Unearthing democracy's roots

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Science  17 Mar 2017:
Vol. 355, Issue 6330, pp. 1114-1118
DOI: 10.1126/science.355.6330.1114

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For decades, archaeologists thought democratic republics such as classical Athens and medieval Venice were a purely European phenomenon. Conventional wisdom held that in premodern, non-Western societies, despots simply extracted labor and wealth from their subjects. But archaeologists have identified several societies in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica that upend that model. They argue that societies such as Tlaxcallan in the central Mexican highlands and Tres Zapotes along the Mexican gulf coast were organized collectively, meaning that 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 ancient societies. Archaeologists now say that these collective societies left telltale traces in their material culture and urban planning, 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.

  • * in Tlaxcala, Mexico

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