for National Geographic News
When human ancestors gave up a nomadic way of life to farm the land, they gathered in small communities where they could share some of their skills.
These early societies, known as chiefdoms, sowed the seeds of modern human civilization.
Now a unique study of archaeological data has shown that the organization and symbols of power in these chiefdoms varied greatly. The finding provides tantalizing insight into how and why certain social structures developed.
Robert Drennon and Christian Peterson from the University of Pittsburgh analyzed three ancient chiefdoms that existed in different parts of the world at different points in time.
The anthropologists mapped out housing patterns and counted the shards of pottery and jewelry belonging to each house. These data allowed them to unravel clues about how each society was organized.
Wealth vs. Spirituality
Writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the scientists describe the valley of Oaxaca, Mexico, which was occupied by an early chiefdom around 3,500 years ago.
Most residents lived in small villages of less than 50 people. But there was one village, San José Mogote, that had a population of more than 500.
The most wealthy, powerful, and skilled people lived in San José Mogote. It was the hub of life in the valley, and people from surrounding areas would gather there for ceremonies.
"Wealth was the most important currency for the Oaxaca community," Drennon said, referring to the high number of possessions, such as precious jewelry, found in individual dwellings.
But the anthropologists discovered a surprisingly different kind of structure for the 3,000-year-old Alto Magdalena community in the Colombian Andes.
Careful mapping of all the dwellings revealed that these people didn't live together in villages.
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