Archive for December, 2010

Ledge at Wukoki Pueblo, Wupatki National Monument

Wupatki is a very dry place even by the standards of the Southwest, with annual precipitation averaging about 8 inches.  Human habitation in such an arid landscape is therefore highly dependent on capturing as much available moisture as possible.  It appears that the prehistoric inhabitants took advantage of the volcanic ash laid down over the area by the eruption of Sunset Crater in AD 1064 for farming purposes since it acted as a mulch, retaining water from the summer rains that would otherwise have evaporated in the heat and strong winds.  For other purposes such as drinking, cooking, and construction, however, water trapped in the soil isn’t very useful, so other sources needed to be found.  As at Chaco Canyon, which is similarly dry, some of this water would have come from a few springs in the area, especially in the dry season, but it would also have been useful to capture as much of the runoff from the summer rains as possible.  Due to the geology of the Wupatki area, this water could only be used for floodwater farming in a very few places, but there were other ways to take advantage of it.

One such way was apparently shown by a discovery made by two National Park Service archaeologists in the 1940s.  While out evaluating sites for stabilization needs, Albert Schroeder and Philip Van Cleave found some potsherds on the ground in sufficient number to make them think that they might be reconstructible into something approaching the original vessel.  They picked up the sherds and dug a bit into the ground beneath them to see if there were any more.  Sure enough, just under the surface of the ground there was a whole ring of sherds in place, indicating the presence of a broken but substantially complete jar that had apparently been deliberately buried.  They excavated it and took some pictures, and Schroeder wrote up a short article on the discovery for American Antiquity which was published in 1944.

Small Site on Ledge, Box Canyon, Wupatki National Monument

The jar was of the ceramic type Moenkopi Corrugated, which Schroeder dates to AD 1075 to 1275.  This is unfortunately a quite wide date range, encompassing almost the entire period of substantial prehistoric occupation of Wupatki, so it is not possible to say at what point during the occupation the jar was buried.  From its position, however, Schroeder was able to determine that it was likely placed to capture runoff from the summer rains.  It was buried in the sand underneath one of the sandstone ledges that are so common at Wupatki, so one possibility is that it was placed to capture runoff from the ledge.  Indeed, it seemed that the part of the ledge above the jar naturally collected runoff from a wide area of the sandstone outcrop.  At the time Schroeder and Van Cleave found the jar, however, the water pouring off the ledge fell somewhat short of where the jar was.  Schroeder suggested that there may have been some erosion in the period between the time the jar was buried and the time it was found, such that at this time of placement the ledge extended further out and the runoff may have poured directly onto the jar.  If this was not the case, however, the jar was probably buried with the sand level with or a bit higher than the rim, so that runoff from the sandy ground around the jar rather than the ledge above would flow into the jar.

Either way, it seemed apparent to Schroeder that the purpose of the jar was likely to collect water, which makes sense in such an arid environment.  He admitted to being somewhat unsure of the details of his proposal, and he did not venture any theories as to what the water would have been used for or why a jar was used in this way to collect it.  Obviously the amount of water in a single jar would not have been much for agricultural purposes, so I suspect the water was used for household use.  To be so used, depending on how close the household in question was (which Schroeder unfortunately did not mention), the jar could either have been dug up after filling or left in place.  In the latter case, the water could have been taken out with a ladle and transferred to a canteen or some other sort of vessel for transportation.

I don’t have any sort of major point to make about this paper, but it’s interesting as an example of the kinds of adaptations people make to harsh environments.  Wupatki would have been a hard place to live in prehistoric times, but people gave it their best shot.
Schroeder, A. (1944). A Prehistoric Method of Collecting Water American Antiquity, 9 (3) DOI: 10.2307/275790

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T-Shaped Doorway at Lomaki, Wupatki National Monument

The paper by Glenn Davis Stone and Christian Downum that I mentioned in the last post, which evaluated the archaeological record of the Wupatki area of northern Arizona in the light of Ester Boserup‘s theory of agricultural intensification, was based largely on the data from an extensive archaeological survey of Wupatki National Monument done by the National Park Service in the 1980s.  This data is presented in a more complete form in an earlier paper that Downum cowrote with Alan Sullivan.  This paper looks at the previous models proposed for the settlement and abandonment of Wupatki in the context of the new data from the survey.

Cinder Cones from the Citadel, Wupatki National Monument

The most influential model for the prehistory of Wupatki has been that presented by Harold Colton of the Museum of Northern Arizona based on work done in the 1930s and 1940s.  Colton saw the extreme aridity of Wupatki as having discouraged settlement there until the eruption of Sunset Crater Volcano in AD 1064 spread a layer of volcanic ash over the area.  This ash acted as a natural mulch to retain water from the infrequent rains which would otherwise evaporate from the thin soil.  Colton looked at the large number of sites that seemed to have been built in the aftermath of the eruption and saw a “land rush” in which people from all over the local area come to Wupatki to take advantage of the improved conditions for farming from the ash fall.  Over time, however, the ash cinders began to blow away in the strong winds and the productivity of the land declined, so the people began to aggregate into the large pueblos for which the Wupatki area is best known.  Once in these aggregated villages, the poor sanitary conditions of living in such close quarters, combined with the continuing decline of agricultural conditions, forced the abandonment of the whole area some time in the thirteenth century.

Wall Abutment, Wupatki Pueblo

This is a plausible story on the face of it, but Colton’s account has been challenged more recently by other archaeologists who point out that a great many of the structures built soon after the ash fall that Colton included in calculating the population increase were small, ephemeral structures that probably served as field houses or other special-use locations rather than year-round dwellings.  This implies that Colton was double-counting both these impermanent structures and the actual permanent houses of the people who used them, thus coming up with inflated population figures on which he based his “land rush.”  The systematic nature of the survey in the 1980s provided the opportunity to determine just how many sites there really were and how many actually served as permanent dwellings.

The Citadel and Sunset Crater from Lomaki, Wupatki National Monument

As Downum and Sullivan tell it, the results basically vindicate Colton’s critics.  The vast majority of the structures found were small and relatively impermanent, with few artifacts.  In addition, a careful tabulation of sherd types at most of the sites showed that the immediate post-eruption period, far from being the land rush of Colton’s theory, was actually a time of relatively limited occupation.  There were more sites from this period than from the pre-eruption period, when the area was nearly uninhabited, but still not very many.  It was not until a few decades later, starting around AD 1130, that building began to really pick up, as indicated by both sherd types and tree-ring dates.  The high point of construction didn’t come until the 1160s, a century after the initial eruption.  (It is actually not clear how long the eruptions continued after the beginning around 1064, and there may well still have been occasional activity by the volcano this late or even later.)  Construction seems to have effectively ceased by 1220, and the area was probably abandoned not long after that.

Beam Sampled for Tree-Ring Dating, Wupatki Pueblo

The upshot of all this for Colton’s theory is that, while it does seem to be true that the ash improved the suitability of Wupatki for agriculture, people didn’t immediate act to take advantage of this.  Downum and Sullivan propose that this may have been because it took some time for the effects of the ash fall on the soil to manifest, but I think a more plausible explanation for this can be found by looking outside the immediate area to the larger region.  The decades after 1130 were a time of extensive drought throughout the northern Southwest.  This is when Chaco collapsed (or at least declined), and there were likely extensive migrations all around the region.  In this context, people may have come to Wupatki less from the “pull” factor of the beneficial effects of the volcanic ash and more from the “push” factors of drought and/or political instability elsewhere.  Of course, there were at least some people farming at Wupatki before this, so the fertility of the area may have become well known at the same time as things were deteriorating elsewhere, making both push and pull factors part of the regional dynamics.

Great Kiva at Wupatki Pueblo

In line with the arguments in the later paper by Downum and Stone, Downum and Sullivan here argue that agriculture for most of the period of occupation of Wupatki was extensive rather than intensive.  They do claim, however, that intensification came right at the end of the occupation period, after 1220, on the basis of more intensive usage of the sites from that period based on sherd counts.  This is kind of dubious, and it appears that Downum changed  his mind about it in the eight years between this paper and the later one.  Intensification at this can, however, be incorporated into the argument made in the later paper that intensification was impossible in this area due to ecological conditions.  Once people began to leave the area, perhaps spurred by increased warfare and/or continuing climatic instability, those who remained would not necessarily have been able to secure access to the large amounts of land they had had claimed earlier as part of the consolidated political groups associated with the large pueblos in the Stone and Downum model.  These few remaining farmers may then have attempted to intensify production on the smaller amounts of land available to them.  Given the aridity of the area, however, this would not have worked reliably enough to allow them to stay, so within a few decades or less they would leave as well, leaving the entire Wupatki area abandoned by 1275.  Note that this is when the famous “Great Drought” associated with the abandonment of Mesa Verde and other areas began, so the aggregation and abandonment processes associated with Wupatki may well have been different from the similar processes elsewhere in the Southwest.

Upper Walls Built on Rock Outcrop, Wupatki Pueblo

Since I’ve been taking note of the scholarly context of the papers I’ve been discussing lately, I should point out that this one is very much an archaeology paper, and a classic processual one at that, with lots of statistics and an explicit model of interactions between people and the environment.  This certainly makes it more “scientific” than, say, the later paper by Downum and Stone, which is more anthropological and not very scientific at all, but as with many such archaeological papers the scientific trappings are somewhat superficial.  This is definitely not as rigorous an attempt at quantitative social science as the economics paper on plowing and gender roles I discussed a little while ago, for instance.  I would therefore argue that this is only science in a somewhat questionable expansive sense, and not necessarily anthropology at all, despite the frequent claims of processualists to be doing “archaeology as anthropology.”  Again, however, that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile scholarship.  Regardless of how it’s classified, this is interesting research that can serve as a useful source of data for a variety of other studies such as the one Downum later did with Stone.
Sullivan, A., & Downum, C. (1991). Aridity, activity, and volcanic ash agriculture: A study of short-term prehistoric cultural-ecological dynamics World Archaeology, 22 (3), 271-287 DOI: 10.1080/00438243.1991.9980146

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Wupatki Pueblo

The paper I discussed earlier on the connection between plow-based agriculture and highly inegalitarian gender roles was based on a theory proposed by Ester Boserup.  Boserup was a Danish economist who had a lot of interesting ideas about the relationship between population growth and agricultural intensification.  She’s best known for arguing that intensification of agricultural production is a response to population growth, rather than a cause of it as Malthus proposed.  The basic idea is that the default mode of agricultural production is extensive, i.e., requiring a lot of land but relatively little labor.  As population grows, however, the amount of land available per person declines, so people need to get more production out of each unit of land.  This generally requires more work, and the amount of production per unit of work declines.  That is, although the overall amount of food produced increases, the amount of food produced for the amount of work expended to grow it declines.  Thus, people will only intensify agricultural production when they are forced to do so by increasing population.

The Citadel at Wupatki National Monument

This model has been very influential, but it has also been criticized on a number of fronts.  Many of these relate to the underlying assumptions, which Boserup didn’t really make explicit.  The model assumes that the amount of land available is fixed, and doesn’t make allowances for other responses to increased population growth such as trade, migration, and conquest.  There have also been a number of cases in which the model doesn’t seem to apply, either because increased intensification does not in fact require more work or because putting more work into intensified agriculture does not in fact increase crop yields.  (Note that these objections come largely from cultural anthropologists based on ethnographic data.)

Rooms at Wupatki Pueblo

A 1999 paper by Glenn Davis Stone and Christian Downum (available here) tries to incorporate the criticisms of Boserup’s model into a recasting of the model that sees it as applicable only under certain circumstances, namely where increased labor is both necessary and sufficient to raise production.  When this is the case, one option for coping with increased population pressure is what they term “Boserupian intensification,” which is basically the process Boserup described in which people work harder and get higher total yields but lower yields per unit of work on a fixed amount of land.  There are other options, however, including migration and trade, for dealing with population growth in this context, and in other contexts where Boserupian intensification is not an option because of ecological conditions those other options comprise the whole set of possible responses.  In conditions where intensification is possible without harder work, due to new technology or innovative techniques, population pressure ends up not being much of a problem.  Examples given in the paper include raised-field agriculture in the Andes and rice paddies in East Asia.  In other conditions, however, such as arid environments where the weather is very unpredictable, intensification through increased labor just doesn’t work to increase yields reliably, and population pressure becomes a very big problem that must be addressed through other solutions.

Entrance Sign, Wupatki National Monument

Stone and Downum illustrate their proposal through an examination of Wupatki.  This is a very arid part of northern Arizona with similar climatic conditions to Chaco Canyon.  Like Chaco, it was also (rather mysteriously) a major population center in prehistoric times.  Wupatki’s heyday came mainly in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries AD, a little later than Chaco’s in the eleventh and early twelfth.  Many years ago Harold Colton of the Museum of Northern Arizona proposed that the rise of Wupatki was a response to the eruption of Sunset Crater Volcano in 1064, which covered the area with volcanic ash that served as a natural mulch and greatly increased local fertility, leading to a massive influx of population.  This theory has been challenged more recently but it seems to still have a large number of adherents, and Stone and Downum seem to be among them.  They take the idea of increased fertility from the volcanic ash for granted and look at what happened once people started to move into the Wupatki area.  There have been proposals that the increased population pressure from immigration led to intensification of agriculture at Wupatki in a classic example of Boserupian intensification, but Stone and Downum look carefully at the evidence and conclude that there is very little evidence of any intensification.  Instead, they argue that the vast majority of the Wupatki area is totally unsuitable for intensification; there are very few places where any kind of irrigation or floodwater farming can be practiced, and for the most part the only way to grow anything is to extensively dry-farm the open spaces.  Thus, intensification was not an option, and other options for dealing with population pressure must have been pursued.

Dry Land Farming Sign at Box Canyon, Wupatki National Monument

The strategy they see as most likely is political consolidation to secure claims to land.  Since the necessity of extensive agriculture made holding on to as much land as possible a necessity, coming up with effective means of demonstrating and enforcing land rights was a high priority.  They see the most likely way this would have happened is the formation of political units organized along ethnic lines.  It is always difficult to recognize ethnicity in the archaeological record, but Wupatki has long been known as a “frontier” area occupied by people of three distinct archaeological “cultures”: Kayenta Anasazi, Sinagua, and Cohonina.  These presumably don’t correspond exactly to “ethnicities” in the modern sense, but there are notable differences in material culture among the three, and Stone and Downum identify two main clusters of settlements including large, impressive pueblos.  One of these, centered on Wupatki Pueblo, seems to show Sinagua affiliations, while the other, centered on the Citadel, shows more Cohonina affiliations.  The place of the Kayenta Anasazi in all this is unclear.  They don’t seem to have a cluster of their own, and Kayenta-affiliated sites are spread all over the area.

Wall at the Citadel, Wupatki National Monument

Stone and Downum see the construction of large, aggregated pueblos as a sign of group power intended to impress others with the legitimacy of the group’s claims to land and other resources, and they suggest that relatively few people might have actually lived in the pueblos themselves despite being affiliated with them politically.  For this system to work, the groups’ land claims had to be backed with the credible threat of coercive force, and there is indeed some evidence of violence at Wupatki that may reflect occasional instances when this force needed to be shown.  (There is an interesting parallel here to a more recent article on a different part of the Southwest which I will discuss at some point.)

Wall at Wupatki Pueblo

To illustrate the plausibility of their interpretation of Wupatki, Stone and Downum rely on analogy to contemporary ethnic groups in central Nigeria.  This is an area where Boserupian intensification is in fact possible and some groups have dealt with population pressure through intensification.  Other groups, however, have responded instead by organizing along ethnic lines to defend their land claims through the threat and occasional application of violence.  Stone is a sociocultural anthropologist and this part of the paper is based on his fieldwork in the area.  This is a good example of what (sociocultural) anthropology can contribute to interdisciplinary scholarship.  Ethnography produces an enormously rich, textured body of qualitative data that can be used to test hypotheses and models to explain social phenomena.  Those models can come from anthropology itself, of course, but they can also come from other disciplines, such as economics in this case.  Downum is a Southwestern archaeologist, and his role in this paper seems to be in providing the data about Wupatki.  Much of the data comes from an extensive survey of sites within Wupatki National Monument which has greatly increased the amount of information available about this interesting but poorly understood area.

San Francisco Peaks from Wukoki Pueblo, Wupatki National Monument

I think the arguments in this paper are pretty plausible.  There are some questions about the application of the theory to Wupatki, but it seems to fit as well as any other explanation I’ve seen for the processes of aggregation and abandonment that marked this period of Southwestern prehistory.  The basic idea is that aggregation occurred because of political consolidation, which came about to secure land claims in the face of population pressure and inability to intensify production.  Along with this consolidation came increased conflict, and ultimately that conflict and poor climatic conditions led to abandonment.  This is similar to the model I have proposed for the role of warfare in spurring aggregation and abandonment, although there I focused more on warfare specifically as a response to resource scarcity rather than political consolidation as the response and warfare as the result of that.  This is really a difference of emphasis, however, and the basic idea is very similar.  What Stone and Downum’s theory doesn’t explain, however, is the widespread nature of the aggregation and abandonment processes across the northern Southwest, even in places with much better ecological conditions such as Mesa Verde where intensification would presumably have been an option in a way it wasn’t at Wupatki.  They acknowledge this, and make no claim to explain anything beyond the specific local situation, but it’s an issue that is worth thinking about in evaluating theories like this.

Interior Room at Wupatki Pueblo

Since I’ve been talking a lot lately about disciplinary issues in academia, it’s worth noting that this paper seems to be to be pretty much entirely a cultural anthropology paper.  It uses archaeological data, and one of the authors is an archaeologist, but the overall analysis lies squarely within the realm of (sociocultural) anthropology.  It’s well-done, too, and quite serious and empirical.  I suspect its authors are probably among those who consider themselves “scientific anthropologists” and are outraged by the American Anthropological Association’s moves toward removing “science” from the definition of the field.  I wouldn’t call this science, though.  There’s no hypothesis testing or statistical analysis, and the analysis is basically comparative and qualitative.  It doesn’t go so far in that direction as historical papers like Robin Ganev’s, which I discussed in the previous post, but it’s nowhere near as scientific as the economics paper on plowing that I discussed in the post before that.  What I take from this is that scholarship doesn’t need to be scientific to be serious.  Indeed, in a paper like this one of the main advantages is to take a more “scientific” theory like Boserup’s and evaluate it from a more qualitative perspective to define the unstated assumptions behind it and the conditions under which it applies.  I still maintain that anthropology is not a science, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile or doesn’t count as serious scholarship.
Stone, G., & Downum, C. (1999). Non-Boserupian Ecology and Agricultural Risk: Ethnic Politics and Land Control in the Arid Southwest American Anthropologist, 101 (1), 113-128 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1999.101.1.113

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Cows in Winter, Shonto, Arizona

The postulated connection between plow-based agriculture and a highly inegalitarian system of gender roles that I was talking about in the previous post reminded me of another paper about plowing and gender in a very different context.  This article, by Robin Ganev of the University of Regina, was published in the Journal of the History of Sexuality in 2007.  It discusses the association of plowmen and milkmaids with a robust, healthy rural sexuality that was commonplace in British popular culture up until the eighteenth century in elite circles and even longer among the lower classes, as evidenced largely by the portrayals of these stock characters in collections of popular ballads from this period.  Ganev situates the milkmaid and plowman in the context of competing attitudes toward sexuality especially during the eighteenth century, when the traditional view of the countryside as a place of healthy conditions, simple lifestyles, and wholesome values began to be challenged by an alternative view of rural areas as cultural wastelands full of ignorant peasants who could not control their base urges.

Cowgirl BBQ, Santa Fe, New Mexico

The sexual connotations of plowing and milking are pretty obvious, and I trust I need not dwell on the specifics.  I find Ganev’s article particularly interesting in the way it shows the way two very different views of rural sexuality coexisted somewhat uneasily during a period of increasingly rapid change.  The eighteenth century saw the beginnings of large-scale urbanization in Britain, and the move of large numbers of people away from traditional farm life and into the cities led to considerable debate among intellectuals about social issues.  The traditional view of demography among policymakers and other thinkers had long been that the main problem the country faced was the threat of underpopulation, which might leave the farms without enough labor to feed the country and the army without enough manpower to defend it.  During Elizabethan times the government made concerted efforts to keep peasants from leaving their farms to ensure that sufficient food would be produced.  By the early eighteenth century increases in agricultural productivity had made concerns about insufficient farm labor somewhat obsolete, and rural people began to flock to the growing cities in increasing numbers.  This was of concern to intellectuals who were still thinking in traditional terms, but they were comforted by the idea that at least the rural peasants were still sufficiently sexually active to keep the rural population up and counterbalance movement to the cities.  All those plowmen and milkmaids were the salvation of the country, in this view.  This type of elite discourse corresponded well to the way popular culture also portrayed rural sexuality in ballads about the plowmen and milkmaids and their various adventures.  Importantly, both contrasted this healthy sexuality with the perceived problems of urban life, which was thought to be unhealthy in all sorts of ways, including sexual.  The virile rural plowmen was often shown in ballads as superior to the decadent urban aristocrat.  Ganev quotes one ballad that makes this contrast quite explicit:

Dear lady, believe me now,
I solemnly swear and vow,
No lords in their lives
Take such pleasure in their wives,
As a fellow that follows the plough.
For what they do gain by their labour and pain,
They do not to a harlot run,
As courtiers do, I never knew
A London beau, that could outdo
A country farmer’s son.

Over the course of the eighteenth century, however, as urbanization continued and new ideas began to arise among the urban intelligentsia, a very different view of demography and sexuality began to emerge.  In this view, most famously associated today with Thomas Malthus, the main problem facing the country was not underpopulation but overpopulation.  Since population growth had a tendency to outstrip resource potential, the unchecked sexuality of the rural poor bore the seeds of disaster in the form of famine, war, and other problems thought to occur once resources could no longer sustain the larger population.  These ideas went along with a shift in values toward an emphasis on sexual decorum among the emerging middle class.  From this perspective the sexual promiscuity of the plowmen and milkmaids was due to their stupidity and coarseness, rather than their embodiment of traditional wholesome values, and the literature of the middle class increasingly began to mock the peasants for their excessive sexuality rather than mocking the aristocracy for their sexual inadequacy.  This view became dominant in the nineteenth century, but Ganev argues that the older idea of a healthy peasant sexuality persisted in the popular culture of the lower classes long after the negative view of the peasantry had become dominant among the elite.  She also argues that this persistent popular value system contradicts some theories on the history of sexuality which posit that ideas on sexuality filtered down from the upper classes.  I don’t know enough about the scholarly context of these debates to be able to evaluate these arguments, but the paper overall is interesting.  In the context of the idea of gender inequality being associated with plow agriculture, the considerable agency of the milkmaids in many of the ballads Ganev discusses is problematic, but I think it can be reconciled largely by considering the fact that by the eighteenth century Britain was already moving beyond traditional cultural norms, and that northern Europe in general had never gone quite as far in the direction of cloistering women in the home as some other plow cultures such as those of the Middle East.

Cheese Vat, Pipe Spring National Monument

This article, which also contains a lot of interesting discussion of issues beyond those I’ve mentioned here, also shows the value of different disciplinary perspectives.  Since there’s been much talk of what is and isn’t “science” recently, it’s worth pointing out that this kind of research isn’t science in any conventional sense.  Unlike the paper I talked about in the previous article, it isn’t even social science.  This is historical research of a very humanistic type.  It is nevertheless serious, well-grounded empirical research.  As part of the debate over whether anthropology is a science, one of my main points is that scholarship doesn’t have to be scientific to be taken seriously, and the kind of history represented by this article shows one way of achieving that goal.
Ganev, R. (2007). Milkmaids, Ploughmen, and Sex in Eighteenth-Century Britain Journal of the History of Sexuality, 16 (1), 40-67 DOI: 10.1353/sex.2007.0037

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Plow at Lost City Museum, Overton, Nevada

Most if not all cultures have gendered divisions of labor, but the specifics of what counts as “women’s work” versus “men’s work” vary considerably from one culture to another.  There are some broad generalizations that apply pretty widely cross-culturally; hunting tends to be a masculine task, for instance, and childcare a feminine one.  When it comes to more complicated tasks of more recent origin, however, the gender designations can seem pretty arbitrary.  This is particularly obvious when it comes to agriculture, which developed several times in different parts of the world with different crops.  In many societies tending crops is a feminine task, perhaps because it is similar to gathering wild plants, which is often a responsibility of women.  This was historically the case, for example, among the indigenous peoples of the Eastern Woodlands of North America, where women tended the fields while men were responsible for hunting, war, and diplomacy.  In other parts of the world, on the other hand, such as most of Europe, agriculture was traditionally considered a masculine pursuit, and men tended the fields while women stayed at home and took care of cooking, cleaning, and childcare.

Why would this be?  Is it mere chance that agriculture developed different gender associations in different societies, or is there some pattern?  A recent draft paper by Alberto Alesina, Paola Giuliano, and Nathan Nunn takes a look at one hypothesis, originally advanced by Ester Boserup, to explain cross-cultural differences in the gendering of agriculture.  Boserup proposed that cultures in which farming is done primarily by men tend to farm with plows, while those in which agriculture is done by women use other agricultural techniques.  Furthermore, she argued that these two types of agrarian societies tend to differ systematically in other ways as well, particularly with respect to gender roles.  In plow societies women tend to stay at home and tend to household tasks while men are out working in the fields, and in many cases they develop highly elaborated systems of gender role differentiation with men in a clearly dominant role.  This has historically been the case especially in the Near East and most of Europe, as well as in other areas such as northern India.  In places without plow agriculture, however, societies tend to have less rigid gender role definition and more flexibility in acceptable economic activity for women.  This is the case in most of Africa, the Americas, and southern India.  Strikingly, these differences in economic role for men and women in plow societies seem to persist even when societies industrialize: men take the manufacturing jobs outside the home instead of working in the fields, but women still stay at home rather than working.  Very recently this has begun to change, especially in the wealthiest societies, but there is some evidence that the pattern has been surprisingly persistent.

Roswell Seed Company, Roswell, New Mexico

The proposed mechanism behind this is that plow agriculture, unlike other techniques, requires considerable physical strength to push the plow, which makes it more suited for men, who are on average physically stronger than women.  Once they have gained a predominant role in agriculture, which is the mainstay of the subsistence system, men go on to become dominant in other parts of society as well, and cultural norms begin to reinforce male superiority on an ideological as well as an economic level.

An interesting idea, to be sure, but is it true?  This is what Alesina, Giuliano, and Nunn set out to determine, using elaborate statistical techniques.  This paper is an example of an increasing trend among some economists of analyzing anthropological questions using the sophisticated quantitative techniques that are standard in economics but vanishingly rare in anthropology.  Archaeologists do use statistical techniques quite a bit these days, but the stuff in this paper blows away anything I’ve seen in archaeology, and sociocultural anthropologists hardly seem to use statistics at all.  This paper is an example of what serious quantitative social-science research looks like as applied to the subject matter usual addressed by anthropologists, and the difference between these techniques and those used by anthropologists shows why anthropology is not a science.  That’s not to say that these techniques are necessarily better than those used by anthropologists.  In fact, I think there are a lot of drawbacks to this kind of research.  Regardless of whether this kind of research is useful or not, however, I just don’t see any way to avoid the conclusion that it’s fundamentally different from what anthropologists do.

Aztec Feed & Supply, Aztec, New Mexico

Be that as it may, this is a very impressive paper.  The authors start from the assumption that plow agriculture works better for some crops than for others.  Plows are expensive, as are the draft animals necessary to pull them, so societies are unlikely to adopt the plow if they can grow enough food on the land available to them more easily.  This will be the case if the land is suitable for growing crops that don’t need plowed fields to grow effectively.  These include tree crops, roots, and tubers, as well as some grains such as corn, millet, and sorghum.  Other grain crops, such as wheat, rye, and barley, require extensive preparation of the land by plowing before they will grow effectively.  The idea, then, is to identify the parts of the world suited for “plow-positive” and “plow-negative” crops, then to identify the traditional agrarian societies that have historically inhabited these areas and to check that their agricultural techniques corresponded to the crops to which their land was suitable.  Using several databases of ethnographic documentation and soil suitability data, the authors confirmed that this in fact the case.  They then used some fairly ingenious analysis with geographical information systems to calculate percentages of the population whose ancestral ethnic groups used the plow in countries around the world and compared these percentages to replies to worldwide surveys of attitudes toward gender roles and statistics on women’s participation in the workforce.

The results confirmed Boserup’s prediction: countries with higher percentages of people from plow cultures had lower numbers of women working outside the home and gender attitudes among both men and women more focused on male superiority.  To make sure these results were really associated with plow use rather than something else they controlled for a wide variety of potential confounding variables, and the results were still quite robust.  They also did a separate analysis of workforce participation among female immigrants and daughters of immigrants to the US, to control for the possibility that institutional structures in countries with histories of plow use rather than cultural factors were causing the effects on women’s workforce participation there.  The results remained the same, with female immigrants from plow cultures less likely to work than other immigrant women and the same effect for daughters of immigrants, with the effect strongest when both parents were from the same ethnic background.

Bullock's Feed & Seed, Artesia, New Mexico

These results aren’t definitive, of course.  The paper is certainly pretty rough, although more in the writeup than the data.  Also, with any statistical analysis like this there is always the possibility of additional factors that the authors missed that could be causing these effects.  In this case, however, the authors did a very good job of considering and controlling for a wide variety of possible confounding factors.  This paper is a good example of how interdisciplinary research can work well.  In this case the data and many of the crucial assumptions behind the analysis came from anthropology, while the analytical tools came from economics.  This kind of research won’t replace traditional anthropological research, but it is a useful supplement to it.  Multiple lines of evidence are always good when evaluating complicated questions such as those that arise in studying human societies.

To bring this back to the usual subject matter of this blog, another possible factor in whether or not a society uses the plow is of course the presence or absence of draft animals.  The general lack of draft animals in the Americas was probably one contributing factor to the lack of plow agriculture.  We’ve seen a similar explanation advanced for the lack of wheeled vehicles in the Americas as well.  However, given that maize and other indigenous cultivated plants like potatoes and manioc don’t require use of the plow, it’s likely that the crop-based explanation advanced by this paper is more important in explaining the non-plow nature of American agriculture.  Regardless of why, however, it is certainly the case that the Americas did not develop plow cultures like those of the Old World, with their extreme gender inequality and ideology that a woman’s place is in the home.

Tractor Brewing Company, Los Lunas, New Mexico

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Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, University of New Mexico

There’s been a flurry of activity in the past few days reacting to the American Anthropological Association‘s removal of the word “science” from its mission statement.  I’m not an anthropologist myself, but my perspective is that this change is appropriate to how the discipline has developed and what it currently is.  Whether or not anthropology was ever “really” a science (and it’s important to note that the common cultural understanding of the words “anthropology” and “science” has changed quite a lot over the past century), it is today not a science in any common sense of the word.

The traditional “four-field” division of anthropology into sociocultural anthropology, physical anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics was in my view never more than an historical accident, and these “subdisciplines” have never had a whole lot in common other than the vague concept of “culture” tying them loosely together.  I think people who have been saying that sociocultural anthropology, with its increasing tendency toward more humanistic and less scientific methods, has becoming increasingly hegemonic within the discipline are correct, and that this is not really a problem.  To an increasing extent, anthropology today just is sociocultural anthropology, and as trends within sociocultural anthropology cause it to move away from the other subfields the most natural result is for the increasingly disjointed discipline to break up.  The more “scientific” subfields could easily just become separate disciplines.  Linguistics did this decades ago as part of the major shift in the discipline inaugurated by Chomsky’s theories in the late 1950s, and the few linguists who are still associated with anthropology departments generally practice a type of linguistics more in line with anthropology than is typical of most linguists.  Archaeology, in particular, could easily do the same thing.  There are already independent archaeology departments at BU and Simon Fraser, and the establishment of new departments at other universities is quite conceivable and would, I think, be a good thing for the discipline of archaeology, which I don’t think has much of a connection to the discipline of anthropology these days.  Archaeologists like Mike Smith are up in arms about this change and some are even threatening to leave the AAA over it, which I think is all to the good.  If archaeologists feel anthropology is no longer scientific enough for them, they should leave anthropology and set out on their own.  Then we can have a discussion over the separate and, to me, more interesting question of whether archaeology is a science.

Sign for Anthropology Building, University of New Mexico

Physical anthropology, the most scientific of the subfields, is a trickier case since there are no independent departments (as far as I know) and the word “anthropology” is right there in the name, but some sort of closer affiliation to biology or human physiology programs would make sense, and I can also conceive of new departments of primatology or some such being established, which would also take care of the odd and (to me) rather disconcerting fact that much of the research done in physical anthropology is actually not about humans at all but about other primates.

The new mission statement not only gets rid of the word “science” but also downplays the four-field concept, instead referring to a variety of research approaches, some associated with completely separate disciplines such as economics and history.  To the extent that research from these perspectives, as well as from the perspectives of the traditional anthropological subfields, intersects with research in sociocultural anthropology, it makes sense to consider them part of the mission of anthropology as a discipline.  There is no longer much reason to privilege the anthropological portions of certain disciplines as subfields of anthropology while leaving research within other disciplines that may be equally anthropological isolated from anthropology as a discipline.

Now, as it happens I’m not actually all that interested in the sorts of things sociocultural anthropologists have been doing recently, so if the discipline does start to formally dissolve the way I’ve sketched out here I probably will not be keeping a close eye on developments within the remnants of anthropology.  Instead, as with other disciplines with which I have no particular connection, I will deal with it only as it intersects the subjects that I am interested in.  But that’s okay with me.

Anthropology Building, University of New Mexico

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Westwater Cliff Dwelling, Utah

I’ve been following the case of Bob Knowlton, the artifacts dealer from Grand Junction, Colorado who was arrested as part of the big pothunting sting operation centered on Blanding, Utah that has been playing out over the past couple of years, for a while now, so I should note that he was recently sentenced to 18 months probation, with that probation also apparently including a ban from federal land for the same period.  (The Salt Lake Tribune article describes him as being banned from federal land “for collecting purposes” for the 18 months, but collecting from federal land is already illegal so presumably Knowlton is being banned more generally.)  Obviously this is a very light sentence, which we’ve seen before in some of the other cases stemming from this investigation, but it was part of a plea deal in which Knowlton, who originally pleaded not guilty, ended up pleading guilty to just one count of selling a single artifact, a pipe from Big Westwater Ruin near Blanding that he apparently bought from a relative of the archaeologist who excavated that site, to a federal operative.  It’s not clear what else that deal involved; Knowlton doesn’t appear to be particularly well-connected to the networks of wealthy collectors who may be the government’s ultimate goal.  His indictment focused on where he got the artifacts, specifically from various federal employees and archaeologists who should not have been selling them, rather than what he did with them, so his plea deal may involve a move by investigators “upstream” toward the sources of illicit artifacts rather than “downstream” toward their destinations.

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