An Ancient Recipe for Social Success

Conor here: The conclusions from this reexamination of societies based in and around Monte Albán seem especially relevant for us today: “Collective action and localized economic production are a recipe for sustainability and broader well-being. The Mesoamerican city of Monte Albán, which was a major regional urban center for 1,300 years, is a shining example. It is a powerful case study that early investments in public infrastructure and goods foster longer-term sustainability.”

The reasons for Monte Albán’s abandonment still haven’t been established.

By Linda M. Nicholas and Gary M. Feinman. Linda M. Nicholas is an adjunct curator of anthropology at the Negaunee Integrative Research Center at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois. Gary M. Feinman is the MacArthur curator of Mesoamerican, Central American, and East Asian anthropology, also at the Negaunee Integrative Research Center. The full study is available here.  Article originally published at Human Bridges, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

New evidence and understandings about the structure of successful early societies across Asia, Africa, and the Western Hemisphere are sweeping away the popular assumption that early societies tended toward autocracy and despotism.

Archaeology has a more valuable story to tell: Collective action and localized economic production are a recipe for sustainability and broader well-being. The Mesoamerican city of Monte Albán, which was a major regional urban center for 1,300 years, is a shining example. It is a powerful case study that early investments in public infrastructure and goods foster longer-term sustainability.

There is a rich vein of insight here for some of the most pressing challenges faced by humanity: billions of people living in poverty, and collapsing social structures in the developing world. And in the wealthy industrialized world, many are increasingly disillusioned by the flaws in our political and economic models.

But if we’re going to use the models from the ancient past, can we be confident about how early societies really operated?

Researchers have begun to identify archaeological evidence that works as indicators for political and social behaviors and institutions:

  • Is there evidence of extreme wealth disparity or equality in lifestyle or burial?
  • Does monumental architecture foster exclusivity (elite tombs, aggrandizing monuments, evidence of dynastic legitimation) or access (e.g., open plazas, wide access ways, community temples)?
  • Are palaces prominent or is it not clear where the leader resided?
  • Does art emphasize lineal descent, divine kingship, and royal patron deities or does it feature more abstract themes such as fertility or integrative cosmological principles?

There is a lot we can determine from a society’s tendency toward the first or second option in each of these questions about whether it was more autocratic or associated with collective/good governance.

In a study of 26 early urban centers in Mesoamerica, Monte Albán was one of 12 that was characterized as a collectively organized city based on a series of indicators. Prior to the city’s abandonment, Monte Albán was not highly unequal: there were few, if any, lavish tombs, no great caches of household riches or other evidence of extreme wealth differences, and no large, ornate palace that was unequivocally the ruler’s residence.

From early in the site’s history, the city’s core was centered on a large plaza that could have accommodated a significant proportion of the site’s population. Flattening the hill’s rocky top and then defining and creating this large open space entailed planning, coordination, and cooperation. Until very late in the city’s history, material representations of rulers were relatively rare, and there is an overall lack of ruler aggrandizement. During the city’s first four centuries (500–100 BCE), there were few depictions of seemingly important individuals or leaders. Rule was largely faceless.

How did it happen?

In this light, let’s travel to the early sedentary villages (c. 1500–500 BCE) in the Valley of Oaxaca—the largest expanse of flat land in Mexico’s Southern Highlands. They were situated on or near well-watered land.

Around 500 BCE, however, a new hilltop center, Monte Albán, was established at the nexus of the valley’s three arms, where agriculture was far riskier due to unreliable rainfall and a dearth of permanent water sources. During the era of its establishment, not only was Monte Albán larger than any earlier community in the region, but many other settlers moved into the rural area around Monte Albán.

This marked shift in settlement patterns and the underlying processes associated with the foundation of Monte Albán have long been debated. How can we account for the immigration of people, some likely from beyond the region itself, to an area where they faced greater risks of crop failure?

One perspective, reliant on uniform models of premodern states as despotic, viewed the process from a basically top-down lens; leaders coerced their subjects to move near the capital to provide sustenance for the new center.

Yet more recent research has found that governance at Monte Albán was generally more collective than autocratic, and in its growth period, productive activities were collective, centered in domestic units and not managed from above.

By the time Monte Albán was established in the Valley of Oaxaca, more than a thousand years had passed since foragers transitioned from mobile lifeways to sedentary communities. Maize, beans, and squash, which had been domesticated prior to village formation, were key elements of an agricultural economy, with maize providing the bulk of calories. Early villagers also exploited a mosaic of other natural resources including clay for making ceramic vessels and figurines, stone for making tools and ornaments, and plant materials for processing into a range of woven products.

The shift to sedentary life was a long social process through which formerly dispersed populations not only adjusted but committed to living in larger communities and interacting with more people on a daily basis.

The Valley of Oaxaca has a climate that is semiarid, rainfall is unpredictable and spatially patchy across the region, and not all sectors of the valley floor receive the minimum annual precipitation necessary for reliable rainfall farming of maize, the region’s staple and culturally most important crop.

The prime factor that determines the productivity of maize is the availability of water, and a diversity of water management practices have been used since prehispanic times. These manipulations, which increase agricultural yields, include wells and pot irrigation, check dams, and small-scale canals, all of which were easily managed or implemented at the household level.

The Valley of Oaxaca was a core politico-economic region. Prior to Monte Albán’s founding, most of the populace resided in one of three clusters of settlements that were separated from the others by largely unoccupied areas, including the center of the valley where Monte Albán was later situated. In each arm, a cluster of smaller communities surrounded one larger settlement that had special functions and served as the “head towns” of small competing polities.

This millennial pattern was broken when Monte Albán was built on a steep hilltop in the center of the valley. The settlement’s establishment and rapid growth in size and monumentality set off a dynamic episode of innovation and change that included demographic, dietary, and other economic shifts. Populations grew rapidly not only at the new center, which became the largest and most monumental city in the valley’s early history, but also in the surrounding countryside. The center and rural communities were integrated through an emergent market network that provisioned the city.

This dramatic episode of change required the coordination of labor to build the new city. The rocky hilltop was flattened into a large main plaza with monumental buildings constructed along its edges. The scale and orientation of this central plaza represent a key transition from prior community plans in the region. Residences for the city’s burgeoning population were constructed on the steep slopes of the hill by creating flattened spaces, or terraces, shored up by stone and earthen retaining walls, each of which sustained a domestic unit.

The allocation of the hill’s apex for civic-ceremonial space and the lower slopes for commoner residences was a blueprint for a broad social accord. Built environments are not neutral, but political, and Monte Albán’s footprint with a large, relatively open central space and little display of hierarchical leaders points to a collective arrangement.

The city’s concentrated residential precincts comprised strings of artificially flattened terraces that shared long retaining walls. Construction of the terraces required allotments of domestic labor to clear trees, flatten steep inclinations, erect stone walls to retain flat spaces where houses would be built, and construct drainage channels to divert rainwater from living spaces. The construction, sharing, and maintenance of front retaining walls involved high degrees of interhousehold cooperation between neighbors.

Additionally, commoners adopted construction techniques and basic ceramic wares that previously were the domain of high-status families. In the early city, most houses included contiguous rooms with plaster floors, often constructed around a patio; they were built with adobe bricks on stone foundations instead of the mud and thatch typical of earlier commoner houses. The pottery wares that previously were largely used by higher-status families or as ceremonial vessels became more broadly distributed in the centuries after Monte Albán was established. This level of cooperation and coordination is evidence of a social charter or norms, in which a wider array of residents had access to what previously had been higher-status materials and goods.

No large-scale production has been uncovered, and there is no indication of central-governmental food storage at Monte Albán, as one might expect with top-down economic control or redistribution.

Economic production at Monte Albán was situated in domestic contexts. Instead of being coerced to move to Monte Albán, people were attracted to the city. Monte Albán was settled by a sizable group, possibly as large as 1,000 people, and rapidly grew to about 5,000 people within a few hundred years. Populations also increased in the rural areas around Monte Albán, and the annual rate of population growth in the valley exceeded what could have been maintained by natural increase alone. Populations expanded again in and around Monte Albán after c. 300 BCE. The threefold growth was too large to be accounted for by local, “natural growth,” so that people must have been drawn to Monte Albán and the valley from more distant, extra-regional locations.

Evidence indicates that the agricultural catchment for feeding Monte Albán likely extended 20 kilometers from the city. The market and exchange networks that moved food to the city created a high degree of interconnection among small settlements and Monte Albán. This interdependence required cooperation, infrastructure, and institutions that together provided the means of moving food and distributing seasonal surpluses.

Prior to Monte Albán, early “head towns” were generally positioned adjacent to good farmland. But the new city was located in an area of the valley where agriculture was riskier and largely dependent on unpredictable rainfall. Why would people move to a place where they faced a high risk of crop failure, where they could have been taxed more highly, and where, if governance were coercive, they had little voice? Such a scenario seems improbable, and it is far more likely that people moved to Monte Albán to take advantage of economic opportunities, a parallel to most migrants in the world today.

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  1. DJG, Reality Czar

    An interesting article. I would point to the Zuni, who also moved to a somewhat difficult location to get away from the Spanish. Yet the combination of collective effort, sense of the group as unique, religious practices, and determination keep them there.

    Lifted from Wikipedia: “Observing the Zuni in the 1850s, Balduin Möllhausen noted “In all directions, fields of wheat and maize, as well as gourds and melons, bore testimony to their industry.”[8]: 81, 83 ”

    Wheat would have been a late-comer.

    At the same time, the Republic of Venice came to mind. The Republic lasted about 1,100 years. There has been much speculation about the reasons for its success. Yet collective action mattered in Venice, as did honesty in government. The Venetian government was regarded as severe yet fair. At the same time, the aristocracy made sure to satisfy the needs of the working class, artisans, and such middle classes as existed. The famous Arsenal, a ship-building assembly line, employed thousands and supported suppliers. Local manufacture was encouraged, famously in mirrors, glass, lace, silks.

    The Republic also kept the Catholic Church under a certain amount of control. The church of Saint Mark is the chapel of the doge–in other words, a kind of public building. The cathedral of Venice is/was on a minor island a long walk down the Riva degli Schiavoni.

    The Zuni may have mastered simplicity. The Venetians may have mastered complexity.

    1. NCLB

      Indigenous nations like the Zuni are still alive and still sovereign, this kind of discursive relegation of Indigenous peoples to the past exemplifies the problems anthropology has inherited from its racist imperialist origins. Those problems, particularly the ethical and epistemic dimensions, are currently the subject of intensive inquiry and debate within anthropology and adjacent disciplines. There is however effective consensus that the ways we have produced knowledge about Indigenous peoples have been both extremely violent as well as scientifically flawed.

  2. David in Santa Cruz

    The authors appear to be forcing the evidence from Monte Alban into their own idealized world view.

    The earliest known Zapotec (Monte Alban culture) glyph is of the apparently disemboweled victim of a human sacrifice. Wikipedia’s well-sourced article on Monte Alban points to the presence of tomb caches of gold jewelry and accumulated wealth associated with hierarchical rule and the ritualized and oppressive warfare, terror, and slaying of captives that seem to have been a constant of Mesoamerican civilization. Much more like our own culture, viz: GWOT and “Ukraine.”

    We’ve come to expect a more critical level of curation here, not authors who look to be high on their own supply…

    1. Jorge

      Slavery helps a lot with collectivation.
      Lack of transportation forces everything to be local.

      Cutting the beating hearts out of thousands of sacrificial victims and throwing them into a brazier is hardly an endorsement of culture.

      Remember a Budweiser poster distributed around Los Angeles praising the Mayan culture in an attempt to persuade Mejicanos to drink that swill instead of the better quality Corona, Carta Blanca or Modelo Negro–the technology and knowlege of which was brought to Mexico by German brewmasters accompanying Napoleon III’s armies.

      1. David in Santa Cruz

        Jorge, I’m a Bohemia man, myself. There’s a likeness of one of the builders of the Gran Tzompantli de Tenochtitlan right on the label!

        1. Archaeologist

          I am sorry, but you do not know what you are talking about.
          The grave gold that you refer to exclusively post-dates Monte Albán by centuries, and exemplifies the differences between the time of Monte Albán and after in Oaxaca.
          Sacrifice is widespread. In a sense, it still occurs today with capital punishment, and it certainly occurred in Sixteenth Century Europe and in Seventeenth Century Salem, MA with “heretics” and “witches.” The existence of human sacrifice in itself does not belie autocratic, highly coercive governance.

    2. playon

      I am currently reading “The Dawn of Everything” by David Graeber and David Wengrow, and I encourage anyone interested in alternatives to our present hierarchical organization to check it out.

      From my understanding it depends on what time frame you are looking at – at least one meso-american city originally had this kind of brutal cultural activity but at some point their society changed and they did away with it. These societies didn’t stay the same for centuries.

  3. Alex Cox

    Fascinating! Conor’s encouraging thesis seems directly contradicted by David in SC’s post. Are any MesoAmerican history experts able to weigh in?

  4. Sub-Boreal

    Thanks for bringing this interesting case study to our attention! Here’s a friendly request on behalf of readers who’d like to follow up on topics mentioned in pieces like this one which have been reprinted from other platforms: please make it easier to track down primary sources.

    In this case, the article appeared to be summarizing some new academic research, but there was no link given to a journal article or other source. The link to “Independent Media Institute” in the header didn’t help much. Its home page has a tab for “Projects”, but there’s nothing resembling “Human Bridges” listed there. And that site’s internal search tool turned up nothing useful on either author or the article title.

    Putting this article title into G****e yielded a link to the full text, but on a completely different platform: But this version did have links to the underlying research at an open access journal along with a press release from the authors’ institution.

    Coincidentally, my filter feeding this week turned up a complementary open access review article on how past societies coped with with rapid climate change (RCC).

    From the Abstract:

    Case studies confirm that human communities responded to environmental changes in diverse ways depending on historical, sociocultural, and biological contingencies. Certain factors, such as social inequality and disproportionate access to resources in large, complex societies may influence the probability of major sociopolitical disruptions and reorganizations—commonly known as “collapse.” This survey of Holocene human–environmental relations demonstrates how flexibility, variation, and maintenance of Indigenous knowledge can be mitigating factors in the face of environmental challenges. Although contemporary climate change is more rapid and of greater magnitude than the RCC events and other environmental changes we discuss here, these lessons from the past provide clarity about potential priorities for equitable, sustainable development and the constraints of modernity we must address.

  5. spud

    here it is, and why we cannot recover till free trade is addressed.

    “Collective action and localized economic production are a recipe for sustainability and broader well-being”

    keynes, FDR, truman, and ike understood this.

    if you can’t tax and regulate, let alone get rid of the macrons, or the ones that will immediately take their place like the usual under free trade world wide(see peru), then don’t be surprised if you have to live under barbarism, and not have a civil society.

  6. GramSci

    “please make it easier to track down primary sources”

    Our hosts daily offer an outstanding aggregation of news and views. I do not question their criteria for inclusion. I trust to the commentariat to provide better or primary sources.

    Thank you for doing research on this article and sharing it!

  7. Hayek's Heelbiter

    Wonderful and fascinating article.
    It inspired me to contemplate autocratic leaders throughout history.
    I could well be mistaken, so please correct me.
    We think of Roman emperors like Nero and Caligula, tyrants like Hitler, Mussolini, Putin etc., (not qualified to say about the latter) as despotic, but many were adored by the commoners while loathed by the oftimes literate aristocracy, e.g., the era’s equivalent of the PMC, who were and are in charge of chronicling royal venality and the deplorable qualities of the lower orders,.
    The article doesn’t discuss societies where there was a miniscule skim of royalty, maybe a thin layer of aristocracy and everyone else, e.g., the Egyptian civilization, which lasted 3,000 years.
    Nor the Inca, Aztec (which didn’t last long enough to be included) and perhaps most importantly, Teotihuacan, which lasted almost 1,000 years, from ~200 BCE to 750 CE, but THEN:

    750 CE marks the end of Teotihuacan as a major power in Mesoamerica. The city’s elite housing compounds, clustered around the Avenue of the Dead, bear many burn marks, and archeologists hypothesize that the city experienced civil strife that hastened its decline.

    Perhaps it is not the lack of autocrats that make for long-lived civilizations, but the type of autocrats.
    It seems to me that end of many long-lived civilizations and regimes is brought about not by autocrats, but by an oppressive aristocratic class, e.g., the PMC.
    But as history is written by the victors, the PMC will always win (at least in the short term).
    One aside, no Indian king was ever deposed by his subjects. Familial regicide. Other dynasties. Invaders, etc. but not by the people he ruled.

  8. synoia

    Does modern product complexity make any comparison of preindustrial civilations with today’s invalid?

    For example TSSscs semiconductor manufacturing ls not to replicated small economies.

    1. Metallurgist

      No, still valid.

      The question is the relative complexity of the project to the society taking it on.

      Take a look at the Chalcolithic in S. Jordan / Egypt / Sinai — copper production. Good starting place.

      Then take a look at the centers of bronze production in N. Turkey in Bronze age.

      Then I’d jump you to Borgia pope’s political maneouvering around sulphur in the production of gunpowder.

      Then the turn of the century competition to produce aluminum in the US and France.

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