At Washington University in St. Louis, the study of "social complexity" is fundamental to our understanding of Hunter/Gatherers, Pastoralists, and Agricultural societies alike. The organization of their political, economic, and ideological institutions shape the way these societies have developed through time, and is a formative aspect of how they interact. Our faculty and research groups are heavily involved in the project of illuminating the complexity of ancient societies spanning North & South America, East & Central Asia, Africa and Mesoamerica:
Dr. David Freidel
David Freidel has been investigating the origins of Maya civilization since 1974 when he initiated his first project at the site of Cerros in northern Belize. He has written extensively on the Core-Periphery geographic model which posits the initial establishment of complex society in the core of the Maya lowlands with subsequent diffusion to the peripheries. At both Cerros and at Yaxuná, a major early center in northern Yucatan, Freidel’s projects discovered evidence indicating that complex society in the peripheries was evolving on a par with that in the core area. The core area has larger civic-religious buildings in the Preclassic period but not more sophisticated material symbol-systems. Freidel has long posited that lowland Maya social complexity evolved over the entire peninsula by means of enduring networks of alliance, social interaction, and exchange. In his current research program at the site of El Perú-Waka’ in northwestern Petén, Guatemala, archaeologists have discovered evidence that the city was founded in the Preclassic period, but so far excavations have focused on later Classic period occupation phases. Because El Perú-Waka’ is, like Cerros and Yaxuná, situated on strategic transportation-communication routes, it is likely that continued research will uncover major features dating to the Preclassic. Most recently, Freidel has been returning to a consideration of Mesoamerican political economics. He has long held that Mesoamerica and the Maya lowlands in particular had currency-based economies and administered markets from the Preclassic period onwards. In his latest effort, he posits that zea maize is a highly risk prone crop with poor prospects for long-term storage in moist tropical environments. He suggests that these factors inspired early the development of institutional storage of maize in imperishable currencies through marketing, and elaborate networks of markets moving maize from areas enjoying surplus to areas afflicted with crop failure. The idea that Mesoamericans stored maize in currency tokens was suggested by Kent Flannery and James Schoenwetter in 1970 from the vantage of their work on the Preclassic in the Valley of Oaxaca in highland Mexico.
Dr. Fiona Marshall
Fiona Marshall’s research is concerned with hallmarks of hunter-gatherer socioeconomic complexity. She has conducted ethnoarchaeological research on this issue among Okiek hunter-gatherers of East Africa, who have a history as delayed-return hunter-gatherers. In collaboration with Dr Dale and other colleagues she continues to explore ancient Kansyore hunter-gatherers of Lake Victoria and the existence of complex hunter-gatherers in Africa. In her long-term research on African pastoralists, Marshall also focuses on issues of complexity among mobile pastoralists. Graduate students in the program are currently engaged in research on the organization of ancient African cities, trade and relations among pastoralists and settled pre-Aksumite and Aksumite urban communities in ancient northern Ethiopia and at Jenne Jenno in the Niger Bend in Mali.
The pre-Columbian cultural complex we call Cahokia Mounds represents the most complex socio-political entity north of Mexico. In fact if there was an urban center in North America, Cahokia represented that community. Unlike many ancient cities Cahokia was not a state but a complex chiefdom. The focus of my research is on the religious and ritual aspects of Cahokia and the broader cultural manifestation of Mississippian culture. Because of its overall size, 5-6 sq. miles, and its dynamic history as a community I have also studied the cultural landscape at Cahokia. It is my contention that Cahokia’s roots are in the pre-Mississippian, Late Woodland and Emergent Mississippian societies of the region. While others were readily drawn into the region after Cahokia’s founding at the end of the tenth century, the Emergent Mississippian complexes are the antecedents. Cahokia represents the response to the successful agricultural developments of the preceding centuries. The cultivation of a wide range of indigenous native crops in the millennium before and the addition of maize to this suite of cultigens were not only important as food sources but epitomize the underlying cosmological principles of birth, growth, and death that are reflected symbolically in the material culture. Located within a 20 minute drive of campus Cahokia and its surrounding communities provide a unique place to explore and learn about the complexity of American Indian societies in the mid-continent between the eleventh and end of the fourteenth centuries AD.
Dr. T.R. Kidder
TR Kidder's research group incorporates ongoing studies of the emergence, perpetuation, and demise of social complexity at different times and places in the Mississippi Valley. Much of our research is based on methods derived from geoarchaeological and landscape archaeology, coupled with standard archaeological recovery and analysis. There are three particular projects that are most relevant. The first is a long-term research agenda exploring the histories of complex hunter-gatherers in the lower Mississippi Valley. This work examines the ecological and environmental contexts of emergent complexity and also is increasingly engaged in understanding the ritual processes that undergird and allow for complex social interactions at specific sites and over large areas. Much of the work has been done at Poverty Point in northeast Louisiana, where we have been detailing the history of the settlement, its chronology, and the relationship between emerging complexity and mound/earthwork building. We have been studying mound building as a proxy for social organization and labor mobilization. This work is now moving to the Jaketown site where we are doing comparative studies of a smaller but still central node in the political, economic, and ritual landscape. A second project, now winding down, has been the study of complex hunter-fisher-forager-farmers in later prehistory (between ca. 700-1100 C.E.). Marked by extensive and intensive mound building, Coles Creek people of the lower Mississippi Valley have confounded archaeological typologies because they have many of the trappings of chiefdom-level societies but lack evidence of chiefs. We have studied the long-term histories of various Coles Creek groups using paleoethnobotanical analysis to determine food ways and their relation to social complexity; more recently we have been studying site assemblages from mound and non-mound contexts, mound building, and landscape alterations as ways of investigating the causal pathways to complexity in the era just before the onset or full-time farming. Our last project is examining the nature of mound building and landscape modification at the Cahokia site. This work builds on analysis of the construction of Monks Mound, the largest mound in North America. We have been examining the construction history and chronology of mound building as a means of understanding the role this monument has in the site’s history and its place in the emergence and consolidation of political and social power.
Dr. Michael Frachetti
Michael Frachetti and his graduate students are investigating how the practices of mobile pastoralists generated a complex network of interactions and institutional structures across the Eurasian steppe region, starting around 3000 BCE. Classically cited "centralized" socio-political institutions, such as specialized production or political structures are lacking in the Bronze Age archaeology of the steppe, whereas evidence for other key aspects of complex organization, such as geographically wide-scale trade networks, the production and circulation of prestige goods, and the development of competitive power hierarchies, all index a dynamic political economic structure among Bronze Age steppe populations. Frachetti is currently working in Eastern Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, studying how complex trade and interaction networks led to the transfer and mutation of organizational institutions among regional pastoralist communities. Regionally distinct Bronze Age societies of the steppe fluctuated both in their economic organization and interactive scale, which repositioned neighboring groups at apparently different levels of integration or fragmentation through time. The territorial differentiation and strategic flexibility inherent in pastoralist ways of life on the steppe requires perspective beyond local demographic scales to appropriately characterize political and institutional “complexity” in a steppe context. The constantly changing economic, political, and likely ideological milieu of steppe pastoralists conditioned the nature of local and regional institutions and contributed to a cross-hatch of political entities that were neither state-like nor simply tribal in their organization. On the basis of recent archaeology in Eastern Kazakhstan and comparative archaeological cases, I propose a conceptually broad model of “non-uniform complexity” to account for the unique interrelationships of steppe populations in the Bronze Age.
Dr. David Browman
David Browman has long researched the implications of the religious ceremonialism associated with the first agro-pastoral communities in the southern altiplano of Peru and Bolivia. The Pajano cult developed separately from the contemporaneous Chavin rites further north in Peru. Our research has identified an elaborate dyadic pantheon, initially ruled over by deities such as Camelid-Woman and Raptor-Man, contrasting the wild and the sown, the mobile pastoral with the sedentary agricultural, and eventually evolving into part of the Inca dualistic system 2-3 millennia later. Our temporal focus is upon the period from the early Chiripa temples to the urban Tiwanaku palaces.
Dr. Xinyi Liu
Xinyi Liu’s research is concerned the raise of household organization in prehistoric China. In north China, widespread pooling and sharing food were common practices during the early Neolithic. It is plausible that people had an acceptance of risk and reward shared by the group as a whole. In contrast, the Bronze Age societies in north China displays a more ‘closed’ strategy, where food resources are shared among members of the household but much less between different households. Although under different social and political contexts, this contrast displays interesting resonances with the recent shift in social organization of Chinese society during the past three decades. Drawing upon observations and interviews with contemporary millet farmers in north China, he explores social relations of grain production in prehistoric contexts.
Related Faculty Research:
Gayle Fritz has worked on the way diet is related to political hierarchy among Paleoindian and later Native American communities.