The Savannah River Chiefdoms: Political Change in the Late Prehistoric Southeast / Edition 1

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This is definitely a contribution to the literature. It is based on sound research and is very detailed and specialized. . . . A major work."
—Charles H. McNutt, Memphis State University

"Useful as a general introduction to the variety of factors that relate to cycling and to the Mississippian development of the Southeast in general. An excellent presentation of the era."
American Antiquity

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 US, specifically the societies occupying the Savannah River basin from ca. AD 1000 to 1600. Includes 67 pages of cited references. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780817307257
  • Publisher: University of Alabama Press
  • Publication date: 11/28/1994
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 480
  • Lexile: 1530L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.13 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

David G. Anderson is an Archaeologist with the National Park Service in Tallahassee, Florida.

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Read an Excerpt

The Savannah River Chiefdoms

Political Change in the Late Prehistoric Southeast

By David G. Anderson

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1994 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8079-3


Political Evolution and Cycling

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 authority structures. Its study can thus lead us to a better understanding of what we mean by the chiefdom form of sociopolitical structure, as well as how evolutionary transformations occurred in the organization of human society.

The pervasiveness of cycling in chiefdom societies is a matter of particular interest, since evidence for the process does not appear restricted to isolated dramatic or enigmatic cases. Evidence for cycling is present wherever chiefdoms have been examined archaeologically or ethnographically in any detail. However, exactly what happens during the cycling process, which encompasses phenomena as disparate as regional population shifts and localized renewal ceremonies, is not well understood at the present. Even less certain are the reasons why such changes occurred. The purpose of this study is to remedy this situation to some extent, by exploring through a wide range of data what cycling is and how it operates. Awareness of the process of cycling, it is argued, is critical to understanding the archaeological and ethnographic record of the world's chiefdoms.

To understand how and why cycling occurs, factors promoting both stability and change in chiefdom political organization are examined in the pages that follow. While addressing a question of relevance to the study of chiefdoms worldwide, the research is directed to a specific region, the southeastern United States, with particular attention to the Mississippian societies that existed in the Savannah River valley from circa A.D. 1000 to 1600. There are a number of reasons for this narrowing of focus.

First, while the development of a general descriptive and explanatory model of cycling in chiefdoms is the objective of this research, such a formulation must be evaluated with real-world data. The archaeological record from the Southeast is particularly well suited to this task. During the final millennium before European contact, simple and complex chiefdoms arose throughout the region. Their emergence and development have fascinated archaeologists for over a century and have resulted in the production of a massive data base. Even though research directions have changed, from concerns about the origin of the "mound builders" to an interest in material culture and chronology and, most recently, to questions about the operation and evolution of these societies, basic data have continued to accumulate. Tens of thousands of Mississippian period sites have been recorded over the region, and hundreds have been excavated. Thanks largely to cultural resource management projects, fieldwork has been increasingly directed to documenting the universe of possible site types, including mound centers, villages, hamlets, and limited-activity loci. In many areas, furthermore, chronological resolution on the order of 100-year intervals or less is now possible, permitting fine-grained areally extensive diachronic analyses of settlement patterning, land use, and social change.

Second, an extensive historic record exists describing southeastern chiefdoms from the period of early European contact. Regional political geography, particularly social relations within and between Mississippian societies, has become a productive area for research, and early contact accounts have been used in conjunction with archaeological data to examine the location, extent, internal organization, operation, and evolution of Mississippian societies across the region.

Third, the Southeast has seen considerable paleoenvironmental research in recent years, directed to the reconstruction of past vegetational communities, fluvial dynamics, and climatic conditions. Much of this research, encompassing the disciplines of geoarchaeology, geomorphology, palynology, and dendrochronology, can be profitably employed in the examination of late prehistoric social evolution.

Fourth, the primary geographic focus of this study, the South Appalachian Mississippian area, comprising Georgia, South Carolina, and contiguous portions of adjoining states (Ferguson 1971; Griffin 1967; Holmes 1903:130), has a long history of archaeological research. The Mississippian societies occupying the Savannah, Oconee, Coosa, Tennessee, and Santee/Wateree river basins, in fact, have been the object of appreciable research by both archaeologists and ethnohistorians in recent years. As a result, the archaeological and historic data from this part of the Southeast are among the most extensive available anywhere in the world for the study of chiefdom political change.

Finally, the selection of the Savannah River basin was dictated, in no small measure, by the occurrence of dramatic examples of cycling in the archaeological record; the fact that I had extensive archaeological experience in this area was, of course, also a major consideration. In brief, evidence accumulated to date and summarized in the present study indicates that a number of chiefdoms rose and fell along the Savannah River from circa 1100 to 1450. After 1450, however, virtually the entire basin, which was densely occupied throughout much of prehistory, and by progressively more complex chiefdoms from circa 1200 to 1450, was precipitously abandoned. Only after circa 1650, some 200 years later, did native groups return to the area. Understanding why the earlier pattern of cycling occurred as well as why the basin was ultimately abandoned were primary objectives of this study. The research summarized in this volume was thus prompted by a particularly intriguing case from an area where, fortunately, a considerable body of evidence existed.

The late prehistoric and early contact-era Mississippian chiefdoms of the southeastern United States, I believe, offer an incomparable opportunity for the study of social and political change. The archaeological record from the region is replete with evidence for the emergence, expansion, collapse, and reemergence or replacement of simple and complex chiefdoms. Some of these societies existed for centuries, while others lasted only a generation or two. At ceremonial centers throughout the region, major construction and rebuilding episodes are documented, specifically the replacement of buildings and fortifications and the addition of new mounds or mound stages. This activity appears directly linked to changes in leadership positions, organizational structures, and physical centers of power. On a larger geographic scale, southeastern archaeologists have long been intrigued by the emergence, growth, and collapse of major regional polities such as those centered at Cahokia, Moundville, Spiro, or Etowah, as well as by the disappearance of Mississippian societies from large areas, occupational hiatuses that in some cases lasted centuries. The "vacant quarter" hypothesis advanced by Stephen Williams (1982, 1990), that much of the central Mississippi alluvial valley was abandoned circa 1400, following the collapse of Cahokia, is perhaps the most dramatic example of this latter process known from the Eastern Woodlands.

While this volume thus explores the emergence, expansion, and fragmentation of Mississippian polities in the Savannah River basin and immediately adjoining areas, events elsewhere in the Eastern Woodlands are also considered. Major conclusions of this study are that understanding the political and social histories of individual chiefdoms requires the adoption of broad geographic and temporal perspectives, and that organizational change in chiefdoms must be examined from regional as well as local levels, using information drawn from both synchronic and diachronic frameworks.

The Relationship of Cycling to the Chiefdom Concept

A primary goal of this research is to make a contribution to our understanding of how and why complex societies emerge and evolve. Cycling, it is argued, is an integral part of chiefdom society, a process that tends to preserve rather than eliminate chiefly structures in the short term (i.e., on a scale of decades to centuries), although it can also lead to dramatic consequences in the long run (i.e., on a scale of centuries to millennia). By focusing on patterns and processes of internal organizational change, however, chiefdoms may be seen in their own terms and not merely as a developmental stage between societies of lesser and greater complexity.

Understanding the causes of organizational stability in chiefdoms is crucial to understanding the cycling process. Stability is here taken to mean the maintenance of a given level of organizational or administrative complexity, as measured by the number of decision-making levels in place. Organizational instability, in contrast, refers to fluctuations in decision-making levels and hence to the cycling process itself. Factors promoting organizational stability in chiefdoms thus tend to limit the possibility of change or cycling, while factors promoting organizational instability tend to promote its likelihood. That the study of processes shaping chiefdom organizational structures can inform more general evolutionary questions, such as the origins of social inequality or the emergence or collapse of state-level societies, is understood but is not a primary focus of this work. Evolution between societal forms or stages defers, in this study, to developmental processes operating within a given organizational form, the chiefdom (although as we shall see, cycling can have evolutionary consequences).

The causes of cycling behavior in chiefdoms, I argue in chapter 2, are complex and multivariate, requiring the evaluation of a wide range of data and the adoption of a research strategy employing a number of lines of evidence. Central to this approach is a concern for hypothesis falsification in the evaluation of alternative explanations, a process that forms the core of the scientific method. While the incorporation of a number of causal mechanisms in the explanation of cycling that is advanced here may be less aesthetically pleasing than an argument based on one or a few "prime movers," I have no doubt that it provides a more accurate picture of the forces in play.

To understand cycling we must first specify what we mean by a chiefdom. A number of definitions of what is meant by a chiefdom have appeared in the literature, most of which emphasize the nature of leadership and organizational structures. To Service (1971:134, 144–45, 159), chiefdoms are "redistributional societies with a permanent central agency of coordination..... The most distinctive characteristic of chiefdoms as opposed to tribes and bands is ... the pervasive inequality of persons and groups in the society. It begins with the status of the chief as he functions in the system of redistribution. Persons are then ranked above others according to their genealogical nearness to him. Concepts involving prescriptions, proscriptions, sumptuary laws, marriage rules and customs, genealogical conceptions, and etiquette in general combine to create and perpetuate this sociopolitical ordering.... [T]he rise of broad strata as well as particular social positions, all of unequal rank, are characteristic of chiefdoms." Service's observation that chiefdoms are predicated on genealogically sanctioned leadership structures appears valid and, as we shall see, is critical to understanding why cycling occurs. His views on the importance of redistribution, however, are no longer widely held. Most communities in these kind of societies appear to be economically self-sufficient, particularly in subsistence production. Instead of the collection and generalized redistribution of a wide range of subsistence and other goods, tribute mobilization and the limited redistribution of sumptuary goods to lesser elites in a deliberate effort to obtain their support appear to be hallmarks of chiefdom political economy (Earle 1977:225–27, 1978:181, 1987:292; Peebles and Kus 1977:425–26; Spencer 1987:369; Steponaitis 1978:428; Welch 1991; Wright 1984:45). Chiefs, in this view, exacted tribute to fuel their own ambitions, which were usually centered on the maintenance or extension of their prestige and power, rather than for the benefit of society as a whole. Redistribution of subsistence goods appears to have been rare and typically occurred only during periods of severe societal stress, when it would have been designed to maintain the well-being and hence labor resources of commoner populations.

Fried's (1967:109, 116, 126) arguments about social status and its relation to leadership structures in what he calls rank societies are also instructive and complement Service's views on the importance of genealogical relationships. In rank societies, "positions of valued status are somehow limited so that not all those of sufficient talent to occupy such statuses actually achieve them. Such a society may or may not be stratified.... One of the major developments is the emergence of a clearly distinguished descent principle requiring demonstration of relationship. The basic technique of accomplishing this is the specific genealogy which, at least in theory, specifies all consanguinal ties and many affinal ones.... Given such forms of grouping and the device of the genealogy, it is possible to develop a hierarchical arrangement of kin such that, for example, proximity or distance to a particular ancestor becomes significant.... It might be better to say that what must be known is the distance of relationship between any member and the highest ranking person of his generation." Stratified societies are those "in which members of the same sex and equivalent age status do not have equal access to the basic resources that sustain life" (186). Chiefdoms can thus be viewed as rank societies with essentially two social strata, chiefly elites and commoners. The differences between these strata in individual chiefdoms vary considerably and appear to be scale dependent, that is, related to the size and complexity of the society in question (Feinman and Neitzel 1984:57). Within the elite strata, genealogical distance from an apical ancestor or, as Fried would have it, the current ruler, has a great deal to do with determining an individual's chances of succeeding to the chieftainship. How these kinship and successional relationships are structured markedly affects organizational stability in these societies. Where many individuals can potentially succeed to power and institutions regulating succession are weak, competition for chiefly authority is likely to be widespread. This competition between elites for power is, I shall argue, a major force driving organizational change in chiefdoms.


Excerpted from The Savannah River Chiefdoms by David G. Anderson. Copyright © 1994 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Figures and Tables
1 Political Evolution and Cycling 1
2 The Causes of Cycling 12
3 Mississippian Political Change: Evidence from Ethnohistoric Accounts 53
4 Mississippian Political Change: Evidence from Archaeological Research 108
5 Evidence for Mississippian Occupation in the Savannah River Valley 157
6 The Record of Political Change in the Savannah River Chiefdoms 235
7 Political Change in the Savannah River Chiefdoms: Environmental Factors 260
8 Political Change in the Savannah River Chiefdoms: Events at Particular Sites and General Trends 290
9 Exploring Political Change in Chiefdom Society 323
Appendix A. Early Historic Descriptions of Mississippian Centers in the Savannah River Basin 333
Appendix B. Mississippian Cultural Sequences in the Savannah River Valley 362
References Cited 379
Index 447
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