Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Cities through the ages: One thing or many?

Vancouver
I am in rainy Vancouver, BC. Tomorrow I will give a lecture at Green College, University of British Columbia, with this title ("Cities through the ages: One thing or many?"), and then Thursday I head downtown for the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology. I first gave a talk with this title at the Santa Fe Institute in 2013. At that time I developed an argument that there are, and have been, only two basic types of cities. I called them economic cities and political cities. Most contemporary cities are economic cities (dominated by capitalist economic processes), and that most ancient cities were political cities (dominated by political dynamics). The implication (it seemed to me, though incorrectly) was that the models of urban scaling that had been worked out for modern cities should not apply to ancient cities.

The urban scaling group (Luis Bettencourt, Jose Lobo, and Scott Ortman) had invited me to SFI to explore the possibility of applying the scaling models to ancient cities. I arrived ready to tell them to forget it. Ancient and modern cities were just too different in their economies, and I mistakenly believed that the scaling regularities of modern cities derived from capitalist agglomeration processes. But within a few hours of talking with these guys, they convinced me that the basic model that explains the modern scaling results is general enough to apply to ancient cities too. I had to scramble to modify my public lecture (the next day) to incorporate this insight (Bettencourt 2013).
Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital

So, here I am, nearly four years later, giving a talk with the same title. But now I have TWO answers to the question, "One thing or many?" From the perspective of how cities operate and how they grow, I still see two very different types of cities: economic and political. Many of the economic models of contemporary cities simply do not apply to ancient cities. But from the perspective of  how people use the built environment of settlements, and how people interact with others, and the generative implications of those interactions, there is only one type of city. In fact, I should say there is only one type of settlement, because the patterns apply to non-urban settlements as well.

The City as Two Things: Economic and Political Cities


Most contemporary cities, and some past cities, are "economic cities." Their growth and operations are dominated by the commercial economy. Relevant concepts are agglomeration processes and agglomeration effects. Wage labor employees are matched with jobs in cities; urban public goods are shared by individuals and firms; and an educated workforce leads to prductivity gains (Duranton and Puga 2004). Sounds pretty standard for modern urban economics, but many of these things just plain don't apply to ancient cities. Many of these lacked wage labor and formal education. Agglomeration effects were much smaller or very different.

In some modern cities, politics dominates economics. These tend to be the large mega-capitals of developing nations. They are known as primate cities - not primates as in Planet of the Apes - but primate in the sense that the largest city in the system is far too large. It is too large because it is a political capital in a nation-state where politics dominates economics. See DeLong and Schleiffer (1993), or Ades and Glaeser (1995) on primate cities.

But this was the standard kind of city in the ancient world. Even in a heavily (noncapitalist) commercialized economy such as Classical Rome, politics played a heavy role in urban growth and operation, and thus many of the basic urban dynamics were quite different. Much economic activity in Rome was "unproductive" in that it was oriented at luxury, not growth of productivity (Baumol 1990).
Energized crowding at work

The City as One Thing: Energized Crowding and Social Interactions


But when we look at how social interactions in the built environment lead to highly regular patterns relating settlement population to other features, there is only one basic type of settlement. This is not a claim based on theory; it is an empirical conclusion. Luis Bettencourt's (2013) model of scaling derives the quantitative relationships between population and other urban features from the basic features of social interactions within the built environment. And this model explains both the regularities of scaling in contemporary urban systems and the same regularities in ancient urban systems. See some of my prior posts on scaling for more details :

Energized crowding turns cities into social reactors - 2016

Settlement scaling and social science theory - 2016

Urban scaling: Cities as social reactors - 2013


 But if you have doubts that the archaeological results are the same as the modern results, look at this table (from Smith 2017).


To me, these studies reach the most amazing results of any research I have ever been involved with. Why should there be such regularities in the sizes of settlements within settlement systems? How can the ancient systems have the same quantitative patterns as the modern systems? The cities are different. The societies and economies are different. People work and play differently. They move about differently. But somehow, the aggregate activities of people interacting in settlements produce the same kinds of quantitative patterns anyplace we look. Well, almost anyplace - it turns out that mobile hunter-gatherers have different patterns. But that is a different story..........

My talk tomorrow will be in Green College, UBC, a residential college for graduate students, postdocs, and faculty. This is a fascinating intellectual community in a gorgeous natural and built environment. It is part of a diverse series called, "The next urban planet: Rethinking the city in tome." What a great title for a series of lectures! I am staying in the Green College Guesthouse, where I have a cozy gas fire to keep out the damp and cold. I look forward to spending time with archaeologists, urban scholars, and others at UBC tomorrow.


References

Ades, Alberto F. and Edward L. Glaeser  (1995)  Trade and Circuses: Explaining Urban Giants. Quarterly Journal of Economics 110:195-227.

Baumol, William J.  (1990)  Entrepreneurship: Productive, Unproductive, and Destructive. Journal of Political Economy 98(5):893-921.

Bettencourt, Luís M. A.  (2013)  The Origins of Scaling in Cities. Science 340:1438-1441.

de Long, J. Bradford and Andrei Shleifer  (1993)  Princes and Merchants: European City Growth Before the Industrial Revolution. Journal of Law and Economics 36:671-702.

Duranton, Gilles and Diego Puga  (2004)  Micro-Foundation of Urban Agglomeration Economies. In Handbook of Regional and Urban Economics, edited by J. Vernon Henderson and Jacques-François Thisse, pp. 2064-2117. vol. 4. Elsevier, Amsterdam.

Smith, Michael E.  (2017)  The Generative Role of Settlement Aggregation and Urbanization. In Coming Together: Comparative Approaches to Population Aggregation and Early Urbanization, edited by Attila Gyucha. State University of New York Press, Albany.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Ramses II vs. Pericles, or Darth Vader vs. the Rebel Alliance

I still struggle to fight off the stereotypes about ancient states and empires that I learned as a student. Anthropological archaeology has long been concerned with the rise of state societies, and the nature of states in the ancient world. This is what got me interested in archaeology in the first place. I came across my decades-old graduate school application personal essay at the back of a file drawer, and found that I had written that I wanted to get a Ph.D. in archaeology to explain the origins of states in Mesoamerica. (Well, I think I probably phrased it as the "rise of THE state").

Back then, we were taught that all ancient states were despotic, ruled by ego-maniac kings who strove to control all aspects of society. Rameses II, played by Yul Brynner in the movie the Ten Commandments, is a good model for these ancient states. The Egyptian pharaohs ruled with an iron fist. Just look at his face! Any talk about democracy or council-rule prior to Classical Athens was written off as the fantasy of ancient writers. Ancient kings were autocrats who oppressed their subjects

Then I read Blanton and Fargher's 2008 book, Collective Action in the Formation of Pre-Modern States, which turned my views of ancient states and empires upside down (well, maybe I am being a bit dramatic here. Blanton et al 1996 was a first step in this direction; and other works, by Margaret Levi and Michael Mann, for example, contributed to this trend). By making a detailed and semi-quantitative analysis of thirty premodern states (from historical and ethnographic data), Blanton and Fargher identified a continuum of political regimes that runs from autocratic at one end to collective at the other. It turns out that collective states--where rulers have less power and people have more say--were not all that unusual in the past. The Greeks didn't invent democracy; similar processes and institutions were found in many ancient societies.

Blanton and Fargher identify three scales that run from low to high: Bureaucratization; Control over principals (rulers); and Public goods provision. Regimes that score high on these scales had more collective forms of rule, while those that scored lower were more autocratic. They then devise a causal model to explain variation in governmental form. It runs like this. If a regime relies on taxing its subjects for revenue, then it has to treat them well. Otherwise people will not pay taxes, and will leave or rebel. So there has to be a way to get rid of terrible rulers, and the ruler has to provide public goods (roads, canals, and other services and facilities). This produces a collective regime that is responsive to its population. On the other hand, if a regime gets its revenue from external sources (imperial tribute, conquest, taxing trade), then it does not have to be nice to its subjects. It can let them starve, not provide any public goods, and the ruler can be exploitative. These are the autocratic regimes. This scheme fits the evidence quite well.

By using a series of measures for each of the 3 scales, Blanton and Fargher come up with a summary collective measure for each society in their sample. The most autocratic regimes included 12th century England, Bali and some African kingdoms. Darth Vader and the evil empire in Star Wars would fit in here. The most collective are Athens, Venice, and Ming China; also the Rebel Alliance. In the middle are the Yoruba, Inka and Aztec polities.

There is a strong counter-intuitive element to this scheme. It turns out that the most autocratic regimes had the least concern for their subjects. These rulers didn't try to control their subjects; they left them alone to struggle to get by. This goes against the old idea that despotic rulers wanted to control the behavior of their subjects. On the contrary, autocratic rules didn't care what their subjects did. But collective regimes, on the other hand, DID need to interfere in people's lives. If they were going to tax their subjects effectively, they had to monitor them; hence Bureaucratization was a main features of more collective polities. Collective regimes had to keep their subject happy, so they provided public services. Collective regimes were far more intrusive into the lives of ordinary people than were autocratic regimes. This is the counter-intuitive part.

The work of Blanton and Fargher was a major breakthrough in our understanding of early states and their forms of government. Unfortunately, they did not devote enough attention to methods to measure their scales using archaeological data. They did publish a few articles with some ideas about archaeological cases. But the rest of us now have our work cut out for us. We need to devise methods to distinguish collective from autocratic regimes in the distant past, and we need to use these concepts to analyze political change and social patterns in the distant past.

Blanton, Richard E., Gary M. Feinman, Stephen A. Kowalewski and Peter N. Peregrine  (1996)  A Dual-Processual Theory for the Evolution of Mesoamerican Civilization. Current Anthropology 37:1-14.

Blanton, Richard E. and Lane F. Fargher  (2008)  Collective Action in the Formation of Pre-Modern States. Springer, New York.

QUESTION: Why is Darth Vader holding my cat ???????

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Teotihuacan in the news: 1966 and 2016

I was looking for some biograhical material on Rene Millon, director of the Teotihuacan Mapping Project. I came across this story, from Popular Mechanics magazine in July 1966:

This was from the early days of the Teotihuacan Mapping Project, when they were in the middle of making surface artifact collections and digging test excavations.  And now, 50 years later, here is another press item from Teotihuacan:

Wow, knowledge really does advance through time. Back in 1966 no one had any idea they would find rabbit bones at Teotihuacan, and asking questions about animal keeping and diet like this were out of the question. Our analytical methods, as well as our stock of excavated archaeological contexts, are now far beyond what they were in 1966. This rabbit study, by a couple of archaeologists who started out as anthropology majors at Arizona State University, shows the kind of detailed questions we can now ask about the past (see bibliography below).

But as an archaeologist and scholar, I like to try to stand above the weeds now and then and take a broad perspective on the past. Archaeology is not just about mapping a site or figuring out what people ate for dinner. We need to take facts like these--established from rigorous fieldwork and laboratory analyses--and put together a broad view of life, society, and cities in the past. When we do this, it turns out that many things are not all that different from life, society, and cities today. This insight is the basis for the "Wide Urban World."

And when you turn to your turkey dinner for the Thanksgiving holiday this week, don't just think back to the Native Americans and Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving meal. Think, instead, about the Mayas and Teotihuacanos of ancient Mesoamerica, the ones who first domesticated the turkey in the first place.

Bibliography:

Somerville, Andrew D., Nawa Sugiyama, Linda R. Manzanilla, and Margaret J. Schoeninger
2016    Animal Management at the Ancient Metropolis of Teotihuacan, Mexico: Stable Isotopoe Analysis of Leporid (Cottontail and Jackrabbit) Bone Mineral. PLOS-One 11 (8): e0159982.

2016    Leporid management and specialized food production at Teotihuacan: stable isotope data from cottontail and jackrabbit bone collagen. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences  (online first).

Pyramids of Teotihuacan in the 19th century


Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Energized Crowding Turns Cities into Social Reactors

What is is about cities that makes them exciting and dynamic? Things are happening in cities and people are attracted to them. As Jane Jacobs said, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Some cities never sleep. Cities are the setting for activities that just aren't found in smaller settlements. The more people in a city, the more activity and the more excitement. This is not just a feature of contemporary cities:  ancient cities like Teotihuacan were also bustling, dynamic, and attractive places. Architectural historian Spiro Kostof coined the term "energized crowding" to describe this aspect of urban life and society.

Energized crowding doesn't just describe the condition of life in cities - it describes the basic social forces that lead cities to grow and to transform life and society. This is the basis of the work on settlement scaling by the Social Reactors Project: me and Jose Lobo at Arizona State University, Scott Ortman at the University of Colorado, and Luis Bettencourt at the Santa Fe Institute. Check out our website. In our model, the process of energized crowding turns cities into social reactors.

As the number of people in a settlement increases, the number of potential social interactions grows at an exponential rate (see graph). As settlements grow larger, the effects of social interaction are amplified. These include positive, negative, and neutral effects. Let's start with the negative side of things. As we as individuals have to deal with more and more people, we get overloaded. Too many people, too much going on. This is called scalar stress. Some of the effects are highly negative--more people means more crime, more poverty, more social alienation. But scalar stress is offset by one of the big "nuetral" effects of growing settlement: the formation of neighborhoods. As cities grow, people adjust their activities so that they can live life on a smaller scale--the neighborhood. As I have said many times in this blog, neighborhoods are one of the very few universals of the urban experience. Here are a few posts on this (out of many.....):
 But there are also positive effects of energized crowding. Urban economists and economic geographers have known for a long time that when businesses and industries concentrate themselves in cities, it leads to economies of scale and thus major gains in productivity. These effects are called agglomeration effects, as in this diagram:
But it turns out that the positive effects of concentration and energized crowding are not limited to the modern industrial economy. In fact, they occur in cities before the industrial revolution, whether medieval European cities, or cities in the Roman or Inka empires. This fact alone shows that these effects are not due to factories, wage labor, advanced transportation, or other attributes of modern economies. In fact, these effects arise primarily out of the very act of social interaction within the built environment.

This realization was a real breakthrough in our understanding of the nature of city size and its role in generating the social and economic properties of cities. The key paper is Bettencourt (2013). Luis derives a quantitative model that predicts characteristics of cities based on their sizes, within a given region or urban system. The beauty of the model is that its conditions are general enough to fit cities before the modern era. In fact they also should work for non-urban settlements in agricultural village societies (and they do!).

Below is my diagram of energized crowding (from Smith 2017). When population grows, leading to higher densities, energized crowding increases. This can happen from regional population growth, or it can arise from the process of people moving into cities. The three results shown here are the negative, neutral, and positive outcomes of energized crowding.


In the time since Luis's 2013 article, our group has been scouring archaeology and history for cases where we can try out the model. Scott Ortman initiated this work with his studies of the settlement in the prehispanic Basin of Mexico. We've published a number of studies, and a bunch more are in the pipeline. Scott has even found the same scaling effects in village societies. The data requirements are heavy (a sample of 30 or more settlements from a given region and time period, with population estimates and other quantitative data to scale against population). If you think you know of any such cases, please let me know!

We have found the same quantitative relationships in modern and ancient settlement systems. This suggests that the same or very similar fundamental social processes operate when humans come together in settlements, whether today or two thousand years ago. Energized crowding--which is at a much higher level in larger settlements--has measurable effects on the density of settlement, and on the levels of economic and social outputs. In this figure, Graph A shows economic output measures for the modern U.S. economy, while Graph B shows wealth output for the ancient Inka economy. Quantitatively these two graphs are nearly identical. Both exhibit "superlinear scaling," with beta coefficients of 1.13.

So, how far can we push these relationships? Are they universal? Well, not quite. Hunter-gatherer campsites show very different patterns from the agricultural societies we have studied so far. This is something we are working on now. But for most systems we have examined, we find similar patterns, and when we apply Luis's model, we conclude that energized crowding turns settlements into social reactors.

For some other posts on the scaling work, see:
See our project website for more information.


Bettencourt, Luís M. A.  2013    The Origins of Scaling in Cities. Science 340: 1438-1441.

Cesaretti, Rudolf, Luís M. A. Bettencourt, Jose Lobo, Scott Ortman, and Michael E. Smith 2016    Population-Area Relationship in Medieval European Cities. PLOS-One: 11:(10) e162678.  .

Ortman, Scott G., Andrew H.F. Cabaniss, Jennie O. Sturm, and Luís M. A. Bettencourt
2014    The Pre-History of Urban Scaling. PLOS-one 9 (2): e87902.

2015    Settlement Scaling and Increasing Returns in an Ancient Society. Science Advances 1 (1): e1400066.

Ortman, Scott G. and Grant D. Coffey  2015    Universal Scaling: Evidence from Village-Level Societies. SFI Working Paper, vol. 15-10-044. Santa Fe Institute, Santa Fe. 

Ortman, Scott G., Kaitlyn E. Davis, José Lobo, Michael E. Smith, Luis M.A. Bettencourt, and Aaron Trumbo  2016    Settlement Scaling and Economic Change in the Central Andes. Journal of Archaeological Science 73: 94-106.  .

Smith, Michael E.  2017    The Generative Role of Settlement Aggregation and Urbanization. In Coming Together: Comparative Approaches to Population Aggregation and Early Urbanization, edited by Attila Gyucha. State University of New York Press, Albany.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Anthropologist Anthony Leeds on cities

Anthony Leeds (1925-1989) was an urban  anthropologist back in the days when anthropologists made important contributions to understanding cities and urbanism (today "urban anthropology" means studying globalization in this city, studying neoliberalization in that city, but never looking at urbanism or cities from a comprehensive perspective).

Leeds was a productive ethnographer of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. But for this blog, his claim to fame is the conceptual advances he made in understanding the nature of cities and rural-urban relations.I blogged about his ideas on rural-urban relations last year. I recently came across some notes I took on his publications, and they reminded me of some of his other creative ideas. Here I will go over three of his contributions, all of which are discussed in his 1979 article listed below: (1) his criticism of urban studies for being overly dependent on modern western cities and ignoring early and non-western cities; (2) his discussion of the different types of specialization that are associated with urbanism; and (3) his rural-urban framework.

(1)  Urban studies.  Here are some quotes from Leeds (1979). I sometimes think that in this blog I am channeling his ideas:
  • “Most current discussion of ‘urbanism’ and ‘urbanization’ can be shown to be ethno- and temprocentric and based on a historically particular class of urban phenomena and urban forms of integration.” (p.227)
  • “Generalizations are then made about ‘urbanism’ and ‘urban society’ based essentially on the urban experience of the past few hundred years, apparently without the realization that all urban phenomena of the past four or five hundred years have been ineluctably affected by the expansion of the capitalist system, in short by the development of what Wallerstein calls the ‘World System.’ The generalizations are, then, in fact not about ‘urbanization’ in general but about a single form of ‘urbanism’ or ‘urbanization,’ its evolution, and its acculturational by-products.” (228)
This is one of the critiques anthropologists make of the other social sciences: you cannot look only a modern western society and use that to generalize about all of humanity. Our ancestors lived for millennia in very different ways that people live today. If you want to generalize about humanity or human society, please do so from a reasonable sample! And while you are at it, please don't make up imaginary patterns of non-western or early human behavior (this last is directed at economists......).

(2)  Specialization.  People are always tossing around the term "specialization" when they talk about cities or complex societies. But there are different types and concepts of specialization, with different implications for society. We need to be clear which type we are talking about. Leeds (1979) identifies three types of spcialization:
  1. Specialization of localities. Different places within a system are often the settings for different types of activities or institutions. When a particular type of activity is limited to a few locations, and/or those locations are the setting for a high level of that type of activity, then we can say that the place is specialized. There is a differentiation of functions among places.
  2. Specialization of the components of technology. In this sense, the various aspects of technology can be specialized. Tools, materials, techniques, housings, tasks, activities, labor/skills, and knowledge can all be specialized, often (but not always) within a single large settlement.
  3. Specialization of institutions. This kind of specialization highlights differences between large complex societies and small-scale societies. In complex settings such as today's western nations, institutions such as government, religion, and education are specialized. But in small-scale societies, these institutions tend to be bundled together and their activity spread widely among the people. Instead of schools, everyone is responsible for education; instead of having an organized religion, religious knowledge and activities are widely distributed among people.
Leeds goes on to relate these to the concept of urban:  "I define 'urban' as the interacting confluence of all three of these specializations." (p. 230) I'll stop here, because I'm not sure this is a productive way to define urban or cities. But the concepts of specialization are important.

(3) Rural and urban. In the 1979 article I am writing about, Leeds briefly outlines his ideas of rural and urban, but the best discussion is in a paper from 1980. For Leeds, any society that has cities is entirely an urban society. That is, urban is not the opposite of rural. "Rural" refers to a set of specialized locations (agriculture, mining, forests, mountains) within an encompassing urban society. This is a functional definition of urban and rural: These are defined not as absolute entities of their own, but rather as places within a regional system have have particular functions.

All three of these ideas are productive, and they help us see urbanism not as a unitary phenomenon consisting of the cities on a Google map today. Rather, the urban world extended far back into the past, and around the world. And when we look at any urban society, we find that cities and their (specialized) activities transform the entire society. I cover this in greater depth in my older post.

When I discovered the work of Anthony Leeds, a couple of decades ago, a memory came back from my undergraduate days at Brandeis University. Leeds came to give a lecture at Brandeis, and my professors urged the anthropology majors to attend (just as I urge the majors to attend these talks today). Later, I recalled two things about that lecture. First, I didn't understand it at all! And second, I recalled the title, which I liked, "Some unpleasantries on peasantries."

I highly recommend the work of Anthony Leeds. Many of  his articles were assembled after his death into a nice edited volume (this includes the 1980, but but not 1979 paper). The introductory essay by Roger Sanjek (another outstanding urban anthropologist) is very good. 

The organization formerly known as the Society for Urban Anthropology offers the annual Anthony Leeds Award in Urban Anthropology. The society is now called, "The Society for Urban, National, and Transnational / Global Anthropology." What a joke, this is a signal of the decline of urban anthropology as a productive field (back in the days of Anthony Leeds) to a later diffuse existence where scholarship is not about cities, but rather cities are merely places to study other issues. Anyway, don't get me started here about the decline and fall of urban anthropology. Go look at the works of Anthony Leeds.

Leeds, Anthony
1979    Forms of Urban Integration: 'Social Urbanization' in Comparative Perspective. Urban Anthropology 8: 227-247.

1980    Towns and Villages in Society: Hierarchies of Order and Cause. In Cities in a Larger Context, edited by T. Collins, pp. 6-33. University of Georgia Press, Athens.

1994    Cities, Classes, and the Social Order, edited by Roger Sanjek. Cornell University Press, Ithaca.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Were ancient societies more egalitarian than we had thought?



I just got a request from a journalist to comment on the notion that archaeologists are now finding that ancient societies may have been more egalitarian than archaeologists had once thought. Here is a pretty close version of my response:

First, it doesn’t mean much to say that ancient societies were more or less egalitarian than we had thought. For hunter-gatherers and small-scale farmers, the situation is the reverse. Traditional models held them to be egalitarian, and we now know that many cases (but far from all) had significant levels of inequality. Some of the papers in our recent Amerind symposium show this. While this isn’t a particularly new idea, it has taken scholars some time to acknowledge this, and we now have better quantitative data.


For state-level societies, I don’t know of any overall scholarly trend of saying things were more or less unequal than thought previously. We now know that there was tremendous variation in how ancient states were organized. One trend, though, is that scholars (and the public, and certainly the National Geographic Society) used to think all ancient kings were autocratic and despotic, ruled their people with an iron fist, and controlled everyone’s life. Pyramids built by slaves being whipped by overseers was a common image. Few archaeologists will admit to this view, but they dress it up in fancy theoretical terms (Foucaultian power, hegemony, and such) that say the same thing: ancient rulers tried to control everyone's life.

The biggest advance in understanding ancient states in the past few decades is Blanton and Fargher’s 2008 book.They show that premodern states (all of their cases are based on historical or ethnographic data, not archaeological) can be arranged along a continuum from autocratic to collective. They have rigorous methods of measuring their scale in each of 30 societies, and they have a theory that explains the variation. Basically, if you have to tax your subjects, then you must be nice to them, provide public goods and not be too tyrannical; these are more collective regimes. But if your revenue comes from outside (say, from trade or conquest), then you can treat your subjects like dirt, and be despotic. There is a counter-intuitive element here, which is that collective regimes mess with people’s lives to a great degree (to count them, tax them, and keep track of things) than do autocratic regimes. This is what Michael Mann calls infrastructural power. Despots leave people alone, they don’t try to control their lives; they just don’t care what their subjects do. Many archaeologists still have not gotten the word about this, and they still claim that autocratic tyrants in the past were trying to control everyone, which is really quite a silly idea when you have read the literature.


Unforetunately, Blanton and Fargher's model has taken a long time to get established. I don’t fully understand why, although it might be due to the fact that some parts of archaeology has become very post-modern and humanities-oriented, with fashionable social theory being more important than scientific methods and data. Blanton and Fargher are scientific and empirical, so lots of archaeologists ignore their work for that reason alone.

The implication of this for the basic question (about levels of inequality in the past) is that it seems to be the case that more collective regimes are associated with lower levels of social inequality than are more autocratic regimes. This is certainly the case for the modern world (democracies have less inequality than dictatorial regimes, etc.). But for the premodern world, this association has yet to be established conclusively. Unfortuantely, Blanton and Fargher do not address the question of levels of inequality. Our Amerind seminar project may support it – but that will depend on some synthetic data analysis that is only just now starting. So, IF this association of regime type with inequality holds up for ancient times, then the recognition that collective regimes were far more widespread than thought (i.e., collective rule did not begin all of a sudden in Athens), does suggest that many ancient state socieites had lower levels of social inequality. But the proof is in the pudding, and I’m not willing to come out and declare this conclusion until we have analyzed the data.


Also, there is an ideological element to claims of lower inequality in the past. It is true that archaeologists are now working more on houses and households, not just considering kings and pyramids. And one common tendency is to claim that these ancient people we study were more successful and independent and prosperous that we used to think. But given that our old models were completely unrealistic pictures of domination and suppression, the new ideas are due less to new findings than to theoretical fashions and changes.

That said, I do think I have made a case for prosperous Aztec commoners in my book, At Home with the Aztecs. Check out the book’s website for some journalistic articles and publicity that covers some of the content.  http://smithaztecbook.wikispaces.asu.edu/


Blanton, Richard E. and Lane F. Fargher  (2008)  Collective Action in the Formation of Pre-Modern States. Springer, New York.

Mann, Michael  (1984)  The Autonomous Power of the State: Its Origins, Mechanisms and Results. European Journal of Sociology / Archives Européennes de Sociologie 25:185-213.

Mann, Michael  (2008)  Infrastructural Power Revisited. Studies in Comparative International Development 43:355-365.