University of Colorado anthropology Professor Arthur A. Joyce and University of Central Florida Associate Professor Sarah Barber have revealed in a study published in the journal Current Anthropology that religion and politics had never united societies in the past as people were made to believe; but it had always created social tensions and conflicts today and it always did in the ancient past.
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The researchers investigated several Mexican archeological sites to pinpoint the fact that religion and politics haven’t always been what they are supposed to be for the past 700 BC.
"It doesn't matter if we today don't share particular religious beliefs, but when people in the past acted on their beliefs, those actions could have real, material consequences," Barber said. "It really behooves us to acknowledge religion when considering political processes."
In their article titled “Ensoulment, Entrapment, and Political Centralization: A Comparative Study of Religion and Politics in Later Formative Oaxaca,” the researchers detailed their findings after carrying out years of field studies in the lower Oaxaca, a southeastern city in Mexico.
The research team conducted years of reviews of archaeological evidence from 700 BC to AD 250 – this was a period noted for the rise of organized states in the Rio Verde valley of Oaxaca in Mexico’s Pacific coastal lowlands.
The researchers found that religious rituals, ancient offerings, burial in cemeteries among community people strengthened people within the area without the need for state institutions. But when the elitists living in the Valley of Oaxaca attempted to mediate between the smaller communities and their gods, conflicts resulted and communities set about each other’s throats. Eventually, a regional state developed in the area and its capital became set up at Monte Alban, a hilltop city.
"In both the Valley of Oaxaca and the Lower Río Verde Valley, religion was important in the formation and history of early cities and states, but in vastly different ways," said Joyce, lead author on the study. "Given the role of religion in social life and politics today, that shouldn't be too surprising."
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State institutions rapidly rose and fell as a direct result of the conflicts playing out in the lower Rio Verde valley, and by AD 100, large religious temples had been constructed in Rio Viejo, capital of the lower Verde state. But within a century later, the towns in the valley and the massive structures they contain became abandoned due to communal clashes.