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Ancient ruins point to the origins of American state power

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Ancient ruins point to the origins of American state power published by nherting
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Posted on 2017-04-12
Writer Description: current events
This writer has written 195 articles.

The palace overlooking the plaza at El Palenque would have been an incredible sight to people living more than 2,300 years ago in Mexico's Oaxaca Valley. The area was built up after a fire destroyed another plaza downslope at El Mogote, and everything about El Palenque was grander than El Mogote. An enormous temple complex bounded the plaza's eastern side. To the north, the palace cascaded down the gentle slope in a series of grand stairways, gorgeously paved platforms covered in smoking braziers, and private state rooms. The king could address his subjects from two airy courtyards facing the plaza. But this ostentatious display of power was less impressive than what the king's subjects couldn't see.

What this palace hid behind its fancy colonnades and altars was the elaborate infrastructure of nascent state bureaucracy. Behind the public-facing platforms, stairways and corridors led to over half-a-dozen state rooms. Adjacent to stairs connecting two platforms, archaeologists have recovered the bones of dogs, as if these animals were guarding it. Perhaps that's because the upper platform served as a throne room where the king met with dignitaries and advisers, sometimes staging a human sacrifice.

Next to the upper platform was a private courtyard for the king. This was surrounded by eight rooms and set up for intimate feasts hidden from the public. Archaeologists believe the king's quarters were accessed by a single secluded stairway hidden behind the throne room. This palace was no simple headman's mansion. It was a statehouse covering roughly 2,790 square meters, set up for political meetings that ranged from small gatherings to public speeches for crowds in the plaza.

Even more notably, this palace was entirely separate from the 5,000-square-meter temple complex, itself a maze of platforms and living quarters. This suggests there were hundreds of people running the city that surrounded El Palenque's central plaza, doing a diverse range of jobs for at least two major institutions housed in separate buildings.

In a recent paper, American Museum of Natural History archaeologists Elsa Redmond and Charles Spencer explain what the palace ruins can tell us about the government at El Palenque over two millennia ago. Humans didn't invent today's elaborate bureaucratic states overnight. El Palenque may represent a stage between kingdom and state, where power is centralized but growing more diffuse. One of the hallmarks of this kind of state power, at least architecturally, is what archaeologists call a "multifunctional palace complex," where the king's residence is just one part of a bigger political machine.

Politics in the ruins

Redmond and Spencer have been conducting excavations at El Palenque since 1993, uncovering several large structures that are the most obvious remains of a sizable city that resisted conquest by other regional powers for centuries. The plaza at El Palenque likely stood for roughly 200 years, and its palace complex was built all at once, likely from a single architectural plan. Its construction was beautiful but also a marvel of engineering: it involved an elaborate rainwater management system that routed runoff through courtyards, down drains, and under palace buildings to fill two large pools. Redmond told Ars that the water wasn't for plumbing, it was instead used in rituals and for drinking.

More than anything, the palace's rapid and complex construction tells us that its ruler could mobilize a lot of labor power. "The palace complex represents the supreme ruler's ability to draw the labor needed to build such a large and internally differentiated palace," Redmond explained via e-mail. "Indeed, the ruler would have stood at the top of the newly formed state bureaucracy." To manage all that labor, the king would have needed many advisers and representatives. The throne room is still littered with evidence of many meetings: Redmond and Spencer found figurines representing spiritual leaders, bits of charcoal in ritual braziers, animal bones from state dinners, and the remains of human skulls and teeth littering the platform and stairs leading to the throne room.

Many rituals of the palace, including human sacrifice, were essentially political in nature. Based on firsthand accounts of sacrifices that took place centuries later in the same region, archaeologists speculate that the people of El Palenque believed that they were enlisting the aid of the gods or gaining insight into future events. They were also, undoubtedly, consolidating their power. El Palenque was most likely an authoritarian regime, ruled by an elite class which lived mostly on the premises in the plaza.

But that doesn't mean that early state power in the Americas was always authoritarian. New discoveries from the same era, in the late first millennium BCE, suggest that other states were trying out a more democratic system of government. As Lizzie Wade explained recently in Archaeology magazine, researchers like University of Kentucky's Christopher Pool are investigating a unique, egalitarian city called Tres Zapotes on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. There, the city layout is far more distributed than El Palenque's. While El Palenque has a large, central plaza where all the powerful institutions are situated and ruled over by a king, Tres Zapotes has at least three modest city centers that all look relatively similar. As Pool put it to Wade: "There was a change in political organization from one that was very centralized, very focused on the ruler, to one that shared power among several factions." He believes it was possibly a proto-democracy.

Both El Palenque and Tres Zapotes were early experiments with state power, which laid the foundations for the more complex bureaucracies that prop up the nations that exist in the Americas today. Even now, the tug of war between authoritarian and democratic governments continues on these continents.

El Palenque's abandonment was precipitated by a great fire sometime between 100 BCE and 200 CE. Ample evidence from the site shows that the flames roared through the entire temple complex as well as the priests' residences. Though we don't know what conflict caused the fire, it appears to have led to the palace's abandonment as well. It seems that one body was left behind in the tumult. Redmond and Spencer report finding a "careless internment of an adult individual of indeterminate sex in the firebox of one of the priest's residences." It was in "a cramped position that resulted in the skull resting in the firebox’s southeast corner and a knee poking above its northwest corner." We can't be sure whether this person was quickly stuffed into the fireplace before or after the conflagration. But the body remained in place for over 2,000 years, a poignant and bizarre postscript to one of the Americas' first bureaucracies.



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