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November 11, 2020 54 min

The modern world has a way of distancing itself from everything that came before it…and yet the evidence from archaeology supports a different story. While industrial societies tend to praise markets and advanced technologies as the main drivers of the last few centuries of change, a careful study of civilizations as distinct as Ancient Rome, Peru, and Central Mexico reveals an underlying uniformity. Consistent patterns have played out in human settlements across millennia and continents, regardless of the economic systems we’ve employed or the inventions on which we’ve relied. These patterns, furthermore, look just like those that govern and delimit evolutionary change; the scaling laws determining the growth of cities are, apparently, the same that led to cities in the first place, or to human social groups, or complex animals. Human settlements act as social reactors, by facilitating interactions — in other words, the functional relationships within communities drive history, and this century has more in common with the distant past than commonly believed.

These revelations, though, might have remained invisible to us if archaeology itself had not transformed over the last few decades, evolving new approaches to cross-disciplinary synthesis. It’s time to update both our notions of the ancient world and our popular conception of the archaeologist…

Welcome to COMPLEXITY, the official podcast of the Santa Fe Institute. I’m your host, Michael Garfield, and every other week we’ll bring you with us for far-ranging conversations with our worldwide network of rigorous researchers developing new frameworks to explain the deepest mysteries of the universe.

This week we talk to Former SFI Omidyar Fellow Scott Ortman, Associate Professor of Anthropology at The University of Colorado Boulder, about his work on settlement scaling theory and fostering synthesis in archaeology to advance science and benefit society.

If you value our research and communication efforts, please consider making a donation at — and/or rating and reviewing us at Apple Podcasts. You can find numerous other ways to engage with us at Thank you for listening!

Check out Scott’s CU Boulder Website and Google Scholar Page for more information and links to the research papers and opinion pieces we discuss in this episode.

For more on universal scaling laws and the science of cities, revisit these earlier episodes of COMPLEXITY:

4 — Luis Bettencourt

10 — Melanie Moses

17 — Chris Kempes

33 — Tim Kohler & Marten Scheffer

35 — Geoffrey West

36 — Geoffrey West

Join our Facebook discussion group to meet like minds and talk about each episode.

Podcast theme music by Mitch Mignano.

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