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Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 20, 345360 (2001)

doi:10.1006/jaar.2000.0377, available online at on

Complexity in Archaic States

Robert McC. Adams
Department of Anthropology, University of California, San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, California 92093-0532
Received July 25, 2000; revision received October 6, 2000; accepted October 26, 2000;
published online June 1, 2001
The concept of complexity, associated particularly with ancient cities, states, and civilizations
and their immediate antecedents, denotes qualities of hierarchical differentiation and the intricacy
and interdependency of their parts and relationships. Alike in the human and natural worlds, complexity has repeatedly emerged as an overarching characterization through irregular, discontinuous processes of accumulation. These led by degrees and at intervals to relatively abrupt, qualitative changes. Under various constraints, contemporary archaeological research methods and
objectives have not been accompanied by an adequate recognition of the centrality of increasing
complexity as a social evolutionary tendency. Here it is argued that a focused, highly interdisciplinary study of complex adaptive systems is meanwhile coming to the fore that deserves careful archaeological scrutiny. A growing convergence of interests is suggested by shared issues like historical path-dependency, the interactions of differently situated and motivated human agents,
differential returns to scale, and the range of possible, computer-generated outcomes of unpredictable combinations of orderly, random and stochastic processes and events. 2001 Academic Press

Two interrelated trends, toward increasing hierarchical differentiation and toward

complexity, have characterized human social evolution since the end of the Pleistocene. Yet it is obvious that individual societies have seldom if ever long sustained a
movement in either direction, let alone
both. As with its biological and ecosystemic
evolutionary analogues, discontinuities are
an essential part of the cultural evolutionary process. Making a case for comparable
processes affecting social systems and
ecosystems, with little more than a straightforward translation of the entities involved,
Holling et al. generalize that in all dynamic,
self-organized systems,
change is neither continuous and gradual nor consistently chaotic. Rather it is episodic, with periods of slow accumulation of natural capital such
as biomass or nutrients, punctuated by sudden releases and reorganization of that capital as the result of internal or external natural processes or of
human-imposed catastrophes. (n.d.: 2.4)

exist in most archaeological sequences of

regional or larger scale. Such irregularities
provide the framework for most archaeological theory and synthesis, employing the
longue dure outlook with which Fernand
Braudel has enriched the study of history
and secondarily also of archaeology
(Bintliff, Ed. 1991).
Drawing on the example of the Industrial
Revolution, archaeologists under the stimulus of Gordon Childe and Julian Steward
were already beginning to take notice of
complex, multicausal irregularities in rate
and direction by around the time of World
War II (Greene 1999). Numerous efforts
quickly began to center, as they remain centered today, on the multiple, independently
occurring examples of early food-producing and urban revolutions in both hemispheres.
The study of hierarchical differentiation
has been deeply rooted in the social sciences since the last century. Complexity, on
the other hand, has a more vaguely inclusive, but also more obscure, lineage and

Discontinuous, rapid shifts, interspersed

by much longer spans of relative stability,

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present set of meanings. Basically, it conveys a sense of intricacy in nature, structure, and perhaps causation. The Oxford
English Dictionary finds the root of the
word in a whole that comprehends a number of interrelated parts or involved particulars.
In archaeological usage complexity most
frequently implies pronounced and institutionalized patterns of inequality and heterogeneity (Smith 1993:56). Omitting rare
reference even to groups of hunter-gatherers, its prevailing application is sometimes
to chiefdoms but more especially to ancient
cities, states, and civilizations. Early
Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley,
North China, Mesoamerica, and Andean
South America, differing greatly from one
another in numerous other respects, stand
apart as the essentially complete roster of
the original or pristine members of this
latter class.
An abstraction like complexity does not
emerge immediately from raw archaeological data. It grows by trial and error, through
analysis of many discrete settings and
through iterative testing with successively
improving methods. Levels of inequality in
status, wealth, and power come to light in
tomb furnishings, in discontinuous classes
of settlement size, domestic architecture,
and monumental construction, and in localized concentrations of costly or exotic materials from distant locales. But doubts linger
about how closely gradations of control
over human and other resources corresponded with these material vestiges that
survive to be detected and measured millennia later.
Measures of heterogeneity, similarly, are
in the end always somewhat speculative.
Reconstructions of relationships, connectivities, and individual differentiation or autonomy require acts of creation, not deduction, from limited and ambiguous material
residues (Smith 1994:143144). Ancient
texts, where they are available, can play a
vital part in helping us to identify distribu-

tional patterns as signposts of organizations and institutions. But drawing significant generalizations from ancient texts
faces obstacles not less difficult than those
confronting archaeologists.
Long preoccupied with the intellectual
resonances and aesthetic appeal of the qualities identified with cities and especially
civilizations, humanistically inclined archaeologists have tended to concern themselves with the uniqueness of each member
of the pristine class as a cultural achievement, rather than with the common, unifying characteristics that distinguish the class
as a whole. Anthropological archaeologists,
with a deeper commitment to the study of
cultural evolution at large, are less accepting of this apparent unwillingness to seek
out the general behind a mass of particulars. Seeking to avoid what can become an
endlessly elaborated, descriptive cul de sac,
most archaeologists trained in the outlook
of the social sciences today probably think
not in terms of civilizations but of early
states deriving from antecedent chiefdoms.
States are viewed as the decisive common
feature in all of the nuclear areas of civilizations emergence, the primary engine
behind a larger, dependent set of changes.
The overall pace of research continues to
grow and diversify ever more rapidly. That
alone, however, cannot account for the proliferation of vigorous new theoretical and
methodological advances. My own surmise
is that most of these derive from external
sourcesthe importation of natural science
instrumentation, techniques, and perspectives on the one hand, and insights and
models drawn from all across the social sciences on the other. But the assimilating and
interpreting of impressively accumulating
masses of new data is still primarily directed toward improving the understanding of particular cases. Receiving much less
attention are synthetic and cross-cultural
approaches to an understanding of processes commonly involved in the growth of
early states.


Part, but not all, of the explanation for the

failure of the theoretical dimensions of the
subject to keep pace is provided by limitations of archaeological methodologies and
data. Scientific excavation, coupled with
the exacting analytical and publication
standards required if excavation results are
to advance the discipline and justify the destructiveness of the discovery process, is exceedingly time-consuming and expensive.
While larger than ever today, the supply of
trained archaeologists and the many different kinds of resources they need has always
been comparatively modest. In relation to
the vastness of the remains of ancient civilizations that are already known (quite
apart from what is yet to be discovered), it
can safely be asserted that in all of the pristine areas only a minute fraction have as
yet entered into the corpus of primary, usable archaeological knowledge. With so little known, the difficulties associated with
limitations or biases of existing samples are
very large.
Remains of monumental buildings and
other likely repositories of artistic, textual,
and similar treasures (by contemporary
exhibition criteria) have naturally attracted
disproportionate attention. Certain categories of voluminous and well-preserved
material like ceramics, having the additional importance of being sensitive
chronological indicators, almost always are
carefully studied. But even for ceramics the
determination and publication of full
ranges of variability rather than subjectively selected types is rare.
Most textual as well as art-historical
sources that are archaeologically recovered
encounter not only these limitations but
others as well. Early writing systems, still in
the process of emergence, were distinctly
limited in the range of information they
could convey. And rich as they presently
became in anecdotal detail of the dynasties, wars, and religions genre, the textual
corpora originating in early states and civilizations focus fairly narrowly on the views


and activities of elites. As such, they tell us

disappointingly little about wider societal,
let alone ecological, processes and settings.
Then there is a further difficulty. Conscious of where the greater weight of evidence is ordinarily to be found, most archaeologists choose to concentrate on
well-represented periods of extensive
building activity, assured stability, and centralized control. An emphasis on functional
accounts and explanations, focusing on implicitly durable institutions and systemmaintaining properties, is a natural outcome. Treated as of lesser importance, or
even as falling outside the framework of
scientific analysis altogether, are the more
ill-documented, chaotic episodes of hostile
incursions and internal disruption. Yet in
terms of gross proportions of the life spans
of the societies in question, these conditions
were almost always the largest part of the
The imprecision of most archaeological
dating has a similar effect. Permitting age
determinations only with fairly large margins of uncertainty, it frequently does little
to clarify the character or directionality of
cultural relationships. Sudden or shortterm processes of change go unrecognized.
Yet it is likely that they were often decisive
turning points. In large part, therefore, archaeological reconstructions of process
tend to be limited to selected, unrealistically smoothed, gradualistic aggregates.
Living continuously with insecure approximations of dates, archaeologists risk
not giving adequate consideration to some
of the more subtle losses of processual understanding that result. Within compact
settlements, careful stratigraphic analysis
of living floors has a reasonable chance of
establishing continuity and contemporaneity of habitation in adjacent residential
units. Whenever buildings are relatively
more dispersed, however, this rapidly becomes more difficult to demonstrate. Where
natural conditions of soil, precipitation, or
drainage could not support large areas of



densely built-up settlement, this means that

attempts to determine the number of simultaneously occupied dwelling units depends
largely on typological analysis of pottery
and other artifacts. Such attempts cannot
escape considerable imprecision. Consequently, so do all population estimates and
related attempts to assess the agricultural
productivity presupposed by those estimates.
What can be done to reinforce archaeologys chronological foundations against
these problems? There is gratifying but
fairly slow progress in extending the availability of dendrochronological and paleomagnetic dates. A more quickly and widely
applicable step involves simply making increasing numbers of radiocarbon determinations on carefully chosen and collected
samples. It has been shown that sophisticated handling of large, disparate assemblages of such determinations can impressively reduce uncertainties (Wright n.d.). In
any case, there needs to be greater awareness of the interpretational opportunities
that will continue to be foregone unless
greater resources are devoted to what may
seem mere chronological refinements.
Mesoamerica, and more especially the
lowland Maya area, provides a brief illustration of how all these difficulties intersect
with one another to limit the theoretical as
well as substantive progress of the field.
Common cultural traditions, integrative institutions, and the coercive powers of
rulership are likely to have tied the clustered temples and palaces of monumental ceremonial centers to outlying hinterlands of much smaller, more diffuse
settlements. But the degree of cohesiveness
of regions around centers remains elusive.
Smaller, outlying replications of some
monumental building types may, indeed,
imply a close, pan-community integration

of belief systems and/or a high level of hierarchical control. But it also may imply, as
some Mayanists continue to argue, not a
contemporaneous phenomenon at all but
an occupation of the peripheries of the
great centers largely subsequent to an
abandonment of the cores. This is the kind
of argument that improved chronologies
could settle.
How hierarchically organized were clusters of neighboring settlement (not to speak
of the greater ambiguities of more dispersed groupings)? To the degree that hierarchy can be demonstrated, was it durable
or intermittent, or even oscillating in polarity? How confident can we be that settlements identified as contemporary on the
basis of ceramic affinities were fully equivalent in their actual spans of occupation?
Joyce Marcus rightly calls attention to the
Mesoamerican hieroglyphic inscriptions,
requiring us to view claims of subjugation with considerable skepticism. Hypogamous marriages of Maya princesses from
larger centers to rulers of smaller ones can
reinforce such claims, but this does not exclude the possibility of arrangements entered into for mutual political or economic
advantage (1992:401). In any case, the formal memorialization of a relationship at a
given moment says little about either its
real content or its durability.
In what is presently known of the life
span of major Mesoamerican centers Marcus finds persuasive evidence of cyclicity.
But the length of the cycles she has so far
been able to detect reaffirms the limitations
of archaeological evidence. Durable hegemonic regimes are assumed to last for centuries (in Monte Albans case, more than a
millennium) before giving way to rivals.
Yet on overwhelming historical evidence, of
worldwide scope, ascendancy in such hierarchies is inherently unstable and typically
limited to a few generations at most.
A more reasonable alternative is to assume that monumental centers might retain


their ritual and symbolic role through bewildering shifts of political authority
overand within!them. Such is known
to have been the case in the more adequately documented Mesopotamian case,
where successful monarchs repeatedly
credited themselves with rebuilding temples in cities they had subjugated. Ceremonial inscriptional and building activity, in
other words, need not be correlated at all
closely with contentious, fluctuating patterns of territorial control. Other, more direct ways are needed to work out the details of the latter. But here, as Marcus
ruefully points out (1992:394, 407), we encounter a serious methodological problem
with the chronological insensitivity of archaeological surveys. If the object is to detect temporary, contingent patterns of imperial control over areas of as much as
several tens of thousands of square kilometers, our ends and means are simply not in
keeping with one another.
Lacking adequate ways of answering
questions like these, reconstructions of
many fundamental aspects of social life remain in a kind of diffuse, speculative limbo.
These include a lot of what is at the heart of
any approach to complexity, regional population density and measures of sociopolitical integration and of division of labor. Particularly left in a realm of conjecture are
aspects of social variability within both regions and individual settlements, affecting
patterns of ethnic differentiation and localized patterns of descent, affiliation, and
The extent to which hostilities dominated
local interaction is another largely unanswered question. That the ancient Maya
were at least on occasion ferociously warlike is the formerly unthinkable but now
persuasive conclusion to be drawn primarily from new inscriptional evidence and
representational art. But this is somewhat
inconsistent with the apparent lack of military sophistication and the limited evidence
for fortifications. That suggests episodic,


fairly low intensity rather than continuous

warfare with ad hoc mobilizations of mobile, heterogeneous forces clashing infrequently in the field rather than defending
well-defined frontiers or conducting sieges
of fixed strong-points. Such a pattern is
amply confirmed by late pre-Hispanic central Mexican accounts, which again portray
a surprising lack of sophistication in military tactics (Clendinnen 1985). While large
Aztec forces repeatedly campaigned far to
the southeast in the Guatemalan highlands
(as may have also their central Mexican
predecessors from Teotihuacan), something
approaching a permanent, fortified frontier
was maintained only against the hostile
Tarascan kingdom to the west. Overall patterns of regional integration depend, in any
case, as much on the character of these hostilities as on ceremonial exchange and royal
Problems involving the intensity and
synchronicity of interactions are only multiplied when we look beyond fairly localized
regions to Mesoamerica as a whole. Within
the limitations of temporal units still based
largely on imprecise ceramic chronologies,
George Cowgills (1997) impressive control
of the enormous volume of relevant data
from Teotihuacan leaves a disturbing impression of his accumulating doubts over
the number and significance of the ties between that great, unrivaled city and its contemporaries. If Cowgills view prevails, cultural evolution in Mesoamerica was largely
of a cellular character, with the individual
cells only marginally and sporadically in
communication with one another.
Acknowledging that my standpoint is
one of general principles rather than
knowledge of the details, this seems quite
unlikely. It would require us to abandon the
idea that what made Mesoamerica as a
whole a nuclear area was the extensive
role of mutual stimulation and diffusion,
with frequent, significant, and reciprocal
contacts extending in many directions.
With the partial exception of ancient Egypt,



unusually compressed by its setting into a

narrow, continuous line of settlement along
the Nile, the prevailing pattern for all other
emergent civilizations was one of polycentricity rather than mutual isolation. And in
any case, recent research is strongly reaffirming that Egypt was by no means immune to the stimulus of outside interaction.
In recent decades archaeological surveys
are introducing a less localized, more interactional point of view. Inescapably, however, place-oriented excavations remain the
core of the discipline. While controversies
over the earliest village or occurrence of
some important trait may be partly linked
to the quest for publicity, they also fundamentally reflect this way of thinking. From
within this mind-set, it requires a conscious, counterintuitive effort not to assume the existence of a kind of self-enclosing boundary around a particular locale of
excavation, within which processes of
change are viewed as largely endogenous.
Reinforcing this natural predisposition may
also be a continuing reaction against the excesses of older, now almost completely discredited, diffusionist doctrines.
The effect is to take implausibly for
granted that the most significant social relationshipseven in far-flung states and civilizations, and even those relationships most
tied to power, production, wealth, and access to resourcesare among kin and
neighbors. This questionable outcome is by
no means limited to site-focused excavations by archaeologists but applies with
equal strength to the tradition of community-focused participant-observation in
ethnography and social anthropology (Bennett 1980:204).
My point is to question whether we can
get very far with the principle of local autarky in reconstructing the emergence of
early cities, states, and civilizations. All
nuclear areas were of considerable geographic extent and so offered multiple attractive niches for human exploitation in
diverse ecosystems. Together with surely

comparable conditions in surrounding regions, this ecosystemic diversity led to a

range of mutually complementary directions of specialization as a basis for exchange. Moreover, as Ian Hodder has
pointed out with special reference to the
growth of social hierarchies,
there is more to exchange than economic advantageeven if social advantage is included in that
term. Exchange involves the transfer of items that
have symbolic and categorical associations.
Within any strategy of legitimization, the symbolism of objects is manipulated in the construction
of relations of dominance. The exchange of appropriate items forms social obligations, status, and
power, but it also legitimates as it forms. (1982:209;
cf. Haselgrove 1987:106)

Trade and interaction thus seem likely to

have been a fundamentally creative, destabilizing, sometimes perhaps even critical
force in the promotion the development of
civilization. The same argument can be extended to increasingly refined products of
specialized craftsmen, and thus to technological innovations of many kinds, whether
originating locally or at a distance.
Studies along a different, broader front of
scientific inquiry have meanwhile been endowing the cluster of concepts identified
with complexity with more carefully specified significance. The subject has become a
many-stranded approach to diverse classes
of phenomena whose principal characteristic is that their properties and behaviors
cannot be adequately described or explained by the interaction of a few, relatively simple, law-like principles.
Computer modeling plays a primary part
in most of these efforts It enormously advances the speed of computation and provides a format of visualization that enhances recognition of patterning. The
consequences of basic assumptions in a
model can be very quickly deduced for a
wide array of values, helping in the recognition of regularities and emergent struc-


tures. An important effect of simulations, in

other words, is not to mimic reality but to
demonstrate the surprising, often counterintuitive outcomes that can be generated
from multiple, parallel, interactive applications of alternative sets of simple rules. Simultaneously, however, simulations introduce and highlight methodological and
theoretical issues that are common and intelligible to both the natural and social sciences.
The subjects of studies falling within the
framework of this new approach can be described as diverse sequences of change
through time that exhibit unpredictable
combinations of orderly and chaotic features. We see the combined influence of
various feedback effects, random or stochastic events and processes, and the sometimes long-term, determinative consequences of coincidental combinations of
initial conditions. Especially in the case of
living and social systems that are adaptive
in character, an important causal feature
seems to be the behavioral variability of individual agents that systemic models can
only represent by aggregating.
This new concern for complexity highlights a somewhat different set of considerations than is suggested by city, state, and
civilization as examples of our traditional
archaeological categories. The primary
focus of scientific attention is turned away
from ever-more-refined accounts of internal
structure and toward boldly generalizing,
transdisciplinary explanations of form,
function, and change. High-level as
cities, states, and civilizations may seem to
most of us as archaeological categories,
they all fall within the larger category of
complex adaptive systemssystems
composed of interacting agents whose
array of individual behaviors conform to
rules that can be consciously or unconsciously modified through an adaptive
learning process.
There are deep uniformities in complex
adaptive systems and processes of all


kinds. They serve as illuminating interconnections between human social systems

and such general biological phenomena as
the adaptation of species and populations
to environmental change through natural
selection, or the immune systems adaptive
ability to form antibodies, or the brain and
nervous systems ability to learn. John
Ziman, an eminent historian and epistemologist of science, offers a penetrating as
well as critical assessment of the present
state of play within this still rapidly developing field:
Complexity is another country: they do things differently there. It seems essential to learn an appropriate language for, say, characterizing a system
by the diversity of its components and their interactions, for providing a natural definition of the
function of a part of a complex system, or for
interpreting evolutionary drift toward a phase
transition between sub-critical and supra-critical behaviour. This type of analysis is still far
from established as a formal theoretical discipline,
but it is very instructive in showing that functionally integrated, self-constructing, far-from-equilibrium systems do have their own laws and lawlike patterns of behaviour. (2000:51)

The search for complexity as it is manifested in adaptive social systems calls attention immediately to differences in experience, motivation, and empowerment
among individual agents. Reflecting learning primarily acquired from interactions
with one another, these differences are a
critical source of adaptive change. For some
of the principal pioneers of complexity theory, they seem to be, in fact, the major and
most compelling ones that provide the
basis for model-building, aggregative categories (Holland 1995:1011, 93).
The Santa Fe Institute is the principal
center wholly devoted to the new sciences
of complexity. Closely interacting there (as
well as under its auspices by Internet) is an
extraordinary array of ideas and talents
continuously engaged, to borrow Joseph
Schumpeters (1975:84) characterization of
capitalism, in creative destruction. The
Santa Fe location, initially (and still today)



permits it to draw upon the human resources of nearby Los Alamos National
Laboratory. Simultaneously, it brings SFI
within the widely shared Southwestern
United States archaeological perimeter of
traditional expertise and emphasis.
What are the advantages to be gained by
archaeologists through this different, considerably more rigorous use of the concept
of complexity? An important characteristic
of complex, adaptive systems is a recognition of periodic path dependency, a dependence of the trajectory of change not on
the current values of driving forces alone
but on history. Unpredictability in such
cases can be followed by high predictability, as a system becomes locked in and
hence insensitive to perturbations.
Path dependency can result from increasing returns to scale and agglomeration. The
first cities to appear, for example, were by
virtue of their greater size and population
able to dominate a surrounding landscape
of smaller towns. Similarly, particular improvements in agricultural or craft technologies that had been made possible by
the new concentrations of human and natural resources in early cities could become
locked-in by urban supremacy, leading (for
a time) to a suppression of later improvements made in subordinate centers. Hypertrophy of institutional development and investments in infrastructure can become a
kind of dead hand of sunk costs that also
impedes adaptive change. All self-reinforcing processes tend to build their own infrastructures, hence tending to lead toward irreversibility. Finally, historical accidents
(e.g., fortuitous discoveries, climatic crises,
exceptional individuals) may play a major
role under some circumstances, outweighing the effects of longer-term, presumably
more basic, driving forces. Implicated in
the new approach to complexity is a concern for all these processes (Arthur 1989).
Evolving systems, to proceed to the most
fundamental level, cannot be understood
by isolating their components and addi-

tively assembling sets of the interactions

between small numbers of these components. In dealing with the appearance over
time of new classes of phenomena we must
expect instead to confront the emergence of
new wholes that are different from the sum
of their parts. This is the emergent novelty familiar to evolutionary biologists,
but detectable in the physical sciences as
well. More is different, as is aptly stated
in the title of a classic refutation of the adequacy of reductionism as a scientific program by physics Nobel Prize winner Philip
Anderson, an SFI founder:
The ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start
from those laws and reconstruct the universe . . . .
The constructionist hypothesis breaks down
when confronted with the twin difficulties of scale
and complexity . . . at each new level of complexity entirely new properties appear, and the understanding of the new behaviors requires research
which I think is as fundamental in its nature as
any other. (1972:393)

Social systems, like all adaptive, living

systems, are structured composites of individual agents with different as well as common endowments. They interact in accordance with historically derived, although
situationally reinterpreted and never entirely rigid, needs, aspirations, and patterns
of affinity. Viewed through the narrow aperture of a myopic search for law-like regularities, the results are likely to be baffling. But
unprecedented new patterns of self-organization typically can appear in such systems
quite suddenly, after long intervals of relative quiescence during which there are only
smaller, slowly accumulating changes. Complex systems, then, will be characteristically
composed of older, fossil-like elements coexisting with other elements of new, emergent
levels of articulation, differentiation, and
synthesis. The multiple instances of the rise
of early complex societies are classic examples of this process at work.
How do abrupt, qualitative changes
occur? They would be difficult to explain if


adaptation took the form of a consistent,

uniform striving for functional efficiency.
But as economist Peter Allen observes, the
(social as well as natural) environment to
which adaptation must take place is itself
complex, differentiated, uncertain, and demanding:
In an evolutionary landscape of hills and valleys
representing levels of functional efficiency of different possible organisms, it is the error-maker
who can move up a hill, eventually out-competing a perfectly reproducing rival . . . evolution
does not lead to optimal behavior, because evolution concerns not only efficient performance but
also the constant need for new discoveries. What
is found is that variability at the microscopic level,
individual diversity, is part of the evolutionary
strategy of survivors, and this is precisely what
mechanical systems representations do not include. In other words, in the shifting landscape of
a world in continuous evolution, the ability to
climb is perhaps what counts, and what we see as
a result of evolution are not species or firms with
optimal behavior at each instant, but rather actors that can learn! (Allen 1988:107108)

Qualitative change may originate as either

a spontaneous or a deliberate process. But in
either case it usually takes the form of a sudden perception of unforeseen possibilities in
a seemingly useless or even erroneous
course already in existence at the margins.
Deviants or error-makers ideas and initiatives, crossing some lower threshold of frequency or plausibility, then are discovered
by widening circles of adoptersor are imposed by a handful of newly empowered
onesto meet new, or at least previously
unrecognized, challenges and needs. In the
parlance of complexity theorists, the nonlinear, largely unpredictable outcome, a more
or less organized shift by the larger community, can be thought of as skirting the ambiguous interface between controlled and
chaotic behavior.
How does a general concern for modeling the irregular courses of increasing com-


plexity contribute to an understanding of

the processes by which early states and civilizations emerged? I will concentrate on
the example of southern Mesopotamia,
both because I know it best and because of
the unparalleled supplementation of archaeological evidence there by textual
Begin with the unprecedented size of its
early city-states, on Andersons more is
different principle. Positive feedbacks link
together many manifestations of enlargement of population and territorial size.
Whether or not conforming in every respect
with modern definitions of urbanism, unprecedentedly large primate centers
made their appearance (as in most nuclear areas) coincident with civilization itself. Their superior strength was underwritten by the larger populations assembled
within them. Based on their unequaled capacities to project power at a distance were
other, related capacities to impose patterns
of authoritarian domination, labor mobilization, and tribute exaction on outlying
Joyce Marcus (1998) has recently suggested that for early states as a class significant increases in scale may be the single,
most decisive variable in the whole process.
It does indeed seem that increasing scale is
a necessaryalthough hardly a sufficient
condition. With increasing scale, for example, there will appear an increasing number
of nichesof complementary subsistence
resources, of opportunities for crafts and
other forms of specialization, of luxuries
and exotics to heighten the significance of
rituals and enhance elite status, and to detach social hierarchies from purely local
levels of interaction and concern.
In most cases primate center growth
seems to have been too rapid to have resulted from natural population increases
alone. Hence the influx from more dispersed hinterlands is likely to have involved an element of persuasion if not compulsion. Given the constraint of relatively



primitive transport, at least the larger examples of the new centers could not be regularly sustained with food and other resources without an element of coercion in
the form of imposed tribute or corve labor.
So the styles and symbols proclaiming ascendancy had the implicit role of helping to
overawe both potential opponents and disaffected supporters.
Early state societies must have been for
the most part risky, transitory constructs.
Neatly conical models of concentrated
ruling authority are unlikely to have persisted for long without being internally as
well as externally challenged, perhaps especially at moments of dynastic succession.
Permanently ranked, hierarchical patterns
are therefore likely to have alternated periodically with various forms of institutional
rivalry or heterarchy (Stein 1997:7). Often
driven to extend territorial control to the
limit of their organizational and military resources, they could be exposed to systemthreatening crises by even minor environmental fluctuations or internal fissiparous
tendencies. But if larger state or protoimperial configurations came and went, the
early cities in which power and resources
were concentrated were longer lived. Fluctuating military fortunes might favor one or
another, but as a group their superior size
permitted them to retain a superior capacity to amass, defend, and deploy resources
vis--vis their hinterlands. This also explains why they continue to receive a
grossly disproportionate share of archaeological attention.
Partly paralleling the more is different
principle is what Robert Merton (1973) has
called the Matthew Effect: To him who hath
will be given more. Or specifically, the allocation of rewards and resources tends to be
strongly skewed in favor of the seeker/recipient who has already attained higher status and reputation. Advantages flowed to
the city at the expense of the smaller town
and countryside, while within cities they
were enormously concentrated in the

hands of relatively small upper strata. An

increasing layering of social hierarchies and
of the administrative apparatus was a result, accompanied by increasingly differentiated roles, ceremonies, and markers of
Coordinate with processes of political
and socioeconomic stratification was an increasingly subdivided division of labor.
This led to craft and craftsmanship hierarchies and proliferating demands for enhanced, better assured supplies of exotic
goods and raw materials. Systems of subsistence are also likely to have become increasingly large-scale, differentiated, and
complex. Urban populations may have continued to be primarily engaged in agriculture at the outset. But as they grew, the increasing proportion that gravitated or was
co-opted into the crafts, service occupations, cult observances, and administrative
activities presupposes a corresponding intensification and specialization within the
food-producing sector.
Andrew Sherratt (1981) has characterized
this process as a secondary products revolution, and there certainly is a conceptual
coherence among specialized advances that
in the Near East were concentrated in animal husbandry. Alongside of increases in
the scale and specialized management of
animal herds were differentiation within
herds for breeding stock, meat supply, and
working stock, specialized procedures and
equipment for milk and milk products, and
the growing importance of wool and its
Whatever their earlier origins, the formation of cities and states brought a newly
emergent quality to all of these developments. It was less and less devoted merely
to serving the ends of a localized, perennially at-risk subsistence economy and was
instead primarily directed toward the new
priorities of forcibly extending and defending an enlarged population-and-resource
base, ritual elaboration, prestigious display,
and the preparation of costly, labor-inten-


sive articles (above all textiles) for use in

long-distance trade. Textile production, in
particular (because of its high value-toweight ratio), quickly took on a quasi-industrial aspect. In Mesopotamia, where we
see this most clearly in textual archives, this
involved a marked enhancement of the institution of slavery into a state enterprise
rather than a domestic one. The increasing
subjection of large numbers of women and
their dependents into this role had important secondary consequences for gender relations. These constitute a kind of lock-in
of the superordinate economys trade relations, in the parlance of complexity theory.
Technology was in general a key sphere
of increasing complexity. Internal stratification and growing stress on an external projection of authority and prestige clearly led
to an increasing differentiation between
mundane and ritual or luxury articles. The
production of luxuries, in turn, directed an
increasing component of external trade toward the procurement of precious or exotic
substances. That led to more pronounced
gradations in skill, responsibility, and status among producers. A distinction merely
between full- and part-time specialists, long
ago stressed by Childe, now seems entirely
too simple. It may even be actively misleading (Stein 1998:10). The more recently suggested distinction between independent
and attached specialists (Brumfiel and Earle
1987:5) seems more promising.
The expanded scale of territorial control
associated with early states brought other
new demands for political control mechanisms. The risk-reducing advantages of environmental diversity were sought by imposing a degree of economic integration on
a larger region. That also imposed an enhanced burden of transport requirements,
much of which could be shifted to subjugated populations. Categories and degrees
of dependency furnished another dimension of increasing complexity. Numbers increased greatly, with male war prisoners as
a result of rising militarism and with


women impressed into textile-producing

activity. This must have been accompanied
by more repressive administrative innovations.
Uncertainties over fluctuations in food
and other supplies were never wholly
avoidable, and were a growing danger as
population grew. In times of social breakdown or political crisis such fluctuations
could become devastating, forcing impoverished herdsmen or cultivators into domestic dependency. Measures to offset
minor perturbations no doubt were frequent. But insofar as they met with shortterm success they encouraged system
growth at the expense of heightened
fragility when the perturbations later exceeded tolerable limits (Adams 1978). In the
short run, if provisions for the mobilization
and concentration of reserves became increasingly imperative with the appearance
of population concentrations of urban scale,
they were also more readily attainable with
new, urban-based forms of sociopolitical
Directing and interconnecting all of these
developments was a need for increasing
flows of information. By incorporating
growing numbers of requirements into a received body of tradition and a corporate
memory it added new historical complexities to every level of decision-making. Writing, although not uniformly developing in
every early civilization to a stage deserving
this unrestricted characterization, thus
tends to play a decisive part in broader
technological configurations wherever it
appears. Crossing some threshold of functional utility, its development inevitably led
to explosive increases in conceptual as well
as procedural complexity.
All of these characterizations of complexity have a common core. It consists of the
emergence and proliferation of sets of systems or subsystems that are distinguished
from those present in simpler societies by
relatively more differentiated and advanced internal structures. Existing along-



side one another, under conditions allowing for slowly growing self-determination
(and probably self-consciousness), were
suprafamily and local community groupings in increasingly specialized, frequently
unstable relations with one another. Examples includeto cite only a handful:

ing internal as well as external fissures and

tensions lends new significance to issues of
settlement composition, regional differentiation, and boundaries.

elites and commonersboth categories with many internal gradationsand

often factions;
uneasily coexisting ethnicities within
larger, artificially imposed, more hierarchically managed communities;
many new degrees, varieties, and
rankings of specialization of human activity;
overlapping, intermittently rival domains of primarily religious, politico-military, or administrative authority;
coexisting traditional and altered gender roles, with the latter characterized by
partial replacement of kin-group production-for-use by forms of massed dependency or slavery especially affecting
forms of association and collective activity more governed by primordial kin,
ethnic, and other ascriptive ties, alongside
others more open to individualized choice;
perhaps most generally, groups and
strategies stressing sustainability tied to authoritarian control, constancy, predictability, and the demand for steady-state optimization of performance, alongside others
stressing greater resilience in adapting to
less predictable conditions, further from
equilibrium and less amenable to control,
that might require a readiness to make sudden, fundamental changes in structure.
Viewed over a span of time, these differentiated segments, strata, or strategies are unlikely to have developed at the same tempo
or to have altered course abruptly and in
the same direction. The existence of grow-

I once suggested that we could think of the

emergence of complexityor of its archaeological cognates, cities, states, and civilizationsin terms of one of two contrastive
metaphors, a ramp or a step. As an ideal
type, a ramp implies a steady course and pace
of development, a smoothly unfolding series
of complementary trends following a seemingly linear path without abrupt transformations or temporary reversals. A step emphasizes more sudden and disjunctive changes,
an abrupt step upward to a new plateau of
complexity, followed by oscillations above
and below the newly elevated mean (Adams
1966:170171). More than three decades ago it
seemed impossible to decide which of these
seemingly polar alternatives was more accurate and useful, imposing the uneasy choice
of an intermediate alternative. This would
slow the abruptness of the rate of change
below that suggested by the analogy of a
step, making provision for some continuing ramp-like progress as well as oscillations after the initial attainment of a new,
urban or state-like level of integration.
Returning once again to the same subject,
the basis for making a choice is of course
much altered. Excavations, often of impressive scale and multiseason duration, and
with greatly improved standards of data recovery and publication, have multiplied in
virtually all of the nuclear areas where
political conditions have permitted advances in methods as well as unimpeded
access. Regional surveys, growing in
methodological rigor and increasingly relying on remote sensing data of rapidly improving availability and quality, are for the
first time supporting quantitative debates




(still within wide margins of uncertainty)

about ancient demographic levels and cycles,
agricultural regimes, and the shifting tensions and balances between life in the major
centers and in rural hinterlands. As a result,
the formerly accepted perimeters of all the
nuclear areas have been pushed outward in
virtually every direction. And earlier barriers
to communication between archaeologists
and humanistic, textually oriented scholars
are disappearing as a new generation of
young professionals moves into leadership
with systematic training in both.
None of these developments, however,
has decisively reduced the difficulties and
ambiguities of the ramp vs step choice. The
expanding geographic perimeters of interaction may be a partial exception. In reinforcing a pluralistic, polycentric understanding of the geographic base for the
emergence of urban and state-level societies, it may argue against the likelihood
that urban or state-like features in any nuclear area had been narrowly confined at
their origins to a single locus or very brief
upward step. But this is admittedly inconclusive evidence.
On the other hand, two other research
themes with which I have been involved
more recently seem at least partly convergent in turning the search for a resolution of
the conundrum in a new direction. In the
first, retaining the same basic concern with
long-term cultural evolution, I sought out
an alternative approach involving the character and contexts of technological change
during later epochs that are at least relatively much better documented (Adams
1996:xixvi). The second, given special emphasis here, explores the analytical power
of the new sciences of complexity.
The Industrial Revolution in the late 18th
and early-to-mid-19th century England was
just such a phase of fundamental, accelerated change as the multiple, initial episodes
of urban and state formation. As noted earlier, the admittedly very broad and rough


similarity provided a stimulus and model

for Childes (1950) first formulation of the
idea of an urban revolution a half-century
ago. The comparison of the two is, furthermore, more apt than it would be with any of
the numerous, politically oriented revolutions of the early modern to modern era.
Those latter have elements of conscious
leadership and the organization of opposing
parties and programs that are essentially
lacking in the Industrial Revolution and (to
the best of our knowledge) in early states.
One need not assume that there necessarily are any deep homologies in the processes
involved in the two sides of this comparison. Nor is this the place to review the incomparably richer and more massive documentation that is available for the Industrial
Revolution than for any comparable process
of change which archaeologists may hope to
identify. But there is a broad consensus
among economic and technological historians about several aspects of the changes accompanying the Industrial Revolution: first,
that it was highly irregular in its impacts on
different regions and economic sectors; second, that its growth was accompanied if not
led by an accelerating tempo of innovation;
third, that growth was concentrated in a
small number of key sectors rather than
generally distributedthe introduction of
efficient steam engines as sources of rotary
power, the mechanization of cotton textile
production, iron and steel smelting on a
progressively enlarged scale, and railroad
building. As engines of capitalist growth,
they led to growing concentrations of
wealth and a widening readiness to accept
the many risks and uncertainties of investing it in manufacturing. On the other hand,
there are continuing disputes among specialists as to just how preponderantly industrial and disjunctively revolutionary
the Industrial Revolution really was except
in retrospect. The fundamental insight is
one propounded many years ago by the
great economist Joseph Schumpeter, that



it is disharmonious or one-sided increase and

shifts within the aggregate which matter. Aggregative analysis . . . not only does not tell the whole
tale but necessarily obliterates the main (and only
interesting) point of the tale. (1939:134)

Essentially the same lesson emerges

from a further application of complexity
theory not mentioned earlierone that in
important respects serves to unify and intensify the effects of the whole ensemble.
The pursuit of innovation and novelty is
not a stable, uniformly distributed motivation in every social setting. Instead it is a
context-dependent emergent, stimulated by
the presence and interaction of many
forces for change like those just outlined.
Perhaps we can think of an upwelling of
activity, more or less consciously directed
toward innovation that is triggered by the
roughly contemporary crossing of some
threshold of accelerated change by a number of separate, normally independent and
fairly linear processese.g., craft specialization and the growth of elite hierarchies.
Once set in motion by a sense of new demands and opportunities, a more highly
motivated pursuit of innovations would
both encourage general experimentation
with unfamiliar courses of action and undermine traditional barriers to pan-societal
communication and processes of cross-fertilization. Some increase in the general rate
of change would be a likely outcome. Even
if this aggregate was extremely modest (as it
is credibly argued to have been during the
Industrial Revolution), over a span of considerably less than a century it could still account for nothing less than an economic
transformation. This change in tempo is precisely what Childe sought to capture by first
calling attention to what he described as an
urban revolution. And the occurrence of a
similar change in tempo can also be assumed during what is often characterized as
the food-producing revolution at the time of
the earliest onset of agriculture.
A crucial component of growing complexity, in other words, was a new or sig-

nificantly enhanced capacity for strategic

abstraction in making judgments and taking actionmore specifically, in formulating rules and modifying them on the basis
of experience, in weighing risks and uncertainties within the same scale of calculation rather than considering them incommensurables, in organizing associative
action more persuasively and efficiently,
and in searching out previously unforeseen opportunities for change and improvement. Translated into an archaeological context, this is what the phrase
common among complexity theorists
emergent capacity for self-organization
is all about.
It is perhaps most fundamentally for
this reason that a research program focusing on the unifying theme of complexity
deserves consideration by archaeologists.
Emergence is a multilevel phenomenon,
involving the convergence of many related and unrelated processes of change to
produce entirely new, unforeseen qualities. Creative rather than merely additive,
it finds a classic example in the rise of
early states and civilizationsone of our
oldest, but still most rewarding fields of
A brief, informal version of this paper was first
given in November 1997 at the Complex Society
Groups Third Biennial Conference at the University of
Arizona. I am indebted to John Bintliff for encouraging
its enlargement into something more serious, a process
that has undergone several successive revisions.
Henry T. Wright and Guillermo Algaze made many
helpful and penetrating suggestions and critical comments along the way.

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