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Indigenous Americans ruled democratically long before the U.S. did

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On sunny summer days, powerboats pulling water-skiers zip across Georgia’s Lake Oconee, a reservoir located about an hour-and-a-half drive east of Atlanta. For those without a need for speed, fishing beckons.

Little do the lake’s visitors suspect that here lie the remains of a democratic institution that dates to around 500 A.D., more than 1,200 years before the founding of the U.S. Congress.

Reservoir waters, which flooded the Oconee Valley in 1979 after the construction of a nearby dam, partly cover remnants of a 1,500-year-old plaza once bordered by flat-topped earthen mounds and at least three large, circular buildings. Such structures, which have been linked to collective decision making, are known from other southeastern U.S. sites that date to as early as around 1,000 years ago.

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At the Oconee site, called Cold Springs, artifacts were excavated before the valley became an aquatic playground. Now, new older-than-expected radiocarbon dates for those museum-held finds push back the origin of democratic institutions in the Americas several centuries, a team led by archaeologist Victor Thompson of the University of Georgia in Athens reported May 18 in American Antiquity.

Institutions such as these highlight a growing realization among archaeologists that early innovations in democratic rule emerged independently in many parts of the world. In specific, these findings add to evidence that Native American institutions devoted to promoting broad participation in political decisions emerged in various regions, including what’s now Canada, the United States and Mexico, long before 18th century Europeans took up the cause of democratic rule by the people.

That conclusion comes as no surprise to members of some Indigenous groups today. “Native people have been trying to convey for centuries that many communities have long-standing institutions [of] democratic and/or republican governance,” says University of Alberta archaeologist S. Margaret Spivey-Faulkner, a citizen of the Pee Dee Indian Nation of Beaver Creek in South Carolina.

Democratic innovations

Scholars have traditionally thought that democracy — generally referring to rule by the people, typically via elected representatives — originated around 2,500 years ago in Greece before spreading elsewhere in Europe. From that perspective, governments in the Americas that qualified as democratic didn’t exist before Europeans showed up.  

That argument is as misguided as Christopher Columbus’ assumption that he had arrived in East India, not the Caribbean, in 1492, says archaeologist Jacob Holland-Lulewicz of Penn State, a coauthor of the Cold Springs report. Institutions that enabled representatives of large communities to govern collectively, without kings or ruling chiefs, characterized an unappreciated number of Indigenous societies long before the Italian explorer’s fateful first voyage, Holland-Lulewicz asserts.

In fact, collective decision-making arrangements that kept anyone from amassing too much power and wealth go back thousands, and probably tens of thousands of years in many parts of the world (SN: 11/9/21). The late anthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow of University College London describe evidence for that scenario in their 2021 book The Dawn of Everything.

But only in the last 20 years have archaeologists begun to take seriously claims that ancient forms of democratic rule existed. Scientific investigations informed by Indigenous partners will unveil past political realities “most of us in Indian country take for granted,” Spivey-Faulkner says.

Early consensus

Thompson’s Cold Springs project shows how such a partnership can work.

Ancestors of today’s Muscogee people erected Cold Springs structures within their original homelands, which once covered a big chunk of southeastern North America before the government-forced exodus west along the infamous Trail of Tears. Three members of the Muscogee Nation’s Department of Historic and Cultural Preservation in Okmulgee, Okla., all study coauthors, provided archaeologists with first-hand knowledge of Muscogee society. They emphasized to the researchers that present-day Muscogee councils where open debate informs consensus decisions carry on a tradition that goes back hundreds of generations.  

A set of 44 new radiocarbon dates going back 1,500 years for material previously unearthed at the Georgia site, including what were likely interior posts from some structures, then made perfect sense. Earlier analyses in the 1970s of excavated pottery and six radiocarbon dates from two earthen mounds at Cold Springs suggested that they had been constructed at least 1,000 years ago.

Based on the new dating, Thompson’s team found that from roughly 500 A.D. to 700 A.D, Indigenous people at Cold Springs constructed not only earthen mounds but at least three council-style roundhouses — each 12 to 15 meters in diameter — and several smaller structures possibly used as temporary housing during meetings and ceremonies.

Small communities spread across the Oconee Valley formed tight-knit social networks called clans that gathered at council houses through the 1700s, Thompson’s group suspects. Spanish expeditions through the region from 1539 to 1543 did not cause those societies and their traditions to collapse, as has often been assumed, the researchers contend.

six pottery fragments with varied patternsResearchers will assess who met in ancestral Muscogee council houses at a Georgia site by comparing stamped designs on pottery unearthed there with regionally distinctive, stamped pottery already found across the southeastern United States, such as these ceramic fragments.Ceramic Technology Laboratory/Florida Museum of Natural History/University of Florida

Excavations and radiocarbon dating at another Oconee Valley Muscogee site called Dyar support that view. A square ground connected to Dyar includes remains of a council house. Activity at the site began  as early as 1350 and continued until as late as about 1670, or about 130 years after first encounters with the Spanish, Holland-Lulewicz and colleagues reported in the October 2020 American Antiquity.

Spanish historical accounts mistakenly assumed that powerful chiefs ran Indigenous communities in what have become known as chiefdoms. Many archaeologists have similarly, and just as wrongly, assumed that starting around 1,000 years ago, chiefs monopolized power in southeastern Native American villages, the scientists argue.

Today, members of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma gather, sometimes by the hundreds or more, in circular structures called council houses to reach collective decisions about various community issues. Council houses typically border public square grounds. That’s a modern-day parallel to the story being told by the ancient architecture at Cold Springs.

“Muscogee councils are the longest-surviving democratic institution in the world,” Holland-Lulewicz says.

Indigenous influencers

Political consensus building by early Muscogee people didn’t occur in a vacuum. Across different regions of precontact North America, institutions that enabled broad participation in democratic governing characterized Indigenous societies that had no kings, central state governments or bureaucracies, Holland-Lulewicz and colleagues, report March 11 in Frontiers in Political Science.

The researchers dub such organizations keystone institutions. Representatives of households, communities, clans and religious societies, to name a few, met on equal ground at keystone institutions. Here, all manner of groups and organizations followed common rules to air their opinions and hammer out decisions about, say, distributing crops, organizing ceremonial events and resolving disputes.

a reconstruction of a dome-shaped indigenous council house from the late 1600sIndigenous council houses in many parts of what’s now the southeastern United States, such as this reconstructed example from the late 1600s in Tallahassee, Fla., hosted public meetings and ceremonies.UGA Laboratory of Archaeology

For example, in the early 1600s, nations of the neighboring Wendat (Huron) and Haudenosaunee people in northeastern North America had formed political alliances known as confederacies, says coauthor Jennifer Birch, a University of Georgia archaeologist. Each population contained roughly 20,000 to 30,000 people. Despite their size, these confederacies did not hold elections in which individuals voted for representatives to a central governing body. Governing consisted of negotiations among intertwined segments of society orchestrated by clans, which claimed members across society.

Clans, in which membership was inherited through the female line, were — and still are — the social glue holding together Wendat (Huron) and Haudenosaunee politics. Residents of different villages or nations among, say, the Haudenosaunee, could belong to the same clan, creating a network of social ties. Excavations of Indigenous villages in eastern North America suggest that the earliest clans date to at least 3,000 years ago, Birch says.

Within clans, men and women held separate council meetings. Some councils addressed civil affairs. Others addressed military and foreign policy, typically after receiving counsel from senior clan women.

Clans controlled seats on confederacy councils of the Wendat and Haudenosaunee. But decisions hinged on negotiation and consensus. A member of a particular clan had no right to interfere in the affairs of any other clan. Members of villages or nations could either accept or reject a clan leader as their council representative. Clans could also join forces to pursue political or military objectives.

Some researchers, including Graeber and Wengrow, suspect a Wendat philosopher and statesman named Kandiaronk influenced ideas about democracy among Enlightenment thinkers in France and elsewhere. A 1703 book based on a French aristocrat’s conversations with Kandiaronk critiqued authoritarian European states and provided an Indigenous case for decentralized, representative governing.

Although Kandiaronk was a real person, it’s unclear whether that book presented his actual ideas or altered them to resemble what Europeans thought of as a “noble savage,” Birch says.

Researchers also debate whether writers of the U.S. Constitution were influenced by how the Haudenosaunee Confederacy distributed power among allied nations. Benjamin Franklin learned about Haudenosaunee politics during the 1740s and 1750s as colonists tried to establish treaties with the confederacy.

Colonists took selected political ideas from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy without grasping its underlying cultural concerns, says University of Alberta anthropological archaeologist Kisha Supernant, a member of an Indigenous population in Canada called Métis. The U.S. Constitution stresses individual freedoms, whereas the Indigenous system addresses collective responsibilities to manage the land, water, animals and people, she says.

Anti-Aztec equality

If democratic institutions are cultural experiments in power sharing, one of the most interesting examples emerged around 700 years ago in central Mexico.

In response to growing hostilities from surrounding allies of the Aztec Empire, a multi-ethnic confederation of villages called Tlaxcallan built a densely occupied city of the same name. When Spaniards arrived in 1519, they wrote of Tlaxcallan as a city without kings, rulers or wealthy elites.

painting showing a Tlaxcallan senate meeting to discuss a potential alliance with Spanish conquistador Hernán CortésAn 1869 painting by Mexican artist Rodrigo Gutiérrez depicts the Tlaxcallan senate meeting to discuss a potential alliance with Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés against the Aztec Empire.PAINTING/Alamy Stock Photo

Until the last decade, Mexican historians had argued that Tlaxcallan was a minor settlement, not a city.  They dismissed historical Spanish accounts as exaggerations of the newcomers’ exploits.

Opinions changed after a team led by archaeologist Lane Fargher of Mexico’s Instituto Polytécnico Nacional in Merida surveyed and mapped visible remains of Tlaxcallan structures from 2007 to 2010. Excavations followed from 2015 through 2018, revealing a much larger and denser settlement than previously suspected.

The ancient city covers a series of hilltops and hillsides, Fargher says. Large terraces carved out of hillsides supported houses, public structures, plazas, earthen mounds and roadways. Around 35,000 people inhabited an area of about 4.5 square kilometers in the early 1500s.

Artifacts recovered at plazas indicate that those open spaces hosted commercial, political and religious activities. Houses clustered around plazas. Even the largest residences were modest in size, not much larger than the smallest houses. Palaces of kings and political big shots in neighboring societies, including the Aztecs, dwarfed Tlaxcallan houses.

photo showing excavated building foundations at TlaxcallanExcavations at the ancient Mexican city of Tlaxcallan unearthed remnants of this roughly 90-square-meter house. Other Tlaxcallan houses range in area from about 40 to 220 square meters. Building materials and construction quality are comparable for all structures.L. Fargher

Excavations and Spanish accounts add up to a scenario in which all Tlaxcallan citizens could participate in governmental affairs. Anyone known to provide good advice on local issues could be elected by their neighbors in a residential district to a citywide ruling council, or senate, consisting of between 50 and 200 members. Council meetings were held at a civic-ceremonial center built on a hilltop about one kilometer from Tlaxcallan.

As many as 4,000 people attended council meetings regarding issues of utmost importance, such as launching military campaigns, Fargher says.

Those chosen for council positions had to endure a public ceremony in which they were stripped naked, shoved, hit and insulted as a reminder that they served the people. Political officials who accumulated too much wealth could be publicly punished, replaced or even killed.

Tlaxcallan wasn’t a social utopia. Women, for instance, had limited political power, possibly because the main route to government positions involved stints of military service. But in many ways, political participation at Tlaxcallan equaled or exceeded that documented for ancient Greek democracy, Fargher and colleagues reported March 29 in Frontiers of Political Science. Greeks from all walks of life gathered in public spaces to speak freely about political issues. But commoners and the poor could not hold the highest political offices. And again, women were excluded.

Good government

Tlaxcallan aligned itself with Spanish conquerors against their common Aztec enemy. Then in 1545, the Spanish divided the Tlaxcallan state into four fiefdoms, ending Tlaxcallan’s homegrown style of democratic rule.

The story of this fierce, equality-minded government illustrates the impermanence of political systems that broadly distribute power, Fargher says. Research on past societies worldwide “shows us how bad the human species is at building and maintaining democratic governments,” he contends.

Archaeologist Richard Blanton of Purdue University and colleagues, including Fargher, analyzed whether 30 premodern societies dating to as early as around 3,000 years ago displayed signs of “good government.” An overall score of government quality included evidence of systems for providing equal justice, fair taxation, control over political officials’ power and a political voice for all citizens.

Only eight societies received high scores, versus 12 that scored low, Blanton’s group reported in the February 2021 Current Anthropology. The remaining 10 societies partly qualified as good governments. Many practices of societies scoring highest on good government mirrored policies of liberal democracies over the past century, the researchers concluded.

That’s only a partial view of how past governments operated. But surveys of modern nations suggest that no more than half feature strong democratic institutions, Fargher says.

Probing the range of democratic institutions that societies have devised over the millennia may inspire reforms to modern democratic nations facing growing income disparities and public distrust of authorities, Holland-Lulewicz suspects. Leaders and citizens of stressed democracies today might start with a course on power sharing in Indigenous societies. School will be in session at the next meeting of the Muscogee National Council.

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