Irrigation, Raised Fields and State Management: Wittfogel Redux?

By Butzer, Karl W. | Antiquity, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Irrigation, Raised Fields and State Management: Wittfogel Redux?


Butzer, Karl W., Antiquity


The Wittfogel model, like Elvis, refuses to die. And like the impersonators of Elvis Presley who earn their keep by rocking around the clock, Karl Wittfogel's 'hydraulic hypothesis' (Wittfogel 1938; 1957) continues to be repackaged in a variety of guises that assign a unique causal role to irrigation in the development of socio-political complexity. In analogy to the Industrial Revolution, V. Gordon Childe long ago propagated the concepts of Neolithic and urban revolutions (see Harris 1994). These were debated, but more importantly, they served to stimulate both archaeological and ethno-historical research of substantial importance. Thus, studies of urbanism revealed that the processes of urban evolution not only were incremental, but that the very nature of urbanism was to some degree unique to particular historical, cultural and ecological contexts. While the term 'Urban Revolution' has not been used for quite some time, the impact of Childe in channelling fresh investigations of historical urbanism has been substantial. Similarly, Childe's Neolithic Revolution set in train broadly conceived empirical research, first into the 'origins', then into the processes of plant and animal domestication. Again there was no universal model, but that no longer is disappointing: it is precisely the variety of alternative pathways to domestication and agricultural subsistence, and the many different social and ecological contexts of early agricultural transformation, that are interesting and informative. The 'Neolithic Revolution' is a term now only found in popularizing tracts. That does not discredit Childe, who was a major catalyst for archaeology and other disciplines interested in socio-economic evolution. Acknowledging the role of key players in the history of ideas does not - and should not - require reification of seminal hypotheses. Instead, it is the impact of new ideas in provoking fresh thinking, rather than derivative research, that matters.

Patrick Kirch's monograph is a good prototype of what I mean by innovative research. He examines two case-studies in detail, to demonstrate divergent socio-economic evolution from similar socio-cultural roots, in different ecological contexts. Futuna and Aloft are relatively isolated islands in western Polynesia, where Kirch combined an 'ethnography of agricultural practice' with archaeological investigation to study agricultural change over the long term. He focused not just on irrigation but on the full range of agricultural pursuits, including short-fallow dry-farming and arboriculture. He traces these components and their evolution, in contrasting wet and dry micro-ecologies, to draw them into the dynamics of competitive social relationships as the islanders attempted to cope with finite resources and growing populations, by some groups acquiring hegemonic control over a more diversified economy. Intensification is the critical process, and it is intensification that pulls agricultural production above the level of demographic and caloric necessity, to meet the requirements of social exchange or irrigated taro and pigs for quality yams at feasts.

The archaeology shows that pond-field irrigation developed fairly late, in conjunction with demographic growth, upland degradation and innovation. The lack of Proto-Oceanic or Proto-Polynesian words for irrigation features supports a post-dispersal and local development, despite some linguistic cognates between adjacent island groups. In dry-farming areas, field walls and alignments suggest short-fallow cropping and concern for permanent demarcation of plot boundaries, while fortifications and architectural symbols of status and power argue for internal competition. The dry-farming and irrigation chiefdoms responded very differently to the pressures of population increase and of the social demand for surplus - to supply the cycles of competitive exchange and feasting. These divergent pathways to intensification served to accentuate the differences between socio-political structures, this process emerging as a particularistic and ecologically-grounded means to an end. …

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