| in Community

David Carballo, professor of archaeology, anthropology, and Latin American studies, recently published a book, Collective Action and the Reframing of Early Mesoamerica, with Cambridge University Press. Carballo is a specialist in Mesoamerican archaeology, focusing particularly on the prehispanic civilizations of central Mexico. His ongoing projects at the ancient city of Teotihuacan include the Proyecto Arqueológico Tlajinga, Teotihuacan (PATT), and the Proyecto Plaza de las Columnas.

How were you first introduced to anthropology and archaeology? 

I’ve been interested in archaeology since I was a senior in college. Lots of archaeologists like to say they were interested earlier as kids and watched Indiana Jones and all of that is true, but I actually wasn’t a major in anthropology or archaeology. I was a political science major. It wasn’t until my senior year that I took a class in what’s called Archeoastronomy. It’s actually the intersection of astronomy or calendrical knowledge, like charting the movement of planets and things like that in the deep past. That really fascinated me. The professor had a short abroad program that used to be during winter break, you’d go for two weeks and brought us down to Mexico. We slept at the site at Teotihuacan which is now the site I’ve worked at since 1999 off and on. That connection was made really visceral by having a really dynamic professor that introduced me to the topic.

Do you have a favorite story from your archaeological studies? 

Since I was in undergrad, I was connected to this place. Actually, even more strangely, my parents spent their honeymoon in Mexico City and they took a day trip to Teotihuacan, so even before I was born, there was something there linking me to the site in certain ways. It’s a great place for different reasons, archaeologically. One is that it was a massive city, the biggest city in the Americas about 2000 to 1500 years ago. But also, what happened in parts of Latin America where there were indigenous societies at the time of the Spanish invasion, like the Aztecs and Inca and other groups, is that after those wars of conquest, those cities were covered over by colonial cities. But in Teotihuacan, this city had been abandoned for 1000 years before the Aztecs. So as a result, we’ve had relatively good access to this large, intact city, sort of like how Pompeii is studied in Rome. It wasn’t covered by a volcano like Pompeii but it allows us to really understand the urban organization of this massive place. That’s one of the reasons that keep drawing me back — along with good friendships and food and other things I like about going to Mexico.

In a story with The Brink, George Cowgill, an Arizona State professor, said you are “at the forefront” of making the necessary comparison between modern and ancient cities. What does that mean to you, and why is this comparison important? 

One thing I like to do is superimpose the map of Teotihuacan over Boston, putting where we’re working as the BU campus to give people a feel of how big it was and what it would be like to walk around this city. One of the things that is beneficial about studying the past is we know the endpoint. We know which ones of these societies survived or collapsed or transformed in meaningful ways. We might not know all of the details, especially when you’re getting into periods that don’t have many textual references for them, but we can see how people interacted with their environment, how they build cities and neighborhoods and how sort of how much they invested in infrastructure — which is something that came out of this book project. We see how important it can be to invest in sort of community infrastructure for the resiliency of cities. I feel like all of that then connects to some issues of today. 

How might you define collective action in the context of your book, Collective Action and the Reframing of Early Mesoamerica, to an audience not familiar with your work? 

I would think about those sorts of group activities that are bigger than household organizations, but smaller than cities or states. The intermediate scale of human interaction for things like managing resources is a really important one. I actually start the book comparatively and looked at Boston Common for a local example. The first figure that we have in the book is a cowbell from Boston Common that was excavated in the 1980s. But it dates from the 18th century. It illustrates this point that it was a commons. The Boston Common was a place where the early residents of the city — and I should mention only white males who are landowners — could graze their animals, their cows and their sheep at Boston Commons. Places like that gave rise to this term that we know as ‘tragedy of the commons.’ When people have a shared resource, it’s in any individual’s interest to have your animals graze as much as possible, but it’s in the community’s interest to manage the resource. There can be tension there. There can be a possibility of systemic conflict with those comments, and I should also mention that the person who popularized this term in Science Magazine in the 1960s was actually a sort of xenophobic and racist person. His ideas were grounded in excluding foreigners from coming into the country and the same sorts of thinking as the early colonists who set up Boston Common. And so we draw on that heavily for thinking about ‘what are the resources and economic bases of early societies in Mesoamerica? How do people manage them differently? And how did that affect their larger sociopolitical organization like their governance structure? So we sort of built up from that shared resource base.