Research by Mark Heckenberger of the University of Florida, published in the August 26th, 2008 edition of Science (subscription), suggests that a dense civilization of networked villages once existed in the Amazon. This pattern of civilization, at least to the extent currently understood, is interesting because it appears to show a form of organization that permits density without significant hierarchy. It also has many similarities to the rhizome model that I propose in The Hamlet Economy. Heckenberger's work shows that the Xingu region of the Amazon was once populated by a grid-like pattern or villages, each connected by a precisely aligned network of roadways. What is of interest to me is that their research does not mention that some villages evolved into positions of dominance, as cultural, political, or religious centers. Instead, the network of roadways themselves, exhibiting precise angles and ceremonial features, seems to have held religious or cultural significance as a "map" of their understanding of the cosmos. This may be an approach to tackle one of the most vexing problems of organization without hierarchy--how to maintain a non-hierarchal pattern of civilization over time.
Here's an example of the tendency to centralize control structures into a hierarchal mode of organization, from my post on Rhizome & Central Place Theory.
Here's an alternate mode of organization--a networked "grid," "lattice," or "peer-to-peer" structure of small, minimally self-sufficient villages, or "rhizome" as proposed in my article The Hamlet Economy.
The Xingu settlement structure seems to consicously model itself in the latter pattern. Heckenberger even notes that each village was surrounded by a buffer zone of "managed parkland," exactly the kind of fall-back, resiliency-enhancing production zone that I recommended for rhizome. Here's a link to a satellite image of one section fo Xingu settlement.
Did this Xingu civilization really develop a dense, ecologically sustainable civilization without hierarchal structure? Or did they simply find a new way to impose hierarchy without developing the signatures of "central places"? Was this a conscious reaction to prior abuses of hierarchy, or simply an expedient to survival in the dense forrests and poor agricultural soils of the Amazon? We don't know the answers to these questions at this time, but the research of Heckenberger and his colleagues suggests that there is still a great deal for us to learn from the past about how we can best live in the future...