An evolutionary success story: The ascent of the urban ape

Greg Woolf


Urbanistic projects have dominated the last six thousand years of our species’ history, appearing independently on all the inhabited continents. The majority of the population already live in cities and the trend seems to be increasing. An evolutionary approach entails explaining first what factors first made urban experiments possible in the late Holocene, and then what selective pressures made urban forms of social organization more successful than their alternatives. A range of factors, some environmental and some emerging from the characteristic of the human animal, explain the possibility of urbanism. Among reasons for the comparative advantage displayed by cities, it is argued that state formation and urbanization have tended to form synergistic relationships, the success of each facilitating the success of the other.


cities; social evolution; Holocene; state formation

Full Text: PDF



Childe, V. G. (1950). The urban revolution. Town Planning Review, 21(1), 3–17.

Clarke, D. L. (1979). Towns in the development of early civilization. In N. G. L. Hammond (Ed.), Analytical archaeologist. Collected papers of David L. Clarke edited by his colleagues (pp. 435–443). Academic Press.

De Vries, J. (1984). European urbanization 1500-1800. Methuen.

Fletcher, R. (1995). The limits of settlement growth. A theoretical outline. Cambridge University Press.

Graeber, D., & Wengrow, D. (2018, 2 March). How to change the course of human history (at least, the part that has happened already). Eurozine.

Graeber, D., & Wengrow, D. (2021). The dawn of everything. A new history of humanity. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Hassett, B. (2017). Built on bones. 15,000 years of urban life and death. Bloomsbury.

Iriarte, J., Robinson, M., de Souza, J., Damasceno, A., da Silva, F., Nakahara, F., & Aragao, L. (2020). Geometry by design. Contribution of Lidar to the understanding of settlement patterns of the mound villages in SW Amazonia. Journal of Computer Applications in Archaeology, 3(1), 151–169.

McAnany, P., & Yoffee, N. (Eds). (2010). Questioning collapse: Human resilience, ecological vulnerability, and the aftermath of empire. Cambridge University Press.

Morris, I. (1991). The early polis as city and state. In J. Rich & A. Wallace-Hadrill (Eds.), City and country in the ancient world (pp. 25–57). Routledge.

Smith, M. E. (2009). V. Gordon Childe and the urban revolution: A historical perspective on a revolution in urban studies. Town Planning Review, 80(1), 3–29.

Smith, M. L. (2019). Cities. The first 6,000 years. Viking.

Ucko, P., Tringham, R., & Dimbleby, G. W. (Eds.). (1972). Man, settlement and urbanism. Duckworth.

Wengrow, D. (2018). The origins of civic life. A global perspective. Origini: Prehistory and Protohistory of Ancient Civilizations, 42(2), 25–44.

Woolf, G. (2020). The life and death of ancient cities. A natural history. Oxford University Press.


  • There are currently no refbacks.