17 MARCH 2017 • VOL 355 ISSUE 6330 1117 SCIENCE sciencemag.org
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 market-based 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 prin-
cipal 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 Super-
man’s Bizarro World. Everything is the in-
verse of what you expect for Mesoamerica.”
Most Mesoamerican cities were centered
on a monumental core of pyramids and pla-
zas. In Tlaxcallan, the plazas were scattered
throughout every neighborhood, with no
clear center or hierarchy. Rather than rul-
ing from the heart of the city, as kings did,
Fargher believes Tlaxcallan’s senate likely
met in a grand building he found standing
alone 1 kilometer outside the city limits (see
graphic, p. 1116). This distributed layout is
also a sign of shared political power, he says.
Archaeologists have unearthed versions
of this unusual layout in a handful of other
Mesoamerican cities. One is the city of Tres
Zapotes along the gulf coast, which flour-
ished from 400 B.C.E. to 300 C.E., in the
centuries immediately following the fall of
La Venta, the last Olmec capital. Although
the citizens of Tres Zapotes retained many
Olmec cultural practices, their city looked
nothing like the capitals that came before,
says Christopher Pool, an archaeologist at
the University of Kentucky in Lexington who
has spent the last 20 years excavating there.
Instead of being centered on an opulent pal-
ace, Tres Zapotes had four plazas regularly
spaced throughout the city. Each one had the
same layout of earthen pyramids and public
spaces, and radiocarbon dates revealed they
were occupied at the same time. Pool con-
cluded that during its height, four factions
cooperated to govern Tres Zapotes.
Collective societies tend to lay out their
cities in standardized ways, with the largest
ones even using grids, says Blanton, which
ease navigation both for residents and for
a government providing services. In the
Indus capital of Mohenjo-daro in today’s
Pakistan, for example, the art depicts few
individual people, and houses built with
standard-sized bricks line regularly spaced
city blocks. The strict urban plan incorporated wells and allowed thousands of people to use toilets connected to the world’s
first sewers (Science, 6 June 2008, p. 1276).
Another common feature of collective societies is economic equality, which archaeologists can infer from comparing the goods
of rich and poor people. In autocratic societies like the classical Maya, luxury goods
such as intricately painted pottery and jade
are only found in palaces and royal tombs.
In contrast, in Tlaxcallan people of all classes
seemed to have owned and used pottery
with ornate, multicolor designs. “You can’t
tell rich people from poor people based on
their stuff,” Fargher says. Pool sees a similarly narrow wealth gap at Tres Zapotes. And
in classical Athens, perhaps the most famous
premodern democracy, “wealthy people lived
in houses that were similar to the common
people,” Blanton says.
But ASU’s Smith cautions that economic
equality doesn’t guarantee that political
power is shared at the top. “There is an as-
sociation [between them], but that doesn’t
make inequality a measure of collectivity,
or the reverse,” he says. And although he
agrees that a city’s layout offers clues to
governance, he notes that excavations often
focus on a site’s central core and may miss
outlying plazas. To firm up the link, archaeo-
logists need more data from the outskirts of
cities and more rigorous statistical methods
to interpret them, he says.
BY THE TIME A CANDIDATE underwent Tlaxcallan’s political initiation rite, he had already proved his valor in war. For centuries
the state was locked in battle against the
Mexica Empire, whose capital Tenochtitlan lay just over the mountains to the west.
There, in what is now Mexico City, a noble
lineage of kings ruled from a grand central
plaza. Tlaxcallan was the only polity in the
region that fended off Mexica control, turning it into something of an economic and
Historical sources say the Mexica (called
the Aztecs today) imposed a trade blockade
to weaken their rivals. Although Fargher
has found that some imperial goods, like
salt and green obsidian, still flowed into
Tlaxcallan, out of 10 tons of ceramics he
has uncovered in the city, only three or four
pieces are Mexica style. The ratio of carbon
isotopes in skeletons recovered from under
the plazas indicates that corn—which could
be locally produced and stored—dominated
people’s diets to an exceptional degree, even
in corn-rich Mesoamerica. All this suggests
that Tlaxcallan must have relied on its own
citizens, rather than trade or natural resources, to fund its activities.
No written sources chronicle the economy of Tres Zapotes. But there, too, imported goods were scarce, Pool says, which
means that the four ruling factions also
must have relied on internal resources. The
pattern is a stark contrast to its predecessor
La Venta, where autocratic rulers controlled
trade and enjoyed exotic luxuries.
Both cities support Blanton and Fargher’s
belief that the best predictor of collective
rule is a strong internal revenue source—that
is, taxes. Revenue sources are admittedly difficult to detect from artifacts and buildings.
But after surveying 30 premodern societies
documented ethnographically and historically, the researchers found that states with
internal revenue sources were characterized
by a high level of public goods and services,
a strong governmental bureaucracy, and citizens empowered to judge the ruler’s actions.
“When taxpayers are paying for the state,
then the people in charge know they have to
do the right thing,” Blanton says.
Collective states may have another tendency that can be spotted archaeologically:
They attract people from beyond their borders, who bring artifacts that can be linked
to other cultures. “When you have a collective formation that’s funded by internal
resources, it’s in the interest of those in
“Democracy isn’t a one-shot
deal that happened one time.
It comes and goes, and it’s
very difficult to sustain.”
Richard Blanton, Purdue University