Origins of Complex Societies

Course surveying the theories and evidence concerning the origins of state-level societies in New and Old World. This course was designed and taught by N. Tripcevich as Anthropology 164 at  UC Santa Barbara during the Winter quarter, 2007

Reading Questions

Reading Questions Webpage

Anth 164 - Origins of Complex Societies

Reading questions will be posted below, please hand in responses before class begins on date indicated.

Jan 10 - Wenke and Olszewski 2007, Chapter 1 (pp. 1-32)

Jan 10 - Wenke 2007, Chapter 1 (pp. 1-32)

Answer two of the following three questions in a two part answer of at least 400 words.

1. Explain equifinality and why it limits the potential of historical reconstruction in archaeology.

2. How does the work of Karl Marx inform archaeological investigation of the origins of social inequality?

3. Describe is the connection between New Archaeology and Darwinian evolution.

Jan 12 - Wenke and Olszewski 2007, Chapter 2 (pp. 41-72)

You won't need to hand in these reading questions until class on Wed, Jan 17. Please note that you'll also have questions from the subsequent reading (Patterson, 1997) due then as well.

Answer two of the following three questions in a two part answer of at least 400 words.

1. The archaeological record informs models of the past human activity, describe two different examples from Ch 2 of evidence contributing to generalized models about human behavior in an anthropological sense.

2. How does a “problem-oriented” approach aid in making sure archaeological research advances our understanding of the past instead of just providing laundry lists of artifacts and ancient features?

3. What types of materials can be dated with the carbon-14 dating method, and how does dendrochronology contribute correction curves for more accurate carbon-14 dating results?

Jan 17 - Patterson 1997 article

Questions related to Patterson 1997 article in reader (it is also online).

Reading questions due in class on Jan 17. Answer two of the following three questions in a two part answer of at least 400 words.

1. Why is Patterson’s account of the English subjugation of the Irish during the 16th century interesting in light of the way that race and ethnicity were used to define “Progress” and “Civilization” by the British and Spanish Empires during the ensuing centuries?

2. During the 19th century, how were Mathusian and Darwinian concepts exploited by early anthropologists and state intellectuals to justify the ongoing genocide against indigenous peoples around the world (see also pp. 21-22 of Wenke book)?

3. Given the political and historical context presented in this essay by Patterson, can you describe a critical application of evolutionary concepts in New Archaeology (as you read in Wenke, pp25-27)? In your opinion, are evolutionary concepts more applicable to Paleolithic archaeology than to the study of more socially complex organization? What relevance do evolutionary concepts have to topics such as state collapse, in your view?


Jan 19 - Fried 1960, Wenke and Olszewski 279-292.

Jan 19 - Fried 1960 (in reader or online), and Wenke and Olszewski 2007 (pp. 279-292).

Answer two of the following three questions in a two part answer of at least 400 words.

1. Describe the positions of prestige versus the persons capable of filling them equation that Fried uses to explain each of the different types of social organization in the article. Further, what role does inheritance have changes from one type of social organization to another?

2. Describe the spatial relationships between complex societies and their less-complex neighbors. What are the regional effects of stratified and state level societies, and how does resource distribution, roads, and other forms of interaction affect both complex societies and their neighbors?

3. What are the principal economic systems associated with each of the four types of social organization as described by Fried (1960) and by Steward (as reviewed by Wenke in pp. 279-292). Terms like reciprocity and redistribution are relevant here.

Jan 22 - Wenke and Olszewski 228-246

Theories concerning the origins of agriculture, reading questions. Wenke and Olszewski, pp. 228-246.

Answer two of the following three questions in a two part answer of no more than 400 words.

1. Discuss the logical fallacy of attributing human intentionality to food domestication. Is there a single linear process of domestication through plant / animal selection by humans that reflects the needs of sedentary communities in different parts of the world?

2. What are the major differences between the Natural Habitat Hypothesis examined by Braidwood and the model proposed by Brian Hayden? With Hayden’s model consider both the diet-change and the feasting (discussed later in the reading) aspects of his model.

3. What is the relationship between human fertility rates and food storage in anthropological models concerning early plant and animal domestication?


Jan 24 - Wenke and Olszewski 247-261

Origins of agriculture in the Old World, reading questions. Wenke and Olszewski, pp. 247-261.

Answer two of the following three questions in a two part answer of no more than 400 words. You can email the responses to me at, if you wish.

1. According to Chapter 6, what were the most important plant food sources found at sites in Egypt, the Levant, and the Yangtze Valley, and what are the earliest dates associated with evidence of the domestication of these crops?

2. Describe the link between Flannery's concept of food storage in the transition from "compound" to "village" in community architecture and the importance of storage and sedentism for human population growth (female fertility) that was described earlier in Chapter 6.

3. Which of the sites described in the reading provides evidence for trade in some subsistence goods, and why is trade potentially important among sedentary communities? What sort of trade goods are preserved or not preserved in archaeological sites according to the text?

Jan 26 - Wenke and Olszewski 262-270

Origins of Agriculture in the New World, Wenke and Olszewski 262-270

Answer two of the following three questions in a two part answer of no more than 200 words each.

1. What are the morphological changes associated with bean domestication versus the changes associated with maize? Compare this with the morphological changes in the rachis of wheat and barley in the process of south-west Asian plant domestication.

2. If the conditions that permitted plant domestication in Mesoamerica also occurred earlier during the Pleistocene, how does the model proposed by Richerson et al., mentioned earlier in the chapter, square with the evidence from Mesoamerica?

3. Discuss the extinct wild maize hypothesis versus teosinte debate.

Jan 29 - Haas 2001

Haas 2001 - Cultural Evolution and Political Centralization

Answer two of the following three questions in a two part answer of no more than 200 words each.

1. Haas describes a pattern in 19th and 20th century anthropology where researchers propose generalized and universal models of cultural evolution, and these models are then criticized by subsequent generations of anthropologists. Briefly describe the positions of late 19th century cultural evolutionists, their critics, and the mid-20th century evolutionists and their critics.

2. Consider two of the nine developmental paths at the end of Haas’ article in light of the selectionist and transformational views on evolution described earlier. Present a hypothetical example (you can be creative here) of each of these two showing the crux of the difference between a selectionist interpretation and a transformational interpretation.

3. If the contrast between the selectionist and the transformational approach represents a continuation of the conflict over the universal comparability between cultures in anthropology, explain in a brief but convincing way how the tinkerer model be used to reconcile these in one of the nine processes discussed at the end of Haas’ article. Please don't just use one of Haas' examples from the article but come up with one of your own.


Jan 31 - Wenke and Olszewski 565-583

Wenke and Olszewski 565-583 - North American Early Complexity

Answer two of the following three questions in a two part answer of no more than 200 words each.

1. What were the important crops in eastern North America during the earlier Woodland period, and how is the use of these crops reflected in the pottery?

2. Where are the domestic structures associated with the Adena, Hopewell, and Mississippian sites, and how do studies of domestic structures amplify our understanding of the renowned monuments.

3. Discuss the evidence for decline at Woodland and Mississippian sites.


Feb 02 - Wenke and Olszewski 583-595

Answer two of the following three questions in a two part answer of no more than 200 words each.

1. Compare the issue of the control of water between the polities in the eastern US and those discussed in the south-west.

2. Compare ceremonial architecture in the southwest and in the eastern US.

3. If maize, beans, and squash were the agricultural staples of complex societies in Mesoamerica why did the presence of these crops in the US southwest and east, together with other evidence of cultural contact with groups in Mexico, not result in greater social complexity north of the Rio Grande?

Feb 05 - Wenke and Olszewski 481-495

Answer two of the following three questions in a two part answer of no more than 200 words each.

1. What types of archaeological evidence from food and architecture among the Olmec result in them being categorized as a complex society, and when does this evidence occur?

2. Compare ceremonial architecture in Oaxaca at San Jose Mogote with architecture at Olmec sites.

3. Can evidence of household level trade provide archaeologists with evidence of status differences in Oaxaca society? Explain.

Feb 07 - Wenke and Olszewski 533-549

Answer two of the following three questions in a two part answer of no more than 200 words each.

1. Develop two examples of how contrasting environmental zones in the Andes affected the development of early complex societies in the region. What kinds of archaeological evidence can be used to inform on this issue?

2. How did monumental architecture develop through time in the region?

3. Compare the concept of "mother culture" in the case of Chavin de Huántar and the Olmec in Mesoamerica (from the previous reading) in terms of the role of art and ideology. Why are these arguments so often encountered, and what are the benefits and limitations of this perspective?

Feb 12 - Wenke and Olszewski 292-316

This is a relatively dense reading but give it close attention because this assignment sets the theoretical stage for the rest of the quarter. We will be returning to the themes in this reading. Answer two of the following three questions in a two part answer of 200 words each. 1. Compare two of the themes described in the pages 293-298 (Architecture, Mortuary evidence, Functional differentiation, or Settlement Patterns) with some of the nine processes listed at the end of the Haas 2001 reading (pp 16-17). 2. How does Marvin Harris' application of Marxian theory differ from that of Friedman and Rowlands? Be sure to read the passage from Marx as well (it relates well to this course, yet Capital was written in 1867!). Does Harris' approach have advantages for archaeologists in terms of empirical evidence? 3. Compare Trigger's synthesis with the models described in Brumfiel and Earle's approach.

Feb 14 - Wenke and Olszewski 325 - 341

Answer two of the following three questions in a two part answer of no more than 200 words each. 1. Consider the evidence of ancient trade at Çatalhöyök in light of Brumfiel and Earle's three models of economic exchange (p. 315). 2. Discuss the architectural trajectory among the 'Ubaid in comparison with that of public architecture at another site from a previous reading in the Wenke & Olszewski book. 3. How do art styles and agricultural technologies coincide in initial cultural complexity in Mesopotamia? Consider this in light of one of the contemporary theories for early complexity presented in Chapter 7.

Feb 16 - Wenke and Olszewski 341 – 362

Answer two of the following three questions in a two part answer of no more than 200 words each. 1. Describe the sequence of changes in settlement patterns in Mesopotamia from the earliest Neolithic settlements in the region (part of Wednesday's reading) through the Sumerian civilization. 2. What was the role of early writing in Southwest Asian complex societies. WHen did it develop and what can it tell us about these early states? 3. Describe the changing role of crafts specialists through time in the region.

Feb 21 - Wright 1998 questions

Answer two of the following three questions in a two part answer of no more than 200 words each.

1. Describe the evidence Wright uses to differentiate domestic architecture from administrative buildings.

2. Describe the regional resource procurement argument for the Late Uruk expansion.

3. Where are seals found and what do they tell us about activities in the Middle Uruk versus Late Uruk times?


Feb 23 - Wenke and Olszewski 368-384

Answer two of the following three questions in a two part answer of 200 words each. 1. In what ways did the development of agriculture in Egypt differ from what occurred in Mesopotamia? Provide specific examples and include explanations that reflect ecological contrasts. 2. What are the issues surrounding the unification of Egypt? 3. What are some of the principal organizational characteristics of Old Kingdom Egypt that permitted the construction of the pyramids at Giza. Consider labor, trade, and other large scale issues.

Feb 26 - Wenke and Olszewski pp 384-404

Based on your reading of the material in Ch 9 (Egypt), develop a compelling (but brief) theoretical argument for the origins of the Egyptian state. Consider the processes discussed in class, in Wenke & Olszewski Ch 7 (pp279-323), and those listed at the end of the Haas 2001 article. Please include explicit evidence from the second half of Ch 9 (Middle and New Kingdom Egypt). Note that there is a brief review at the end of chapter 9, but don’t just summarize that. Please come up with your own explanation. Comparisons with other early states are welcome. What is most convincing sequence to you and why? Please make your answer over 400 words.

Feb 28 - Bard 1992

Answer two of the following three questions in a two part answer of 200 words each. 1. Compare the symbolic evidence from monumental architecture with the evidence from mortuary contexts in predynastic and dynastic Egypt as presented by Bard. 2. Describe the two principal categories of artifacts found as predynastic mortuary goods. What is Bard’s interpretation of the symbolic significance of these goods? 3. Does Bard’s article describe the development of a monolithic or a multifaceted role for authority in predynastic Egypt? Explain.

Mar 2 - Wenke 495 – 524 (Mesoamerica). Outline and draft of bibliography due.

An outline for your final paper with a draft of a 20 item bibliography are due on Friday. For the bibliography please follow the American Antiquity format. This includes in text citation as follows (Smith 2000: 30-40), and a bibliographical format as described here. Answer two of the following three questions in a two part question of 400 words. 1. Compare the use of monumental architecture in the Basin of Mexico and Monte Alban in Mesoamerica. 2. How did the ideological practices and projects of the Maya exact a price from the elite and also from the commoners? 3. Briefly summarize the effect of Maya (1) writing and (2) mathematics in terms of the development of complex political organization in the region. Interpret the role of these attributes of Maya civilization in terms of the relationships between commoners and elites.

Mar 5 - Joyce 2000

Mar 5 - Joyce 2000 Please answer two of the following three questions in a two part answer of 200 words each 1. What is the Agency / Structure dialectic and what is the role of ideology in this issue? 2. What are two pieces of archaeological evidence presented by Joyce for a changing dynamic between elites and commoners during the Rosario phase. Is it convincing? 3. Explain how Joyce uses the changing role of human sacrifice through time in Oaxaca prehistory to investigate changes in the role of the nobility.

Mar 7 - Brumfiel 1983 - Aztec State Making

Please answer two of the following three questions in a two part answer of 200 words each. 1. What are the general characteristics of chiefdoms that are evident in the 13th and 14th century polities in the region? Which of these are significant in terms of the emergence of the state? 2. In the sequence explored by Brumfiel (1983) how did the tribute payments from lesser nobles to paramount chiefs change through time in the Basin of Mexico? Provide two examples. 3. According to Brumfiel (1983), were structural factors ultimately more important than ecological variables in the emergence and continuation of the Aztec state? Provide two examples to support your assertion.

Mar 9 - Wenke and Olszewski 549-559, Stanish 2001

The Stanish article didn't make it into the reader
Stanish, Charles, 2001. The Origin of State Societies in South America. In Annual Review of Anthropology, pp. 41. vol. 30.

Please answer two out of the following three questions. 1. Definitions of “state-level society” vary but based on the recent literature in the region you’re focusing on for your final paper when does “state level” society emerge? Compare the attributes of the earliest state in your region with those described by Stanish 2001 (be sure to read the Comparative section at the end of the article). Which two early Andean state phenomena described by Stanish most closely matches elements of state-level society in your region and why (if your regional focus is on the Andes then compare between three Andean cultures). 2. What was the role of long distance exchange in the Andean state formation based on discussion in Wenke and Olszewski? 3. How does the evidence of labor organization and monumental architecture provide insights into Preceramic, Initial Period, and Middle Horizon formation in the Andes?

Mar 12 - DeMarrais, Castillo, Earle 1996 - Materialization of Ideology

Please answer two of the following three questions in a two part answer of 200 words each.

1. Consider the region that you are focusing on for your final paper and provide two examples of the materialization of ideology at the beginnings of state-level society. What are the types of archaeological materials involved? Provide specific dates or time periods associated with these examples, if possible.

2. Compare ceremonial events described for either the Moche or the Inka with evidence from your chosen study area. What are the similarities or differences?

3. Describe the effects of scale on materialization of ideology as explained in the article. How do simple chiefdoms, complex chiefdoms/states, and empires differ in their degree of investment and in proportion in their "materialization of ideology"?

Mar 14 - Helms 1992

Answer two of the following three questions. 1. In your study region is there evidence of ceremonial or ritual specialists using associations with the exotic to bolster their status? Consider both movement through geographical space as well as and “vertical” domains as per Helms (1992). Provide two examples. 2. What are the archaeological ramifications of the conception put forward by Helms? Look through her article for material evidence that could be used to support/deny these assertions. 3. Explain how the phenomena of the development of an urban core and the expansion of empire into new territory during early state formation relates to the concepts in Helms’ article.

Mar 16 - Flannery 1999

Last reading homework! Please answer two of the following three questions in a two part answer of 200 words each. 1. Develop an agency model for your region of interest based on the examples provided by the Bard, Joyce, Brumfiel, and/or Flannery articles. How would you accomplish this and support it with material evidence? Do you have more than iconographic imagery of people? The key is to link human volition with empirical, comparable archaeological evidence. 2. Are the elements of the agency critique discussed by Joyce in reference to Monte Albán consistent with those described as Agency by Flannery? Explain your answer. 3. Discuss two examples of objects and material evidence that were convincingly used by Flannery (1999) to support the link between the Process and Agency approaches that he develops in the article.

Syllabus (Anth 164, Winter 2007)

The Origins of Complex Societies

Anthropology 164, UC Santa Barbara

Nicholas Tripcevich Email:
Winter Quarter 2007 Office: HSSB 2049
Class: M-W-F 10-11 AM, HSSB 2001a Office Hours: M, W 11-12 or by appt
Class website:

Course overview: This course combines archaeological theory and data in an examination of the origins of complex societies. We will look at different anthropological and archaeological approaches to the study of early civilizations. This course specifically focuses on theoretical models for the origins of agriculture and for socio-political changes that led up to the emergence of state-level society. The course employs a comparative method and we will examine the circumstances surrounding state-level organization in a number of regions including Egypt, Mesopotamia, Mesoamerica, and the Andes.

Evaluation format: Grades will be determined based on the following criteria. Written responses/participation: 30%, midterm: 30%, final paper: 40%.

Written responses are 400 word (1-2 page) responses to the reading questions in essay form. Reading Questions are posted online. These will be due at the beginning of each day of class. There will be 26 sets of questions assigned, and you can drop two of them so that 24 of these will count towards your grade.

The midterm exam will be an in-class exam, short and long answer questions. The final paper will be a 15 page research paper covering the emergence of the state in one of the regions covered in the course. You’ll need to find at least 20 bibliographical references for this paper (from the published literature, not from the Web) and an outline will be due several weeks before the end of the quarter.

Required Texts: Wenke, Robert J. and Deborah L. Olszewski (2007). Patterns in Prehistory: Humankind’s First Three Million Years. Oxford University Press, New York.

Additional readings will be posted to the web in PDF format. Printing these articles out (rather than reading online) is highly recommended and it can be done in a UCSB computer lab.

Plagiarism note: All students are expected to follow the university’s standards of academic honesty; there will be no tolerance for plagiarism. Plagiarism is a form of academic dishonesty that occurs when you present work belonging to someone else, either from a book, from the web, or from a classmate, as your own work. If you have questions about the proper way to cite another author’s work we can discuss it in class or during office hours.

Course schedule and reading assignments for Anth 164. Responses totaling at least 400 words will be due before class that day.

Wk 1, Mon, Jan 8 – Outline of the course, syllabus, readings, grading, introductions.

Wed, Jan 10 – Archaeological approaches: Wenke and Olszewski, Ch 1

Fri, Jan 12 – Archaeological data and inference: Wenke and Olszewski, Ch 2. Movie shown in class.

Wk 2, Mon, Jan 15 – UCSB Holiday, Martin Luther King day

Wed, Jan 17 – Civilization and its boosters, Patterson 1997 article.

Fri, Jan 19 – Typological approaches: Fried, 1960 article. Wenke and Olszewski, 279-292

Wk 3, Mon, Jan 22 – Theories concerning the origins of agriculture: Wenke and Olszewski 228-246

Wed, Jan 24 – Origins of Agriculture in Mesopotamia: Wenke and Olszewski 247-261

Fri, Jan 26 – Origins of Agriculture in the New World: Wenke and Olszewski 262-270.

Wk 4, Mon, Jan 29 – Political centralization: Haas 2001 chapter in From Leaders to Rulers

Wed, Jan 31 – Regional polities in North America: Wenke and Olszewski 565-583

Fri, Feb 2 – Regional polities in North America: Wenke and Olszewski 583 – 595. Movie

Wk 5, Mon, Feb 5 – Early complexity in Mesoamerica (Olmec): Wenke and Olszewski 481 - 495

Wed, Feb 7 – Early complexity in the Andes: Wenke and Olszewski 533-549

Fri, Feb 9 – Midterm Exam

Wk 6, Mon, Feb 12 – The evolution of complex societies: Wenke and Olszewski 292-316

Wed, Feb 14 – Mesopotamia: Wenke and Olszewski 325 - 341

Fri, Feb 16 – Mesopotamia: Wenke and Olszewski 341 – 362, Movie (Archaeology in Mesopotamia)

Wk 7, Mon, Feb 19 – UCSB Holiday, President’s Day

Wed, Feb 21 – Uruk states in Southwestern Iran, Wright 1998

Fri, Feb 23 – Egypt: Wenke and Olszewski 369 - 384

Wk 8, Mon, Feb 26 – Egypt : Wenke and Olszewski 384 - 397

Wed, Feb 28 – Ideology in Egyptian complex society: Bard 1992 article

Fri, Mar 2 – Mesoamerica: Wenke 495 – 524. Outline for Final Paper and draft of bibliography is due

Wk 9, Mon, Mar 5 – Monte Alban, Joyce 2000 article.

Wed, Mar 7 – Aztec state-making, Brumfiel 1983 article.

Fri, Mar 9 – Andean South America: Wenke and Olszewski 549 – 559, Stanish 2001 article

Wk 10, Mon, Mar 12 – Ideology, materialization, and power. Demarrais, Castillo, Earle 1996 article

Wed, Mar 14 – Long distance contact, Helms 1992 article.

Fri, Mar 16 – Process and agency in early states: Flannery 1999 article

Tues, Mar 20 –FINAL PAPER DUE before 10AM!