The ancient city of Angkor was packed with people

Artistic interpretation of daily life inside the fourth enclosure of Angkor Wat, late 12th century.

Artistic interpretation of daily life inside the fourth enclosure of Angkor Wat, late 12th century.
Drawing: Tom Chandler, Mike Yeates, Chandara Ung and Brent McKee, Monash University, 2021

Angkor, in present-day Cambodia, was one of the most populous cities in the world from the 9th to 15th centuries AD. That said, archaeologists have a hard time knowing how many people actually lived the. A full new study may have finally answered the question, claiming that the ancient city was a bustling metropolis.

The Greater Angkor region was home to between 700,000 and 900,000 people at its peak in the 13th century CE, according to research published today in Science Advances. This makes Angkor, the capital of the Khmer Empire, one of the largest pre-modern settlements in human history.

“Determining ancient populations of archaeological sites is a fundamental task for archaeologists,” said Sarah Klassen, archaeologist at Leiden University and co-author of the new study, in an email. “While our research team had worked at Angkor for decades, no one had yet decided to tackle this fundamental question,” said Klassen, who conducted most of this work while a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia.

In an email, Alison Carter, assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Oregon and co-author of the study, said: “ It was only with the recent lidar investigations and Sarah’s machine learning algorithm work that we felt we had a large enough data set to address the issue more fully. “

Indeed, with the recent lidar surveys, in which the lasers were used to create three-dimensional maps of surface features, the team had access to 30 years value of archaeological excavation data, radiocarbon dates, historical records and maps. Klassen’s computer algorithm was used to predict the chronology of ancient sites in the city, such as old houses and temples. Together, the multiple data sources have helped chronicle of Angkor’s growth over time.

The temple of Angkor Wat, in the north-west of Cambodia.

The temple of Angkor Wat, in the north-west of Cambodia.
Picture: Heng Sinith (AP)

“I was amazed at the level of demographic, chronological and geographic detail we were able to get by combining all of these different data sets into a cohesive framework,” Klassen said.

Carter’s contribution was to use archaeological data to estimate the size of a typical domestic space.

“An easy way to estimate the population is to count houses and estimate the number of people who lived in those household spaces,” Carter said. “In Angkor, it’s difficult, because people built their houses with organic materials which did not survive in Cambodia’s humid climate. However, the lidar clearly showed the mountainous areas where people were building their homes.

Examples of contemporary Cambodian houses.  The house in the foreground is made of wood and thatch.

Examples of contemporary Cambodian houses. The house in the foreground is made of wood and thatch.
Picture: Alison carter

Additionally, Carter and his colleagues conducted several fieldwork sessions on residential mounds surrounding the Angkor Wat temple, each of which which measure approximately 6,450 square feet (600 square meters). Based on this fieldwork, the team believe there was a house for each mound. The ethnographic data provided an estimate of five people per house, “from there we could start plugging the numbers into an equation,” Carter said. And because the amount of mound space was known for each period, scientists could track population growth and changes in population density over time.

Results show Rome, uh, Angkor, wasn’t built in a day because it took hundreds of years for the city to reach its 13thpeak of the century. Moreover, population growth was not linear, occurring at different rates in the three different occupation zones: the civic-ceremonial center (which houses members of the royal family and other elites), the zone metropolitan and embankments.

“It was great to get the numbers to really quantify how huge Angkor was. We could always say it was a huge sprawling city, but it adds another layer, ”Carter said. “The timing and growth of the different parts of the city really fascinates me. It was incredible to see that downtown Angkor only reached its densest occupation in the later periods.

She suspects that particular rulers or historical events have contributed to the city’s growth in various ways.

Excavation of trenches in the trees at Angkor Wat.

Excavation of trenches in the trees at Angkor Wat.
Picture: Alison carter

Carter was struck by Angkor’s size and scale. As a result, “we can learn a lot about urban planning and the development and sustainability of cities by studying this site,” she said. Carter was also surprised by “how quickly the agriculture-based metropolitan area grew early in the city’s development,” adding that we “tend to think of cities by their” downtown “to high density, but in Angkor this metropolitan area was a key component. of the city too.

Interestingly, the estimate of 700,000 to 900,000 residents at the height of the city is consistent with other research. University of Sydney archaeologist Eileen Lustig previously estimated a population of between 750,000 and 1,000,000 people, a number based on rice productivity and the carrying capacity of the landscape.

“Our numbers are pretty close to his, so I think we’re on to something,” Carter said.

Density of people per hectare in the Greater Angkor region over time.

Density of people per hectare in the Greater Angkor region over time.
Picture: Sarah Klassen / Scientific advances

The peak population density in Angkor is comparable to those observed in Teotihuacan in Mexico and in Anyang in China (two large pre-modern city centers), but still lower than Caracol, a 7th-century Mayan city in what is now Belize.

“My biggest fear is that all the headlines say, ‘A million people lived in Angkor’, and that’s not what our work says at all.” Carter mentionned. “We think at its peak there were between 700,000 and 900,000 inhabitants, but I think the number was probably closer to 700,000 than to 900,000.”

The reason for this (reasonably) large estimate, explained Carter, has to do with the uncertainties in the way certain spaces have been inhabited, like the embankment, which “remains a big question mark for me and needs to be refined,” she said.

In terms of limits, Klassen said they had to make a lot of assumptions, but those that were “Strongly supported.

“Ultimately, this paper represents the work of a collection of archaeologists who have worked in this field – some for decades – combining our data, arguing back and forth and making deals on what we think. be the most robust method to calculate the population of Angkor given what we currently know about the site, ”explained Klassen. “This, of course, sets the stage for decades of work that will refine and reorganize these assumptions,” she said, adding that “the nature of scientific research, and it’s pretty exciting to be a part of it.

Carter said this was only a “model” and will need to be tested with more research.

An exciting aspect of this research is that the method the team used could now be used to study other ancient cities. The new findings will also improve our understanding of social complexity, particularly in large urban settings.

“This work represents a crucial cornerstone that enables us to move beyond traditional ‘historical’ research questions,” Klassen said. “With this fine level of detail on how humans have aggregated into the landscape over hundreds of years, how urban centers have formed, and how work has been divided across the landscape, we can begin to ask questions relevant to contemporary society, ”namely questions related to human mobility, land value and, above all, the question of whether “we can create resilient urban systems”.

After: One of the oldest cities in the world has seen surprisingly modern problems.

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