Public plazas were scattered through every neighborhood in the republic of Tlaxcallan. Some had modest temples like this one built off to one side. © Adam Wiseman
The candidate for political office stood in a plaza, naked, bracing himself against the punches and kicks. The crowd roared, pulsing around him like a beating heart. People for whom he had risked his life in war after war hurled blows and insults from all directions. The candidate breathed deeply. Trained as a warrior, he knew he had to stay calm to reach the next phase of his candidacy.
This ordeal, documented by a Spanish priest in the 1500s, was merely the beginning of the long process of joining the government of the Mesoamerican city of Tlaxcallan, built around 1250 C.E. in the hills surrounding the modern city of Tlaxcala, Mexico. After this trial ended, the candidate would enter the temple on the edge of the plaza and stay for up to 2 years, while priests drilled him in Tlaxcallan's moral and legal code. He would be starved, beaten with spiked whips when he fell asleep, and required to cut himself in bloodletting rituals. But when he walked out of the temple, he would be more than a warrior: He would be a member of Tlaxcallan's senate, one of the 100 or so men who made the city's most important military and economic decisions.
"I'd like to see modern politicians do all that, just to prove they can govern," says archaeologist Lane Fargher, standing in the shadow of one of Tlaxcallan's recently restored elevated plazas. Fargher has led surveys and excavations here since 2007, studying the urban plan and material culture of a type of society many archaeologists once believed they'd never find in Mesoamerica: a republic. "Twenty or 25 years ago, no one would have accepted it was organized this way," says Fargher, who works at the research institute Cinvestav in Mérida, Mexico.
Now, thanks in part to work led by Fargher's mentor Richard Blanton, an anthropologist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, Tlaxcallan is one of several premodern societies around the world that archaeologists believe were organized collectively, where rulers shared power and commoners had a say in the government that presided over their lives.
These societies were not necessarily full democracies in which citizens cast votes, but they were radically different from the autocratic, inherited rule found—or assumed—in most early societies. Building on Blanton's originally theoretical ideas, archaeologists now say these "collective societies" left telltale traces in their material culture, such as repetitive architecture, an emphasis on public space over palaces, reliance on local production over exotic trade goods, and a narrowing of wealth gaps between elites and commoners.
"Blanton and his colleagues opened up a new way of examining our data," says Rita Wright, an archaeologist at New York University in New York City who studies the 5000-year-old Indus civilization in today's India and Pakistan, which also shows signs of collective rule. "A whole new set of scholarship has emerged about complex societies."
"I think it's a breakthrough," agrees Michael E. Smith, an archaeologist at Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe. "I've called it the most important work in the archaeology of political organization in the last 20 years." He and others are working to extend Blanton's ideas into a testable method, hoping to identify collective states solely through the objects they left behind.
Back in the 1960s, Blanton's teachers and peers didn't think collective societies existed in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Premodern republics such as classical Athens and medieval Venice were thought to be a purely European phenomenon. Conventional wisdom held that in premodern, non-Western societies, despots simply extracted labor and wealth from their subjects.
Some Mesoamerican cultures do seem to fit the despotic model. More than 2000 years ago in the Olmec capitals of San Lorenzo and La Venta along the Mexican gulf coast, for example, kings had their portraits carved into gargantuan stone heads and lived in palaces dripping with exotic luxury goods like greenstone and iron mirrors. Centuries later, Classic period Mayan kings in southern Mexico and Guatemala recorded their conquests, marriages, and dynasties in glyphs carved into stone. Meanwhile, commoners lived humbly in settlements dispersed around the city's core of pyramids and monuments.
But as Blanton logged year after year of surveys and excavations in Mexico, he noticed an increasingly long list of sites that didn't conform to these expectations. For example, Monte Albán, the capital of the Zapotec people in Oaxaca between 500 B.C.E. and 800 C.E., lacked the ostentatious representations of individual rulers so common in Olmec and classical Maya art. It also seemed to be devoid of palaces and royal tombs stocked with precious goods. Instead, signs of authority were more anonymous, linked to cosmological symbols and enduring deities rather than specific individuals.
Intrigued by such outliers, Blanton and three co-authors worked up a new theory, published in 1996 in Current Anthropology. Based largely on Mesoamerican examples, they laid out two forms that governments could take, which Blanton now terms autocratic and collective. Autocratic governments were based on the authority of an individual ruler and often supported by wealth acquired by monopolizing natural resources or controlling trade. Think of the Olmec, who controlled key gulf coast trade routes, or even present-day Saudi Arabia, Blanton says, "where the royal family controls the oil industry and uses that to fund the state's activity. They don't have to be accountable to the people."
Teotihuacan puzzles archaeologists: It shows signs of both autocratic rule (this grand avenue and pyramids) and collectivity (a grid of roads and no depictions of kings). © Marcos Ferro/Aurora Photos
Collective systems emphasized the office of the ruler, which in theory could be occupied by anyone in the society: Leaders were made, not born. Taxes rather than external wealth funded the state and its leaders. Tlaxcallan, with its political initiation rite to bring people from all classes into the governing council, had a collective government. So do the United States and India. "Collective" in this usage does not mean "socialist," Blanton adds. Most of the collective societies he has studied have marketbased economies, which create taxpayers rich enough to contribute to public goods.
Blanton's perspective "was very stimulating," Wright says. "For a very long time within archaeology, we'd been looking for markers of a king." Now, researchers had a theory for making sense of seemingly kingless societies. But to study ancient societies without historical records, archaeologists need to know what distinctive material traces such a collective society might leave behind. "What would it actually look like on the ground—that was a big problem," Blanton says. "How would we recognize these states?"
"Over there is where we found the house," Fargher says. He skirts the platform that once held one of Tlaxcallan's largest public plazas and heads to a patch of bare earth surrounded by green grass. In the distance Popocatépetl, Mexico's most famous volcano, gently puffs smoke into the clear winter sky.
Fargher points to faint rocky lines in the sandy earth, where walls stood 600 years ago. "It was a series of small rooms that were rebuilt several times, with a patio over here," he says, moving through the compact space. By all appearances it was nothing special, a typical house for a typical commoner.
"But look where we are," Fargher says. "Right in front of a very public space. In any other Mesoamerican site, next to the principal plaza you'd have an enormous palace. Here we have a pretty humble house."
Such reversals are par for the course in Tlaxcallan, Fargher says. "This is like Superman's Bizarro World. Everything is the inverse of what you expect for Mesoamerica."