On sunny summer days, powerboats pulling water-skiers zip across Georgia’s Lake Oconee, a reservoir located about an hour-and-a-half drive east of Atlanta. For those without a need for speed, fishing beckons.
Little do the lake’s visitors suspect that here lie the remains of a democratic institution that dates to around 500 A.D., more than 1,200 years before the founding of the U.S. Congress.
Reservoir waters, which flooded the Oconee Valley in 1979 after the construction of a nearby dam, partly cover remnants of a 1,500-year-old plaza once bordered by flat-topped earthen mounds and at least three large, circular buildings. Such structures, which have been linked to collective decision making, are known from other southeastern U.S. sites that date to as early as around 1,000 years ago.
At the Oconee site, called Cold Springs, artifacts were excavated before the valley became an aquatic playground. Now, new older-than-expected radiocarbon dates for those museum-held finds push back the origin of democratic institutions in the Americas several centuries, a team led by archaeologist Victor Thompson of the University of Georgia in Athens reported May 18 in American Antiquity.
Institutions such as these highlight a growing realization among archaeologists that early innovations in democratic rule emerged independently in many parts of the world. In specific, these findings add to evidence that Native American institutions devoted to promoting broad participation in political decisions emerged in various regions, including what’s now Canada, the United States and Mexico, long before 18th century Europeans took up the cause of democratic rule by the people. [Continue reading…]