By Michael Bawaya
In August of 1970, the renowned anthropologist Robert Carneiro published a paper titled “A Theory of the Origin of the State” in the journal Science. The paper explored the theories that had been devised to explain the origin of what he called “the most far-reaching political development in human history.” Carneiro stated that there were but two plausible theories: one was based on coercion, the other volunteerism, and the former was clearly the better. “A close examination of history indicates that only a coercive theory can account for the rise of the state,” he wrote. “Force, and not enlightened self-interest, is the mechanism by which political evolution has led, step by step, from autonomous villages to the state.”
For some time Carneiro’s conclusion held sway with most scholars, but roughly twenty-five years ago a few researchers began to question this assumption. Richard Blanton, now an emeritus professor at Purdue University, coauthored a 1996 paper in Current Anthropology that modified Carneiro’s theory: states, Blanton asserted, could result from autocratic or collective systems. Autocratic systems—which were seen in Classic-period Maya and early Olmec centers, as well as numerous others around the world—featured rulers with coercive powers.
Collective systems lacked concentrated power and featured greater cooperation between the rulers and the ruled, and between the ruled themselves. Blanton and others contended that evidence of collectivity can be seen at a number of Mesoamerican cities such as Teotihuacan, Tlaxcala, and Monte Albán.
Collective systems were not necessarily democratic or egalitarian—Monte Albán had a ruling class, for example—but due to their cooperative and interdependent qualities they are thought to be early examples of good government. The rulers and the ruled had a reciprocal relationship: For example, the ruled received the protection they wanted in an area rife with conflict in exchange for taxes (a portion of their production) they paid to the rulers.
Linda Nicholas and Gary Feinman, a married couple who are both curators at the Field Museum in Chicago, have recently published a paper in the journal Frontiers in Political Science, making the case that Monte Albán, the political and cultural capital of the Zapotec people, was collectively governed. Titled “The Foundation of Monte Albán, Intensification, and Growth: Coactive Processes and Joint Production,” the paper argues that the ancient city in what is now southern Mexico fits Blanton’s, rather than Carneiro’s, model. “Compared to more autocratic societies, like the Classic-period Maya, Monte Albán seems to have had a more collective form of governance,” Nicholas said.
This is an article excerpt from the Summer 2022 edition of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member of The Archaeological Conservancy for your complimentary subscription!