Prior to one of the world’s largest medieval cities being abandoned, close to a million people lived there.
Cambodia’s Greater Angkor region thrived between the 9th and 15th centuries and especially during its peak in the 13th century. During that time, between 700,000 and 900,000 people inhabited a wide area. More specifically, about 750,000 people resided in an area about 1,000 square kilometers in the central part of Angkor. This means that the capital city of the Khmer Empire was one of the biggest pre-modern settlements in all of history.
The location is famously known for its stone temples and especially Angkor Wat. Located past the stone temples were houses that were built with organic materials. Thanks to lidar technology, experts were able to pinpoint exactly where the houses were located – on top of mounds and elevated with posts. It is believed that five people lived in these houses at one time. (Pictures can be seen here.)
The lidar surveys consisted of lasers that made 3D maps of the ground’s surface in addition to the team analyzing 30 years worth of data from archaeological searches, historical documents, maps, and radiocarbon dating.
The city was quite wide-spread, measuring about 3,000 square kilometers (1,158 square miles). A lot of the food they ate would have been grown in the outer areas of the region. Experts claim that it took hundreds of years in order for the city to reach its peak. Furthermore, the increase in population occurred in three different areas – the civic-ceremonial center (when royal families and the elite lived there), the metropolitan area, and the embankments.
Alison K. Carter, who is an archaeologist at the University of Oregon and who has performed fieldwork in Cambodia since 2005, talked about the population estimate, “We looked at the growth of the city of Angkor over time.” “We found that different parts of the city grew in different ways. The way we think about population growth in cities and suburbs today is probably the same for Angkor.”
As for its abandonment, this is a foggy area as there are several theories regarding what actually happened to cause its downfall. One popular theory is that diseases may have had an effect on the population as well as the monsoon seasons. Another option was that the ancient population couldn’t maintain the irrigation system that was so desperately needed to keep the city going. The vulnerability of the city would have made it easier for the Siamese Empire to take over the area which ultimately led to the majority of the inhabitants abandoning the city.
The study was published in Science Advances where it can be read in full.