The researchers argue that Monte Albán, the largest city in its area for more than a thousand years, is not located near particularly good farmland. But what it took from the city’s foundation was a protected hilltop location and a more collectivist form of government that attracted people to both the settlement and its surroundings.
The ancient city in southern Mexico thrived without relying on fertile soil.
In the past, researchers have suggested that proximity to resources promotes settlement patterns, with cities often established near water and fertile soil for farming. But a new paper by an archaeological team questions that idea, using the example of an ancient city in present-day southern Mexico. The researchers argue that Monte Albán, the largest city in its region, is nowhere near fertile farmland. But it has a well-developed settlement background.
“We wanted to understand where Monte Albán was founded,” said Linda Nicholas, first author of the Frontiers in Poli Science study and curator at the Field Museum.
Learn about Monte Albán.
Monte Albán is located in the Oaxaca Valley in southern Mexico. It was founded in 500 BC, grew rapidly, and existed as the main metropolis of the region for 1,300 years, longer than most, if not all, other pre-Mesoamerican cities.
One theory to explain the rapid development in Monte Albán is coercion — the idea that powerful rulers forced people to move there. Another possible explanation is that people go there because the land is good for farming. To test the plausibility of these possible explanations, Nicholas and Feinman went back over decades to studying both Monte Albán and the surrounding Oaxaca Valley.
To evaluate the argument that Monte Albán attracts people because of the quality of its arable land, the researchers drew on studies of modern land use in the valley to map out different soil types based on on the availability and permanence of water, the most important factor for plants. yield in the valley. Good, well-watered soil is evenly distributed throughout the valley, so that some areas have much higher yield potential than others. While the settlements before Monte Albán were more concentrated in the most productive parts of the valley, Monte Albán was not. Soil quality was not a factor influencing settlement decisions at the time of the founding of Monte Albán, neither for the city nor for its neighboring settlements.
“Linda’s analysis of land use makes it very clear that Monte Albán is not located near the richest land. Whether you just look at the land or you count the labor to work,” says Feinman, “agricultural productivity cannot explain the location of Monte Albán.”
The relationship of the city to the people.
Feinman notes that the city’s architecture may have included clues to this partnership between the classes that led people to Monte Albán. “From the very beginning of the website, there was a large main square where people could meet and express their voices, at least sometimes. People may have been incentivized to move there for the sake of defense and economic opportunities,” he said. “But on the other hand, to strengthen and support these new institutions, farmers may have to give up some of their surplus. So it’s a kind of give and take.”
While Feinman and Nicholas note that the study is just one case, of one city, it does have some lessons for us today. “Monte Albán is a city where a new social contract has been written from its foundation. And with collective and relatively equal government, it’s been around for more than a millennium,” Feinman said. When it collapsed, however, the city’s population plummeted and many of its establishments dissolved, ushering in a period of more autocratic rule.”