Orderly Anarchy: Sociopolitical Evolution in Aboriginal California

Orderly Anarchy: Sociopolitical Evolution in Aboriginal California

by Robert L. Bettinger


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Orderly Anarchy delivers a provocative and innovative reexamination of sociopolitical evolution among Native American groups in California, a region known for its wealth of prehistoric languages, populations, and cultural adaptations. Scholars have tended to emphasize the development of social complexity and inequality to explain this diversity. Robert L. Bettinger argues instead that "orderly anarchy," the emergence of small, autonomous groups, provided a crucial strategy in social organization. Drawing on ethnographic and archaeological data and evolutionary, economic, and anthropological theory, he shows that these small groups devised diverse solutions to environmental, technological, and social obstacles to the intensified use of resources. This book revises our understanding of how California became the most densely populated landscape in aboriginal North America.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520283336
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/07/2015
Series: Origins of Human Behavior and Culture Series , #8
Pages: 312
Sales rank: 818,704
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Robert L. Bettinger, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Davis, is an authority on ethnographic and archaeological hunter-gatherers and the author of Hunter-Gatherers: Archaeological and Evolutionary Theory, Hunter-Gatherer Foraging: Five Simple Models, and many peer-reviewed book chapters and journal articles. He is also the recipient of the Society for American Archaeology Award for Excellence in Archaeological Analysis and the Society for California Archaeology M. A. Baumhoff Special Achievement Award.

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Orderly Anarchy

Sociopolitical Evolution in Aboriginal California

By Robert L. Bettinger


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95919-4



On August 29, 1911, a Yahi man who would later be given the name Ishi, turned up at a rural slaughterhouse in the northern Sacramento Valley, California, having lived the last three years entirely alone, the thirty or so years before that in a band of not more than fifteen or twenty individuals, successfully hiding from white civilization in the rugged volcanic mountains rising behind the modern town of Chico. His story, so eloquently documented in Theodora Kroeber's Ishi (1964), testifies to the resilience of the Yahi, their ability to persist, maintaining their culture and technology, despite encroachment by much better equipped miners, ranchers, and farmers, by living in very small groups in very small territories. Yahi persistence is exceptional yet quite understandable as the result of a distinctively Californian evolutionary trajectory dominated by the development of small groups living in small territories. The evidence for this extreme insularity is overwhelming—obvious even from a language map.

California accounts for only 2% of all the land north of Mexico, but nearly a third of the indigenous languages spoken—78 native California languages in all, 74 of them spoken by at least two, and usually many more, autonomous polities recognizing no political bond or social obligation (Golla 2011: 1). Popularly conceived as complexly organized, California sociopolitical organization is more aptly termed minutely divided, in the extreme into independent family groups, just as in the neighboring but environmentally impoverished Great Basin (Lightfoot and Parrish 2009: 76–80). The linguist Golla found this comment from Powers telling.

So contracted are their journeyings and their knowledge that they do not need a complicated system of (tribal) names. If there are people living twenty miles away they are not aware of their existence. In consequence of this it was almost impossible for me to learn any fixed names of tribes. (Powers 1877: 315; cf. Golla 2011: 4)

This went hand in hand with extreme parochialism in attitudes, culture, and worldview equally distinctive to aboriginal California; certainly the northern half, with its many small, inward-looking societies legendary for their "limited knowledge, understanding, experience, and tolerance of neighboring peoples" (Heizer 1978b: 649). Neighborly relations among the Coast Miwok illustrate this mind-set: "The Tomales people didn't like the Nicasio people; the Nicasio people didn't like the Healdsburg (South Pomo) or Petaluma people; the Marshall people didn't like the Bodega people; and nobody liked anybody else" (Kelly 1978: 419).

Scholars have recently been less interested in this small-group, isolationist tendency than in sociopolitical behaviors reflecting a more forward stance and appetite for expansion, power, and control. Inequality and sociopolitical complexity are the hallmarks of interest here, tendencies I believe to be overdrawn for much of California. In this volume I explore their antithesis, a sociopolitical downsizing and evolution of what I have come to call orderly anarchy, and the emergence of the extreme anarchies in Northwest California, where "social organization was marked by an almost unprecedented lack of organization and by extreme individualism and mutual distrust" (Goldschmidt and Driver 1940: 131).

Environment and technology contributed to this process but did not decide it. They provide explanations in accord with the facts but not the chronology, suffering what might be called an embarrassment of time. Had hunter-gatherer evolution been an automatic response to technology and environment, the ethnographic California–Great Basin pattern would have developed much earlier than it did.

That hunter-gatherer social evolution was halting and slow in California suggests a more complex evolutionary landscape, presenting difficult adaptive problems to which there were often multiple solutions (what evolutionary theorists term multiple stable equilibria), historical contingencies pushing hunter-gatherers sometimes in one direction, sometimes another (Bettinger 1978b, 1980). It is easy to overlook this evolutionary complexity, and as a consequence the latitude for hunter-gatherer adaptive persistence, change, and expansion, often at the expense of agriculture, right into the late Holocene.

Chapter 2 ("California in Broad Evolutionary Perspective") examines the scope of these developments in broad evolutionary perspective, first for Holocene hunter-gatherers worldwide, then for hunter-gatherers in North America, western North America in particular. Chapter 3 ("The Evolution of Intensive Hunting and Gathering in Eastern California") and Chapter 4 ("The Privatization of Food") are about the mainly social, rather than technological or environmental, obstacles to subsistence intensification and how they were solved in California east of the Sierra Nevada. Chapter 5 ("Plant Intensification West of the Sierra Crest") describes the same obstacles and how they were solved in California west of the Sierra Nevada. Chapter 6 ("Patrilineal Bands, Sibs, and Tribelets") and Chapter 7 ("Back to the Band") discuss the sociopolitical evolution and development of the patrilineal, and subsequently the bilateral, political organizations that evolved as a consequence of subsistence intensification, the ascendance of individuals and the family at the expense of larger, more inclusive organizations. Chapter 8 ("Money") discusses what turned out to be the final stage of hunter-gatherer intensification in California, the shift from barter to money exchange, a populist and quintessentially Californian innovation that promoted anarchy. Chapter 9 ("The Evolution of Orderly Anarchy") develops and presents anecdotal support for an explanatory framework for orderly anarchy grounded in evolutionary game theory; it then develops and applies a methodology for testing the anarchy hypothesis. Chapter 10 ("Conclusion") briefly reviews and summarizes key concepts and the potential for and expression of orderly anarchy among other hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists. The Glossary at the end of the book is meant to serve as a useful reference for readers unfamiliar with some of the concepts and terms used in the text.


This book is about aboriginal California, by which I mean the groups holding territory within the modern boundaries of the state, excepting only the Oregon Athabaskan and Paiute groups holding small plots on the northern state border, which were excluded. Kroeber's (1925) Bureau of American Ethnology California Handbook adopted this tack; the Heizer-edited (Heizer 1978a) Smithsonian California Handbook did not, including only groups regarded as belonging to the California culture area, excluding groups holding territory in the state but deemed more closely affiliated with other culture areas. The Modoc and Klamath hold territory in California, for example, but were included in the Plateau Handbook, despite reservations of Plateau specialists (Stern 1998: 446; Walker 1988: 1) that they align more closely with California and the Great Basin.

The obvious objection to modern boundaries is that they may not reflect aboriginal realities, defining samples that are arbitrary. Unfortunately, it is impossible to define any cultural sample that is not in some sense arbitrary. The problem is an old one—and to my lights insoluble. Culture does not routinely vary in a way that produces neatly defined, sharply bounded culture areas. The distribution of a single culture trait can be sharply bounded—present here, absent there—but not culture areas defined on the basis of many different traits. On this view, the modern boundaries of California suit my purpose, delimiting a distinctively Californian sample large enough to be interesting, small enough to be manageable, including all the ethnographic groups that anyone might want to consider "classic Californian" and enough of their neighbors to reveal the larger patterns and processes that both unite aboriginal California and distinguish it from other culture areas.

This sample is statistically represented here by the 66 groups holding territory in California that are documented in Jorgensen's (1980) Western Indians, derived from his Western North American Indians (WNAI) database that codes 435 variables for 172 groups, an electronic copy of which Jorgensen provided me in 1994.


There were so many different California groups that sampling was necessary. Jorgensen aimed to be representative rather than exhaustive, omitting many groups, lumping others together. Yokuts, for example, are represented by just 5 groups (Chuckchansi, Kings River, Kaweah, Lake, Yauelmani) in the WNAI database, against the 12 documented in the Culture Element Distributions series (Aginsky 1943; Driver 1937) and 28 dialect groups recognized by Whistler and Golla (1986). On the other hand, the WNAI Lake Yokuts are an amalgam of Chunut, Tachi, and Wowol, which were three politically independent, albeit neighboring, Yokut groups.

There are many important gaps in the Jorgensen California sample, including most of the Bay Area and Central Coast groups partially documented by Harrington (1942) and more recently by Milliken (e.g., Milliken 1995). Certainly the most problematic omission is the Southern Coast Chumash, considered by many (along with the Gabrielino) the most culturally "complex" in all of California. I do not know the Chumash nearly so well as most holding this view, but granting it to be true does not change that Jorgensen (1980: 2) did not code them and I am unprepared to so because my coding would lack the perspective of the WNAI sample, which was the product of five individuals, including Jorgensen, each of whom read the basic sources for all 172 ethnographic groups in the WNAI sample and coded all 172 for a specific subset of variables (Jorgensen 1980: 301–305). The noted comparative ethnologist Harold Driver, for example, handled the 45 technology and material culture variables. Coding the Chumash would require just this: reading ethnographies and related sources not just for the Chumash but for all 172 groups in the Jorgensen sample!

Jorgensen and his collaborators worked hard to eliminate biases and crosschecked each other for reliability (Jorgensen 1980: 1–13, 301–305). Nevertheless, because errors are unavoidable and because the coding of variables can be imprecise, California specialists are bound to have problems with the WNAI data. For example, the WNAI codes the Hupa as having political leaders, probably on the basis of the ethnographer Goddard's statement that "each village had a head-man, who was the richest there" (Goddard 1903–1904: 58). The possibility for a different interpretation is raised in sections that immediately followed.

His power descended to his son at his death, if his property so descended. On the other hand, any one [sic] who by industry or extraordinary abilities had more property might obtain the dignity and power.... There seem to have been no formalities in the government of the village or tribe. (Goddard 1903–1904: 59)

Most California scholars since Goddard have held that, along with the Karuk and Yurok, the Hupa lacked either political leaders or formal political organizations (e.g., Goldschmidt and Driver 1940: 104; Wallace 1978: 168–169). To make certain, however, would require reading all the same ethnographic sources and coding political leadership for all 172 groups in the WNAI sample. It seemed more reasonable to accept that while not perfect, the WNAI database is a valuable source of useful information—certainly the best we have and are likely to have for a good while.


I partition the Jorgensen database in two different ways. When the pattern I am illustrating has to do with California alone (e.g., Table 6.2), I employ a sample consisting of all 66 Jorgensen groups holding territory in California, subdivided by the regions discussed below. On the other hand, when, as in Table 6.5, the pattern I am illustrating is a contrast between California and the 4 other traditionally recognized western North American culture areas (Northwest Coast, Southwest, Plateau, Great Basin), I use a California sample consisting of just the 56 Jorgensen groups that are traditionally regarded as belonging to the California culture area, and I assign the other 10 groups holding territory in California to the other western North American culture areas (Plateau, Great Basin, or Southwest) to which they are traditionally assigned, as indicated in Tables 1.1–1.7. Thus, the Modoc are included as part of the Northeast California region sample in Table 6.2., which is concerned with variation within California, and as part of Plateau culture area sample in Table 6.5., which is concerned with comparing California to other culture areas. It is important to keep these differences in mind.

California itself I divide as shown in Map 1.1 (see map section between Chapters 1 and 2): into 7 regions (Northwest, Northeast, North Coast Ranges, Sacramento Valley, San Joaquin Valley, Southern Coast, Southern Interior) that approximate the divisions scholars have traditionally recognized (e.g., Baumhoff 1978) but that, as noted above, I have expanded to include adjacent groups that, like the Modoc, hold territory in California but have been traditionally assigned to other culture areas. Again, it is important to keep the distinction between these regions as defined by groups traditionally assigned to the California culture area and the larger area that encompasses outlying groups included in those regional samples here merely because they hold territory in California. As noted above, tabulations of regional variation within California (e.g., Table 6.2) include all groups holding territory in California; comparisons between California and other culture areas (e.g., Table 6.5) include only the groups traditionally assigned to the California culture area. Along the same lines, references in the text to a region of California, or the groups of that region, say the San Joaquin Valley, refer to that region proper, that is, just the San Joaquin Valley geographic region and the groups within it, and not the broader area encompassing the outlying Great Basin groups I have included in the San Joaquin Valley region sample because there was no other place to put them.

The location of the 7 regions of California are briefly discussed below, with tables listing the groups in each and maps showing their locations within that region, following the territorial boundaries provided in Golla's (2011) work on the languages of California. For readers unfamiliar with California, I have included Map 1.2, showing the major geographic provinces of California.

Northeast California

Northeast California (Table 1.1, Map 1.3) is a heterogeneous mix of 6 groups representing the California, Plateau, and Great Basin culture areas. Physiographically the region is dominated by the Cascade Range and Modoc Plateau. Roots are more important, and acorns commensurately less important, than in any other region of California.

Northwest California

While traditionally assigned to the California culture area, the northernmost of the 11 groups representing the Northwest region (Table 1.2, Map 1.4), notably Tolowa, Hupa, Yurok, and Karuk, are often characterized as the southernmost representatives of the Northwest Coast culture area. As discussed in the text, however, except for housing and certain crafts, these groups are much more closely allied with California. The region is dominated by the Klamath Mountains and major river systems, the Smith, Klamath, Trinity, and Eel, that supported major runs of salmon and steelhead, which, while probably more important here than anywhere else in the state, were probably less important than the acorn.

North Coast Ranges

These 7 North Coast Ranges groups (Table 1.3, Map 1.5) occupied what is today the California wine region. Baumhoff (1978) considered the area the most environmentally rich in California, with extensive acorn groves, large deer populations, and heavy salmonid runs. The North Coast Ranges groups, along with those of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, are typically chosen to exemplify the California culture area.

Sacramento Valley

The Sacramento Valley region occupies the northern half of the Central Valley, flanked by the North Coast Ranges on the west, the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Range to the east. While the dominant geographical feature is the Sacramento River, the largest river with the largest salmon runs in California, the region's ethnographic economy centered more on acorn and deer than fish. I have included the Washo in this region (Table 1.4, Map 1.6) because they hold territory in California, abut Sacramento Valley groups, and fit better in this region than any other. As noted above, however, while tabulations of regional variation within California (e.g., Table 6.2) include the Washo as part of the Sacramento Valley sample, when referring to the Sacramento Valley in the text, I mean just the Sacramento Valley proper and Sacramento Valley groups traditionally assigned to the California culture area, that is, excluding the outlying Washo.


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Table of Contents

List of Figures and Boxes

2. California in Broad Evolutionary Perspective
3. The Evolution of
Intensive Hunting and Gathering in Eastern California
4. The Privatization of Food
5. Plant
Intensification West of the Sierra Crest
6. Patrilineal Bands, Sibs, and Tribelets
7. Back to the Band: Bilateral Tribelets and Bands
8. Money
9. The Evolution of Orderly Anarchy
10. Conclusion



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