Societal violence and dictatorship

The mystery of Mohenjo-Daro

It was clearly a murder scene.  The skeletons of men, women, and children lay sprawled randomly across the room.  The end had been violent.  The attackers, using swords or axes, had cut through flesh with enough force to leave marks on the bones.  The scene was too disorderly to suggest an execution or a last-ditch organized defense.  The victims appear to have been taken by surprise.

What happened at Mohenjo-Daro, on the banks of the Indus River, some 3,500 years ago? The name itself, meaning "Mound of the Dead," provides few clues to the attackers or to the nature of the attack.  Was the city overwhelmed by foreign invaders, or was it caught in the middle of a civil war?  Harappa, a sister city 350 miles to the northeast, appeared to have escaped a similar fate.  Had rivalry between the cities led to war?   Were the nomadic peoples migrating from the Iranian plateau and southeastern Europe, known as Aryans, behind the attack?  There are even questions about the victims.  Were they the descendents of the original founders of a civilization, or had they themselves taken over an abandoned city?

Cities of the Indus or Harappan civilization, such as Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, arose around 2500 or 2600 B.C. in the Indus Valley (in what is now Pakistan).  Judging by the planning and technical skills displayed, they represented, if not an advanced civilization, then at least a highly organized one.  At the center of Mohenjo-Daro was the Great Bath, a 20 X 40 foot pool, waterproofed with gypsum mortar and bitumen, possibly used for religious ceremonies.  Nearby was the Granary, a publicly-constructed storage facility for grain.  Streets had been laid out in the form of  a grid, running north to south and east to west.  As impressive as the street design was the existence of a sewage system extensive enough to serve the entire population, estimated at between 20,000 and 50,000 people.

Did Mohenjo-Daro suggest some inherent weakness in the character of an advanced culture?  Perhaps her technical achievements only served to mask or temporarily curb a tendency toward violence.  Violence may have been only one problem among many.  Some evidence points to the abandonment of  major cities around 2000 B.C., several hundred years before the civilizations came to an end. One theory is that the Indus, which could shift banks or flood, simply proved too much for the city inhabitants.

The archaeological record at Mohenjo-Daro is too ambiguous to determine whether conflict came from within or was the result of external forces.  History makes a distinction between internal conflict, in the form of crime or civil unrest, and external conflict, in the form of war.  War is considered in a class by itself.  But, except for the more devastating impact of war, is the distinction a realistic one?  Mohenjo-Daro's experience with violence was not unique.  Violence would visit Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Chaco Canyon in North America, and the Mayan cities of Central America.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat was one of those "lost" places that, while relatively unnoticed, had never really been forgotten. Zhou Daguan, a Chinese diplomat, had written about it in the 13th century. A Portuguese historian had included it in Portugal's colonial archives in 1550 A.D.. It came to the attention of the modern world however in 1863 and 1864, when the journals of a French naturalist named Henri Mouhot were published in separate French and English editions. In January 1860 Mouhot had traveled through central Cambodia collecting plant and animal specimens. Having heard about stone ruins, he asked to be taken to see them. What he found, covered with vines and jungle trees, was the temple at Angkor Wat. The complex covers an area of about one square mile, took 37 years to build, and required millions of sandstone blocks from a quarry 25 miles away. Angkor Wat was only one part of the 124 square mile Angkor district, which included the ruins of the imperial palace of Angkor Thom.

In the 1st century A.D., Indian merchants began to expand into the Mekong River delta, establishing what would become known as the Kingdom of Funan. Constructing a network of canals, they transformed the area from a swamp into a rice-production region. In 550 A.D., Bhavavarman, the king of  Chenla, a neighboring state to the north, annexed Funan.  The new state became the Kingdom of Khmer. Despite the ambitions of Bhavavarman, a united kingdom would remain elusive for the next 200 years.  In 802 a Khmer prince, later to become Jayavarman II, was anointed King of Kambuja and proclaimed his independence from Chenla. He would establish the first Khmer capital on the northern shore of the great lake, Tonle Sap.

The Mekong River, like the Nile, left a rich deposit of silt with each annual flood. The problem, for agricultural production, was that there was either too much water after the monsoon season, or too little, once the rainy season was over. The Khmer, to deal with this problem, constructed a system of storage tanks, called barays, and canals.  The first large storage tank, the Eastern Baray, was constructed by Yasovarman I in 889.  Around 1050, Udayadityavarman II would construct the Western Baray.  The temple of Angkor Wat would be constructed during the reign of Suryavarman II (1113 - 1150). The continually expanding Khmer Kingdom was checked in 1177 when it was invaded by the armies of Champa. Angkor was sacked.  While Jayavarman VII repulsed the invasion and even captured the Cham capital of Vijaya, the Khmer Kingdom never fully recovered.  Angkor would be abandoned after it was captured by a Thai army in 1432.

The Champa invasion and the Thai capture of Angkor were noteworthy, not because they represented a rare visitation of violence on an otherwise peaceable kingdom, but because they were military defeats.  In a region prone to conflict, the Khmer Empire had distinguished itself by winning.  Violence was part of its birth, as seen in the rebellion against Chenla in 802.  That tradition would continue throughout its existence.  It was constantly at war with neighboring states. It was either trying to expand its territory or hoping to keep vassal states in line.

Chaco Canyon

At its worst, it suggests a society coming apart - a descent into cannibalism and a seemingly organized campaign of terror and murder directed against families or small villages; at its best and most mysterious, Chaco Canyon provides glimpses of a highly organized culture which spent years constructing cities, only to abandon them and vanish.

Sometimes archaeological names, such as "Battle Cave," or "House of Tragedy," tell the entire story. Sometimes they reveal almost nothing. Largo-Gallina Bg20 or La Plata 23 provide few clues as to events.  At Battle Cave, at Canyon de Chelly in northeastern Arizona, the face of one of the victims had been crushed in and the skulls of two others had been smashed like egg shells.  In all, 11 victims were identified on the cave floor, including three children and an old woman. There were at least five victims at the House of Tragedy, a four-room pueblo in the Big Hawk Valley in northeastern Arizona.  At Largo-Gallina Bg20, near Lindrith, New Mexico, eleven skeletons were found on a pithouse floor and another two on a tower floor. Arrow points were found in four of the skulls.  The attack took place sometime between 1100 and 1300 A.D..  At another site on the Gallina River it was reported that 16 burned bodies were found in a tower. A woman among this group had 16 arrows in her chest and abdomen.  The attack had been dated to between 1100 and 1300.  At LaPlata 23, skeletal remains filled a large corrugated jar and were scattered around a firepit, suggesting cannibalism.  The site was dated to 1100 A.D. or after.

Violence had long been a part of the culture of the American Southwest.  While it seemed to intensify after 1100, the massacre at Battle Cave occurred before 900 A.D. That aspect of the culture may explain the translation of the word Anasazi, the name given to the people who emerged in the Four Corners, the region where the states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah meet. Anasazi has been translated as "the ancient ones," or, more literally, "enemy ancestors." They would emerge as a culture around 200 B.C..  Around 450 A.D., they began to concentrate on cultivated crops. They also adopted the pithouse, a single-room dwelling dug out of the ground.  After 700 or 750, they began building pueblos, above-ground structures of several rooms, one of which was often a kiva, a central pithouse.

Anasazi culture has been divided into three main areas or branches, based on geographical location: Chaco Canyon (northwest New Mexico), Kayenta (northeast Arizona), and Northern San Juan (or Mesa Verde) (southwest Colorado). The Chaco Canyon branch  reached its highest state of development between 900 and 1130. During this time nine "great houses" were constructed, using sandstone slabs. To deal with water shortages, small earthen dams were built to capture water runoff and canals were dug to carry water to fields. The Anasazi built some 300 miles of roads, although they did not have wheels. It is not known why no new construction was begun after 1130. A severe drought, which began in that year and lasted until 1190, may have been a major factor. Shortly after 1200, Chaco Canyon was abandoned.

The Kayenta branch, in what is now Arizona, came somewhat late to the cliff building stage, compared to Chaco Canyon.  It would stay somewhat longer, but, in the end, would also abandon the region. The Kayenta started leaving around 1285 and were completely gone by 1300.  The third branch, the Northern San Juan Anasazi, would abandon their dwellings at Mesa Verde around 1300 as well.  Their cliff construction phase had lasted just a hundred years, having begun around 1200.

There are four theories about the reasons for the disappearance of the Anasazi: 1) drought; 2) a drop in the water table and loss of tillable land, as a result of arroyo-cutting; 3) diseases and epidemics; and 4) warfare.  The drought between 1276 and 1299, known as the "great drought," was particularly severe.  It may have been a combination of factors.  It has been argued that cannibalism was confined primarily to Chaco Canyon and nearby areas, suggesting that warfare had a greater impact on that region.  The fact that the Chaco people left their dwellings nearly 100 years earlier than the Mesa Verde or Kayenta lends weight to that argument.

The Mayan Experience

Despite a militaristic theme running through their artwork, some early scholars believed that warfare was virtually unknown among the Maya of the Classical period. Theirs was a culture which, in its natural state, was largely at peace. What they knew of war was a "foreign" element, probably introduced from Mexico. Yet there is evidence suggestive of violent conflict between cities. El Mirador, abandoned between 150 and 200 A.D., was partially surrounded by a wall, possibly a fortification.  Neighboring Becan appears to have constructed a defensive earthwork sometime between 150 and 250 AD. At a later time, between 450 and 600 A.D., one of Becan's large buildings would be destroyed.  Whether it was war or disease or another natural calamity, something seemed to disrupt Mayan life toward the end of the 8th Century. The steles, the stone "calendars" used by the Maya to record major events, suddenly became silent. The last date at Palenque was 790, at Piedras Negras 795. Copan's calendar ended in 800, Tikal's in 869 and Tonina's in 909. Despite the apparent collapse, the Maya had managed to survive for some 600 years.

Mayan civilization reached its highest level of development between 250 and 800 A.D. (or 300 to 900 A.D.), the time known as the Classical period.  While it appeared, to outside eyes, as a unified society, it was, in fact, composed of many small, sometimes competing, sometimes allied, kingdoms. Unlike the Aztec, who were able to consolidate power and rule from Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), no single Maya city became powerful enough to dominate the others or to forge the diverse regions into a nation.  Maya "civilization" would be more accurately described as a culture, identified by similar political structures, architecture, and outlook.  In some ways it resembled the world of Classical Greece, where Athens and Sparta emerged as leading Greek states, but at best only represented one aspect of a wider Greek civilization.

Geographically the Maya inhabited a region of Central America which extended from present-day western Honduras, El Salvador, Belize, and Guatemala, in the south, to the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, in the north, and the Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas, to the west, an area of some 125,000 square miles.

The first known dynasties of Maya kings were established at a few Lowland centers, such as Tikal, in Guatemala, by 200 A.D..  The Classic period is dated from 250, when the royal lines began appearing at newly founded centers.  Similar architecture and art, as well as writing identified the new cities as Mayan.  In addition to creating new settlements the Maya were involved in trade with the Basin of Mexico, 625 miles to the north. While there is some evidence of wars around 550, during the Late Classical period, (600 to 800 A.D.), population was still increasing in what has been described as the mature phase of Maya civilization in the Lowlands.

Cities on the western margins of the Lowlands (areas under 3,290 feet or 1,000 meters), exemplified by the Peten-Yucatan Peninsula. began to experience some form of disturbance after 750. Dates went unrecorded on monuments and many building projects were abandoned. Over the next 150 years, royal courts stopped functioning, major centers were abandoned, and the supporting population disappeared. While war might serve as an explanation, the abandonment often took place without obvious signs of violence or destruction.  By 1000, many of the great Classical centers were no longer occupied by kings and their supporting populations were gone.

If the collapse of the Classic period is considered significant because it represents the decline of a once-great civilization, it was in fact not the first such collapse. The designation given to Mayan history prior to 250 A.D., the Pre-Classic period, suggests a preliminary step on the way to future greatness.  Yet, the cities of that earlier period were not simply oversized villages. El Mirador, in northern Guatemala, had buildings 18 stories high. From 200 B.C. to 150 A.D., it served as a major center of trade in the Mirador Basin, an area of about 425 square miles.  It was connected to nearby Nakbe, and other cities, by raised roads, called sacbes.  Nakbe was even older. Buildings as high as148 feet had been constructed there betwen 400 and 200 BC. El Mirador and Nakbe, despite their achievements, were abandoned between 150 and 200 AD.

The collapse of Classic Mayan culture and the failure of Pre-Classic cities represent two distinct eras. Warfare, in contrast, seemed to be a tradition which carried forward from one period to the next. El Mirador's earthen wall may have evolved into Becan's defensive earthwork of 150-250 AD. While warfare seemed to be deeply ingrained in Mayan culture, it fell somewhat short of total war.  Prisoners were taken, kings and nobles were executed, cities were looted, and tribute was demanded.  However, the populace probably was left alone, if for no other reason than to make tribute payments. It has been speculated that successful military campaigns provided the labor force for major building programs in cities such as Caracol. In time, defeated cities recovered.

The combined armies of Calakmul and Caracol in 562  inflicted so serious a defeat on Tikal that it would take 130 years to recover, (a period known as the hiatus).  The city was sacked and  monuments and shrines were smashed and burned.  Her king, Double Bird, was probably captured and sacrificed.  It would not be until 695 that Jasaw Chan K'awiil I would defeat Calakmul.  Calakmul's ruler, Jaguar Paw, along with other lords, was captured and taken to Tikal, then sacrificed. Before that victory Tikal had been powerful enough to attack a city called Dos Pilas in 672. The cities under Dos Pilas rule would also find military defense a major concern.  By 761 individual hamlets would be building fortifications.  West of Tikal, the city of Piedras Negras, along with its king, Ruler 7, was captured by Yaxchilan in 808.  Its king was sacrificed, some royal buildings were burned, and Throne I was smashed. It would be abandoned between 850 and 900.  The king of Copan, in Guatemala, was seized while visiting Quirigua in 738, then ritually killed.

If the end of the Classical period was marked by an increased tempo of violence, some scholars question whether that violence was the cause of the Maya collapse.  While it was not without impact, other factors, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions or drought or disease have been suggested.  Another theory is that an expanding population required greater agricultural output, which eventually depleted the soil.  The agricultural base, which had provided Mayan society with the energy to construct temples and wage war, simply gave out.

Life inside a pressure cooker

Mohenjo-Daro, Angkor Wat, Chaco Canyon and the Mesoamerican lands of the Maya all experienced violence in one form or another.  The temptation is to explain their experience in grand or dramatic terms, such as the "collapse of a great civilization or empire." Perhaps even the suggestion that these were "great" civilizations adds a dramatic note. The implication that they had incurred the wrath of the gods or that their failure was some sort of Divine Retribution adds to the mystique. Had these people become arrogant? or were their rulers full of envy and ambition? Did the Biblical judgment: "he who lives by the sword shall die by the sword," apply especially to them? There is also some confusion as to cause and effect. Did war bring about the collapse of the Mayan civilization? or was it just a symptom of more serious problems? Was Chaco Canyon abandoned because of violence alone, or was a marginal land made uninhabitable by a period of unusually dry weather?

Divine Retribution seems somewhat out of place when describing random events.  If the Khmer and Maya were being punished with violence on the way down, they had been richly rewarded for their violent tendencies on the way up. Military success had added territory and wealth to their kingdoms. The "punishment" for wars and violence against their neighbors had been years of prosperity. Their story was not unlike that of Athens, which had associated the beginnings of its democracy with the war against the Persians.

What was the nature of the violence at Mohenjo-Daro or Chaco Canyon? Was it a case of the fabric of society being torn apart by civil war and internal conflict? Or did the threat come from outside the group?  Were the back-and-forth struggles of the Maya a civil war or were they closer to a foreign invasion?

Success or failure, when it comes to violence, ultimately depends on how a government or society responds to the threat.  How did democratic or dictatorial governments respond? With legendary governments, such as Athens, among their ranks, was their response to violence, by definition, automatically a great or noble solution? Or was there an intermediate translation from great solutions offered by legendary cultures to the response of the ordinary democracy or dictatorship?

Violence, poverty, and a link to dictatorship

Two themes run through the history of dictatorship. First, dictatorships have a long association with violence, even if successful dictatorships present a picture of an outwardly calm and serene society. Second, there appears to be a strong link between scarcity and dictatorial government, primarily because extreme poverty tends to breed violence and societal violence will demand some kind of governmental response.

Peacefulness, or at least the appearance of calm, is a distinction shared with democracies.  Both forms of government are remarkably free of violence.  It is obviously not for the same reasons.  Dictatorships are quiet, not because they have solved the underlying causes of discontent, but because their response is specifically aimed at controlling violence.  Democracies are free of violence because the level of violence is too low to provoke a governmental response.  There is nothing for the government to respond to.

A step removed from ordinary violence

The level of violence associated with war has always placed war in a class of its own. It is far more destructive, more organized, even more impersonal than ordinary crime or disorder. It is a quantum level above the small-scale raids and massacres which took place at Chaco Canyon. Violence there was personal. Individual rage and frustration could be taken out on other individuals. War, in contrast, has been the special province of nations, such as England and France, or Empires, such as Carthage and Rome. But does war deserve a category of its own?  or, if it does, is the distinction meaningful?  Did "great" civilizations engage in (or respond to) violence in "great" ways, or for great reasons, or was war just a rationalization for taking out individual frustration on others? Wars between nations had to be something more than an extension of the personal violence which occurs within societies. Or did they?

Dictatorships have engaged in wars from time to time, but that is not what defines them as dictatorships. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, both dictatorships, were two of the major protagonists of the Second World War. What defines them is their treatment of the individual and their focus on internal problems. The violence at Chaco Canyon, and possibly at Mohenjo-Daro, was the type of internal problem which governments, even dictatorial governments, would be called upon to solve.  The lack of rain and the increasingly marginal existence provides a case for the link between scarcity and violence, if not for the ultimate connection between scarcity and dictatorship.

The argument that poverty was linked to the violence between the Khmer and their neighbors or between the Mayan kingdoms is more difficult to make.  War demands a minimum level of resources.  Impoverished countries, in other words, need not apply. The Anasazi at Chaco Canyon, if they could construct major dwellings and perhaps defend against an occasional raid, were struggling against environmental conditions which left them only marginally above human survival levels. An organized government, under such conditions, was beyond their capabilities. The Maya or the Khmer amassed enough wealth to direct armies against foreign powers. That may suggest that the motivations for war are far removed from the poverty which could provide the motivation for individual acts of violence within a society. On the other hand, military operations, as part of a war, bear a striking resemblance to the actions which a government might take to control violence internally. Was dictatorship, in other words, basically a version of "war" directed against internal "enemies," or conversely, was war an extension of dictatorship, aimed at foreign opposition? If that were the case, then struggles between nations over resources might support the notion that poverty, or resource scarcity, was behind the level of violence defined as war.

Suggestions for further reading.


Mick Aston & Tim Taylor, "The Atlas of Archaeology. " DK Publishing,(New York, NY 1998)

Norman P. Ross, ed., "The Epic of Man," Time, Inc., (New York, NY 1961)

Rebecca Stefoff, "Finding the Lost Cities," Oxford University Press, (New York, NY 1997)

"The World's Last Mysteries. " The Reader's Digest Association, Inc., (Pleasantview, NY 1981)

Angkor Wat

Donald J. Crump, ed., "Splendors of the Past: Lost Cities of the Ancient World," National Geographic Society, (Washington, D.C 1986)

Rebecca Stefoff, "Finding the Lost Cities," Oxford University Press, (New York, NY 1997)

Chaco Canyon

Micheal Coe, Dean Snow and Elizabeth Benson, "Atlas of Ancient America," Facts On File, Inc. (New York, NY 1990)

Joseph L. Gardner, ed., "Mysteries of the Ancient Americas: The New World Before Columbus," The Reader's Digest Association, Inc. (Pleasantville, NY 1988)

Rose Houk, "The Four Corners Anasazi: A Guide to Archaelogical Sites," San Juan National Forest Association (Durango, CO 1994)

Christy G. Turner II & Jacqueline A. Turner, "Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest," The University of Utah Press, (Salt Lake City, UT 1999)

"Mound Builders & Cliff Dwellers," Time-Life Books, (Alexandria, VA 1992)

The Maya

Micheal Coe, Dean Snow and Elizabeth Benson, "Atlas of Ancient America," Facts On File, Inc. (New York, NY 1990)

David Drew, "The Lost Chronicles of the Maya Kings," University of California Press (Los Angeles, CA 1999)

Joseph L. Gardner, ed., "Mysteries of the Ancient Americas: The New World Before Columbus," The Reader's Digest Association, Inc. (Pleasantville, NY 1988)

David Webster, "The Fall of the Ancient Maya: Solving the Mystery of the Maya Collapse," Thames & Hudson, Inc. (New York, NY 2002)

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