The candidate for political office stood in a plaza, naked, bracing himself against the punches and kicks. The crowd roared, pulsing around him like a beating heart. People for whom he had risked his life in war after war hurled blows and insults from all directions. The candidate breathed deeply. Trained as a warrior, he knew he had to stay calm to reach the next phase of his candidacy.
This ordeal, documented by a Spanish priest in the 1500s, was merely the beginning of the long process of joining the government of the Mesoamerican city of Tlaxcallan, built around 1250 C.E. in the hills surrounding the modern city of Tlaxcala, Mexico. After this trial ended, the candidate would enter the temple on the edge of the plaza and stay for up to 2 years, while priests drilled him in Tlaxcallan’s moral and legal code. He would be starved, beaten with spiked whips when he fell asleep, and required to cut himself in bloodletting rituals. But when he walked out of the temple, he would be more than a warrior: He would be a member of Tlaxcallan’s senate, one of the 100 or so men who made the city’s most important military and economic decisions.
“I’d like to see modern politicians do all that, just to prove they can govern,” says archaeologist Lane Fargher, standing in the shadow of one of Tlaxcallan’s recently restored elevated plazas. Fargher has led surveys and excavations here since 2007, studying the urban plan and material culture of a type of society many archaeologists once believed they’d never find in Mesoamerica: a republic. “Twenty or 25 years ago, no one would have accepted it was organized this way,” says Fargher, who works at the research institute Cinvestav in Mérida, Mexico.