Urban Studies Precolonial Urbanisms
Monika Baumanová
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0040


Urbanism as a phenomenon of human culture has been a popular theme for research in many academic disciplines, including architecture, anthropology, archaeology, sociology, and geography. Near Eastern and European case studies served as the ultimate definition of urbanism well into the 1980s and inspired the compilation of several “trait lists,” which were used to classify precolonial settlements in the rest of the world. However, as a consequence of this tendency which dominated academic research, many cultural traditions recognized as urban today and multiple forms of built environment were for a long time denied their urban status. This is especially the case of precolonial towns and cities of the Global South, which importance was downplayed and misinterpreted, also for political reasons, in the colonial and early postcolonial era. This article reverses the traditional approach and in terms of regional works, it focuses specifically on the precolonial urban traditions that may be found in the Americas, Africa, and South and East Asia, while the traditions of Europe, Egypt, and the Near East are mentioned only for comparison. The geographical areas discussed here have been most intensively studied by archaeologists, who collect and analyze the material evidence with the ever-increasing use of interdisciplinary approaches. Today, this research highlights the global variety of cultural heritage, human experience, as well as the multitude of unique forms and structures of cities that flourished outside of and/or preceded modern European colonial influence. A range of theoretical stances and methodological approaches have been developed that strive to uncover the unique aspects of urbanisms that developed independently of the era of modern European colonialism, such as social organization, economics, architectural styles, cultural traditions or sensory perception. There have also been developments in the field of comparative approaches that highlight and reflect on the underlying aspects of urbanism. On their basis, we could arrive at understanding the built environment as representation of social configurations and traditions.

General Overviews

The best general overviews currently available are represented by volumes that adopt a global perspective and which are continually updated and reproduced in new editions, as well as new monographs providing cutting-edge viewpoints. The monographs Fisher and Creekmore 2014 and Scarre 2018 present a truly global scope, which today serve students and professionals from multiple fields. Volumes like Gates 2011 and Clark 2013 can be contrasted in their disciplinary perspectives, both providing views on the ancient urban past of regions in a geographical neighborhood of Europe; the former focuses on materiality of the built environment and the latter presents past developments almost exclusively based on written records. While Marcus and Sabloff 2008 contributes to comparative research, historical and archaeological interpretations like Brunn, et al. 2020 rightly inform current developments and shape scientific outlooks into the future. Sinclair, et al. 2010 exemplifies the opening up of new vistas in theoretical research.

  • Brunn, Stanley D., Donald J. Zeigler, Maureen Hays-Mitchell, and Jessica K. Graybill. Cities of the World: Regional Patterns and Urban Environments. 7th ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020.

    A comprehensive general review, which focuses mostly on present-day cities and their future prospects. However, it also considers the past and, in many cases, precolonial developments of urbanism, e.g., in the Americas, and provides reflections on the nature of colonial impact on urbanism in each region. It includes contributions from the fields of historical geography, history and urban studies.

  • Clark, Peter, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Cities in World History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    Although written from the perspective of historians and somewhat disregarding the importance of archaeological studies, which are crucial for understanding precolonial urbanism in most of the world, this volume represents an easily accessible work with detailed reference lists for follow-up reading on individual regions. It is especially useful for its overview of urban histories in Europe, the Near East, and Asia, including discussions of urban economy and the environment.

  • Fisher, Kevin D., and Andrew Creekmore, eds. Making Ancient Cities: Space and Place in Early Urban Societies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

    In terms of precolonial cities, this book introduces especially East Africa and the Americas. As for the general theme of early urbanism, it takes examples from all continents. Especially the introductory chapter by the editors and the second chapter on the cities in Upper Mesopotamia are excellent introductions into the local issues, as well as to the general present-day thinking about urbanisms, which are preserved mostly through material/archaeological evidence.

  • Gates, Charles. Ancient Cities: The Archaeology of Urban Life in the Ancient Near East and Egypt, Greece, and Rome. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2011.

    Although the popularity of this volume is still limited to the field of archaeology, it deserves a much greater attention by those who wish to understand socio-spatial causalities of urban developments in the Mediterranean in premodern times.

  • Marcus, Joyce, and Jeremy A. Sabloff. The Ancient City: New Perspectives on Urbanism in the Old and New World. Santa Fe, N.M.: School for Advanced Research Press, 2008.

    Although slightly outdated now, this overview presents features that characterized early urbanism on each continent, focusing on comparing the trajectories of the Old and New Worlds. The reader gets a perspective on how in some regions, urbanism may have relied on relations with the countryside, while elsewhere cities were centers of cult or administration. The authors discuss the various extent to which they were planned and how power management was reflected in the urban structure.

  • Scarre, Christopher, ed. The Human Past: World Prehistory and the Development of Human Societies. London: Thames & Hudson, 2018.

    This book presents an inclusive overview of developments across all continents, which may serve as an introduction to processes that ultimately led to varied types of urbanism around the world. The arguments are presented from a long-term perspective and do not discuss urbanism as such, but allow the reader to grasp the importance of environmental considerations as well as the interrelatedness of factors that spurred urbanism on a global scale.

  • Sinclair, Paul, Gullög Nordquist, Frands Herschend, and Christian Isendahl, eds. The Urban Mind: Cultural and Environmental Dynamics. Uppsala, Sweden: Uppsala University, 2010.

    This is a landmark publication which resulted from a project on precolonial urbanism undertaken at Uppsala University and contains case studies from various continents, especially from Africa and the Mediterranean. It focuses on precolonial, classical, and preindustrial cities. The individual studies are concerned with issues like urban layouts and socio-spatial organization, and present arguments for both qualitative and quantitative methods of urban analyses used in archaeology.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.