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Roots of the Urban Mind

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Science  20 May 2016:
Vol. 352, Issue 6288, pp. 908-911
DOI: 10.1126/science.352.6288.908

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For the first 190,000 years of our history as a species, humans lived in small, mobile communities of up to a couple hundred individuals, in which everybody knew everybody else. Today, more than half of us live in cities, surrounded by multitudes of people we'll never meet. This radical change happened in an evolutionary eye blink: We navigate our modern world with Paleolithic brains. In the traditional view, agriculture was the crucial innovation that paved the way for cities. But overcoming food constraints is only part of the story, according to a new hypothesis on the origin of urban life. The first villagers also had to cope with the cognitive demands and social stresses created by living in the midst of strangers. And the solutions that Neolithic humans invented, or at least stumbled on, are key features of cities today. For example, architecture that designates certain spaces for certain types of social interactions helps people know what to expect when entering a new building. Material trappings like jewelry and pottery signal the social group and status of strangers. And religion and elaborate group cultural rituals, like singing or dancing together, act as social glue among people in large groups.

  • * Greg Miller is a science and technology journalist in Portland, Oregon.

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