Archaeologists discover an ancient democracy in the Americas

Ancient Mesoamerican cities show signs of democracy.
(Image credit: iStock)

You think the 2016 election season was rough? In the ancient city of Tlaxcallan, located in what is now modern day Mexico, archaeologists have discovered signs of an early democracy where potential rulers first had to serve as warriors, and then were subjected to a trial of punches and kicks (while naked) in a public city square. But that wasn't all, Science writes:

After this trial ended, the candidate would enter the temple on the edge of the plaza and stay for up to two years, while priests drilled him in Tlaxcallan's moral and legal code. He would be starved, beaten with spiked whips when he fell asleep, and required to cut himself in bloodletting rituals. But when he walked out of the temple, he would be more than a warrior: He would be a member of Tlaxcallan's senate, one of the 100 or so men who made the city's most important military and economic decisions. [Science]

For many years, archaeologists believed ancient democratic societies were exclusive to Europe, but Tlaxcallan, built around A.D. 1250, shows signs that it was a collective civilization where rulers were made, not born. The city's governors lived in modest homes rather than palaces and distinguishing the wealthy from the poor based on goods alone is difficult due to relative income equality among the residents. "This is like Superman's Bizarro World," said archaeologist Lane Fargher. "Everything is the inverse of what you expect for Mesoamerica."

While most other ancient cities in the region had great kings and massive pyramids, palaces, and plazas, Tlaxcallan was assembled without a clear hierarchy or central meeting place. Plazas, for example, were scattered throughout the city, and Fargher believes the rulers would meet in a grand building less than a mile outside of town, indicating a dispersal of power.

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"Democracy isn't a one-shot deal that happened one time," Purdue University archaeologist Richard Blanton explained. "It comes and goes, and it's very difficult to sustain." Read more about how archaeologists are learning to recognize the signs of early democracies — and the possibility that there were other collective societies in ancient Mesoamerica — at Science.

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Jeva Lange

Jeva Lange was the executive editor at She formerly served as The Week's deputy editor and culture critic. She is also a contributor to Screen Slate, and her writing has appeared in The New York Daily News, The Awl, Vice, and Gothamist, among other publications. Jeva lives in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.