NEWS | FEATURES
1118 17 MARCH 2017 • VOL 355 ISSUE 6330 sciencemag.org SCIENCE
government to bring in more people,” says
Gary Feinman, an archaeologist at The Field
Museum in Chicago, Illinois, and a co-author
on Blanton’s 1996 paper. Economic equality
and markets may also attract immigrants to
collective societies. “People move where they
think there’s better opportunity—where they
can make a living, where their kids are going
to do better than they did. That’s always a
motivation,” Feinman says.
Tlaxcallan was home to several different
ethnic groups, many of whom were refugees fleeing Mexica domination, according
to the Spanish chronicles. “They were absorbed by Tlaxcallan on the condition that
they defend the state,” says Aurelio López
Corral, the archaeologist who leads Mexico’s
National Institute of Anthropology and History’s work at the site. The best warriors, no
matter their ethnicity, were eligible to join
the senate—if they could endure the initiation. “It’s the opposite of ethnic nationalism,” says archaeologist David Carballo of
Boston University (BU).
THE EVIDENCE isn’t always so easy to read,
however. About 100 kilometers from Tlax-
callan lies a very different monumental
site: Teotihuacan, which dominated central
Mexico between about 100 C.E. and 550 C.E.
The broad Avenue of the Dead bisects the
city, lined with imposing structures in-
cluding the enormous Pyramids of the
Sun, Moon, and Feathered Serpent. “This
is a grand city,” says archaeologist Saburo
Sugiyama at Aichi Prefectural University in
Nagakute, Japan, who has excavated some
of the city’s most iconic places, including
the pyramids. “There was a very strong
rulership that planned and executed this
monumental project.” He envisions this
leader as a typical autocrat—a king who
wielded great military might—based partly
on weapons and bellicose imagery found to-
gether with the remains of a mass human
sacrifice and burial in the Pyramid of the
Yet Linda Manzanilla, an archaeologist
at the National Autonomous University of
Mexico in Mexico City who has been excavating at Teotihuacan since the 1970s,
sees the exact same city in a different way.
She notes that it is laid out in a grid, with
common citizens living in standardized
apartment buildings distributed regularly
throughout it. Major avenues divided the
city into four quadrants, she says. Each
quadrant had its own iconography—flying
animals, felines, serpents, or coyotes—that
dominated its art and ceramics; under the
centrally located Pyramid of the Moon, sacrificed animals from each group were found
together. The art depicts no individual leaders or dynasties, and Manzanilla argues that
Teotihuacan was governed by a council of
four leaders, each representing a different
quadrant—a type of collective government.
At Teotihuacan, “Groups are more important than individuals,” she says.
The different interpretations highlight
the challenges of applying Blanton’s model.
Smith notes that there is always some am-
biguity about the political significance of
a site’s physical features. For example, the
Indus civilization’s standardized housing
and sophisticated water control systems
can be seen as signs of shared power, but
they have also been interpreted as evi-
dence of totalitarian control. “Until some-
one comes up with a model that’s rigorous
and accepted by everyone, in my mind this
is all going to be fairly subjective and spec-
ulative,” Smith says.
BU’s Carballo argues that the form of
government may not even be the most important measure of what Blanton terms
collectivity. He points to an enormous obsidian workshop he excavated in an outlying neighborhood of Teotihuacan as a sign
that commoners organized themselves at the
grassroots level, no matter who ruled from
the Avenue of the Dead. That makes Teotihuacan a collective society, even if it turns
out to have had a single king, he argues.
It may be that societies like Teotihuacan
simply don’t fall into neat categories, Pool
says. Or they may shift strategies over time.
At Tres Zapotes, for example, elite factions
may have shared power within the city, but
the capital dominated nearby towns, which
all had one central plaza modeled on the
Tres Zapotes layout. Then, slowly, autocracy
crept back into Tres Zapotes itself. Around
1 C.E., the four plaza groups lost their ar-
chitectural coherence and individual rulers
once again appeared in the city’s art.
Collective governments do tend to rise and
fall in cycles, Blanton says. In Oaxaca, the
political pendulum swung between collec-
tivity and autocracy every 200 to 300 years,
judging from shifts in the layouts of domi-
nant sites and histories recorded by colonial
chroniclers. “Democracy isn’t a one-shot deal
that happened one time. It comes and goes,
and it’s very difficult to sustain,” he says.
History had a special irony in store for
the republic of Tlaxcallan when the Spanish arrived. After centuries of resisting the
Mexica Empire, the Tlaxcaltecas finally saw
an opportunity to destroy their enemies.
They allied with conquistador Hernán
Cortés, helping him plan attacks on Tenochtitlan and sheltering his army after its
initial crushing defeat, which allowed the
Spanish forces to regroup and try again—
this time successfully. “I’m not sure the
conquest would have been possible without
Tlaxcallan assistance,” Fargher says.
But as soon as the Tlaxcaltecas became
subjects of the Spanish crown, the republic
was gone. People abandoned their hilltop
plazas and moved down into the valley,
settling the modern city of Tlaxcala. When
Mexico won independence from Spain
3 centuries after the conquest, the Tlaxcaltecas were cast as traitors, their society
almost entirely forgotten. It took another
100 years before revolution returned democracy to Mexico’s constitution. Now,
ambitious candidates once again fight for
their political futures—not in the plaza,
but at the ballot box. j
Tlaxcalteca warriors helped the Spanish conquer the nearby centralized city of Tenochtitlan in 1521.
Conquistador Hernán Cortés included this map of Tenochtitlan in his second letter to the Spanish crown.