Paper on how communal ritual makes social hierarchy more effective

Our contribution to the “Special Issue on Social Learning and Cultural Evolution with Cognitive Systems“, edited by Peter Andras and James Borg, has been accepted for publication in the journal Cognitive Systems Research.

Here is the title and abstract. Clicking the title will open a pre-print version.

Modeling collective rule at ancient Teotihuacan as a complex adaptive system: Communal ritual makes social hierarchy more effective

Tom Froese and Linda R. Manzanilla

Experts remain divided about the nature of the sociopolitical system of ancient Teotihuacan, which was one of the earliest and largest urban civilizations of the Americas. Excavations hoping to find compelling evidence of powerful rulers, such as a royal tomb, keep coming away empty-handed. But the alternative possibility of collective rule still remains poorly understood as well. Previously we used a computational model of this city’s hypothetical sociopolitical network to show that in principle collective rule based on communal ritual could be an effective strategy of ensuring widespread social coordination, as long as we assume that the network’s structure could be transformed via social learning and local leaders were not strongly subdivided. Here we extended this model to investigate whether increased social hierarchy could mitigate the negative effects of such strong divisions. We found a special synergy between social hierarchy and communal ritual: only their combination improved the extent of social coordination, whereas the introduction of centralization and top-down influence by themselves had no effect. This finding is consistent with portrayals of the Teotihuacan elite as religious specialists serving the public good, in particular by synchronizing the city’s ritual calendar with the rhythms of the stars.

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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).

Talk on water processions and pulque inebriations

A Teotihuacan Mini-Symposium will take place in San Juan Teotihuacan next Monday, July 2. I am going to present the latest advances of my modeling attempts regarding the ancient city’s hypothetical collective sociopolitical network. Here are the title and abstract:

Water processions and pulque inebriations: Simulating the effects of communal ritual on social coordination

Tom Froese

In previous work I simulated a sociopolitical network of the hypothesized collective government of early Teotihuacan based on the distribution of Three-Temple Complexes. Given that actors make decisions and change relationships with others primarily in self-interested ways, it was found that network-wide coordination of decisions is nearly impossible to achieve. However, it was also demonstrated that this social coordination problem is consistently overcome when actors occasionally participate in communal rituals, particularly of the chaotic form in which people’s normal social constraints are temporarily bracketed and replaced by spontaneous, and often intoxicated, individualized behaviors. These fiesta-like rituals allowed network-wide social coordination to arise in a self-organized manner. Yet a type of ritual much more prominently depicted in murals, processions, involves exactly the opposite: highly organized and conventionalized movements that are executed by several individuals in synchrony. In this talk I will compare the extent to which these types of ritual could have facilitated social coordination. The results suggest that processions may have been less effective as long as the sociopolitical network consisted of highly modular clusters of actors, which suggests that they only became an important ritual form after Teotihuacan became a more integrated city.

Article: Computational Aspects of Ancient Social Heterarchies

The latest issue of The Journal of Sociocybernetics has just been released. It includes a contribution that arose from this year’s collaboration with my Colombian colleagues. I thank the many Colombian archaeologists and anthropologists who kindly took the time to meet with us and who provided many helpful comments and insights.

Computational Aspects of Ancient Social Heterarchies: Learning how to Address Contemporary Global Challenges

Nathalie Mezza-Garcia, Tom Froese, Nelson Fernández

As hierarchically and centrally controlled computational systems, contemporary political systems have limitations in their information processing and action capacities to face the current social crises and challenges. In contrast, some older cultures whose political structure was more heterarchically organized, such as found in pre-Hispanic Colombia, were adaptive even without advanced scientific knowledge and without powerful top-down control. In this context, we propose that creating and analyzing computer models of their decentralized processes of management can provide a broader perspective on the possibilities of political organization. In terms of self-optimization, this approach seeks the promotion of social systems with a balance of flexibility and robustness, i.e., systems that do not rely on the current ideal of rule-based control of all systemic aspects.

Tayrona vessel
Vessel produced by the Tayrona in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta between 900 and 1600 AD showing a ritual scene. (Photo courtesy of Museo de Oro, Bogotá)