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The origins of democracy in the Americas

Alan Flurry

New research from the UGA Laboratory of Archaeology, together with its partners in the Muscogee Nation, indicates that inhabitants of the Americas may have been practicing democratic-style collective governance at least a millennium before European contact.

According to a new paper published in the journal American Antiquity, artifacts from the Cold Springs site in central Georgia indicate the presence of a “council house” on the site, which was occupied about 1,500 years ago, according to radiocarbon dating. Still in use today by descendants of those early American communities, council houses were large, circular structures that could accommodate hundreds, even thousands of participants in ritualized gatherings that involved collective decision making.

The Iroquois Confederacy, a league of five Indigenous nations residing in what would become the northeastern United States, has been held up as an example of an early American democracy. However some archaeologists date the emergence of the Iroquois Confederacy as late as the mid-15th century, just a few decades before European contact. Based on the analysis of the Cold Springs materials, the UGA team suggests that democratic institutions associated with collective governance arose much earlier in time.

“The key takeaway is that these kinds of democratic institutions were very long lived and existed—perhaps for millennia—before European arrival,” said Victor Thompson, Distinguished Research Professor and director of the Laboratory of Archaeology. “That’s a really different perspective on Native governance in this region than most archaeologists have.”

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Image: Indigenous council houses (such as this reconstructed example at Mission San Luis de Apalachee in Tallahassee, Florida) were the site of public gatherings and ceremonies for early American communities, and evidence for them has been located in many sites around the Southeast. (Photo courtesy of the UGA Laboratory of Archaeology)

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