For Intro to Anthropology 2018 there were two readings around the theme of complex societies:

  • Lavenda and Schultz, “Why Did Humans Establish States?” in Anthropology: What does it mean to be human?
  • “Marketing conquest and the vanishing Indian: An Indigenous response to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse” by Michael Wilcox in the Journal of Social Archaeology (2010)

This material was for Intro to Anthropology 2018. For a 2021 update, see Stratified Complexity:

We began class by discussing the Michael Wilcox article. Wilcox is responding to what seems to have become a dominant paradigm in high school education and in popular culture to accept the Jared Diamond’s ideas about domestication and conquest as a historical-geographic accident. I made seven points from Wilcox’s article:

  1. Indians didn’t disappear in 1492:

    Most people visiting Arizona are unaware that a major river once ran from the mountains of New Mexico, through Phoenix, across the northern Sonoran Desert and into the Gulf of California. Fewer realize that contrary to popular imagery, most Indians in the arid Southwest were agriculturalists. In the years leading up to the Mexican American War (1846–1848), US Cavalry expeditions, exhausted by heat and lacking provisions, were shocked to find a large community of Indian farmers diverting water from the Gila River into an elaborate system of canals which fed expansive fields of wheat, cotton, corn, melons and squashes. Throughout the 1800s, Pima farmers freely offered thousands of pounds of emergency provisions and water to the US Army. By the 1870s, the tribe had provided both safe passage through the desert and up to six million pounds of wheat annually to gold rush dreamers, military parties and transcontinental migrants. (Wilcox, 94)

  2. Indians are still here. “The descendants of these groups, the Pima, their neighbors and the Pueblos, still live in the lands of their ancestors. And one could argue that the most damaging collapses and failures they have endured have been at the hands of scholars who have not accounted for their presence in a modern world or failed to tell the stories which explain that presence” (Wilcox, 96).
  3. Yes, Anglo farmers stole the water (Wilcox, 98) while myth of “Hohokam” invented: “In 1873 a delegation of O’Odham officials, led by General Antonio Azul, travelled to Washington DC to plead with the government to stop the theft of water by Anglo farmers. His pleas fell upon deaf ears. Indians, lacking rights of United States citizens until 1924, were unable to defend themselves or their water rights in the US legal system” (Wilcox, 98).
  4. Guns, Germs, & Steel falsely makes conquest into geographic fate. “A reader of Diamond’s story, perhaps lounging in the tropics on his holidays, glances at the hired help and drifts off into a sleep made more peaceful by the notion that his fortunate fate, and indeed the fates of human societies, were settled long ago somewhere in the collective memory of one’s collective ancestors” (Wilcox, 100).
  5. “Collapse” falsely becomes indigenous choice (Wilcox, 102; I’ve used Wilcox’s work to write about Jared Diamond’s ideas).
  6. Archaeology is better if you talk to people, especially descendant communities (Wilcox, 104). This is a point we made in the class on archaeology and collaboration.
  7. Not about Guns, Germs & Steel. Try Lawyers, Gods & Money (Wilcox, 112).


At this point, we did an exercise in PowerPoint commands, to illustrate what Robert Wenke writes: “The important thing is that the ability and incentive to make these investments are radically different from the capacities of Pleistocene bands, in that they imply the ability of some members of society to control and organize others” (Wenke 1999, 348 in Lavenda & Schultz, 223).

This exercise illustrated that something happens in human society so that some people become more organized according to state control, with a specialized and centralized government over a territory. Although there have been many definitions of a state society, one of the most interesting is from Max Weber: “In his lecture ‘Politics as a Vocation’ (1918), the German sociologist Max Weber defines the state as a ‘human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force [coercive authority] within a given territory.’”

What does it mean to be “Complex”?

While anthropologists seek to explain the rise of complex societies (Lavenda & Schultz, 226), it is first necessary to define social complexity. Lavenda and Schultz define complex societies as featuring “large populations, an extensive division of labor, and occupational specialization” (222). However, it is important to note that this does not mean hunting and gathering societies are “simple.” Specialization can make an individual’s life simpler, even if she is integrated into a complex societies. Also, simple tools like a lasso require complex skills, whereas many of our modern complex tools require only the skill of button-pushing.

Note: See my Cultural Ecology 2020 course for the source of these examples.

Digging up a Complex Society (Lavenda & Schultz, 223)

Agriculture: Irrigation, tools, cleared fields, tools, storage
Buildings: foundations, can be used to estimate population
Craft specialization: Tools & concentrated artifacts (Lavenda & Schultz, 224)
Pyramids and monumental architecture provides evidence of hierarchy and stratification, as can temples, tombs, and grave goods. Some archaeologists have described these early artifacts as more like “Powerfacts” in that they mean to prove an “elite’s fitness to rule” (Lavenda & Schultz, 224)

Digging up a State (Lavenda & Schultz, 225)

Walls, Buildings, boundary markers = Possessing a territory
Monumental Architecture and hierarchically-organized space
Coins, seals, money
Writing and record-keeping

Why states? (around Lavenda & Schultz, 226)

States are not an inevitable evolutionary stage.
There have been various “prime mover” hypotheses which try to explain all states. Some of the most famous are:

  • Hydraulic (226-27)
  • Long-distance trade
  • Environmental Circumscription (227), also called “population, war, and circumscription”

None of these explains all states (Lavenda & Schultz, 229). “Many of the remains of the earliest complex societies are incomplete and could be compatible with more than one form of social organization” (Lavenda & Schultz, 228)

The Andes

Challenge traditional accounts of state formation: “If the first complex societies on the Peruvian coast were based on a steady supply of food from the sea, rather than agriculture, the notion that village agriculture must precede the rise of social complexity is dealt a blow” (Lavenda & Schultz, 233).

The Inka managed incredibly complex state without traditional written language (Lavenda & Schultz, 232-33)

Complexity Revisited

To conclude this unit on archaeology, we revisited the idea of Bands–->Tribes–>Chiefdoms–>States, which was known as “unilineal cultural evolutionism” (Lavenda & Schultz, 180). Based on the archaeological evidence, we now reject “lockstep determinism” (Lavenda & Schultz, 182). Such labels should be seen as “points on a continuum” while recognizing that “a single social group may move back and forth between more than one of these forms over time” (Lavenda & Schultz, 182)

And then there is one of my favorite forms of social organization, transegalitarian societies: “Seemingly poised between equality and hierarchy, transegalitarian societies have flourished at various times and places up to the present day, and they do not appear necessarily to be on the way to becoming anything else in particular” (Lavenda & Schultz, 225).

Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, subscribe to the YouTube channel or follow on Twitter.

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