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‘Heritage decisions limit our ability to imagine alternative forms of society’

It is difficult to imagine a society other than a hierarchical nation-state. This is in part because we neglect alternative forms from the past, argues archaeologist Lewis Borck in the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology.

The Inca ruins at Machu Picchu, the former Aztec capital Tenochtitlan and Independence Hall in Philadelphia: all these sites are on the UNESCO world heritage list. At some point, the UN deemed them to be of such historic value that they needed to be preserved. And who would disagree? They all are impressive remnants of bygone times. 

Value-free?

But this list is not value-free, Borck argues in his paper. The heritage decisions that we make have a significant impact on the way in which we view our own society. If you look at UNESCO sites in North America and the Caribbean – as Borck did – you will see that 98% of this world heritage comes from societies with a hierarchical state, Aztec and modern American societies alike.  

‘The majority of societies in the pre-colonial era weren’t hierarchical at all’

‘That’s surprising because the majority of societies in the pre-colonial era weren’t in any way as hierarchically organized as they are today,’ says Borck, who is working on the NEXUS1492 Project at the Faculty of Archaeology. ‘If we almost exclusively protect and promote the heritage of hierarchical states, we can get the impression that there are no alternative forms of governance when in fact there have been copious examples of these in history.’

Without central rule

Take the Hohokam, ancestors of the O’odham, a group of indigenous tribes from the American Southwest. Between 750 and 1150, this culture was communally organised, so without central rule or command. Despite this, the communities were sufficiently organised to build extensive irrigation systems. Borck: ‘In our current worldview it is difficult to imagine this being possible without state formation, or at least hierarchy.’

What Borck means is that with governance there are many options, whereas today’s nation-state is often presented as an inevitable and unavoidable fact of life. ‘We see that the hierarchical nation state is plagued by endemic inequality: the differences between rich and poor, between haves and have-nots are gigantic. Many people are therefore seeking alternatives that work better for a larger group of people. But they are hindered in this search because only one story is presented.’ This does not just apply to capitalist countries: seven UNESCO sites in socialist Cuba all represent colonial, and thus hierarchical, societies. 

Vicious circle

This limited focus in heritage choices is not necessarily ill will, says Borck. He sees it more as a vicious circle. As we don’t know any societies other than hierarchical ones, this makes us more likely to view such societies as successful. We then give them a higher priority and are more likely to earmark money for their protection. The same amount of money is consequently not used to preserve societies with alternative political strategies, which means that slowly but surely that heritage disappears.  

‘We are hindered in our search for alternatives because only one story is presented’

Could there be another way? Borck thinks there could: by involving the local populations and descendent communities in heritage decisions. When Barack Obama was president this led to the protection of Bears Ears, a vast area in Utah that is of cultural importance to indigenous groups such as the Navajo and the Hopi. ‘But his successor Trump has already reduced that area in size.’

Text: Merijn van Nuland
Photo: Maxpixel
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