Cities and towns since the dawn of agriculture sprawl with a common dependence on only a few key, and related, factors: population size versus space, and the costs of movement vis a vis the benefits of socioeconomic interactions. 

These interrelationships result in familiar patterns of land use and densification that are apparent in cities today. On the other hand, even though some rival the population of a medium-sized modern village, large seasonal encampments of hunter-gatherers look vastly different.


Participants in a February 8–9 SFI working group are attempting to make sense of these two distinct patterns of settlement.

“We’re trying to understand how we went from hunter-gatherers to what we have today,” says anthropologist and SFI External Professor Scott Ortman (CU Boulder). He is co-organizing the meeting with José Lobo (Arizona State University), SFI Professor Luís Bettencourt, and Michael Smith (ASU).

“We are asking whether these observable changes in settlement patterns are the sign of a fundamental change in human sociality, the cusp between a foraging lifestyle and modern urbanism,” says Bettencourt.

The organizers’ “social reactor” hypothesis proffers that the costs that escalate as people crowd together—such as conflict, transportation delays, and high prices—must be offset by the increased frequency of positive socioeconomic interactions. But this calculus seems not to apply to prehistoric or contemporary hunter-gatherers.

“Whether your neighbors live in lean-tos, tepees, or igloos,” Ortman says, “you will be looking at them across a distance that grows larger the more people assemble together.”

Ortman says participants are going to hear from people who have experienced hunter-gatherers camps first-hand. The goal is to find new ways to identify possible societal transitions between a stable but basic foraging way of life to settlement systems.

“Where better to look than where people choose to ‘pitch their tents’?” Bettencourt says.

Read more about the working group "Phase Transitions in Human Sociality".