(Roughly) Daily

“An architect should live as little in cities as a painter. Send him to our hills, and let him study there what nature understands by a buttress, and what by a dome.”*…

We’ve misunderstood an important part of the history of urbanism– jungle cities. Patrick Roberts suggests that they have much to teach us…

Visions of “lost cities” in the jungle have consumed western imaginations since Europeans first visited the tropics of Asia, Africa and the Americas. From the Lost City of Z to El Dorado, a thirst for finding ancient civilisations and their treasures in perilous tropical forest settings has driven innumerable ill-fated expeditions. This obsession has seeped into western societies’ popular ideas of tropical forest cities, with overgrown ruins acting as the backdrop for fear, discovery and life-threatening challenges in countless films, novels and video games.

Throughout these depictions runs the idea that all ancient cities and states in tropical forests were doomed to fail. That the most resilient occupants of tropical forests are small villages of poison dart-blowing hunter-gatherers. And that vicious vines and towering trees – or, in the case of The Jungle Book, a boisterous army of monkeys – will inevitably claw any significant human achievement back into the suffocating green whence it came. This idea has been boosted by books and films that focus on the collapse of particularly enigmatic societies such as the Classic Maya. The decaying stone walls, the empty grand structures and the deserted streets of these tropical urban leftovers act as a tragic warning that our own way of life is not as secure as we would like to assume.

For a long time, western scholars took a similar view of the potential of tropical forests to sustain ancient cities. On the one hand, intensive agriculture, seen as necessary to fuel the growth of cities and powerful social elites, has been considered impossible on the wet, acidic, nutrient-poor soils of tropical forests. On the other, where the rubble of cities cannot be denied, in the drier tropics of North and Central America, south Asia and south-east Asia, ecological catastrophe has been seen as inevitable. Deforestation to make way for massive buildings and growing populations, an expansion of agriculture across marginal soils, as well as natural disasters such as mudslides, flooding and drought, must have made tropical cities a big challenge at best, and a fool’s gambit at worst.

Overhauling these stereotypes has been difficult. For one thing, the kind of large, multiyear field explorations usually undertaken on the sites of ancient cities are especially hard in tropical forests. Dense vegetation, mosquito-borne disease, poisonous plants and animals and torrential rain have made it arduous to find and excavate past urban centres. Where organic materials, rather than stone, might have been used as a construction material, the task becomes even more taxing. As a result, research into past tropical urbanism has lagged behind similar research in Mesopotamia and Egypt and the sweeping river valleys of east Asia.

Yet many tropical forest societies found immensely successful methods of food production, in even the most challenging of circumstances, which could sustain impressively large populations and social structures. The past two decades of archaeological exploration, applying the latest science from the land and the air, have stripped away canopies to provide new, more favourable assessments.

Not only did societies such as the Classic Maya and the Khmer empire of Cambodia flourish, but pre-colonial tropical cities were actually some of the most extensive urban landscapes anywhere in the pre-industrial world – far outstripping ancient Rome, Constantinople/Istanbul and the ancient cities of China.

Ancient tropical cities could be remarkably resilient, sometimes surviving many centuries longer than colonial- and industrial-period urban networks in similar environments. Although they could face immense obstacles, and often had to reinvent themselves to beat changing climates and their own exploitation of the surrounding landscape, they also developed completely new forms of what a city could be, and perhaps should be.

Extensive, interspersed with nature and combining food production with social and political function, these ancient cities are now catching the eyes of 21st-century urban planners trying to come to grips with tropical forests as sites of some of the fastest-growing human populations around the world today…

They may be vine-smothered ruins today, but the lost cities of the ancient tropics still have a lot to teach us about how to live alongside nature. Dr. Roberts (@palaeotropics) explains: “The real urban jungle: how ancient societies reimagined what cities could be,” adapted from his new book, Jungle: How Tropical Forests Shaped the World – and Us.

* John Ruskin

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As we acclimate, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to Sir Karl Raimund Popper; he was born on this date in 1902.  One of the greatest philosophers of science of the 20th century, Popper is best known for his rejection of the classical inductivist views on the scientific method, in favor of empirical falsification: a theory in the empirical sciences can never be proven, but it can be falsified, meaning that it can and should be scrutinized by decisive experiments.  (Or more simply put, whereas classical inductive approaches considered hypotheses false until proven true, Popper reversed the logic: conclusions drawn from an empirical finding are true until proven false.)

Popper was also a powerful critic of historicism in political thought, and (in books like The Open Society and Its Enemies and The Poverty of Historicism) an enemy of authoritarianism and totalitarianism (in which role he was a mentor to George Soros).

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