Household Units in the Analysis of Prehistoric Social Complexity, Southern Cook Islands

Article excerpt

HOUSEHOLDS, AND THE FAMILIES that comprise them, are the most basic units of social organization in any culture. While archaeologists may not be able to discuss the social composition of prehistoric households, the analysis of household remains allows archaeologists to discuss social organization across cultures and changes to it through time (e.g., Banning and Byrd 1987; Deetz 1982; Weeks 1988). As Brumfiel (1992) has noted, changes in a society at large are rooted in changes in the organizational composition and character of the households that provide the goods and services to support the society. This was particularly true in pre-industrial societies where most activities took place within the household and the context of family relationships. Archaeologists usually do not have access to the social relationships that made up the households that they study, but rather must examine the physical remains. People express information about themselves for themselves and for others through the composition and organization of their household space. The physical remains of households are the archaeological manifestation of this information and are a means by which archaeologists can discuss social organization. Aspects of social organization, including social stratification and inequality, have been used by archaeologists and anthropologists as measures of complexity. McGuire (1983) breaks down cultural complexity into heterogeneity and inequality in his approach to evaluating the complexity of cultures. He argues that most studies of cultural complexity have assumed a Marxian unilineal hierarchical stratification of the societies that may not be appropriate. He argues that his approach assumes no structuring principles. Heterogeneity is defined as the frequency of individuals among social parameters (McGuire 1983:101) and inequality as the extent of differential access to material and social resources (McGuire 1983:102). The range of variation in physical structure, materials, and artifacts that constitute the physical remains of prehistoric households can provide data for archaeologists to discuss such topics as the number of social personae, the distribution of the population among these social personae, and inequality between social personae (McGuire 1983). This approach is taken here in a study of archaeological remains from three of the Southern Cook Islands. When discussing archaeological household remains, the emphasis would be most fruitfully focused on the social persona of the household as a whole. Individuals are difficult to identify, and Cook Islands ethnography (e.g., Hiroa 1934) indicates that the household as a social group usually bore the status of its members. In addition, specialists, a social persona as discussed by McGuire, often use other members of their household and family in the practice of their craft. Because members of a household are frequently near to hand, many members of a household assist the specialist in the practice of their craft (Hiroa 1934; personal observation on Mangaia 1993). (1) The results of an analysis sensitive to these issues can then lead to meaningful comparison with other societies or the same society at various points in time (see McGuire 1983).

The units that have generally been chosen by archaeologists and anthropologists as measures of complexity are biased against developmental studies because they are markers of existing complexity. Classic studies based on systemic models have had difficulty explaining the development of complexity because of the focus on the system rather than on human agency (Brumfiel 1992). When this approach is applied to less complex societies the impression of long-term stasis emerges. Physical remains that tend to attract archaeological attention in complex societies, such as monumental architecture, are absent from less complex societies. Research on Polynesian societies has tended to follow many of the same trends characterized by Brumfiel (1992) for research in other parts of the world. …