Published: April 12, 2017

Can We Learn from the History of Ancient Cities?

Gary Feinman, MacArthur Curator of Anthropology, Integrative Research Center

The short answer is yes—and we are learning that ancient cities were more diverse in the ways they organized themselves. Some were even collective societies that resemble our republics today.

Old city ruins, including a pyramid and a central square

The short answer is yes—and we are learning about how ancient civilizations operated and governed themselves. As archaeologists continue to uncover evidence in Mesoamerican societies (located in present-day Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize), we have discovered that ancient cities were more diverse in the ways they organized themselves. Some were even collective societies that resemble our republics today.

Understanding the civilizations of the preindustrial past can help inform our decisions in the present. One of today’s greatest scientific questions remains, how have (and do) humans manage to cooperate in large social networks, encompassing millions or billions of people? A key part of the equation revolves around the diverse ways that people approach decision making and governance. 

Digging deeper

A tall vertical stone with detailed carving of a person with an elaborate headdress and holding what appears to be a knife

For more than a generation, social scientists have tended to agree that most, if not all, preindustrial societies were despotic, led by rulers who dominated with an iron fist and controlled wealth centrally. This view was applied to ancient societies around the world, including Mesoamerican civilizations like the Aztec and Maya.

Thinking about these societies, you might imagine pyramids rising above rainforest canopies, human sacrifice, stone monuments with elaborate carvings, subterranean tombs, and the decipherment of ancient calendars. And, in fact, archaeologists and their colleagues are still studying all of these.

But in the last 50 years or so, the focus of Mesoamerican archaeology has shifted in a big way. Now, scientists are mapping settlement patterns to learn about where people lived in relation to each other and to different kinds of public spaces. Household excavations give novel vantages on daily life and economic exchange between individuals. We can gain new insights—ones that parallel our own world—from the plans of ancient cities, such as Teotihuacan in Central Mexico, Monte Albán in Oaxaca, and Tikal in Guatemala. 

From studying these urban centers, we begin to see much more diversity in governance than was ever imagined. Undoubtedly, some prehispanic societies in this region were led by dynastic lines of autocratic, god-linked rulers such as those who have been immortalized on carved stone monuments. Yet many Mesoamerican societies did not fit this pattern: they were organized more collectively. In some cases, political power appears to have been shared, with citizens having a voice in how government was run. 

Iron fist or collective government?

So, how does the physical evidence show whether a society was more autocratic or closer to a republic? Archaeologists can document these differences through art, monumental architecture, urban layouts, burial contexts, and other indicators of consumption and access to valued goods, like greenstone and marine shell. 

Panoramic view of city ruins with a tower in the center, surrounded by lush green trees and landscape

At sites like the Maya cities of Tikal and Palenque (AD 700–900), the palaces of the supreme rulers were centrally situated and easy to define. Carved stelae (vertical stone slabs) depicted named rulers, and the burial tombs of these leaders were elaborately stocked with exotic goods. Central plazas and communal areas were relatively small, and the main temples were designed in an exclusive fashion, raised by platforms above the canopies of surrounding trees. Textual accounts, often carved into stone, show that rulership was generally inherited through kin connections. Governance at these sites seems to have conformed in a general way to long-held models. 

A large open square surrounded by city ruins, including a stone structure with stairs that people are climbing

But these patterns are not typically found in other cities. At the giant Central Mexican city, Teotihuacan (AD 200–600), which was larger in population and far more architecturally monumental than Tikal or Palenque, there are no known monuments that glorify specific, named rulers. Rather, important well-attired figures were often masked, appearing as part of processions that included an array of high-status individuals. There is no clear ruler’s palace (far more elaborate than other residences) at Teotihuacan, and the city’s streets are wide and gridded. There are large plazas where much of the settlement’s population of more than 100,000 people could assemble. There is no elaborate tomb or burial complex that we can say, without a doubt, is associated with a unitary ruler. Although status and wealth differences were present at Teotihuacan, they were much more muted than at the Classic Maya centers.

Learning from the past, today

I recently worked with Dr. David Carballo from Boston University to examine 20 prehispanic Mesoamerican cities. We found that there was a roughly even split in our sample between those societies that were more collectively organized and those that had indicators of more autocratic governance. This analysis shows the same patterns as the ones we see in our contrast of the Classic Maya cities and Teotihuacan. Then, we examined the apogee of each of these urban centers; that is, how long they remained the major cities in their respective regions.

The results, although still preliminary, are provocative. Those urban centers that had lesser concentrations of power and wealth tended to be longer-lived and more resilient in the face of competition and other forces of collapse. What does this mean for societies today? Well, that remains to be seen, as we continue to research ancient cities, their different patterns of governance and institutions, and how the different cities and polities met various challenges—but it certainly provides incentive to search for and contemplate the lessons of the past.

Learn more about how archaeologists are studying Mesoamerican cities in Science.


Gary Feinman

Gary Feinman is the MacArthur Curator of Mesoamerican, Central American, and East Asian Anthropology.

Feinman presently co-directs two international archaeological field projects. His long-time study region is Mesoamerica, where he currently is conducting excavations at Lambityeco. This is the fourth Classic-period (A.D. 250-900) settlement where Feinman and Linda Nicholas (Adjunct Curator, Anthropology) have led excavations (following Ejutla, El Palmillo, and the Mitla Fortress). To review field dispatches from Feinman’s earlier fieldwork in Oaxaca, please check here and here.  Earlier Feinman had leadership roles in the Valley of Oaxaca and Ejutla Valley Archaeological Settlement Pattern Projects. Feinman's settlement pattern experience led him to become a co-director of the Coastal Shandong Archaeological Settlement Pattern Project, which has now surveyed in eastern Shandong Province for 19 field seasons. In 2012-13, the Sino-American team was able to follow the remnants of China's first great wall, which once cut across the study region. To see previous field reports from China, please check here.

In this long-term regional study, Feinman and Nicholas originally collaborated with Dr. Anne Underhill (Yale University) and colleagues from Shandong University and the Rizhao Museum. Recently, the Field Museum archaeologists are co-directing the project with Professor Fang Hui of Shandong University, the Jiaonan Museum, and the Qingdao Institute of Archaeology. This study is focused on the rise of cities and states in the region, the eventual incorporation of this coastal area into large Chinese polities centered to the West, and population change in this region over millennia. The investigation provides a focused vantage on the processes that led to the first unification of China during the 3rd century B.C.

Feinman's research also focuses on Field Museum collections. With Ronald Faulseit (Postdoctoral Scientist) and Linda Nicholas, a study of the Oaxaca effigy vessels in the Museum’s collection is currently underway. In conjunction with Professor Dean Arnold (Adjunct Curator, Anthropology) and other museum colleagues, another project is examining the production of the famous and unusual pigment, Maya Blue. Please click here to learn more.  A third project with colleagues from the museum and the University of Illinois-Chicago has sourced obsidian from J. Eric Thompson's excavations at San José, Belize, as a basis for defining shifts in long-distance exchange routes with implications for the oft-discussed political transitions in the Maya region at the end of the Classic period (ca. A.D. 800-900). These findings were published (with colleagues) in the journal, Antiquity.

Under the auspices of the Museum’s Elemental Analysis Facility and with colleagues from the U.S. and Mexico, Feinman and Nicholas have undertaken the obsidian sourcing of archaeological collections from the Valley of Oaxaca using portable X-ray fluorescence devices. The first season of results from this analysis are published (in Mexicon) with Linda Nicholas and Mark Golitko (Research Scientist, Field Museum). In conjunction with Curator Emeritus Jonathan Haas, Feinman is the Co-Curator of the Field Museum's permanent Ancient Americas exhibition, which highlights the history of the Western Hemisphere before the 15th century A.D. He also is a Co-Curator of the permanent Cyrus Tang Hall of China, which will open in Chicago in June 2015. Feinman also was the Curator of the Museum's small temporary exhibition, Traditions Retold, which featured artisanal nativity scenes from different regions of Mexico. In addition, Feinman co-curates the Museum's successful exhibition Chocolate, which opened at the Field, traveled around the United States to 22 venues, and was re-opened at the at the Museum (for a short run in 2011) as Chocolate Around the World. The Chocolate exhibition is now on a global tour.