The Savannah River Chiefdoms: Political Change in the Late Prehistoric Southeast

The Savannah River Chiefdoms: Political Change in the Late Prehistoric Southeast

The Savannah River Chiefdoms: Political Change in the Late Prehistoric Southeast

The Savannah River Chiefdoms: Political Change in the Late Prehistoric Southeast

Synopsis

This volume explores political change in chiefdoms, specifically how complex chiefdoms emerge and collapse, and how this process-called cycling-can be examined using archaeological, ethnohistoric, paleoclimatic, paleosubsistence, and physical anthropological data. The focus for the research is the prehistoric and initial contact-era Mississippian chiefdoms of the Southeastern United States, specifically the societies occupying the Savannah River basin from ca. A. D. 1000 to 1600. This regional focus and the multidisciplinary nature of the investigation provide a solid introduction to the Southeastern Mississippian archaeological record and the study of cultural evolution in general.

Excerpt

The question of how organizational and administrative structures emerged and evolved over time has been a subject of considerable interest to anthropologists since the beginnings of the discipline. Subsumed under this topic is the question of cycling behavior, the focus of this study. Why is it that organizational structures appear to fluctuate, or cycle, back and forth between specified levels of sociopolitical complexity in some societies, while in others they move seemingly uninterruptedly to ever-higher levels? Why, for example, have societies in some parts of the world remained at approximately the same level of complexity for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years, such as that observed among the tribes and chiefdoms in New Guinea, lowland South and Central America, (Bronze Age) Europe, and central Africa, while in other regions more complex societies emerged fairly quickly? Why, furthermore, should large, complex, and seemingly successful societies fall apart, only to have similar forms appear a century or two later? Cycling behavior, it will be demonstrated, is particularly characteristic of chiefdom societies. Exploring this process should not only advance our understanding of how chiefdoms operate but should also shed light on their emergence and, in some cases, evolutionary transformation into state-level societies or their collapse into simpler organizational forms.

While anthropologists and historians alike have advanced the notion that cyclicity appears to characterize aspects of human history, analysis of this proposition is in its infancy. in this study, what I call cycling refers to a fluctuation in administrative or decision-making levels within designated upper and lower limits. More specifically, it encompasses the social transformations that occur when administrative or decision-making levels within chiefdom-level societies in a given region fluctuate between one and two levels above the local community. As such, the process subsumes transitions between simple and complex chiefdoms. Such transitions are generally assumed to fall under the scope of cultural evolution. It is argued here, to the contrary, however, that cycling is an inherent aspect of chiefdoms, a process that occurs within this form of sociopolitical organization. This is not to say that cycling cannot have evolutionary effects. As we shall see, cycling can lead, over time, to pronounced changes in chiefly . . .

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