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Archaeology: Identifying Socio-Political Structure at Chaco

Category: History

Instructions: FIRST, read the following information and consult the websites listed at below for background on the differences between Bands, Tribes, Chiefdoms and States. Consider how we might identify the differences between these types of societies from archaeological remains. With this information, you will then answer the questions regarding the type of socio-political organization you think existed during the Chacoan period, and use data to back up your argument. [Hint: Chaco does not necessarily fit neatly into these archetypal categories, so you will have to decide how to interpret different aspects of the Chacoan archaeological record. Remember to consider archaeological information from both inside and outside of Chaco Canyon itself]. You can use information from class lectures, as well as chapters that were not assigned from class, and additional outside books or websites, as long as you cite them in your paper.

Background Information [The summary presented below was adapted from M. Chazan World Prehistory and Archaeology: Pathways Through Time 3rd edition, 2014]
Centralized government and institutionalized power is a fact of life in the modern world, as the entire globe is now divided up into sovereign entities (except Antarctica and the ocean depths). However, this is a relatively recent development in human society. We know that social stratification increases with population size and density, and it is commonly recognized among archaeologists that when people to live in large urban centers, a centralized authority is important [probably necessary] to keep order. However, we also know that political complexity is linked to social inequality and limitations on personal autonomy – so the cost of personal freedom is something that individuals would be willing to give up (or be forced to give up) in order for larger and complex society to have developed and continued to exist. It is a focus in archaeological research to consider how and why complex societies developed.
We have learned about anthropologists Morton Fried (1967) and Elman Service (1972) and their categorization of the socio-political organization of societies around the world: Bands (egalitarian), Tribes (ranked), Chiefdoms (stratified) and States (urban). We have read the ethnography of the Dobe Ju’/hoansi and discussed how bands such as these have very little, if any, inequality, and that they are comprised of small populations that are typically nomadic foragers (hunter-gatherers). Bands also lack identifiable leaders or even chiefs, they do not generate surpluses or accumulate wealth, and their socio-political organization is rooted in complex kinship bonds. They use kinship and leveling-mechanisms to keep order in their society.
Ranked or Tribal societies generally have larger populations than bands, and are typically sedentary food-producers. Their socio-political organization is also somewhat more complex than band societies because they include individuals with high prestige, such as Big Men or tribal chiefs (e.g. Ongka’s Big Moka); however, these Big Men have very little significant and legitimate power over others, and not much control over economic resources (material wealth). Typically, one of the main ways for an individual to gain prestige and become a chief or Big Man is to collect and redistribute resources, rather than collect it for their own use. Much of socio-political and economic organization of labor remains rooted in complex kinship systems.
Chiefdoms, or stratified societies, are ones in which leaders gain their authority based on heredity, and typically rely on religious authority as a source of power (i.e., considered a descendant of a deity and/or main practitioner that conducts rituals). Chiefs typically extract tribute from surrounding peoples of lesser ranks (and often conquered societies), and they keep the wealth and/or slaves to use for purposes association with rulership. They consume more than others in their society, and would have larger more elaborate residences and much wealthier graves goods. There are usually special artifacts of rare materials or of exceptional artistic quality that only the Chief can wear/use, and the entire society would have an identifiable artistic style in their material culture. Chiefdoms often have monumental architectural structures.
States have government bureaucracies (elite classes) and laws backed by the use of force (police, warriors), and are usually able to maintain peaceful order among large populations, especially in urban settlements (cities). State societies typically have class systems and institutionalized inequality. States also have large populations, fixed boundaries, legal systems, military and police forces, some form of taxation (either goods or money), and conscription (recruit people for labor projects or for warfare). Fried and Service see the development of political complexity in both Chiefdoms and States as the development of legitimate leadership and authority systems that are not based primarily within kinship systems.
Political Organization Population Size
Bands 30-300
Tribes 100-2,000
Chiefdoms 1,500-50,000
States 50,000-200,00++

Archaeological Correlates of Urban Societies (i.e., ancient state-level civilizations)
Chaco has often been described as a large town or urban center – the cluster of great houses in the canyon is not uncommonly referred to by some archaeologists as “downtown Chaco.” In 1942, V. Gordon Childe developed 10 criteria that archaeologists can use to identify an ‘urban society’ – or cities that are centers of government and population in complex chiefdoms and state-level civilizations. His criteria include: 1) population centers of tens of thousands, relative to smaller surrounding villages; 2) production and storage of surplus food to feed leaders and government officials; 3) taxes to a deity or a leader (such as a king); 4) monumental architecture (something over-engineered or larger/fancier than necessary for practical use); 5) an identifiable elite class (better houses, richer graves, etc); 6) writing or other form of complex information storage and communication system; 7) evidence of astronomical or mathematical sciences; 8) sophisticated art style associated with the state culture; 9) long-distance trade with foreign societies; and 10) evidence of specialized craftspeople (i.e., some people are farmers that grow the surplus food, others make pottery, art, are architects or builders, etc.). Consider the following: Childe does not speculate how many of these MUST be present for a society to be considered urban; do you think that is it considered an ancient society is considered urban ONLY if it contains ALL of these criteria? Which ones do you think might be most important to identify urban civilizations?

External Readings: consult these websites for relevant information before you write your paper.
More on the differences between Bands and Tribes can be found at this website:

More on the differences between Chiefdoms and States can be found at this website:

Instructions for your paper: Answer the following questions completely and cite your sources to receive full credit (40 points). Your paper should be 5-6 pages in length, typed and double-spaced.

1. Consider the archaeological evidence of Chacoan society, remembering that there are sites both inside and outside of Chaco Canyon. Use the information you have read about the socio-political organization of Bands, Tribes, Chiefdoms and States to make an argument about Chaco: which type of society do you think best correlates with the archaeological evidence? You MUST consider all of the following types of archaeological evidence separately in your argument: Great House architecture, small house architecture, population estimates, kivas and great kivas, roads, astronomical alignments, subsistence system (ability to farm and raise surpluses), outlying great house communities, evidence for violence/warfare/defense, and evidence related to long-distance trade and the importing of goods and materials such as wood, pottery, turquoise, copper bells, macaws, food, etc. (all of this can be found in the Frazier book, some in chapters that were not assigned for class). For each class of archaeological evidence listed above, be sure to discuss: a) what the evidence actually is, b) if the interpretation of that evidence is debated or can be interpreted multiple ways (and why), and c) which socio-political category(s) is the best fit for that particular piece of evidence. [This is a lot of information and will form the bulk of the content of your paper.]

2. After reviewing all the evidence, and its varied interpretations, summarize it and then make a case for why you think Chacoan society was either a Tribe, a Chiefdom, or an Urban Society/State. [Hint: it is very unlikely that it was a Band!]

3. You may work together with other students to compile this information, but your interpretations, arguments and written text must be completely your own