Secret to this ancient city’s success was collectivism, study finds
A temple in Monte Albán. Image: Craig Lovell via Getty Images
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Monte Albán, an ancient Mesoamerican city in Mexico’s Oaxaca Valley, flourished for 1,300 years, from its founding around 500 BC to its decline around 800 CE. Perched on a strategic hill, the city was home to tens of thousands of people at its peak and was the major hub of this influential region, despite the fact that the surrounding area was not replete with fertile farmland. Something other than farming must have drawn people to the city, and a husband-and-wife research team thinks they have the answer.
Archaeologists Linda Nicholas and Gary Feinman suggest that the secret to Monte Albán’s success and longevity was a collectivist approach to government and relatively low levels of social inequality, an argument which is supported by multiple sources of evidence from its ruins. , according to a study published on Tuesday in Frontiers in political science. In this way, Monte Albán came to power with a bottom-up political structure, unlike his more autocratic contemporaries, making him a useful case study even for modern societies.
“Throughout its history, Monte Albán hasn’t had stark differences, whether you look at health, house size, or access to certain types of artifacts,” said Gary Feinman, MacArthur curator of anthropology at the Field Museum in Chicago and a co-author of the study, in an appeal.
“When we say that it was a relatively collective governance, we are not saying that it was utopian or totally egalitarian, and everyone was equal in a commune,” he noted. “There were clearly people who were a little bit better off than others and there were clearly people who were office holders or leaders or coordinators even from the beginning because it couldn’t that you couldn’t not having so many people making a decision without some kind of leadership. But our view is that power was not concentrated in an individual or even in a family; it was more of what we would call distributed power.
Feinman and lead author Linda Nicholas, assistant curator at the Field Museum, draw on their decades of experience exploring and excavating Monte Albán, as well as a wealth of published research, to paint a vivid picture. of an ancient city that flourished economically and attracted a diverse population without despotic coercion or entrenched ruling dynasties.
The prosocial nature of the colony is evident from its inception; its hilltop location was flattened into a vast main plaza large enough to accommodate public gatherings. The square was clearly used for community rituals and its monuments were not reserved for the ruling class, unlike the ancient cities which contain extravagant temples and tombs which were off-limits to the average resident.
During this time, the slopes of the hill were transformed into terraced houses for its population that would have required cooperation to develop and maintain, which is just one of many indications of the deep social bonds between the inhabitants of the city over the centuries. Archaeological excavations have revealed that its lower classes lived in houses made of the same adobe materials as its elites, as opposed to the mud hovels seen in other colonies, and its population was not exposed to serious disparities in matters of health, food or possession of cultural artifacts. .
“We know from this pattern of dense settlement that these adjacent households were like a neighborhood where they were mutually interdependent,” Feinman said. “We also know from excavations of these households that they were economically interdependent, as different households tended to engage in different craft activities.”
“There must have been an economic interdependence that linked the houses of Monte Albán, and even the houses of the Monte Albán region, because the city may have struggled to feed itself during the very dry agricultural years, which are not not so rare in the Valley of Oaxaca,” he continued. “Whether you look bottom-up or top-down, the picture of governance suggests that it was relatively cooperative and collective. “
Monte Albán had elites who tended to live in larger houses in better locations near the main square, researchers say, but the extremes of wealth seen in many other ancient cities are not at all evident in its remains. . This collectivist approach appears to have even extended to the city’s spiritual life, which fostered a “supernatural unity” among its diverse inhabitants, according to the study. In other words, the city came together to worship mythological entities such as the rain god Cocijo, instead of members of prominent political dynasties.
Despite its 1,300-year reign, Monte Albán eventually deteriorated into a more autocratic society, a change that is evident in more ostentatious monuments and extremes of wealth that heralded the city’s eventual decline and abandonment towards 800 CE.
These themes may seem particularly timely at a time when much of the global community is embroiled in dangerous rivalries between autocratic and democratic models of government. Although it is not easy to make direct comparisons between past and present societies, Feinman and Nicholas believe that Monte Albán reveals broader insights into the stability and durability of civilizations, regardless of their historical context.
“Personally, I see a certain rhyme in this story,” Feinman said. “It’s more difficult as an archaeologist and social scientist to use this to prescribe, because I’m not in the policy business per se. But I think there are lessons here. At the deepest level, I think it changes some perspectives we have on the past.
“The premodern world, like the modern world, was not entirely autocratic,” he concluded. “There was variability in the organization of the past, just as there is temporal and spatial variability in the organization of the present. Therefore, the past is more of an introduction to the present than we might have thought.