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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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.

Talk at the Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology

Next week I will present the latest installment of our model-based research into the social organization of ancient Teotihuacan at this year’s Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology. Here is the title and abstract:

A network model of co-rulership and community ritual in Teotihuacan: From neighborhoods to districts

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 a powerful dynasty of rulers, such as a royal tomb, keep coming away empty-handed. However, the alternative possibility of a corporate or collective government, perhaps headed by a small number of co-rulers, also remains poorly understood. A third option is that the city’s collective government begun as a fully decentralized network of neighborhood representatives, but this kind of arrangement seems susceptible to the problems of cooperation and action coordination. Previously we used a computational model to show that in principle this latter worry is unfounded, as long as we assume that the network’s topology could be transformed via community rituals and was not strongly subdivided (Froese, Gershenson, and Manzanilla 2014). Here we extend this model to investigate whether centralized hierarchy could mitigate the negative effects of strong divisions. The new results reveal a peculiar synergy between hierarchy and community ritual in that only their combination improved the extent of coordination, which is consistent with portrayals of the elite as religious specialists serving the public.

6th Roundtable Teotihuacan

Today started the 6th Roundtable of Teotihuacan, which will take place in Teotihuacan during Nov. 16-18, 2017.

There is live transmission of the main talks: http://www.inah.gob.mx/es/mesa-teotihuacan-programa

The title and abstract of my talk are as follows:

Explorando la función del posible cogobierno de distritos con base en un modelo matemático de su red social

Dr. Tom Froese y Dra. Linda R. Manzanilla
Read the rest of this entry »

International Symposium on the Sociopolitical Organization of Teotihuacan

It has been 5 years since I moved to Mexico to create a computational model of the sociopolitical organization of ancient Teotihuacan. I am happy to report that this project has matured. I am involved in the organization of the International Symposium on the Sociopolitical Organization of Teotihuacan, which will bring together the world’s leading experts working on this topic.

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At the symposium I will I gave talk on the latest results of the model. The title and abstract are as follows:

A computational model of Teotihuacan’s collective government: New insights into role of the city’s division into districts

Tom Froese

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 a corporate or collective government still remains poorly understood. There is a lack of evidence of a powerful bureaucracy, such as durable record keeping, but a decentralized network limited to the level of neighborhood representatives seems susceptible to problems of collective action.

Previously we used a computational model to show that in principle this latter worry is unfounded, as long as we assume that the network’s topology could be transformed via community rituals and was not strongly subdivided. Here we extend this model to investigate whether increased social hierarchy could mitigate the negative effects of strong divisions. We found a special synergy between hierarchy and community ritual in that only their combination improved the extent of cooperation, which is consistent with portrayals of the elite as religious specialists serving the public good and with the apparent absence of extensive secular institutions.

Current work is investigating whether a reduction in the city’s number of districts could reduce the necessity for this kind of centralized hierarchy.

81st Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology

Teotihuacan-style_incense_burner_depicting_a_ruler_and_his_court,_Maya,_Early_Classic_Period,_250-600_AD,_ceramic_-_Royal_Ontario_Museum_-_DSC04482This year’s Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) will take place April 6-10, in Orlando, Florida.

I will present a continuation of my ongoing project to model the collective political organization of ancient Teotihuacan in collaboration with archaeologist Linda Manzanilla.

Our contribution was invited to take place in a special session: “The Rise and Decline of Teotihuacan: Urbanism, Daily Life, and Regional Relations through Time”.

The title and abstract are as follows:

A network theoretical analysis of the emergence of co-rulership in ancient Teotihuacan, Central Mexico

Tom Froese and Linda R. Manzanilla

The political organization of Teotihuacan continues to be unknown. While some researchers see evidence for a powerful centralized hierarchy, others argue for a more collective form of government. We created an abstract computer model of hypothetical social relations among neighborhood-level representatives to show that such a distributed political network could in principle have been sufficient for globally optimal decision making, as long as there are community rituals and sections of the city are not too independent (Froese, Gershenson and Manzanilla 2014). These conditions were most likely satisfied during the early periods of the city. However, there is evidence that during the final stages some neighborhood centers become more isolated and independent, and the city as a whole became organized into four districts. Our model suggests that such social fractioning would have undermined a purely horizontally organized collective government. But Manzanilla has hypothesized that four co-rulers governed the city at the district level during this period. We therefore introduced this hierarchical level into our model to verify if such a mixed organization could have addressed some of the issues associated with a fractioning of the underlying social system. We discuss our modeling results in the context of archeological evidence.

News about model of ancient Teotihuacan

A news report based on an interview I gave to Ciencia UNAM has been published on their web portal:

Santillán, M. L. (Feb. 23, 2015). Modelo matemático revela la organización política de Teotihuacán. Ciencia UNAM. Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Retrieved from http://ciencia.unam.mx/leer/431/Modelo_matematico_revela_la_organizacion_politica_de_Teotihuacan

It describes the social network model we made about the collective government of ancient Teotihuacan, Mexico.

Our Teotihuacan social network research on TV

The interdisciplinary collaboration between two social systems modelers, Carlos Gershenson and I, and one of the most renowned archaeologists of Teotihuacan resulted in a first attempt to formally explore the possibilities of collective government of the ancient city:

Froese T, Gershenson C, Manzanilla LR (2014) Can Government Be Self-Organized? A Mathematical Model of the Collective Social Organization of Ancient Teotihuacan, Central Mexico. PLoS ONE 9(10): e109966. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0109966

The press release has been taken up by national Mexican TV. See the interviews here:

Hechos Meridiano (2014, Nov. 26). Los misterios de Teotihuacan [Television broadcast]. TV Azteca: Azteca Noticias. Retrieved from: http://www.aztecanoticias.com.mx

And here:

Creadores Universitarias (2014, Nov. 26). Arqueología matemática [Television broadcast]. Noticierios Televisa: FOROtv. Retrieved from: http://noticieros.televisa.com