Ritual anti-structure as an alternate pathway to social complexity

I was invited to contribute a short opinion piece to the “In Conversation” section of Material Religion regarding recent insights of cognitive science.

Ritual anti-structure as an alternate pathway to social complexity? The case of ancient Teotihuacan, Central Mexico

Tom Froese

There is growing dissatisfaction with the traditional approach to the evolution of complex societies, which treated it principally as a sequence of transformations toward political centralization driven by the construction of increasingly vertical hierarchies by a powerful elite. In Mesoamerica the evidence is more consistent with a variety of alternative pathways to social complexity, and these are fruitfully approached from theoretical perspectives based on social heterarchy (Crumley 2003), collective action (Fargher et al. 2011), and, so I will suggest, ritual anti-structure (Turner 1969).

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Paper: A Mathematical Model of the Collective Social Organization of Ancient Teotihuacan

Ever since I first visited the ancient ruins of Teotihuacan several years ago, I wanted to learn as much as possible about its unique culture. Here is one of the products of that quest: a paper combining complex systems modeling with Mesoamerican archaeology and the anthropology of ritual.

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

Teotihuacan was the first 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 widely believed that the city’s origin and growth was controlled by a lineage of powerful individuals. However, much data is indicative of a government of co-rulers, and artistic traditions expressed an egalitarian ideology. Yet this alternative keeps being marginalized because the problems of collective action make it difficult to conceive how such a coalition could have functioned in principle. We therefore devised a mathematical model of the city’s hypothetical network of representatives as a formal proof of concept that widespread cooperation was realizable in a fully distributed manner. In the model, decisions become self-organized into globally optimal configurations even though local representatives behave and modify their relations in a rational and selfish manner. This self-optimization crucially depends on occasional communal interruptions of normal activity, and it is impeded when sections of the network are too independent. We relate these insights to theories about community-wide rituals at Teotihuacan and the city’s eventual disintegration.

DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0109966

Section of a mural painting of ancient Teotihuacan, Mexico

Here is a recording of a little news clip about the article that was rotated for a week on MVS Radio y Radio Fórmula in Mexico starting on the 10th of November: