Complexity of communications in pre-Columbian America did not depend on the level of development of society

(ORDO NEWS) — There is an opinion that the more populated the human community and the more developed its civilization, the more complex and systematic its means of transmitting information. But things can be much more confusing.

Gary Feinman of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and David Carballo of Boston University analyzed a large body of written and other evidence of communication in Mesoamerica over the 3,000 years before the arrival of the Spaniards.

Mesoamerica is often confused with Central America, but these are not exactly the same concepts. The term “Mesoamerica” ​​was introduced in the middle of the last century by the German anthropologist Paul Kirchhoff, who proposed to call those territories of Central America where highly developed states existed.

The boundaries of these lands are difficult to accurately define: at different times they differed, as they depended on the expansion of states. But approximately we can say that Mesoamerica is the territory from the central part of Mexico to Nicaragua.

complexity of communications in pre Columbian America did not depend on the level of development of society 2

Scientists chose this particular historical and cultural region for study, since for at least 3000 years (from 1500 BC to 1520 AD) it was isolated from Eurasia and, accordingly, is one of the few places in the world where systems letters and communications developed, on the one hand, absolutely in isolation, without the participation of other scripts, and on the other hand, types of communications could be borrowed by neighboring groups of people with similar cultural and religious characteristics, but at the same time living in a state with different principles of governance.

Feynman and Carbayo studied the correlation between the size of a society and ten specific communication practices (sharing personal information between people, transferring information at the state level, propaganda, etc.) in 30 localities, then in six regional areas, and finally in Mesoamerica as a whole.

A systematic analysis of communication evidence from 30 Mesoamerican sites showed that although there is indeed a correlation between the availability and use of communication media, including writing, and population size, it is not described by a linear relationship.

That is, with the growth of the population in a particular community, the likelihood of the emergence of more complex communication systems did not always grow. But something similar to a linear relationship was shown by another factor: the specific socio-political organization of society.

In other words, the level of exchange and transmission of information was influenced by how people were organized, the nature of relations between the political elite and the population, between formal leaders and their followers.

The system of state information in areas where power was in the hands of autocratic rulers and kings was very complex, but mainly aimed at praising the merits of this ruler in front of other members of the elite or influential people, and not at all in front of all subjects.

Complex communication systems, including writing, were actively used in such places to create memorial steles describing this or that deed of a local leader. The authors suggest that most people had a low level of literacy and the authorities in such societies did not consider it necessary to spend resources on them.

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In areas governed by councils or other collective means with distributed power, the media tended to be less sophisticated, although there were, for example, annual calendar systems associated with agricultural, ritual, and market cycles.

At the same time, less complex approaches used simpler communication systems, explained certain things in a very accessible way, so that the information could be understood regardless of the level of literacy.

So, the conclusions of the work are as follows: the more despotic and authoritarian the government, the less it is interested in ordinary people, and the closer the government is to the principles of collective management, the more willingly it seeks (and finds) a common language with the population. The idea seems pretty obvious, but it’s really not.

“Fifty years ago,” the paper says, “most scholars believed that all pre-modern political units, especially outside Europe, were ruled arbitrarily with direct control of the economy. This model has now been shown to be wholly untrue in many historical cases, and some Mesoamerican states may be quite informative as to how stable government was maintained without much concentration of wealth and power.”


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