Borgatta objects
Urns taken from the Borgatta site on display at the Museo Arqueológico de Cachi in Argentina. Museo Arqueológico de Cachi

New evidence uncovered by archaeologists has shone a light on a pre-Incan society high up in the Andes, which did not have hierarchical social structures as is common today, and was instead built on power sharing and decentralised networks.

The settlement, known as Borgatta, was built at some point in the tenth century in what is now Argentina, growing to perhaps a few thousand people. It was abandoned in the mid-1400s when the Incas took control of the area.

Archaeologist Elizabeth DeMarrais from the University of Cambridge and her team have been studying the ruins.

Because of the size of the site, she expected to find evidence of leaders and elites, as well as poorer citizens. However, there was little evidence of social differentiation in the artefacts that were uncovered.

"We thought we'd see socio-economic differences reflected in diet through remains of animal bones, or in dwelling locations, or in material accumulation," she told Research Horizons.

However, there was no evidence to suggest that Borgatta was once home to a wealthy elite, as no stashes of luxury goods were found. In addition, the objects found at the site suggest that various types of production were occurring across the settlement, with things being made in most of the houses. Intriguingly, no specialist sites could be identified, for example, a blacksmith's workshop or a weapons' maker.

"Think of the feather cloaks of Hawaiian chiefs, or the swords of Bronze Age warriors," DeMarrais said. "These were objects of wealth and power, commissioned from specialist technicians for elites who controlled production and often also trade. This commodification is typical in hierarchical societies."

"In Borgatta, however, we found evidence of non-specialist 'multi-crafting' right across the community: with each household using expedient bone and stone tool-kits to create a range of objects – from baskets to cooking pots, spindle whorls to wooden bowls – in their own idiosyncratic styles."

It appears that each household produced its own items, creating a society very different from ours; a society based on individual relationships rather than one defined by social hierarchies.

"Objects were gifted on a personal basis to build connections, rather than being funnelled up to a leader who represented the group." DeMarrais describes this was a 'heterarchy' – a society made up of decentralised networks and power sharing.

"Heterarchy was described in the 1940s as a means of understanding the structure of the human brain: ordered, but not hierarchically organised. In a human society, it highlights a structure where different individuals may take precedence in key activities – religion, trade, politics – but there is a fluidity to power relations that resists top-down rule. One can think of it as a form of confederacy."