Friday, December 29, 2017

Teotihuacan fracas: Pasztory claims she was ripped off and ignored by Millon & Cowgill

Esther Pasztory
I just read a strange and inflammatory paper by Esther Pasztory in the Mexican journal, Anales de Antropología (Pasztory 2017). Pasztory, a senior art historian and Teotihuacan scholar, raises questions about the scholarship and perhaps the ethics of two other top Teotihuacan scholars, René Millon (deceased) and George Cowgill. I have three main questions about this paper:

1. Did Millon really steal her ideas?  (the answer is, no).

2. Did Cowgill refuse to give her sufficient credit for her insights?  (the answer is, no).

3. Why would a reputable journal publish this paper? (the answer is, I have no idea).
Rene Millon
This paper focuses on the notion that the government and society of ancient Teotihuacan were more collective or corporate than most ancient societies. This view has been gaining in popularity recently. Pasztory claims to have invented the idea although the published record casts doubt on her claim. Pasztory’s 1987 book was a major early statement of this position. Cowgill (but not Millon) also contributed to the growing consensus that Teotihuacan may have had a more collective form of rule, using the term “oligarchy” and comparing Teotihuacan to Rennaissance Venice in several works. In recent years, Linda Manzanilla has been the major proponent of the collective rule position (Froese et al. 2014; Manzanilla 2002, 2006, 2015), and David Carballo has at least one paper in press arguing for collective rule at the site (see also Carballo 2016). This is not by any means a unanimous viewpoint; Saburo Sugiyama is the most vocal proponent of the single-king autocratic model for Teotihuacan (Sugiyama 2005, 2013; Sugiyama and Cabrera Castro 2007). Personally, I am on the fence. I think the collective model is probably valid, but I do not feel that the arguments in its favor have been particularly strong in empirical terms.

Pasztory has a variety of complaints about Millon and Cowgill. I will limit myself to the most egregious.

Complaint #1: Cowgill ignores her ideas and work.
George Cowgill
The impetus for this article was the publication of Cowgill’s recent synthesis of research on Teotihuacan (Cowgill 2015), which—she claims—ignores her and does not cite her enough times. She claims that the notion of collective rule was her idea in the first place: “esta idea fuse de mi autoría” (p. 219), or, “Soy la responsible del origen de algunas de las ideas centrales sobre la naturaleza de Teotihuacan” (p. 217). Cowgill discusses the collective rule idea, but does not cite Pasztory as its originator.

If one just reads Pasztory’s paper and looks at Cowgill’s book, one could come to divergent conclusions. First, only two of her works are cited in the bibliography, so perhaps she is correct about being ignored or slighted. But her six entries in the index are only exceeded by a greater number of entries for René Millon and Saburo Sugiyama. That is, Cowgill mentions her by name more than any other scholar except for these two. He clearly does take her seriously.

Let’s look at the history of George Cowgill’s ideas about collective rule at Teotihuacan. I will be brief here; however, it would be useful to write a more scholarly account in the future.

(Cowgill 1983) – In this discussion of government at Teotihuacan, focusing on the architectural compound known as the Ciudadela, Cowgill does not specifically use the terms collective or corporate rule. But he was clearly exploring the concept of non-autocratic rule, talking about how there may have been powerful individuals ruling the state instead of a single ruler. Instead of saying the Sun Pyramid was built by a single ruler, he says it was initiated by “persons.” He talks about the possibility of priest-rulers and uses the concept theocracy. He talks about rule by a variety of officials. To me, it looks like he was exploring the notion of collective rule, but without the benefit of an appropriate label or concept. I must admit that I never liked this paper; I thought the writing was wishy-washy, and at the time was convinced that rulership must have been despotic. But then we all thought like that back in the early 1980s.

1983-1991: Cowgill was publishing methodological papers and some quantitative studies of Teotihuacan during these years. He did not give much attention to Teotihuacan government.

(Cabrera Castro et al. 1991) – Cowgill and his coauthors talk about “a shift to more emphasis on a collective, group-oriented ethos” (p. 89) for Teotihuacan society and government.

(Cowgill 1992) – He cites Pasztory as suggesting a more corporate orientation for Teotihuacan rule. He quotes Millon (Millon 1981) as acknowledging that Teotihuacan rule might have been either “individual or collective” (Cowgill 1992:98).

(Cowgill 1997) – This is a major scholarly review article on “society and state” at Teotihuacan. He includes significant discussion of possibilities for collective rule, citing seven works by Pasztory. This is the place where Cowgill gives Pasztory’s views their most detailed consideration. He cites her newly-published book, which contains the fullest exposition of her views (Pasztory 1997). Although Pasztory does not cite this paper in her recent article, she might not consider the level of coverage of her ideas sufficient because—as in his book—Cowgill does not state explicitly that collective rule was her idea in the first place (Pasztory 2017:219). But, if my interpretation of Cowgill’s 1983 paper is correct, then he was exploring these concepts himself before she put her ideas into print.

So, why did Cowgill give Pasztory’s work such short shrift in his 2015 book? At least half of his mentions are critiques of her ideas about various notions, including the Great Goddess concept. I would suggest that he had explored her ideas previously and found them inadequate for his understanding of Teotihuacan society. I have a similar view, which I will describe below.

Complaint #2: Millon stole her ideas

According to Pasztory (p. 218), Millon read the draft of a chapter, subsequently published as (Pasztory 1988). She does not provide a date, but 1986 or 1987 would sound appropriate. The chapter described her ideas about collective rule, but Millon is said to have expressed vehement opposition to this concept (“se opuso vehementemente a la idea”, p. 218). Then, at the Dumbarton Oaks conference on Teotihuacan in 1988, she was surprised to hear Millon talk about collective rule at Teotihacan, while failing to give her any credit for the idea! (“sin darme ningún crédito por la idea”). Now these events are difficult to reconstruct today without a lot of interviews and piecing together the story. But I don’t think stories like this have much importance. What is important is the published record. What did Millon say in the published version of his paper and in other publications?

(Millon 1981) – I first go back in time to an earlier paper, not cited by Pasztory. In this review article, Millon states in passing that rulership at Teotihuacan could have been either “individual or collective” (p. 212). Millon was clearly thinking about this issue long before reading Pasztory’s unpublished chapter. But he does not develop the idea in this paper. As mentioned above, Cowgill (1992) later cited Millon (1981) as mentioning collective rule.

(Millon 1992) – This paper from the Dumbarton Oaks volume is a lengthy and detailed analysis of several decades of research at Teotihuacan. It is the published version of the conference talk in which Millon reportedly discussed Pasztory’s ideas without citation or credit. Millon devotes five pages (pp. 371-375) to the ideas of Pasztory about Teotihuacan society and rule! He cites six of her publications! This is hardly ignoring her, and far from stealing her ideas. He organizes her ideas into four main claims, analyzes them, and concludes that one claim survives the evidence, two are contradicted by evidence, and one survives, but is better explained in a different way. My interpretation of Millon’s complaints about Pasztory’s work (which I report from my 1990’s annotations in the margin of the article) is that it is insufficiently anthropological and too subjective. (One other relevant factor: As I know from recent experience, speakers are not given a great amount of time at Dumbarton Oaks conferences, and the schedule is followed tightly. One simply does not have time for a lot of scholarly citations in these oral presentations.)

So, did Millon steal the ideas of Pasztory? Hardly. In the 1992 chapter, he discussed the collective rule idea, engaging closely with her publications. But he is not convinced. Sadly, this was René Millon’s final major paper on Teotihuacan. He never articulated an integrated vision of government at Teotihuacan.

What are the main issues here?

(1) Humanities vs. social scientific scholarship. Pasztory seems to think that if she came up with an idea first, anyone who later engages with that idea must cite her as having originated it. Apart from the idea of whether she was indeed the first to propose a collective model for Teotihuacan, her expectations are out of step with the standard model of research and citation in the social sciences. When I write about the Aztec empire as being an indirectly control empire, I don’t feel the need to go back and cite the first person who may have proposed that idea (Ross Hassig, although he used the term “hegemonic empire.”) If I am writing a history of scholarship on the topic, of course I’ll credit Hassig. But if I am just going about my scholarly business today, I don’t need to invoke his name every time I talk about the organization of the empire. Perhaps in the humanities, the person who first articulates a concept needs to be acknowledged all the time. But, in the social sciences, the crucial issue is empirical: What do the data show? Both Millon and Cowgill examined Pasztory’s ideas and evidence carefully, and concluded that they were not needed in order to make their arguments. We lack later papers by Millon, but Cowgill’s trajectory is clear: he talks about her ideas in a 1997 review article, and then later references them only where he feels the need.

(2) Professional pride. Pasztory clearly feels that Millon and Cowgill insulted her professional pride by not giving her ideas enough consideration or citation. But, I think my chronological discussion above show that neither scholar was remiss in discussing her ideas and works. Should Cowgill have cited her more extensively in his book? He doesn’t really deal much with the history of interpretations of Teotihuacan, so I don’t fault him there.

(3) Collective rule at Teotihuacan. I am an agnostic when it comes to the collective rule interpretation of Teotihuacan. It has become something of a bandwagon. As a curmudgeon, I have a strong dislike for bandwagons. I prefer to sit back, consider the evidence, and write critiques of poorly supported popular notions. When I first moved back to Teotihuacan scholarship a couple of years ago, I eagerly went through Pastory’s main book (Pasztory 1997). Given my documented infatuation with Blanton and Fargher’s model (Blanton and Fargher 2008), I wanted to review and synthesize the evidence for collective rule at Teotihuacan. But I was disappointed. The book has some insights, but to me, most of her evidence is subjective and open to multiple interpretations. I didn’t find much that I consider rigorous empirical evidence to support a collective model for Teotihuacan government. I do cite her work, though, because her book remains an important work. I feel that archaeologists have yet to develop sufficiently rigorous methods to identify collective vs. autocratic rule with confidence, using archaeological evidence. I have read works by Manzanilla, Carballo, Blanton, Fargher, Feinman, and others on this issue, but I remain unconvinced. My gut feeling is that the collective model fits Teotihuacan better than the autocratic model. But I have not seen a sufficiently rigorous study, with enough evidence to convince me. (Yes, I know these people are probably frustrated at my curmudgeonly approach here. My mantra is, "Show me the data!").

(4) Why did Anales de Antropología publish this piece? It looks like no one checked Pasztory’s accusations against the published record. It would be useful if someone were to write a history of ideas about Teotihuacan government and society. But unfortunately, much of this paper sounds petty and unprofessional. It is published in a peer-reviewed journal, but was this paper subject to outside review? I have no idea.


Blanton, Richard E. and Lane F. Fargher
2008 Collective Action in the Formation of Pre-Modern States. Springer, New York.

Cabrera Castro, Rubén, Saburo Sugiyama, and George L. Cowgill
1991 The Templo de Quetzalcoatl Project at Teotihuacan: A Preliminary Report. Ancient Mesoamerica 2: 77-92.

Carballo, David M.
2016 Urbanization and Religion in Ancient Central Mexico. Oxford University Press, New York.

Cowgill, George L.
1983 Rulership and the Ciudadela: Political Inferences from Teotihuacan Architecture. In Civilization in the Americas: Essays in Honor of Gordon R. Willey, edited by Richard M. Leventhal and Alan L. Kolata, pp. 313-344. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

1992 Toward a Political History of Teotihuacan. In Ideology and Pre-Columbian Civilizations, edited by Arthur A. Demarest and Geoffrey W. Conrad, pp. 87-114. School of American Research Press, Santa Fe.

1997 State and Society at Teotihuacan, Mexico. Annual Review of Anthropology 26: 129-161.

2015 Ancient Teotihuacan: Early Urbanism in Central Mexico. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Froese, Tom, Carlos Gershenson, and Linda R. Manzanilla
2014 Can Government Be Self-Organized? A Mathematical Model of the Collective Social Organization of Ancient Teotihuacan, Central Mexico. PloS one 9 (10): e109966.

Manzanilla, Linda R.
2002 Gobierno corporativo en Teotihuacan: una revisión del concepto "palacio" aplicado a la gran urbe prehispánica. Anales de Antropología 35: 157-190.

2006 Estados corporativos arcaicos: organizaciones de excepción en escenarios excluyentes. Cuicuilco 13 (36): 13-45.

2015 Cooperation and tensions in multiethnic corporate societies using Teotihuacan, Central Mexico, as a case study. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112: 9210-9215.

Millon, René
1981 Teotihuacan: City, State, and Civilization. In Archaeology, edited by Jeremy Sabloff, pp. 198-243. Supplement to the Handbook of Middle American Indians, vol. 1. University of Texas Press, Austin.

1992 Teotihuacan Studies: From 1950 to 1990 and Beyond. In Art, Ideology, and the City of Teotihuacan, edited by Janet C. Berlo, pp. 339-429. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC.

Pasztory, Esther
1988 A Reinterpretation of Teotihuacan and its Mural Painting Tradition. In Feathered Serpents and Flowering Trees: Reconstructing the Murals of Teotihuacan, edited by Kathleen Berrin, pp. 45-77. Fine Arts Museums, San Francisco.

1997 Teotihuacan: An Experiment in Living. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

2017 Nota: Panorama de los estudio sobre Teotihuacan: un corrección historiográfica: Adding dimension to studies on Teotihuacan: A historiogrpahic corection. Anales de Antropología 51: 217-221.

Sugiyama, Saburo
2005 Human Sacrifice, Militarism, and Rulership: The Symbolism of the Feathered Serpent Pyramid at Teotihuacan, Mexico. Cambridge University Press, New York.

2013 Creation and Transformation of Monuments in the Ancient Citiy of Teotihuacan. In Constructing, Deconstructing, and Reconstructing Social Identity: 2,000 Years of Monumentality in Teotihuacan and Cholula, Mexico, edited by Saburo Sugiyama, Shigeru Kabata, Tomoko Taniguchi, and Etsuko Niwa, pp. 1-10. Aichi Prefectural University, Cultural Symbiosis Research Institute, Aichi.

Sugiyama, Saburo and Rubén Cabrera Castro
2007 The Moon Pyramid Project and the Teotihuacan State Polity. Ancient Mesoamerica 18: 109-125.


David said...

Hi Mike,
A few points here:
(1) Millon's first reference to a more pluralistic/oligarchic political organization was in his 1976 chapter in Wolf's volume, p. 237. Let me know if your read it differently;
(2) Nevertheless, I think it is fine that the journal chose to publish the work, as Pasztory introduced new lines of (more art historical) interpretation, and if she feels her argument wasn't given proper attribution, that should be voiced, if only to be checked against earlier an later argumentation;
(3) My own perspective is not that Teo was monolithically collective for 600 or so years, but that the political organization is likely to have oscillated over time, maybe something like imagining Rome's changes: republic, triumvirate, autocratic empire, split courts, etc. If I were to wager, it would be that the political organization was more pluralistic/collective for a majority of those 600 years than it was autocratic, but the organization may have varied over time.

Michael E. Smith said...

@David - I didn't do a thorough check of the literature on this. You are probably correct on Millon (1976). I was motivated to look through works by Millon and Cowgill because of the seriousness of Pasztory's accusation that Millon stole her ideas. I was able to satisfy myself that this is incorrect. This is separate from the question of whether her ideas were given sufficient credit by Millon, Cowgill, and others. Again, I was able to satisfy myself that they did engage seriously with her work in at least one paper each. But perhaps her work and her influence was not given sufficient credit because she is an art historian, or because she is a woman, or perhaps there are other factors not obvious to me. This is why a serious historiographic analysis would be beneficial.

I would be fascinated to see analysis of how ideas about Teotihuacan society developed over time, and the interplay between archaeologists and art historians, between Mexican and U.S. scholars, and so on. Also, just how have archaeological and art historical works influenced one another at Teotihuacan? My impression is that scholars of both disciplines fail to take sufficient notice of work in the other discipline, which limits what each discipline can accomplish on its own, and limits our overall understanding of ancient Teotihuacan. I think archaeologists may be more guilty here. Too many of us think we can interpret mural paintings or iconography, but without the formal training in the analysis of images that art historians possess. This leads to incomplete and misleading interpretations, which only sets back the field.

As for collective rule at Teo, I'll sit back and see how the evidence and arguments develop. Most people seem to agree with you about changes over time, though.