Can We Learn from the History of Ancient Cities?

Old city ruins, including a pyramid and a central square

The Pyramid of the Sun and the Street of the Dead at Teotihuacan. Photo: Linda M. Nicholas.

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

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A tall vertical stone with detailed carving of a person with an elaborate headdress and holding what appears to be a knife
Carved stela in the Temple of the Foliated Cross at Palenque. Photo: Linda M. Nicholas.

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. 

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Panoramic view of city ruins with a tower in the center, surrounded by lush green trees and landscape
The Palace at Palenque. Photo: Linda M. Nicholas. 

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. 

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A large open square surrounded by city ruins, including a stone structure with stairs that people are climbing
The large Ciudadela compound at Teotihuacan. Photo: Linda M. Nicholas. 

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.