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Ensoulment, Entrapment, and Political Centralization: A Comparative Study of Religion and Politics in Later Formative Oaxaca

Arthur A. Joyce and Sarah B. Barber
Current Anthropology
Vol. 56, No. 6 (December 2015), pp. 819-847
DOI: 10.1086/683998
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/683998
Page Count: 21
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Ensoulment, Entrapment, and Political Centralization
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Abstract

In this article, we examine the interplay of religion and politics during the later Formative period of Mesoamerica through a comparison of two regions of southern Mexico: the lower Río Verde Valley and the Valley of Oaxaca. Archaeological evidence shows that these regions had dramatically different later Formative histories. In the lower Verde, we find that religion constrained changes that could have stabilized political centralization. A crucial aspect limiting the creation of multicommunity authority and identities was the physical entrapment of the bones of ancestors, offerings, and divine beings within public buildings in local communities. In contrast, in the Valley of Oaxaca, we find that religion fostered developments that would eventually give rise to a politically centralized polity, with its seat of government at the hilltop city of Monte Albán. Both regions show that religion was not necessarily a unifying factor in social change, as has often been assumed, but instead could be a crucible of tension and conflict through which political innovations were produced. This comparative study leads us to considerations of broader historical factors that contribute to understandings of when religion can be constraining or enabling of political change.

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