nomadic hunter-gatherer bands became the single global political economy of today involved the establishment and growth of settlements, the expansion of interaction networks and the growing size of polities. These processes of long-term growth and expansion were uneven in time and space.  There were cycles of growth and decline. And some of those regions that originally developed larger cities and polities were, in later epochs, no longer the leading regions.

 Our theoretical approach is the institutional materialist comparative evolutionary world-systems perspective. World-systems are defined as being composed of those human settlements[2] and polities [3] within a region that are importantly interacting with one another.  Important interaction means that there are consequences for the reproduction or change in local social structures. This approach focuses on the ways that humans have organized social production and distribution, and how economic, political, and religious institutions have evolved in systems of interacting polities (world-systems) since the Paleolithic Age. We employ an underlying model in which population pressures and interpolity competition and conflict have always been, and still remain, important causes of social change, while the systemic logics of social reproduction and growth have gone through qualitative transformations[4] (Chase-Dunn and Lerro 2014: Chapter 2). Our larger research project studies the development of settlements and polities by comparing regional world-systems and studying them over long periods of time.[5] 

Our approach to the spatial bounding of the unit of analysis is very different from those who try to comprehend a single global system that has existed for thousands of years. Gerhard Lenski (2005); Andre Gunder Frank and Barry Gills (1994) and George Modelski (2002; and Modelski, Devezas and Thompson 2008) and Sing Chew (2001;2007)  all analyze the entire globe as a single system over the past several thousand years. We contend that this approach misses very important differences in the nature and timing of the development of complexity and hierarchy in different world regions. Combining apples and oranges into a single global bowl of fruit is a major mistake that makes it more difficult to both describe and explain social change. Our comparison of different world regions and interaction networks of polities makes it possible to discover both their similarities and the differences. Global comparisons among these regional systems are certainly appropriate, but the claim that there has always been a single global world-system is profoundly misleading. [6]

            Our earlier studies have used data on city sizes and the territorial sizes of empires to examine and compare different regional interaction systems (e.g. Chase-Dunn, Manning and Hall 2000; Chase-Dunn and Manning 2002;  Inoue et al 2012; Inoue et al 2015). This article is a re-examination of the city size data that uses better estimates and that will enable us to address claims about the relative importance of China and Europe that have been advanced by Andre Gunder Frank (1998) and more recently by Ian Morris (2010; 2012) and to reflect on the similarities and differences of the trajectories of development in the ten world regions we are studying.

 The question we will try to answer in this article is: what can patterns of settlement growth tell us about the trajectories of development of the different world regions and the expanding Central System?  This paper is the first part of a study that will also use the sizes of largest polities in world regions to examine the nature of uneven development. But this paper looks only at the sizes of the largest city in each world region.

The issue of systemness and the spatial boundaries of whole human systems remains contentious in social science. The description of Earth-wide “global” history and processes is certainly a valid exercise, but the question of bounding whole systems is more complicated. It depends on what is meant by systemness. The idea of a whole system requires being explicit about what is within the system and what is designated as exogenous. Some explicit world-systems theoretical approaches claim that the whole of humanity has constituted a single world-system since the emergence of modern humans. This position has been explicitly taken by Gerhard Lenski (2005). Andre Gunder Frank and Barry Gills (1994) contended that what they call “the world system” emerged when states and cities arose  in Mesopotamia 5000 years ago. Frank and Gills (1993:16,84-85) designated a number of turning points of gradual inclusion of world regions into the world system. Five thousand years ago it was constituted only as Egypt and Mesopotamia, but China and the rest of Eurasia became part of the system around 500 BC, and the incorporation of Americas occurred  after 1492. Their position was adopted by Sing Chew 2001; 2007).

Immanuel Wallerstein (2011[1974]) contended that the modern world-system was not yet global when it emerged in Europe and the Americas in the long 16th century CE. Chase-Dunn and Hall (1993;1997) defined world-systems as human interaction networks in which the interactions were, consequential, two-way and regular. They adopted a place-centric approach to spatially bounding world-systems because of the observation that all human groups interact with their neighbors and so if you count all indirect connections there has been a single linked network since the humans populated the continents. The ideas of “fall-off” of effects of interaction and place-centricity were adopted from archeology.

The study of world regions that we have undertaken here is not meant to confound the spatial bounding of whole human interaction systems by means of interaction networks. Rather it is intended to shed light on the literature that has emerged from the critique of Eurocentrism and the rise of other centrisms. We acknowledge that Eurocentrism has had huge detrimental effects on the efforts of social scientists to describe and explain human sociocultural evolution. And we agree that looking at reality from different perspectives is a valuable exercise that can be enlightening and make big contributions to the effort to explain the human past and present. We contend that the methodological approach developed by Chase-Dunn and Hall for spatially bounding world-systems is capable of providing a non-centric or cosmocentric method for comparing small, medium-sized and large (global) human systems. This said, we admit that important work still needs to be done to accurately specify the timing and location of changes in the spatial boundaries of world-systems (see Chase-Dunn et al 2015).

Relative Regional Complexity

        Andre Gunder Frank’s (1998) provocative study of the global economy from 1400 to 1800 CE contended that China had long been the center of an already global system. Frank also argued that the rise of European power was a sudden and conjunctural development caused by the emergence in 18th century China of a “high level equilibrium trap” and the success of Europeans in using bullion extracted from the Americas to buy their way into Chinese technological, financial and productive success.  Frank contended that European hegemony was fragile from the start and will be short-lived with a predicted new rise of Chinese global predominance in the near future. He also argued that scholarly ignorance of the importance of China invalidates all the social science theories that have mistakenly characterized the rise of the West and the differences between the East and the West. In Frank’s view there never was a transition from feudalism to capitalism that distinguished Europe from other regions of the world. He argued that the basic dynamics of development have been similar in the single global system for 5000 years (Frank and Gills 1994).

            A related effort to compare world regions as a window on relative sociocultural evolution is contained in two recent books by Ian Morris (2010; 2012). Morris’s big idea is that complex human systems, like other complex systems, need to capture free energy in order to support greater scale and complexity, and that the ability to capture free energy is the main variable that accounts for the growth of cities and empires in human history. Morris traces the increasing size of human settlements since the origins of sedentism in the Levant about 12,000 years ago. And he uses estimates of the sizes of the largest settlements in world regions as a main indicator of system complexity. Using this method he notes that there was parallel evolution of sociocultural complexity in Western Asia and Northern Africa, South Asia, East Asia, the Andes and Mesoamerica, and that the leading edge of the development of complexity diffused also from its points of origin. And sometimes the original centers of complexity lost pride of place because new centers emerged out on the edge. The Bronze Age Mesopotamian heartland of cities now has none of the world’s largest cities. Development was spatially uneven in some regions, with the center moving to new areas.

            In the introductory chapter of The Measure of Civilization Morris provides a useful overview of earlier efforts to measure social development, and he also provides a helpful and insightful discussion of the social science literature on sociocultural evolution since Herbert Spencer. Morris’s research is unusual for an historian because he carefully defines his concepts, specifies his assumptions and operationalizes his measures, and then uses the best quantitative estimates of settlement sizes as the main basis of the story he is telling. His estimates of the sizes of the largest cities utilize and improve upon earlier compendia of city sizes.

            The main focus of Morris’s Why the West Rules is the comparison of what happened in Western Asia, the Mediterranean and Europe with what happened in East Asia. Morris is careful to trace the histories of the diffusion of complexity in both areas. He also makes contemporaneous comparisons of the two regions which allow us to see that there has been a see-saw pattern back and forth regarding which region was ahead or behind in the development of sociocultural complexity.  The “West” (Western Asia and North Africa in the Bronze Age and then including the rest of the Mediterranean and Europe)[7] had a head-start, but the East caught up and passed, and then the West (Europe and North America) passed the East again.  Morris’s emphasis on energy capture is a valuable materialist angle and the focus on cities rather than polities or civilizations allows us to see important patterns more clearly.

            While The Measure of Civilization is about the quantitative basis of Morris’s analysis, Why the West Rules adds a lot of detail beyond the basic focus on energy capture.  But the energy capture idea misses some of the patterns that are of interest to those who want to study whole world-systems over long historical time. The story tends to be rather core-centric with little attention paid to the transformative roles played by peripheral and semiperipheral marcher states and city-states in the construction of large empires and the expansion of trade networks.  Morris does not discuss the transformation of systemic logics of development over the long period he studied, or how differences in the development of capitalism may have been an important contributor to the rise of Europe.  But the foregrounding of energy and cities is a valuable materialist strategy for comprehending both the patterns of history and for considering the present and the future of human sociocultural development.

Immanuel Wallerstein’s (2011 [1974]) analysis of East-West similarities and differences that account for the rise of predominant capitalism in Europe and the continued predominance of the tributary logic in East Asia is presented in Chapter One of Volume 1 of The Modern World-System. Summing up his detailed discussion of the main factors that account for the East/West divergence, Wallerstein says:

The essential difference between China and Europe reflects once again the conjuncture of a secular trend with a more immediate economic cycle. The long-term secular trend goes back to the ancient empires of Rome and China, the ways in which and the degree to which they disintegrated. While the Roman framework remained a thin memory whose medieval reality was mediated largely by a common church, the Chinese managed to retain an imperial political structure, albeit a weakened one. This was the difference between a feudal system and a world-empire based on a prebendal bureaucracy. China could maintain a more advanced economy in many ways than Europe as a result of this. And quite possibly the degree of exploitation of the peasantry over a thousand years was less. To this given, we must add the more recent agronomic thrusts of each, of Europe toward cattle and wheat, and of China toward rice. The latter requiring less space but more men, the secular pinch hit the two systems in different ways. Europe needed to expand geographically more than China did. And to the extent that some groups in China might have found expansion rewarding, they were restrained by the fact that crucial decisions were centralized in an imperial framework that had to concern itself first and foremost with short-run maintenance of the political equilibrium of its world-system. So China, if anything seemingly better placed prima facie to move forward to capitalism in terms of already having an extensive state bureaucracy, being further advanced in terms of the monetization of the economy and possibly of technology as well, was nonetheless less well placed after all. It was burdened by an imperial political structure (p. 63).

We now know much more about China because of the careful comparative work of the “California School” of world historians (e.g., Bin Wong 1997; Kenneth Pomeranz 2001) and Giovanni Arrighi’s Adam Smith in Beijing (2007) as well as the important collection of essays in Arrighi, Hamashita, and Selden (2003). But Wallerstein’s analysis of the main elements explaining the East/West divergence since the sixteenth century is still the best because of its fruitful combination of millennial and conjunctural time scales.

            Frank’s model of development in Reorient  focuses mainly on state expansion and financial accumulation. His study of global flows of specie, especially silver, was an important contribution to our understanding of what happened between 1400 and 1800 CE (see also Flynn 1996).  Frank also uses demographic weight, and especially population growth and growth of the size of cities, as an indicator of relative developmental success.

            It is our intention to systematically examine the growth of the largest cities in order to shed more light on Frank’s claims about the relative development of East and West. Our study will begin in 1500 BCE when we first have reliable and comparable datings for of the population sizes of cities and the territorial sizes of states and empires in different world regions. 

 Chronologies for Comparative Analysis
        For purposes of comparing the timing of changes in city sizes across different world regions it is important to have accurate absolute chronologies for the regions being compared. Unfortunately there is still considerable disagreement about the absolute dating for Mesopotamia before 1500 BCE. Mario Liverani (2014: 9-16) explains why estimates of absolute dates are so uncertain. Relative dates of events needed for estimating polity sizes are based on “king lists.” Thus an event, such as a conquest, is said to have occurred in the third year of the reign of King X. Considerable effort has been made to figure out the correspondences between different king list in Mesopotamia and their correspondence with Egyptian king lists. These are then converted in to calendar years by ascertaining their relationships with astronomical events such as eclipses. Unfortunately there is a period after the fall of the Babylonian empire in which king lists are missing for Mesopotamia, and there is disagreement about the timing of astronomical events. Thus the length in years of the occluded period is in dispute, and this results in so-called, short, medium and long chronologies for the period before the Late Bronze Age, with an error of as much as 100 years.[8] Our efforts to estimate the sizes of cities are dependent on absolute dating because we want to compare across world regions.  So it matters to us whether Ur was sacked in 2004 BCE, and thus is eliminated from the list of large cities and large polities in 2000 BCE, or in some other year 50 years earlier or later. Liverani (2014: 15) is satisfied to use the middle chronology for Mesopotamia and the surrounding regions, but he is not trying to compare the timing of changes in the Ancient Western Asia with other world regions. So we begin in 1500 BCE.

            Another temporal issue that we should mention is the effort we have made to code the sizes of polities as snap-shots taken every 100 years.   George Modelski (2003) organized his city population estimates into 100 year intervals. But using 100-year snap-shots could miss some important developments that are relevant to the study of scale changes in city sizes. We are also studying largest states and empires and we noticed that the use of 100-year intervals makes the Mongol Empire, the second-largest empire in world history in terms of territorial size, disappear. To fix this obvious glitch we added 1250 CE to our data set, and we follow suit with this study of largest cities.  Ideally we would like to have estimates every 25 years, or at least every 50 years, but this level of temporal resolution will have to wait until the appropriate data set has been completed.

Units of analysis: world regions and interaction networks

The comparative evolutionary world-systems perspective spatially bounds world-systems as networks of interacting polities (Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997: Chapter 3; Chase-Dunn and Jorgenson 2003). In most of our studies we use political/military interaction networks (PMNs) composed of fighting and allying polities as the unit of analysis. But in this paper we want to examine the different trajectories of world regions. PMNs have the disadvantage that they expand over time as smaller regional networks merge or are engulfed by larger systems, eventuating in the single global system of today. Thus all the world regions eventually became incorporated into a single global network that we call the Central International System, following Wilkinson (1987).[9] In order to compare the trajectories of different world regions, which is the main purpose of this article, we will hold the spatial boundaries of the ten specified different regions constant over time. This allows us to trace the timing and trajectories of changes in the spatial scale of settlements without worry that the  changes we find are due to alterations in the spatial boundaries of the regions we are studying. We will also compare our constant region findings with studies of expanding political-military networks, especially the Central PMN.

Thus the main unit of analysis in this study is the world region, and regions are held constant over the whole period.  The ten regions we will study are:

1.     Europe, including the Mediterranean and Aegean islands, that part of the Eurasian continent to the west of the Caucasus Mountains, but not Asia Minor (now most of Turkey).

2.     Southwest Asia- Asia Minor (now Turkey), the Arabian Peninsula, Mesopotamia, Syria, Persia, the Levant, and Bactria (Afghanistan), but not north of Afghanistan.

3.     Africa, including Madagascar.

4.     The South Asian subcontinent, including the Indus river valley and Sri Lanka.

5.     East  Asia, including China, Korea, Japan and Manchuria.

6. Central Asia and Siberia: We define Central Asia broadly as:  the territory that lies between the eastern edge of the Caspian Sea (longitude E53) and the old Jade Gate near the city of Dun Huang near longitude E95, and that is north of latitude N37, (which is the northern edge of the Iranian Plateau, the northern part of Afghanistan and the mountains along the southern edge of the Tarim Basin). The northern boundary is the northern edge of the steppes as they transition into forest and tundra. So the Central Asia region we are studying includes deserts, mountains and grasslands (steppes) (Hall et al 2009).

7. Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Cambodia, Burma, Vietnam and Thailand.[10]

8. Oceania, the islands of the Pacific including Australia, New Zealand and Borneo (Papua and Papua New Guinea).

9.  North and Central America

10. South America, including Panama and the Caribbean Islands

We will also use the expanding Central PMN as a unit of comparison and compare the implications of using it with the more usual comparisons made between Europe and China.

The ten specified world regions are defined for purposes of examining the claims made by Frank and Morris  about relative development of cities (see Figure 1). [11]

Figure 1: The ten world regions we are using for comparisons

These specified world regions are somewhat arbitrarily bounded but we have developed this spatial set of categories based on our knowledge of where large cities first emerged, and also with attention to the issue of largest empires. Our data collection effort with regard to these world regions is incomplete because most earlier studies focus on regions that had the largest cities (see Figure 2). Thus, for example, we have very little information about the sizes of largest settlements in Oceania before the modern colonial era. But this is an occlusion that can be remedied with greater effort. Archaeological evidence is sufficient for estimating the sizes of settlements and so a survey of archaeological studies in Oceania would produce estimates of largest settlement sizes.

Figure 2: The Number of World Regions for which we currently have estimates of the largest cities and empires from 1500 BCE to 2010 CE.

Indicators of regional complexity based on estimates of the population sizes of settlements

            David Wilkinson (1992b, 1993) compared East Asia with West Asia using data from Tertius Chandler (1987) on the number of large cities in each region. Wilkinson used political-military interaction networks (which he calls “civilizations”) as his unit of analysis. Political-military interaction networks (PMNs) are a good unit of analysis because the alliances and enmities of polities are an important systemic feature of all world-systems. But PMNs change in size and location over time. For purposes of our present study we will use constant regions (described above) as the units of analysis.  We have improved upon Wilkinson’s (1992b,1993) studies by using the population sizes of the largest city in each region and by using improved estimates of the sizes of cities. [12] Using only the number of large cities, as Wilkinson’s study did,  ignores important differences in the sizes of cities. 
For our study of constant regions we have made good progress on finding estimates for the largest city and the largest polity in each world region since 1500 BCE, but we still have many gaps in which we have not yet been able to find the relevant estimates (See Figure 2 above). When estimates are missing the graphs indicate (mistakenly) that the largest city has no population.  All regions have largest settlements, so zero means missing estimates of settlement size, not the absence of settlements.


Estimating the Population Sizes of Settlements

            Accurate estimation of the population sizes of both contemporary and ancient settlements is a complicated problem. Daniel Pasciuti (Pasciuti 2003; Pasciuti and Chase-Dunn 2003) has proposed a measurement error model for estimating the sizes of settlements based on the literature in archaeology, demography and urban geography.[13] We define settlements as a spatially contiguous built-up area. This corresponds to what the United Nations methodology calls “urban area” or “urban agglomerations” (UN 2011b). This is the best definition for comparing the sizes of settlements across different polities and cultures because it ignores the complicated issue of governance boundaries (e.g. municipal districts, etc). But it still has some problems. Most cultures have nucleated settlements in which residential areas surround a monumental, governmental or commercial center. In such cases it is fairly easy to spatially bound a contiguous built up area based on the declining spatial density of human constructions. But other cultures space residences out rather than concentrating them near a central place (e.g. many of the settlements in the preshistoric American Southwest such as Chaco Canyon).  In such cases it is necessary to choose a standard radius from the center in order to make comparisons of population sizes over time or across cultures.

We are studying only the largest cities in each region but it is still a lot of cities, so we must primarily rely on data sources that offer estimates of the sizes of many cities over long periods of time. The three main data sources we use are:

1.      Tertius Chandler 1987 Four Thousand Years of Urban Growth;

2.      George Modelski 2003 World Cities: –3000 to 2000; and

3.       Ian Morris 2013 The Measure of Civilization

Tertius Chandler’s (1987) compendium is still the most comprehensive study of large cities, but substantial improvements were made in George Modelski’s (2003) compendium. Ian Morris also provides estimates of the largest cities in his book, discussed above, on measuring the development of Eastern and Western civilizations (Morris 2013). From 1950 to 2010 we use the U.N. (2011a) urban area estimates.[14]

The comparison of world regions requires interval-level measurement, but a certain degree of measurement error is tolerable because we are mainly looking for large differences. After 1500 BCE there is substantial agreement in most cases about the sizes of the largest cities. Our approach is to use these three sources of data to choose the best estimates of the sizes of the largest cities in each world region. When there were conflicts we usually gave priority to Morris because his estimates used both Modelski and Chandler as well as other sources for particular cities. When Morris did not provide an estimate we defaulted to Modelski, and when Modelski was silent we used Chandler.[15]

Figure 3: The population sizes of largest cities in 10 world regions, 1500 BCE to 2010 CE (thousands)

Because the overall trend is for settlement sizes to increase and because there was an explosion in the population sizes of cities after 1800 CE it is difficult to see differences across the world regions before then in Figure 3. But Figure 3 clearly shows the recent increase in the sizes of the largest cities in all world regions and the dramatically larger increase in the size of the largest city, greater Tokyo, in East Asia.  

Figure 4: The relative population sizes of Largest Cities in each Region, 1500 BCE- 2010 CE  as a percentage of the sum of the sizes of the cities in all the world regions for which we have estimates

Figure 4 allows us to see variation in the relative sizes of cities across regions because the values are the percentages of the total population of all the largest cities represented by the largest city in each region. Recall that we are missing  a lot of estimates before 100 CE so the percentages shown would be somewhat lower if we were able to include these. In Figure 4 we can still see the world’s first cities in Mesopotamia and Egypt represented here by the regional designations “Africa” and “Southwest Asia.” This emergence occurred in the early Bronze Age with the rise of Uruk in Mesopotamia.  Figure 4 (starting in 1500 BCE because of the absolute dating problems discussed above) shows that cities in Africa (green) and in Southwest Asia (black) remained among the largest in the world until the late first millennium. After that Africa was not again at the top but it was second in two later periods. Southwest Asia rebounded in medieval times because of the great size of Abbasid Baghdad. This is strong evidence for the existence of uneven development and the geographical movement of the cutting edge of social complexity, but it also shows that regions can make a comeback. South Asia (grey) had the largest city in the world (Pataliputra, the Mauryan capital) in 300 BCE and then returned to near the top from 1400 to 1600 CE.

The trajectories of Europe (blue) and East Asia (red) in the world urban size distribution are very interesting. The relative size of European cities (indicated by the blue dots) shows a long oscillation around a middle level, indicating Europe’s peripheral and semiperipheral location in the larger Central PMN.[16]  The European trajectory in Figure 4 reflects the rise and fall of Rome as the largest city in the world and then, around 1450 CE Europe began a rise of city sizes relative to the other regions that peaked in 1900 CE when London was the largest world city.  

East Asia (red) rose later than the African and Southwest Asian original heartland of cities, but was second in 1100 BCE because of the large size of Yin, the last capital of the Shang Dynasty (see appendix). After that East Asia bounced around in middle positions and then rose to a level higher than any other region in 700 CE (Tang Dynasty Chang’an). East Asia was back at the top again from 1100 to 1300 CE (Kaifeng and Hangzhou). In 1300 CE the largest cities in the world were those shown in Table 1.

World Region

Political/Military Network

City Name

City Populations (Thousands)

East Asia

East Asian PMN




Central PMN




Central PMN



Central Asia and Siberia

Central PMN



South Asia

Central PMN



Southeast Asia

Indonesian PMN



North and Central America

Mesoamerican PMN



Southwest Asia

Central PMN





South America and Caribbean

Missing (Cuzco?)

Table 1: Eight largest cities in world regions in 1300 CE (thousands)

Table 1 shows that the largest city on Earth in 1300 CE (Hangzhou) was in East Asia. We should also note that Beijing, Kamakura, Guangzhou, and several other East Asian cities were among the largest in 1300 CE.[17] We will discuss more about the European and East Asian trajectories below. Table 1 also shows which political/military network each city was in. We will be comparing both the trajectories of both Europe and the Central PMN in what follows.

New York became the largest city in the world by 1925, beating out London (see the yellow dots in Figure 4 for North America and the Caribbean). The relatively smaller and older European cities (e.g. London and Paris), were surpassed by the much larger American and Japanese cities in the 20th century.

Europe vs the Central PMN

            Figure 5 shows the relationship between the largest city in Europe and that in the Central PMN.  Europe has been part of the Central PMN since the Bronze Ages so we should expect there to be great similarities, and that is what Figure 5 shows. We composed the Central PMN by combining the cities in world regions as follows: Inspired by David Wilkinson’s chronograph we start with the combination of Southwest Asia, Africa (Egypt) and Europe in 1500 BCE, and then add Central and South Asia in 1000 CE, the Americas in 1500 CE, Southeast Asia in 1800 and East Asia in 1900 CE. So East Asia became part of the Central PMN after 1850CE, but we stop comparing in 1800 CE for this reason and because the city sizes become so large that it is hard to see earlier variation if we include the years after 1800 CE.  

Figure 5: The sizes of the largest cities in Europe and in the Central PMN

The long and deep literature on East/West comparisons is usually a bit vague as to what exactly is being compared with what. Much of the literature is about China vs. England or China vs. Europe. Morris (2010, 2011) is careful to include Western Asia and Northern Africa, the original heartlands of cities and states, in what he thinks about as “the West.” Figure 5 shows that the only great difference between Europe and the Central PMN occurred during the rise of the Islamic caliphates and the building of the great Abbasid capital that was Baghdad while Europe was in a slump with regard to city sizes. The partial correlation coefficient (controlling for year) shown in Table 2 below is .821 and is significant at the .001 level.

































Figure 6: Population Sizes of Largest Cities in East Asia, Europe and the Central PMN, 1400 CE- 1800 CE

                We also want to have a closer look at the sizes of cities in world regions in the period between 1400 CE and 1800 CE because of the issues raised in Andre Gunder Frank’s (1998) study of the relationship between China and the West in this period. Recall that Frank contended that the rise of the West (what Kenneth Pomeranz (2000) has called the “Great Divergence”) occurred later than most Eurocentric scholars have claimed.  The evidence from relative sizes of cities in Figure 5 shows an urban recovery in Europe after 1500 CE and that the largest European city was nearly as big as the largest city in East Asia in 1700 CE. Beginning in 1500 the largest European city, Istanbul (formerly Constantinople),[18] began a rapid period of growth as a result of being the capital of the Ottoman Empire.  Figure 6 also shows the trajectory for the Central PMN as well as for Europe and East Asia. Europe is a subregion of the larger interaction network of fighting and allying polities that includes the Americas, Africa, Southwest Asia and South Asia in this period.  The story of the comparison between East Asia and the Central PMN is rather similar to the comparison with Europe except that the Central PMN did not decline as much as Europe did and it always had larger cities than did Europe even though we include Constantinople/Istanbul as within Europe. Frank’s idea that China declined around 1800 is supported by the city size data shown in Figure 4. European growth experienced another upsurge after 1750 with the mushrooming of London, but the size of London did not equal that of Beijing until 1825. Within East Asia, Tokyo did not become larger than Beijing until 1900.

Our examination of the largest cities in Europe and East Asia further reflects upon Frank’s (1998) characterization of the centrality of China and the rise of European hegemony. Frank’s idea that the European rise was sudden and conjunctural, occurring in the 18th century, is not supported by the city size data. Figure 4 shows that Europe (blue dots) began a recovery from the collapse of Rome and the Western Roman empire during the late first millennium, then suffered a relapse and experience another recovery that stared in 1250 CE that led to a peak in 1900 with the huge size of London mentioned above. Some of Europe’s apparent rise was due to the large size of Ottoman Istanbul, which we categorize as in Europe because it is on the north side of the Bosphorus. Though Istanbul was within the continent of Europe as we have defined it, the Frank Project[19] might contend that crediting the Christian Europeans of later fame with the successes of the Ottoman Turks is unfair, and that this does not challenge his hypothesis of the conjunctural nature of European hegemony.

            But there are some other facts that need to be taken into account here. The second and third largest cities in Europe in 1500 were Paris and Venice, followed by Naples and Milan.  From 1500 to 1600 Paris grew from 185,000 to 245,000 and the other large cities of Christian Europe grew at a similar pace.  So the early upsurge was not due only to the growth of Istanbul.  Christian Europe was also experiencing a sixteenth century boom period. This does not dispute the relatively greater centrality of China in this period, but it does suggest that Christian Europe did not remain a peripheral backwater until it finally sprang to hegemony at the last minute in the 18th century. Istanbul’s size leveled off in 1600 and it stayed at that size until 1700, after which it began to decline. In this same period the largest cities of Christian Europe were growing rapidly. London grew larger than Istanbul by 1750.

The trajectory of Europe (displayed in Figures 4 and 5) supports part of Gunder Frank’s (1998) analysis, but contradicts another part. The small cities of Europe in the early period indicate its peripheral status vis a vis the core regions of West Asia/North Africa, South Asia and East Asia. As Frank argues, Europe did not best East Asia (as indicated by city sizes) until the eighteenth century.  But the long stepped European rise contradicts Frank’s depiction of a sudden and conjunctural emergence of European hegemony.  Based on relative city sizes it appears that the rise of Europe occurred in waves beginning with the recovery from the fall of Rome.

For East Asia we see in Figure 4 and Table 1, a high peak in 1300 CE.  Then there was a decline and another peak in 1700. Not until 1825 was East Asia bested by the European cities after a decline that started in 1800 and continued until 1900, when an Asian recovery began. The European cities were bested again by the East Asian cities between 1950 and 1970 during the rapid decline of the European cities in terms of their size-importance among the world’s largest cities. This most recent rise of the East Asian cities is a consequence of the upward mobility of Japan and China in the global political economy.  Smith and Timberlake (2001) have demonstrated the contemporary rising importance of East Asian cities in the global airline transportation network. Greater Tokyo, the third largest city in 1925, had become the largest city on Earth by 1970, and Osaka held third place in that year. By 1980 Tokyo was still first, but Mexico City held second place, and Sao Paolo was in fourth place.

            Frank’s depiction of a sudden and radical decline of China that began in 1800 CE is supported in Figure 6.  His analysis  in Reorient (Frank 1998) focused on the period from 1400 to 1800 CE, but did not examine the relative decline of East Asian urban predominance that began in 1350 nor the rise to a new peak that began in 1700 as indicated in Figure 6.

Figure 7: East Asian and European largest cities, 1500 BCE to CE 1800

                Figure 7 shows more clearly the relationships between the rise and fall of largest cities in Europe and East Asia. Morris (2010) describes a see-sawing relationship between East Asia and the West. But we also want to compare East Asia with Europe alone because much of the long and deep literature about relative development has focused on alleged differences between European and East Asian societies and cultures.  It has also been asserted by Frank and other sinocentrists that China led in the development of complexity and hierarchy in the multicore Afroeurasian system.  We will try to evaluate these hypothesis with our city size data on world regions. In Figure 7 the comparison of East Asia with Europe shows that East Asia had a head-start compared with Europe. After that they both rise but the Greco-Roman cities were much larger than cities in East Asia and they lasted longer than the Han cities did. So the city size trajectories show an East Asian divergence during the time of the Han and Roman Empires, with Han cities declining earlier. After that there is a long period in which European and East Asian cities are indeed counter-cyclical, but this again changes into synchrony after 1500 CE.





            The partial Pearson’s r correlation coefficients among East Asia, Europe and the Central PMN are shown in Table 2.

Region or PMN


Central PMN

East Asian



.828 sig.= .000

-.381 sig.= .026

Central PMN

.818 sig.= .000


-.170 sig.= .335

East Asian Region and PMN

-.381 sig.= .026

-.170 sig.= .335


Table 2: Pearsons r partial  correlation coefficients (controlling for Year) for population sizes of the largest cities in East Asia, Europe and the Central PMN from 1500 BCE to 1800 CE (n= 35)

Though the temporal relationship between East-West largest city sizes obviously has periods of convergence that can be seen in Figure 7 and 8, the overall relationship is slightly negative, and it is somewhat smaller for the East Asia/Central PMN comparison than for the East Asia/Europe comparison. These coefficients control for the long-run trend toward greater city sizes by using Year as a control variable.  The negative East/West coefficients are not statistically significant and are only weak support for the see-saw hypothesis.

Figure 8: Largest cities in East Asia and the Central PMN

But if we compare East Asia with the Central PMN as in Figure 8 we see that the Central PMN was right up there with East Asia in the period following 1500 CE. And indeed we know that cities and states emerged earlier in Southwest Asia and in Egypt than they did in China. The story in Figure 8 is mostly similar with the Europe/East Asia comparison in Figure 7, except that the Central PMN as a whole did recover from the decline of Rome in the form of the rise of Islam. So the first great divergence is less divergent if we consider the whole European/West Asian/North African context.

Walter Scheidel contends that the sequence of empire rise and fall in East Asia was different from that in the West, a situation he refers to as “first great divergence” taking a que from Kenneth Pomeranz’s analysis of the much later great divergence. In East Asia the decline of the Han cities was soon followed by the rise of new large cities, whereas in the West the decline of Rome was followed by a rather long and deep period in which cities did not soon regain the great size of Rome.[20]   Regarding Scheidel’s idea, the city data shown in Figure 6 indicates that Han Chang’an declined earlier than did Rome, and this should be taken into account in comparing the length of city size declines. When this is done the length of Eastern and Western decline periods appear rather similar.


Our results suggest problems with Andre Gunder Frank’s (1998) characterization of the relationship between Europe and China before and during the rise of European hegemony. Frank’s contention that Europe was primarily a peripheral region relative to the core regions of the Afro-eurasian world-system is mainly supported by the city data, with some qualifications.  Europe was for millennia a periphery of the large cities and powerful empires of ancient West Asian and North Africa. The Greek and Roman cores were instances of semiperipheral marcher states that conquered important parts of the older West Asian/North African core. After the decline of the Western Roman Empire, the core shifted back toward the East and Europe was once again importantly peripheral (or semiperipheral). 

            The partial support for Morris’s idea of see-sawing challenges the idea proposed in Frank and Gills (1994) that there was an integrated and synchronized Eurasian world-system around 500 BCE. Victor Lieberman’s (2002, 2011) more nuanced approach to the issue of synchrony, which distinguishes between regions that were exposed to Central Asian nomad incursions from those that were not,  may yet vindicate some of what the Frankians have contended. We cannot yet be certain that interaction networks were important early causes of either synchrony or see-sawing, and if they were, we do not know which kind of interaction was most important.

            Counter to Frank’s contention, however, the rise of European hegemony was not a sudden conjunctural event that was due solely to a developmental crisis in China and European luck in conquering the Americas. The city population data indicate that an important renewed core formation process had been emerging in waves within Europe since not long after the fall the Western Roman Empire, with a strong and steady upsurge since the 15th century.  This was partly a consequence of European extraction of resources from its own expanded periphery. But it was also likely due to the unusually virulent form of capitalist accumulation within Europe, and the effects of this on the nature and actions of states. The development of European capitalism began among the city-states of Italy. It spread to the European interstate system, eventually resulting in the first capitalist nation-state – the Dutch Republic of the seventeenth century as well as the later rise of the hegemony of the United Kingdom of Great Britain in the nineteenth century. This process of regional core formation resulted in a greater emphasis on capitalist commodity production than occurred in the also commercializing other world regions. And European states increasingly allowed finance capital to play a powerful role in policy formulations (Braudel 1984; Arrighi 1994). This further spread and institutionalized the logic of capitalist accumulation which altered the balance of power within Europe by defeating the efforts of territorial empires (the Hapsburg Empire, Napoleonic France, National Socialist Germany) to return the expanding European core to a more tributary mode of accumulation. 

            Acknowledging some of the unique aspects of the emerging European hegemony does not require us to ignore the important continuities that also existed as well as the consequential ways in which European developments were linked with processes going on in the rest of the Afroeurasian world-system. Frank’s (1998; 2014) insistence that the whole system and its interconnections must be studied in order understand uneven development is still yet rarely seen in the social science history literature. And much of the literature on European exceptionalism represents valid criticisms. But the West did rise, despite Frank’s efforts to show that it was later and more conjunctural than many thought. So the great divide remains an important problem for social science.

            The more recent emergence of East Asian cities as again the very largest settlements on Earth occurred in a context that was structurally and developmentally distinct from the multi-core system that still existed in 1800 CE. Since 1850 CE there has only been one core because all core states are directly interacting with one another in the now-global interstate system. While the multi-core system prior to the nineteenth century was undoubtedly integrated to an important extent by trade, it was not as interdependent as the global world-system has now become.

A new East Asian hegemony is by no means a certainty, as both the United States and German-led Europe will continue to be strong contenders in the coming period of  hegemonic rivalry and multipolar global governance (Bornschier and Chase-Dunn 1999). In this competition megacities may be more of a liability than an advantage because the costs of these huge human agglomerations have continued to increase, while the benefits have been somewhat diminished by the falling costs of transportation and communication.  Nevertheless megacities will continue to be a useful indicator of predominance because societies that can afford them will have demonstrated the ability to mobilize huge resources.


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[1] Use of the word “evolution” still requires explanation. We mean long-term patterned change in social structures, especially the development of complex divisions of labor and hierarchy. We do not mean biological evolution, which is a very different topic, and neither do we mean “progress.”

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

[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.  Our study of polity size upsweeps is presented in Inoue et al (2012).

[4] Thus we are both continuationists and transformationists.

[5] The project is the Polities and Settlements Research Working Group at the Institute for Research on

World-Systems at the University of California-Riverside. The project web site is at https://irows.ucr.edu/


[6] If we read especially Frank and Gills as studying the continuities of the Central PGN, as discussed below, much of their analysis is quite valuable. 


[7] Morris’s “West” is nearly contiguous with what we call the Central PMN, accept that after 1000 CE we include South Asia.

[8] See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chronology_of_the_ancient_Near_East

[9] The idea of the Central Political/Military Network (PMN) is derived from David Wilkinson’s (1987) definition of “Central Civilization.” It spatially bounds a system in terms of a set of allying and fighting polities.  The Central Political-Military Network is the interstate system that was created when the Mesopotamian and Egyptian PMNs became directly connected with one another in about 1500 BCE.  The Central PMN expanded in waves until it came to encompass the whole Earth in the 19th century CE.  Because it was an expanding system its spatial boundaries changed over time.  We mainly follow Wilkinson’s decisions about when and where the Central System expanded, and the temporal bounding of the regions we are studying also follows Wilkinson’s dating of when these regions became incorporated into the expanding Central PMN.  The contemporary global PMN is the international system of states.  The merger of the Mesopotamian and Egyptian interstate systems began as a result of Eighteenth Dynasty Egypt’s invasions, conquests, and diplomatic relations with states of the Southwest Asian (Mesopotamian) system --  first of all Mitanni, then the Hittites, Babylon, and Assyria.  The signal event was Thutmosis I’s invasion of Syria in about 1505 BCE.  The fusion of the systems began then but enlarged and intensified until 1350 BCE.  Thutmosis III’s many campaigns in Syria and the establishment of tributary relations, wars and peace-making under Amenhotep II, as well as the peaceful relations and alliance with Mitanni by Thutmosis IV, eventually led to Egyptian hegemony under Amenhotep III (Wilkinson pers. comm. Friday, April 15, 2011). The final linking of the South Asian PMN with the Central PMN was begun by the incursion of Mahmud of Ghazni in 1008 CE. Alexander of Macedon’s earlier incursion in the 4th century BCE had been a temporary connection between the Central and the South Asian PMNs that ceased after the Greek conquest states in South Asia had been expelled.  The connection was made permanent by Mahmud of Ghazni. After 1850 CE the East Asian PMN was engulfed by the Central PMN.



[10] The boundary between Southeast Asia and South Asia is the Burma-India/Bangladesh border.

[11] An earlier regional typology was originally developed to study largest cities (Chase-Dunn and Manning 2002), but in this paper we also consider largest polities, which has required us to pay more attention to Central Asia. We have also added the Americas.


[12] The data files used for comparing the regional percentages of largest polity sizes are available in the Appendix at https://irows.ucr.edu/cd/appendices/worregs/worregsapp.htm

[13] Pasciuti’s (2002) measurement error model includes the following variables: Area of the City within the Wall,  Built-up Urban Area of the Whole City, Total Residential Area,  Total Number of Residential Hearths in the Urban Area,  Total Number of Houses in the Urban Area, Total Non-Residential Area and the  Total Number of Households. Detailed studies such as that of Jacob Lassner (1970) that detail the changing topography of a city (in this case Baghdad),  are very useful for understanding the population sizes of cities.


[14] In collaboration with SESHAT the Institute for Research on World-Systems in compiling a large-scale data set in which cities and their estimated population sizes are the main focus.

[15] There were some exceptions to these general rules of preference. In the case of medieval Baghdad Morris did not provide estimates for 900, 1000 or 1100 CE. We also used estimates collected by Roland Fletcher and Jacob Lassner’s (1970) study of the changing topography of medieval Baghdad to produce our own best estimates of the population sizes of Baghdad from 900 to 1200 CE (see Appendix).  The general point here is that in specific cases we do not follow the general ranked preference for Morris, Modelski and Chandler. In the case of Baghdad Chandler seems to have done a better job. And Modelski’s estimates for many Chinese cities seem too large because he may have been using population estimates for prefects (counties) rather than for the built-up area of cities.


[16] The long history of the incorporation of the very small systems of Europe into the expanding Central System of West Asia/North Africa is described in Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997: Chapter 9). Europe became firmly incorporated into the trade networks of the Central System during the Bronze Age (Sherratt 1993a; 1993b;1993c; 1993d).

[17] Gil Rozman (1973) shows how Japan was able to speed up the development of an integrated urban system by learning from the long history urban development in China.


[18] Constantinople (Istanbul after 1453) is in Europe because it is on the north side of the Bosphorus, and so is geographically in Europe. We also categorize the Ottoman Empire as in Europe because its capital was there.

[19] Andre Gunder Frank died in 2005 but several scholars have continued his work (see Chase-Dunn 2015).

[20] We will discuss this first great divergence again in our paper that compares the sizes of largest East and West Empires. In the case of empires we agree with Scheidel that the sequences after the decline of the Han and Roman Empires were indeed importantly different.  A new large empire emerged in China that was as large as the Han Empire had been, whereas in the West the area that had been subjected to Roman conquest and tribute-paying was later occupied by several smaller empires.