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Professor’s latest book examines the history of cities

Photo of Monica Smith

Monica Smith. Photo credit: Paul Connor

The only thing a person really needs to be an archaeologist is a good sense of observation, UCLA professor of anthropology Monica Smith proclaims in her most recent book, “Cities: The First 6,000 Years.”

Advanced degrees and research experience are useful of course, but successful fieldwork is rooted in “noticing,” she said.

Archaeologists are always looking down noticing traces of what’s been left behind, and the stories detritus can tell, she said. These days at UCLA that might mean traces of glitter bombs launched by graduates during the last several weeks.

“We walk along and there’s all this glitter on the ground, and even though it gets cleaned away, you can never get it all so then you start to see little traces of glitter everywhere, because people are tracking it on their shoes all around campus,” Smith said. “We’re not only walking through an archaeological site, we’re making one.”

Smith is amused at the thought of future archaeologists encountering and interpreting the meaning behind those trace elements of shimmer in the dust around this particular area in one of Earth’s largest cities.

In vivid style, Smith’s latest book examines ways in which human civilization has organized itself into city life during the last 6,000 years, a relatively short time span in the grand scheme of human existence. Today, more than half of the world’s population resides in cities, and that number will continue to grow. But that wasn’t always so.

In “Cities,” Smith tracks the ways metropolitan hubs in different parts of the world emerged unrelated to one another, but in eerily similar forms, revealing the inherent similarities of humans’ needs regardless of what part of the world their civilization evolved.

“I started asking myself, ‘Why do these places all look the same even though they’re different times, different areas, different cultures and different languages?’” she said. “What is it about our human cognitive capacity that leads us to have the same form over and over and over again?”

She imagines how the first Spanish warriors to arrive in Cuzco in Peru, or Tenochtitlan in present day Mexico City, encountered the layout of ancient Inca and A

ztec cities, with shops and open squares and marketplaces resembling what they would see at home — despite the cultures never having had contact before.

“The similarities suggest that humans developed cities because it was the only way for a large number of people to live together in a single place where they could all get something new they wanted, whether that was a job, entertainment, medical care or education,” Smith said.

For the purposes of her analysis, Smith defines a city as a place with a dense population of multiple ethnicities; a diverse economy with an abundant variety of readily available goods; buildings and spaces of religion or ritual; a vertical building landscape that encompasses residential homes, courts, schools and government offices; formal entertainment venues; open grounds and multipurpose spaces; broad avenues and thoroughfares for movement.

Before cities, the human population was scattered across larger agrarian swaths, with families having everything they needed to survive in their own homes. People would come together for trading festivals or sacred ceremonies. These most likely began to last longer and longer, Smith said, creating a permanent collective settlement around places conducive to providing food, water, shelter and entertainment. Humans essentially took the bold step of living away from their immediate food supply to live in cities among larger groups of other humans.

Takeout food vendors have been a staple of cities stretching about as far back as you can get, with evidence of takeout food in ancient cities like Pompeii and Angkor, Smith notes in her book.

And cities allowed for the evolution of all kinds of new jobs and enterprises — bookkeeping, the service industry and managers — constituting a newly emergent middle class that found new opportunities to thrive in dense populations.

Some aspects of city life accelerated long-standing tendencies. Humans are a unique species in the animal kingdom due to our deep dependence on objects, a fact that aids archeologists in their work of noticing. Ancient cities also struggled with some of the same things we do in modern times — trash for example, Smith said.

“We think of ourselves as bad modern people because we have all this trash,” Smith said. “But everyone everywhere has trash. Ancient cities are full of trash. Modern cities are full of trash because people want more stuff.”

Archaeologists are obsessed with trash, Smith said. They learn much and encounter new questions from what was considered disposable to our ancestors.

Smith’s book also offers a descriptive window into day-to-day life on an archaeological dig, sharing challenges and the excitement of new technologies that help identify potential dig sites. People working to excavate subway tunnels and building foundations in modern Athens, Rome, Mexico City, Istanbul, Paris and other places are constantly finding new evidence of these metropolises’ earliest incarnations.

Much like current generations of young adults and children who cannot imagine a world without the internet, cities are here to stay, Smith said.

“From this point forward, there is no way that humans can live without urbanism, there is no ‘going back to the land,’” she said. “We can take a sort of comfort in the fact that the challenges we face like infrastructure, transportation, water sourcing, pollution and trash have essentially been a part of city life from the very beginning.”

Smith said one of the goals of her writing is to inspire people to think of cities as dynamic and adaptable.

“We can work to make cities not only more efficient, but more equitable, in the sense of social justice and greater opportunities for larger numbers of people, along with greater diversity,” she said. “Cities are not just inherited configurations, but are places with potential for growing into the better societies that we wish for ourselves and others.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

The stone faces and human problems on Easter Island

Photo of Jo Anne Van Tilburg, right, and Cristián Arévalo Pakarati.

Jo Anne Van Tilburg, right, and Cristián Arévalo Pakarati. Photo credit: Easter Island Statue Project

In 1981, archaeology graduate student Jo Anne Van Tilburg first set foot on the island of Rapa Nui, commonly called Easter Island, eager to further her interest in rock art by studying the iconic stone heads that enigmatically survey the landscape.

At the time, Van Tilburg was one of just a few thousand people who would visit Rapa Nui each year. Although the island remains one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world, a surge in visitors has placed its delicate ecosystem and archaeological treasures in jeopardy.

“When I went to Easter Island for the first time in ’81, the number of people who visited per year was about 2,500,” said Van Tilburg, director of the Easter Island Statue Project, the longest collaborative artifact inventory ever conducted on the Polynesian island that’s part of Chile. “As of last year the number of tourists who arrived was 150,000.”

Journalist Anderson Cooper interviewed Van Tilburg on the island for a segment that aired Easter Sunday on CBS’ 60 Minutes. Cooper spoke with Van Tilburg about efforts to preserve the moai (pronounced MO-eye) — the monolithic stone statues that were carved and placed on the island from around 1100 to 1400 and whose stoic faces have fascinated the world for decades. In 1995, UNESCO named Easter Island a World Heritage Site, with much of the island protected within Rapa Nui National Park.

Van Tilburg, who is research associate at the UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archaeology and director of UCLA’s Rock Art Archive since 1997, was the first archaeologist since the 1950s to obtain permission to excavate the moai, granted from Chile’s National Council of Monuments and the Rapa Nui National Park, with the Rapa Nui community and in collaboration with the National Center of Conservation and Restoration, Santiago de Chile.

She has spent nearly four decades listening, learning, establishing connections, making covenants with the elders of Rapanui society and reporting extensively on her findings. Major funding has been provided by the Archaeological Institute of America Site Preservation Fund.

“I think my patience and diligence were rewarded,” she said. “They saw me all those years getting really dirty doing the work.”

Photo of Anderson Cooper of 60 Minutes interviews Van Tilburg.

Anderson Cooper of 60 Minutes interviews Van Tilburg. Photo credit: Keith Sharman.

Bringing together research and teaching

Van Tilburg credits the sustained support of UCLA’s Cotsen Institute as critical to her work on the island. She regularly includes both UCLA undergraduates from a variety of academic disciplines and passionate volunteers in the hands-on work on Rapa Nui.

Van Tilburg, who received her doctorate in archaeology from UCLA in 1989, is working on a book project that will harness her massive archive as an academic atlas of the island. She used the proceeds of a previous book to invest in local businesses, the Mana Gallery and Mana Gallery Press, both of which highlight indigenous artists. She also helped the local community rediscover their canoe-making history through the 1995 creation of the Rapa Nui Outrigger Club.

Her co-director on the Easter Island Statue Project, Cristián Arévalo Pakarati, is Rapanui and a graphic artist by trade. Van Tilburg exclusively employs islanders for her excavation work. She’s traveled the world helping catalog items from the island that are now housed in museums like the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and the British Museum in London. Van Tilburg does this to assist repatriation efforts.

Culture and environment at risk

Her work is important to the 5,700 residents of the island, who also are coping with increasing waves of tourists into their fragile ecosystem, Van Tilburg said. Only in the last decade or so have they been given governance of the national park where the moai are located.

“But by Rapa Nui standards, on an island where electricity is provided by a generator, water is precious and depleted, and all the infrastructure is stressed, 150,000 annual visitors is a mob,” she said.

What’s more disheartening are travelers who ignore the rules and climb on the moai, trample preserved spaces and sit on top of graves, all in service of getting a photo of themselves picking the nose of an ancient artifact, Van Tilburg said.

Hierarchy and inequity in Rapanui society

Van Tilburg’s original impetus behind studying the moai is rooted in her curiosity about migration, marginalized people and how societies rise and fall.

Rapanui society was traditionally hierarchical, led by a class of people who believed themselves God-appointed elites. These leaders dictated where the lower classes could live and how they would work to provide food for the elites and the population at large.

The ruling class also determined how and when the moai – used as the backdrop for exchange and ceremony – would be built.

“This inherently institutionalized religious hierarchy produced an inequitable society,” Van Tilburg said. “They were very successful in the sense that their population grew. But they were unsuccessful at understanding that unless they managed what they had better, and more fairly, that there was no future.”

Population growth and rampant inequity in a fragile environment eventually led to wrenching societal changes, she said. Internal collapse (as outlined in UCLA professor Jared Diamond’s book Collapse), along with colonization and slave-trading in the 1800s, caused the population of Rapa Nui to drop to just 111 in the 1870s.

As an anthropologist, Van Tilburg is concerned with equity.

“I’m interested in asking why we keep replicating societies in which people are not equal, because in doing so, we initiate a crisis,” she said. “Inequity is at the heart of our human problems.”

Anthropology alumna’s gift makes research travel a reality for the department’s graduate students

A UCLA alumna who has spent much of her life galloping around the globe has given $100,000 to establish an endowment in support of graduate student travel in the UCLA College’s Department of Anthropology.

Dorothy Jewell, who graduated in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, said that she hopes the Dorothy H. Jewell Graduate Student Travel Award Endowment will help students experience cultures outside their own.

“The experience of immersing oneself in various cultures is what anthropology is all about,” Jewell said. “We can’t be ethnocentric.”

Specifically, graduate students in biological, linguistic and sociocultural anthropology will be given access to the travel stipends, allowing them to deepen their research beyond campus.

“UCLA is a highly rated institution that through its concentration on research makes our world better equipped to meet the future,” Jewell said. “I’m proud to help students prepare for that future.”

Jewell, who as a non-traditional student enrolled at UCLA when she was 55, had already travelled to around 80 countries before deciding to pursue her undergraduate degree.

After living in parts of Europe and Africa for months on end, including the time she slept under a eucalyptus tree on a Moroccan beach for seven months, two UCLA professors advised her to move beyond her community college courses and pursue a degree in anthropology at the university.

“I had already been living this anthropological experience,” she recalls them telling her. “They recommended I make the anthropology direction more official.”

Jewell always had an adventurous spirit. Following high school, she left her native Canada for what she thought would be a brief tour of Europe then never looked back. She met her late husband – also a UCLA graduate – in Norway when he was working on location for Disney, and they eventually settled in Los Angeles for his work in the film industry and hers in the travel business. Having discovered the riches that come with experiencing other cultures, Jewell continues to explore the world. Her next destination is Tanzania.

“Travel is an important part of my life, partly due to this nomad aspect of my personality that seemed to manifest itself when I left Canada,” Jewell said. “I originally went to Europe and Africa for six months and it turned into five years.  And ever since, I’ve had to have my travel fix.”

Jewell’s gift will now make those experiences possible to emerging anthropology scholars at UCLA.

“Seeing firsthand how other cultures and societies function is a vital part of being a successful anthropologist,” said Nancy Levine, professor and chair in the Department of Anthropology. “Ms. Jewell’s gift ensures that a new generation of anthropologists will emerge with the experiences needed to develop impactful and meaningful research.”