In what is probably the worst idea I’ve ever had, I’m reading and blogging The Dawn of Everything by David Wengrow and David Graeber.
Chapter 8 left us in Mesopotamia paused to explore the relationship between the early farming villages and the hunters of the hills. In my youth the books all assumed that farming led almost immediately to hierarchies of states while the hunters maintained egalitarian freedom. Since then it is firmly established that thousands of years went happily by in which farmers had no more hierarchies than foragers, and they were more egalitarian than many known foragers. Meanwhile the two Davids seem to be moving toward the argument that it was the hill people who invented kingship out of raiding bands.
Chapter 9 takes us across the oceans to Mesoamerica. It’s a pretty interesting chapter for me because I don’t know much about the region beyond the Maya and Aztecs and some carved Olmec heads. The Davids tell us that the Aztecs told the Spanish of an abandoned city which they called Teotihuacan. Archeologists have confirmed that it was inhabited from c1000 BC to c600 AD after which it was abandoned. (The Aztecs migrated to the area around 1150 AD.) Teotihuacan coexisted with the ‘Classic Maya’ city states far to the south. (c150 AD-900 AD)
What’s most interesting about Teotihuacan was it was a huge city (as big as Rome at the time) but it seems to have lacked a ruling elite. Around 300 AD their ‘Temple of the Feathered Serpent’ as it is called by archeologists seems to have been destroyed and collective efforts were redirected toward building apartment blocks. From that point there is very little evidence for large differences in wealth or status in the city and no evidence of kingship.
Much of the chapter is dedicated to Tlaxcala, a republican city state which Cortes encountered that eventually allied with him and was instrumental in helping him defeat the Aztecs.
The Davids spend a lot of time trying to argue that large, complex cities don’t need to be kingdoms, and I just don’t know how many people doubt this. There were republics in Mesopotamia, the Mediterranean, India, and China. Republican or democratic government is perhaps the most natural form of city government. So where did all the kingdoms come from?
Next: Chapter 10 Why the State Has No Origin