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Origins Of Authority Traced Back To Ancient Peru

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Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

clockMay 1 2016, 12:07 UTC
78 Origins Of Authority Traced Back To Ancient Peru
The site of Chavín de Huántar, which Rick and his team have studied for 20 years. GFDL/Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

Whether it's a president, prime minister, monarch, or emperor, it is always assumed that societies need a leader. But for tens of thousands of years, humans managed to survive without the need for any central authority. Archeologists from Stanford University think they might be getting close to understanding how this change was brought about, through an active strategy of awe-inspiring architecture and mind-bending drugs.

Their study headed to a 3,000-year-old archaeological site in Chavín de Huántar in the Peruvian Andes, where a culture known as Chavín developed. Other civilizations at this time were also in the process of establishing a centralized power, most notably the ancient Egyptian pharaohs. However, the site of Chavín de Huántar is of particular interest to archeologists learning about power in early societies as it captures a transitional moment.

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“More than 5,000 and certainly 10,000 years ago, nowhere in the world was anyone living under a concerted authority,” said John Rick, the Stanford University archeologist who led the research, in a statement. “Today we expect that. It is the essence of our organization. ‘Take me to your leader. Who’s in charge here?’ So where did that come from?” 

The archeologists believe Chavín de Huántar was run by a dictatorial clique of priests, making it an early example of an actively authoritative society. The priesthood exerted their authoritarian rule through the use of psychoactive drugs, stone architecture, and iconography to cultivate an illusion of power.

The team discovered that many of the gravestones featured engravings that portrayed psychoactive plants, drug paraphernalia, and people under the influence of a mind-altering substance. Rick believes these drugs were used to encourage the notion that these leaders had a divine connection, hence justifying their powerful position in society.

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A snuff box made from mammal bone found in Chavín de Huántar, demonstrating the culture's use of iconography and drugs. Credit: Lombards Museum/Wikimedia Commons. (CC BY 3.0)

The priests also used grandiose architecture and iconography to portray their dominance and establish an aura of power. An important part of this was the transition from using material such as wood and textiles to stone in order to engrave their deeds. Rick believes this simple change made their words go from appearing "light" and temporary to permanent and authoritative.

“[The priests] needed to create a new world, one in which the settings, objects, actions and senses all argue for the presence of intrinsic authority – both from the religious leaders and from a realm of greater powers they portray themselves as related to,” he said.

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In an interview for Stanford University, he added: “I was fascinated with the evidence we have of the manipulation of people... After a while, I realized it was being done for a purpose. The planners, organizers, and orchestrators were trying to get something – what they wanted was an increase in their level of authority.

“They went to incredible creative ends to get there.”


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  • archeology,

  • ancient history,

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