Monday, September 08, 2008

Rhizome Template in the Amazon?

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.

illustration of centralizing tendency of hierarchy
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...


James Kielland said...

There's a very interesting civilization that deserves attention with regards to this phenomenon. It spread out over nearly an entire continent was was characterized by numerous villages that while exhibiting some differences in size it is quite difficult to really describe one village as the center of the hierarchy. The civilization's vitality and distinctness could have been maintained even with the loss of several of its population centers, something which could not be said about most European nation states or ancient civilizations.

The villages were connected by a vast, lattice-like network of roads. It is said that the creators of this civilization were said to have filled it with a bunch of myths and values that sought to avoid or circumvent the concentration of power. It was also filled with some unusual views about equality, even though many people claimed this was nothing but a crazy scam to keep the villagers oppressed.

Of course, I'm talking about the United States of America.

I'm not trying to be entirely flip in this suggestion. Just suggesting that there is a rhizomatic quality already apparent in the United States that many people don't fully recognize. Sure, things might be quite a ways from your ideas of a Hamlet economy. On the other hand, the world is, in my opinion, experiencing a centrifugal distribution of power out of traditional centers of power via networking technology.

Peaksurfer said...

A dense network of villages still exists in the Amazon. And in the Pantanal, and the Rio Negros. They are not connected by roads, but by the river and its tributaries. Since the mid-1990s, the bolder permaculturists and ecovillagers have been venturing upriver with a new kind of technology transfer, while at the same time, the archaeologists have been coming downriver with tales of Terra Preta do Indio. Its a fair exchange.

Big Gav said...

I'm pleased to see someone has mentioned terra preta already, as that was the first thought that came into my head when I read the post (probably because I'm in the middle of writing a TOD post about it, admittedly).

More here for those interested:
(via )

Anonymous said...

Given the recent spate of hurricanes, would a lattice-like rhizome structure handle natural disasters as well as a centralized nation-state? I'm no cheerleader for the Big B, but it seems like there would be some advantage in having a concentrated center of power to facilitate the distribution of aid. (When there's the political will, Katrina being the most glaring counterexample.)

Jeff Vail said...

Hierarchal structures do have superior capability to distribute aid to areas stricken with focused disasters. This, I think it can be argued, is one of the prime historical forces that supported the rise in hierarchal civilization--Chaco canyon is a textbook example: drought usually only struck one portion of the periphery, so by collecting surplus grain and distributing it to impacted regions, they justified (and created an insitutional need for) a central power structure. This allowed the Chacoan civilization to grow to much larger population levels than was otherwise sustainable, until a drought hit the entire periphery and the whole system fell apart.

That's the key: the theoretical safety net of centralized relief facilitates development that is fundamentally unsustainable in the face of natural events. When it comes to tropical storms, that means unwise coastal development. I think that a very well run hierarchal government can do very well providing relief to such unwise development, certainly better than it could do for itself in a rhizome model of civilization. The rhizome model would say "this location is fundamentally unsustainable for this level of permanent development," and not create the problem in the first place, though that doesn't help when we already have such a large sunk cost in this kind of development (sunk cost is one of the key barriers to any effective transition). Two key things to keep in mind, however: 1) the theoretical ability of hierarchal government to respond to regional disasters and its actual response are often wildly different, and rare justify the other costs of hierarchy; and 2) hierarchal governments' ability to respond only works, as with Chaco, when the disasters are nicely spaced--get a big cluster of them at once (and we must remember that they are independent probabilities, so this will happen eventually) and the whole system crashes far worse than if each locality had to take responsibility for itself...

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Anonymous said...

Disaster recovery notwithstanding, the costs of hierarchy very quickly outweigh the benefits. State formation tends to privilege specific groups at the expense of the host society, with disastrous consequences: internal colonisation and external aggression. A complex class analysis is required to understand the unfolding dynamic, but it's clear that complex hierarchies generally take more than they return in social benefits.