Democracy in the Ancient Americas? Maybe Not So Ridiculous After All

The Book of Mormon has often been criticized for its introduction of a form of democracy during the rule of judges era starting around 90 BC. Instead of a potentially despotic king, the Nephites would be ruled by law and a system of judges chosen somehow by “the voice of the people.” Those trappings of democracy have long been viewed as horribly anachronistic. But maybe such a system wasn’t all that crazy after all, and perhaps not all that original in the ancient Americas. See a recent article, “It wasn’t just Greece: Archaeologists find early democratic societies in the Americas” by Lizzie Wade, March 15, 2017, at

A brief excerpt follows:

Now, thanks in part to work led by Fargher’s mentor Richard Blanton,
an anthropologist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana,
Tlaxcallan is one of several premodern societies around the world that
archaeologists believe were organized collectively, where rulers shared
power and commoners had a say in the government that presided over their

These societies were not necessarily full democracies in which
citizens cast votes, but they were radically different from the
autocratic, inherited rule found—or assumed—in most early societies.
Building on Blanton’s originally theoretical ideas, archaeologists now
say these “collective societies” left telltale traces in their material
culture, such as repetitive architecture, an emphasis on public space
over palaces, reliance on local production over exotic trade goods, and a
narrowing of wealth gaps between elites and commoners.

“Blanton and his colleagues opened up a new way of examining our
data,” says Rita Wright, an archaeologist at New York University in New
York City who studies the 5000-year-old Indus civilization in today’s
India and Pakistan, which also shows signs of collective rule. “A whole
new set of scholarship has emerged about complex societies.”

“I think it’s a breakthrough,” agrees Michael E. Smith, an
archaeologist at Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe. “I’ve called
it the most important work in the archaeology of political organization
in the last 20 years.” He and others are working to extend Blanton’s
ideas into a testable method, hoping to identify collective states
solely through the objects they left behind.

The region where these collective societies with advanced civilization occasionally flourished is squarely in Mesoamerica, the most plausible location for the New World setting of the Book of Mormon on the basis of many factors (in my opinion). There is still much to learn and explore regarding collective societies and forms of democracy in the ancient Americas. Those instances cited in this article are not likely to involve Nephites, of course, but do establish that forms of rule other than all-powerful kings were known anciently in Mesoamerica, an important new development to consider.

A hat tip to Bill Knighton for calling my attention to this article.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

8 thoughts on “Democracy in the Ancient Americas? Maybe Not So Ridiculous After All

  1. Er, is that supposed to be a new finding? Evidently none of them ever read Prescott's Conquest of Peru, written in 1847.

  2. I read that article several months back and forwarded it to Daniel Peterson over on his blog. It is interesting, and one worth investigating further. It would be intriguing to find out how much could be gleaned about what areas these sorts of collective societies thrived in vs more autocratic one.


  3. MesoAmerica Is…. Not…..the place setting for the Book of Mormon.

    MesoAmerica does not match with the Scripture record of the Book of Mormon, plus the dates and architecture are wrong and do not match.

    Being book smart does not make one an intelligent person.

  4. Thanks for sharing this, Jeff. It's also interesting to not that Tlaxcala was part of the Nahuatl language-speaking region. Nahuatl was one of the Uto-Aztecan languages that were the ones showing strong evidence of Semitic language influence as noted in previous articles that you shared.
    Also answering to anonymous: One of the things that I appreciate about the supporters of the Meso-american theory for the BofM lands, is that most or all of us (that I'm aware of) don't insist that Meso-america was definitely (without a doubt) the land where the BofM took place, but simply as the most plausible one, leaving open the possibility that we are wrong. However, what I am seeing from most of the folks who support the USA heartland theory is that they tend to insist that the USA heartland is definitely the place where the BofM events occurred, to the exclusion of all others, leaving no room for the possibility that the theory is incorrect. To me that is a red flag in and of itself, as I am never comfortable with this kind of position on any controversial topic, especially one such as BofM lands, on which there is much speculation and no modern official church position. That is one of the main reasons why I am uncomfortable with the heartland theory, among many others, although regardless of this, I am still open to the possibility that it could be correct. There is still a lot that we just don't know about the entire ancient history of North and South America, and the entire world for that matter.

  5. Does the package of "democratic" archeological characteristics include anything corresponding to religious beliefs?

  6. Answering Phil:

    The only known Book of Mormon location is the hill Cumorah in New York (Mormon 6:6). The prophets have consistently and persistently taught that, including in General Conference. Beyond that, the setting is open to study, interpretation, etc.

    There probably are some Mesoamerican or North American proponents who insist they are right, but that has no impact on what the prophets have taught.

  7. Not so fast, Phil. Mormon 6:6 around 385 AD leaves us with a closing Book of Mormon scene with all the mounds of Nephite records safely stored in Cumorah — everything EXCEPT the small set of plates that Mormon gives to Moroni. Moroni takes these with him, and we are left with Moroni wandering, not sticking them back in the Nephite repository.

    He later finishes his father's record (Mormon 8:1) and perhaps around the same time abridges the Jaredite record, and then around 421 AD the plates that he has with him are "sealed up" (Moroni 10:2). How he gets them to their final spot in New York is not known. Did he walk there? The decades he had since Mormon 6:6 gives plenty of time for that. Did he move them there later as an angel? Also possible.

    But in any case, there is nothing in the Book of Mormon that actually supports the idea that the puny, unnamed, insignificant hill where Joseph found the plates could possibly be the large, widely recognized, significant and named hill that two different nations would choose as a good place for a final defense. It would be place near many waters and obviously would have a fresh water supply, unlike the New York hill. It would be large enough to hold many tens of thousands of soldiers for a military advantage, unlike a hill that is barely big enough for the cast of a play. It would stand out, unlike the hill that is like all the dozens of other little unnamed hills in the area. The fact that people made the easy but erroneous assumption that the hill must be the Hill Cumorah and then propagated that error for generations is not indicative of divine revelation telling us where the great battles of the Book of Mormon took place. The New York setting fits none of the details we can derive from the divine record, which must trump folk traditions based on sloppy reading of the text.

  8. When I was a mormon god came to me while i prayed and told me the Book of Mormon historical time line as we believe it, is incorrect.

    I received a revelation that the timeline is between 250,000 – 245,000 BC …and also that many such civilisation have existed over and over since many billions of years ago, on each occasion completely and utterly destroying itself, only to begin again.

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