Monte Albán, an ancient Mesoamerican city in Mexico’s Valley of Oaxaca, flourished for 1,300 years, from its founding around 500 BC to its decline by 800 CE. Perched on a strategic hilltop, the city supported tens of thousands of people at its peak and was the major hub of this influential region, despite the fact that the surrounding region was not abundant with fertile farmland. Something other than agriculture must have attracted people to the city, and a husband-and-wife research team think they have the answer.
Archaeologists Linda Nicholas and Gary Feinman suggest that the secret of Monte Albán’s success and longevity was a collectivist governing approach and relatively low levels of social inequality, an argument that is supported by multiple lines of evidence from its ruins, according to a study published on Tuesday in Frontiers in Political Science. In this way, Monte Albán rose to power with a “bottom-up” political structure, in contrast to its more autocratic contemporaries, which makes it a useful case study, even for modern societies.
“Throughout its history, Monte Albán did not have stark differentials, whether you look at health, house size, or access to certain kinds of artifacts,” said Gary Feinman, who is the MacArthur curator of anthropology at the Field Museum in Chicago and a co-author of the study, in a call.
“When we say this was a relatively collective governance, we're not saying this was utopian or entirely egalitarian, and everyone was equal in a commune,” he noted. “There were clearly people who were somewhat better off than others and there were clearly people who were office holders or leaders or coordinators even from the outset, because he could not you could not have that many people making a decision without some kind of leadership. But our view is that the power was not concentrated in one individual or even one family; it was more what we would call distributed power.”
Feinman and lead author Linda Nicholas, an adjunct curator at the Field Museum, draw on their decades of experience exploring and excavating Monte Albán, along with a trove of published research, to paint a vivid picture of an ancient city that thrived economically and attracted a diverse population without despotic coercion or entrenched ruling dynasties.
The prosocial nature of the settlement is evident from its beginnings; its hilltop location was flattened into a sprawling Main Plaza that was large enough to accommodate public gatherings. The plaza was clearly used for communal rituals and its monuments were not restricted to the ruling class, in contrast to ancient cities that contain extravagant temples and tombs that were off limits to the average resident.
Meanwhile, the slopes of the hill were worked into terraced houses for its population that would have required cooperation to develop and maintain, which is just one of many indications of the profound social connections between people in 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 mud hovels seen in other settlements, and its population was not exposed to serious disparities in health, diet, or possession of cultural artifacts.
“We know, based on this dense settlement pattern, that these adjacent households were like a neighborhood where they were mutually interdependent,” Feinman said. “We also know from excavations of those households that they were economically interdependent, because different households tended to engage in different craft activities.”
“There must have been some economic interdependence that bound together the houses at Monte Albán, and even houses in the region around Monte Albán, because the city may have had a hard time feeding itself in very dry agricultural years, which are not that rare in the Valley of Oaxaca,” he continued. “Whether you look at the bottom up or the top down, the picture on governance suggests that it was relatively cooperative and collective.”
Monte Albán did have elites who tended to live in larger houses at better locations near the Main Plaza, the researchers say, but the extremes in wealth seen in many other ancient cities are not at all evident in its remains. This collectivist approach seems to have even extended to the city’s spiritual life, which fostered a “supernatural unity” between its diverse residents, according to the study. In other words, the city gathered 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 did eventually deteriorate into a more autocratic society, a shift that is evident in more ostentatious monuments and wealth extremes that heralded the city’s eventual decline and abandonment around 800 CE.
These themes can seem particularly topical at this moment when much of the global community is enmeshed in dangerous rivalries between autocratic and democratic models of government. While it’s not easy to make direct comparisons between societies of the past and present, Feinman and Nicholas think Monte Albán reveals broader insights about the stability and sustainability of civilizations, regardless of their historical context.
“I personally do see a certain rhyming in this history,” Feinman said. “It's harder as an archaeologist and a social scientist to use this to make prescriptions, because I'm not in the policy business, per se. But I do think that there are lessons here. At the deepest level, I think it changes certain perspectives that we have on the past.”
“The premodern world, much like the modern world, was not entirely autocratic,” he concluded. “There was variability in the organization of the past, just as there's temporal and spatial variability in the organization of the present. Therefore, the past is more of a primer for the present than we might have thought.”