The detritus of human habitation—mostly yellow clay potsherds—reveal that Tell Brak, an ancient city in northeastern Syria, urbanized more than 7,000 years ago and boasted suburbs likely filled with immigrants as far back as 6,200 years ago. In fact, rather than an ancient ruler willing a city into existence, the potsherds of Brak tell a story of a metropolis that grew as people, for their own reasons, flocked to it.

The mound, or tell, at Brak rises 40 meters (131 feet) from the plain, solely as a result of human habitation—one layer of city rising on top of the one that proceeded it. Covering 40 hectares (99 acres), this city center is surrounded by roughly 300 hectares (741 acres) that show signs of urban living. By analyzing 55,000 clay potsherds brought to the surface by local agriculture, archaeologist Jason Ur of Harvard University and his colleagues show that the city center was ringed by suburban settlements as early as 4200 B.C.

This suburban sprawl spread the city at Tell Brak over 55 hectares (136 acres) at a time when other settlements throughout Mesopotamia rarely exceeded three hectares (7.4 acres). "The population that suddenly appeared in these satellites would be greater than what we would expect from natural population growth," Ur says. "The spatial distance is probably connected to social or political distance being maintained."

Unlike the traditional first cities of southern Mesopotamia, such as Uruk, where land was tightly controlled by a central authority and bounded by walls, the northern Mesopotamian metropolis at Tell Brak shows a more haphazard, perhaps squatter-promoted, growth pattern. "Satellite communities wanted to be part of this place but they were not prepared to give up all of their autonomy and that is expressed in this spatial distance," Ur says. "People [were] coming to this place for their own internal reasons rather than being coerced from the top."

And that points to a different story for the founding of the first cities than has traditionally been told. "Kings were quick to take credit for founding cities," Ur continues. "We're taking royal inscriptions at their word, which could be a bad thing to do."

Once established, these suburbs then expanded inward toward the city center as it grew out to meet them by 3900 B.C., perhaps as the city became known as a place where immigrants could make a living and feed their families, primarily by farming wheat and barley or raising sheep, goats or cattle.

All told, the city swelled to cover 130 hectares (321 acres) by 3400 B.C. It boasted an elaborately decorated temple, hosts of craftsmen and some form of elite, according to the paper presenting the potsherd evidence in Science. And the evidence for the arrival of southern Mesopotamians in the region at this time may simply show the draw of a vital immigrant city or some form of merchant colony, archaeologist Joan Oates of the University of Cambridge and her colleagues argued in a paper published earlier this year in Antiquity.

But even if Tell Brak did not remain a vital urban center—a fact that allowed the potsherds to tell this ancient story—it certainly was among the first to merit the title of city. "It achieved a scale we would call urban at least as early, if not earlier than, Uruk, which is generally considered to be the world's first city," Ur says. "[Urbanism] may have happened in more than one place in the Near East."