Ancient Households of the Americas: Conceptualizing What Households Do

Ancient Households of the Americas: Conceptualizing What Households Do

by Nancy Gonlin, John G. Douglass

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ISBN-13: 9781607321743
Publisher: University Press of Colorado
Publication date: 04/15/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 448
File size: 32 MB
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About the Author

John G. Douglass is the director of research and standards at Statistical Research, Inc. and is also a visiting scholar at the University of Arizona’s School of Anthropology. He has undertaken archaeological research in California, the American Southwest and Midwest, Honduras, and Belize over the past twenty-five years. Over the past decade, he has focused his research interests on colonial/indigenous interaction in the American Southwest and California from both archaeological and ethnohistoric perspectives.

Nancy Gonlin is a senior associate professor of Anthropology at Bellevue College, Washington, where she was awarded the Margin of Excellence Award in 2012. She is also co-editor of Commoner Ritual and Ideology in Ancient Mesoamerica and Human Adaptation in Ancient Mesoamerica and co-author of Copán: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Maya Kingdom. Watch her TEDx talk "Life After Dark in the Ancient World" here.

Read an Excerpt

Ancient Households of the Americas

Conceptualizing What Households Do

By John G. Douglass, Nancy Gonlin

University Press of Colorado

Copyright © 2012 University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60732-538-3


The Household as Analytica Unit

Case Studies from the Americas



The study of that small, but universal, component of society, the household, is now a global pursuit. Scientists who work in all parts of the world are addressing diverse research concerns for various times and places (see, e.g., Beck 2007; Carballo 2011; Christie and Sarro 2006; Falconer 1994; Fortier et al. 1989; Hendon 2010; Holschlag 1975; Kramer 1979, 1982; MacEachern, Archer, and Garvin 1989; Schwarz 2009; Stanish 1989). Household archaeology, however, is a relatively new field, coming of age in only the past few decades. While household studies in archaeology certainly go back much further than the mid-1980s (e.g., Flannery 1972; Flannery and Winter 1976; Hunter-Anderson 1977; Winter 1976), much of the theoretical and methodological study of households has its place in that decade (e.g., Ashmore and Wilk 1988; Netting, Wilk, and Arnould 1984a; Wilk and Netting 1984; Wilk and Rathje 1982). Fundamentally, household archaeology has its theoretical base set firmly in sociocultural anthropological theory, with the vast majority of contemporary theories of household archaeology having roots in functional analyses of households (e.g., Netting, Wilk, and Arnould 1984b). This ethnographic framework has been modified and supplemented to fit archaeological contexts, and the contents of this volume are no exception.

The documentation of this analytical unit — whether small or large, rural or urban, commoner or elite — has generally been overlooked by much of the written record. Household archaeology offers insight into both the mundane as well as the unusual, illustrating the social, economic, political, and ideological realms of the most fundamental unit of society. By offering insight into the daily lives of households, archaeologists have been able to make visible the relatively invisible within society. Household archaeology, through excavation, analysis, and interpretation of the material culture of past societies, reveals the hidden transcripts (Scott 1985, 1990) of the diversity of experience, thoughts, and actions of household members.

Although the ethnological and archaeological definitions of the household differ in emphases (Kramer 1982), the household is the most fundamental spatial/activity unit of human society. It is responsive to social, economic, and political change, and it functions as a unit of adaptation. By studying the household through time and space, it can be used as a measure of cultural change and an indicator of social norms. The best way to obtain information on daily life in prehistoric societies is to excavate the remains of houses and their contents, the material correlates of the household. Numerous definitions of the household are employed by ethnographers and archaeologists alike. Those that are most useful to the archaeologist are the ones that relate to the material world and are recoverable in the archaeological record. We do not dig up kin relations or modes of production, but we do excavate houses, their contents, and very often the people themselves. The relation that a house has to a household may or may not be one-to-one. Several households may live in one large house, as among the Yanomamo (Chagnon 1997), or one household may live in several structures, as the Yoruba do (Lloyd 1955).


Netting and colleagues (1984a) and Wilk and Rathje (1982) have contributed substantially to the field of household studies and they are generally credited with popularizing the field of household archaeology. As a fundamental unit of society (Ashmore and Wilk 1988; Netting, Wilk, and Arnould 1984a, 1984b), the household is bound by both social and economic ties. Because of differences and variables among cultures, both across time and space, it is important that we have a pan-cultural definition of households. Following Wilk and Rathje (1982:618), the household is conceptualized here as

the most common social component of subsistence, the smallest and most abundant activity group. This household is composed of three elements: (1) social: the demographic unit, including number and relationship of the members; (2) material: the dwelling, activity areas and possessions; and (3) behavioral: the activities it performs. This total household is the product of a domestic strategy to meet the productive, distributive, and reproductive needs of its members.

A dwelling, the activities performed by its members, and the members themselves define and create the household. To avoid thinking about households as simply the remains of material goods that might be excavated by an archaeologist, it is necessary to think about households as spheres of activities — that is, viewing them based on what households "do" (Ashmore and Wilk 1988:4–5; Wilk and Netting 1984:5–6). A household, then, can be viewed as an activity area (Ashmore and Wilk 1988:3). More specifically, Wilk (1991:chapter 3) has argued that a household can most readily be functionally defined as the maximal overlap of activities, including the physical shelter, which is generally viewed as a mediating factor for social relationships among household members.

Households are often confused with families (Netting, Wilk, and Arnould 1984b:xix–xxi), which are social units defined by kinship relationships, whereas households are based on behavior (Lightfoot 1994:12). While family members are tied by fictive or actual kin relationships, household members may be related to one another or may be simply acting cooperatively. It is quite possible that all household members are related to one another, but this may not always be the case; if so, it may be more likely in small rather than large households, as larger ones may in part be bigger by attracting non-related household members in a variety of ways. By basing the analytical unit of the household on function and behavior rather than kinship, cross- cultural comparisons are facilitated.

There are five widely recognized functions of the household: production, distribution, transmission, reproduction, and coresidence (Wilk and Netting 1984).

1. Production is "human activity that procures or increases the value of resources" (Wilk and Netting 1984:6). This activity can range from farming the land or grinding maize to raising a house or fetching water. Households are not generally passive in their production but, rather, have much to gain from meeting their subsistence needs. As Hirth (2009:19) points out, when households do not meet their subsistence and production needs, their very survival may be threatened. Tasks may be divided according to a gendered division of labor, a cross-cultural universal. The household acts as a corporate group in various activities, but each member need not participate in all activities. There can be several domestic task forces in action simultaneously. Production is closely related to the function of households, or what households do.

2. Distribution is another widely recognized activity of the household and involves moving material from producers to consumers. The exchanges and transactions within and among households fall into this domain, as does consumption of food and goods. Reciprocal behavior best describes exchanges within the household, especially between related individuals, while other types of exchanges may characterize non-kin.

3. Transmission of material wealth and non-material items, such as titles or positions in a sociopolitical system, is colloquially referred to as inheritance. Inheritance is affected by such variables as amount of land, degree of agricultural intensification, population density, family preferences, and a host of other criteria.

4. Reproduction encompasses the generation of new family members by birth. Although this activity is common to most households, it does not have to occur within the domains of the household, nor does it occur between most members of a household. As Hirth (2009:18) points out, a main objective of households is to increase their economic well-being, which leads to larger households that are able to harness more labor for production. Generally, wealthier households are equated with higher, more successful reproductive rates (Netting 1982). Infant mortality rates directly affect successful reproduction of the household. Subsumed under this functional category is the socialization of children (Baxter 2008; Wilk and Netting 1984). Unlike reproduction, socialization requires participants to be in residence for a period of time. Another meaning of reproduction refers to social reproduction, that is, the continuity of culture (Gillespie 2000a). Generation after generation, traditions are carried out, sometimes with modifications. Evolution of such characteristics is often reflected in the material record. Ritual is a form of social reproduction and can be studied in domestic contexts (Gonlin and Lohse 2007; Plunket 2002).

5. Coresidence is not necessary for many functions of the household, though it has previously been assumed to be a criterion of households. Definitions of the family are explicitly characterized by coresidence (Murdock 1966:1), although there are exceptions. The structure of the household relates to family type, and members of the family may live together or apart. Likewise, members of one household may live in separate dwellings, but both families and households do seem to coincide more often than not (Bender 1967). In excavating houses, we assume coresidence of the household based on this general principle, while recognizing that coresidence of the family may not occur (as discussed above in the definition of the household). In fact, coresidentiality is a working assumption for the archaeologist who excavates dwellings. The family unit, much harder to identify, need not be localized since it consists of kinship ties that transcend time and space. As Wilk and Netting (1984) point out, the household is defined on behavioral terms, or how it functions, while families are described in structural terms, or the nature of kin relations. Following Murdock (1966:91), a kinship system is not a social group and does not correspond to an organized aggregation of individuals. Through these five functions of households, archaeologists and ethnographers are able to identify what makes the household a valid unit of analysis.

The concept of house societies has gained increased interest since the 1970s, when the concept of house societies (sociétés à maisons) emerged as a theme in studying social organization of groups (e.g., Beck 2007; Gonzalez-Ruibal 2006; Joyce and Gillespie 2000; Lévi-Strauss 1982, 1987). Rather than focusing on lineal descent, house societies have their fundamental social and cooperative unit focused on the house, with social relations among individuals and larger social units also focused on the house. Interestingly, Lévi-Strauss still considers house societies as another kinship type (Gonzalez-Ruibal 2006:144). Here, the house "may represent social, economic, political, and ritual relationships among various individuals, who may form a permanent or temporary collectivity" (Gillespie 2000a:6). The corporate body referred to as a "house," however, is not the same as a household; rather, it is "a corporate body organized by reference to shared practices and common estate (which may or may not include a physical house)" (Robin 2003:333). While this concept is not used in this volume, it has gained importance as a concept for studying ancient societies, such as the Maya (Gillespie 2000b; Hendon 2000, 2001, 2002; Joyce 2000).

While many archaeologists, cultural anthropologists, and other researchers have focused their study on households, the terms used to describe them, or the particular contexts of them, vary a great deal. For example, some researchers have focused on physical aspects of households to describe them, such as houses and dwellings, using such diverse terms as "camp" (Kent 1999), "compound" (Hayden and Cannon 1982; Santley and Kneebone 1993), "courtyard group" (Howard 1985; Roth 2000; Wilcox, McGuire, and Sternberg 1981), "domestic structure" (Manzanilla and Barba 1990), "dwelling unit" (Killion 1987), "house compound" (Killion 1987), "household cluster" (Winter 1974), "house mound" (Clark and Blake 1994), "patio group" (Sheehy 1991), "patio groupings" (McAnany 1992), "patio units" (Tourtellot 1988), "pithouse cluster" (Diehl 1998), and "spatial residential units" (Santley and Hirth 1993) to describe elements of households. Other scholars have taken a more economic approach to discussing households, describing them more in terms of their economic organization and cooperation, using terms like "activity area," "coresidential work units" (Stanish 1992), "domestic domain" (Smith 1993), "overlapping activity spheres" Wilk 1991) and "production/consumption units" (Wilk and Netting 1984). Either way, these scholars are describing varying aspects of households, although the terms perhaps suggest differences in the type of data collected. In the end, however, these various scholars are referring to the household or domestic unit, which refers to behavior-oriented, coresiding social groups that are "the next bigger thing on the social map after an individual" (Hammel 1984:40–41). Certainly, however, as discussed above, defining households in more economic terms, such as activity areas or overlapping activity spheres, allows for greater cross-cultural comparisons than simply defining them based on the proximity of dwellings or other physical forms.


For virtually the entire history of anthropology, there has been an interest in the form and function of domestic architecture and structures in both undifferentiated and complex societies. As far back as Morgan (1963 [1877]) in the late nineteenth century, the study of domestic space has been seen as intrinsically important to understanding social processes. As he stated in his famous book Ancient Society, "House architecture, which connects itself with the form of the family, and the plan of domestic life, affords a tolerably complete illustration of progress from savagery to civilization. Its growth can be traced from the hut ... through ... communal houses ... to the house of the single family" (Morgan 1963 [1877]:5). While current anthropologists would no longer argue for Morgan's rigid and deterministic developmental stages of cultural evolution, his point that the structure of society can be viewed through the study of domestic architectural forms is clear. This argument is one still used today as a basic premise for studying domestic architecture (Kent 1990, inter alia).

Over the past three decades, the issue of substantial architectural change, such as round to square house shapes or other related processes, has been an essential issue to scholars in understanding household size and household social organization, including whether households are nuclear or corporate (e.g., Feinman, Lightfoot, Upham 2000:456–465; Flannery 1972, 2002; Gilman 1987, 1997; Hegmon 1996; McGuire and Schiffer 1983; Rocek 1995a, 1995b; Whalen 1981; Wilshusen 1989). In several parts of the world, including the Levant and the American Southwest, the transition from round to square houses is significant because it links the architecture and economic organization of households to the social and political organization of larger communities (see chapters in this volume by Beaule, Ciolek-Torrello, Snow, and Varien, among others, for additional discussions of the form and function of household architecture). In essence, the heart of the debate is one of how form follows function, as well as how architecture represents different aspects of society from the viewpoint of the household. Whereas architecture contributes to the integration of society by defining social boundaries and reinforces societal norms, the society will construct a built environment based on historical and social contexts (Hegmon 1989:7).


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Table of Contents

Contents Figures Tables Preface Acknowledgments 1. The Household as Analytical Unit Section 1: Household Production Organization 2. Occupation Span and the Organization of Residential Activities 3. Production and Consumption in the Countryside 4. Iroquoian Households 5. Activity Areas and Households in the Late Mississippian Southeast United States 6. The Social Evolution of Potters’ Households in Ticul, Yucatán, Mexico, 1965–1997 7. Pots and Agriculture Section 2: Households as Primary Producers 8. Hohokam Household Organization, Sedentism, and Irrigation in the Sonoran Desert, Arizona 9. Understanding Households on Their Own Terms 10. Late Classic Period Terrace Agriculture in the Lowland Maya Area Section 3: Inter- and Intrahousehold Organization of Production 11. Fluctuating Community Organization 12. Relationships among Households in the Prehispanic Community of Mesitas in San Agustín, Colombia 13. Interhousehold versus Intracommunity Comparisons 14. Arrobas, Fanegas, and Mantas Contributors Index

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