Talk at the Society for American Archaeology

Next week I am scheduled to give a talk during the 80th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, which will take place April 15-19 in San Francisco. Title and abstract are as follows:

Can government be self-organized? A mathematical model of the collective social organization of ancient Teotihuacan, Central Mexico

Tom Froese, Carlos Gershenson, and Linda R. Manzanilla

Pyramid of the Feathered SerpentTeotihuacan was the first extensive urban civilization of Mesoamerica and one of the largest of the ancient world. Following a tradition in archaeology to equate social complexity with centralized hierarchy, it is still widely believed that its origin and growth was controlled by a dynastic lineage of powerful individuals.

However, much data is indicative of a government of co-rulers, and artistic traditions expressed an egalitarian ideology while deemphasizing individuals. Yet this heterarchical alternative keeps being marginalized because the problems of collective action, such as the tragedy of the commons, make it difficult to conceive how such a coalition could have functioned even in principle. We therefore devised a simplified mathematical model of the city’s hypothetical network of neighborhood representatives, serving as a proof of concept that widespread cooperation was realizable in a fully distributed manner.

In the model, political decisions become self-organized into globally optimal consensuses, even though local representatives always behave and modify relations in a rational and selfish manner. The network’s self-optimization of connectivity crucially depends on occasional communal interruptions of normal activity, and becomes impeded when groups are too independent. We relate these insights to theories about community rituals at Teotihuacan and the city’s eventual disintegration.

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