Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Content of the Form: Teaching New World Archaeology

One of the courses I teach is called “Archaeology and Prehistory.” It’s a strange, amalgam class that is very ambitious, trying to cover a tremendous amount of ground in what are always very short semesters. The first third of the class covers fundamental archaeological method and theory. The second focuses on the classic transformations (like a “greatest hits” collection) of human groups--the emergence of stone tools, the peopling of the Earth beyond Africa, Behavioral Modernity, etc. The third section, for the most part, focuses on ancient farming societies or “complex” societies”...so there are many potential topics to explore.


This semester, I’ve decided to take a new approach to this final section of the class. Since “complex society” is such a vast area, I’ve already exercised quite a bit of editorial decision making in that I focus exclusively on ancient Mesoamerican and North American Socities (Olmecs, Teotihuacán, Maya, Cahokians, Hohokam, and Chaco Canyon and after). My general rationale for this decision is that I know the northern New World best and also think most of my students have never had much exposure to it prior to taking my class (for previous discussion of this, see Teaching New World (pre)History).

Because I don’t have enough time to cover each area’s history thoroughly, I restrict myself to specific social and cultural periods. The fluorescence of all three Mesoamerican societies occurs prior to those of North America. In rough terms, this means the Olmec ca.1400-800 BC, Teotihuacán ca. AD 250-650, Classic Maya ca. AD 250-900, PreClassic Hohokam ca. AD 700-1100, Chaco Canyon and its successors ca. AD 900-present, and Mississippian at Cahokia ca. AD 1050-1200

But, I’ve run into the basic problem of in what order to cover ancient North and Mesoamerican societies. In the past, I’d often followed the lead of textbooks that I’d adopted as a guide to structure the sequence of how I presented the case studies. Usually, this meant that Cahokia, Chaco Canyon, and the Hohokam of North America were addressed before the Olmec, Teotihuacán and the Maya of Mesoamerica. After a quick survey, three common texts, including the one I use, employ this format (Chazan 2012; Fagan 2012; Price 2010). What this means is that the sequence of coverage is not dictated by chronology, but on another framework for explanation. In my brief survey, I did find two texts that cover North and Mesoamerican prehistory in chronological order (Feder 2010; Wenke and Olszewski 2006).

The Content of the Form
In the classroom (and textbooks), the basic sequence of lectures or a table of contents does more than simply put an order to topics--it also shapes the topics themselves (at least it has in my own thinking). Hayden White provides an extended examination of this idea as it applies to how histories are written with an implicit narrative structure. His elegantly titled book provides a concise illustration of his argument--The Content of the Form--in other words, the structure of presentation influences the basic character of the information presented. Any history, even if seeming to be just a sequence of events have a form that shapes the interpretation of the content:

The events must be not only registered within a chronological framework of their original occurrence but narrated as well, that is to say, revealed as possessing a structure, an order of meaning, that they do not possess as mere sequence [White 1987:5]

In other words, simply choosing some events over others and choosing where to begin and end a history gives it the structure of a narrative.

Value attached to narrativity in the representation of real events arises out of a desire to have real events display the coherence, integrity, fullness, and closure of an image of life this is and can only be imaginary [Hayden 1987:24]

Narrative gives a history meaning and resonance to the reader.

The demand for closure in the historical story is a demand, I suggest, for moral meaning, a demand that sequences of real events be assessed as to their significance as elements of a moral drama [Hayden 1987:21]

The Form and Content of New World Prehistory
While White was not addressing archaeology, I think his insights are even more appropriate within my subdiscipline. Anthropological archaeology, with its focus on generalization and social transformations, often veers away from strict chronological presentation. That’s exactly what I’m talking about here with the typical discussion of North America preceding Mesoamerica.

Why is the sequence of presentation in prehistory textbooks so often chronologically backward? Rather than using the passage of time for a narrative structure, many prehistory textbooks use the concept of cultural evolution and progress, even if implicitly, to structure the presentation of the ancient New World. Progress can be used in two related senses here. First, it could refer to the idea of advancement by some measure--energy capture, political centralization and hierarchy, geographic control, etc. Second, it could refer to the predictable and natural unfolding of events and processes--this sense is similar to the idea of the “progression” of a disease; a pathogen follows a patterned and predictable life history through its interaction with another organism. In this sense within archaeology, one stage of culture is prologue to another.

When the year of publication is listed, the ideas of Sahlins and Service appear quite dated, but they are still clearly embedded in the structure of textbooks and in the way I previously sequenced my class lectures. Famously, Sahlins and Service distinguish between two kinds of cultural evolution:

There are two kinds of evolution, or more precisely, two aspects of the total evolutionary process, specific or adaptive and general or progressive [Sahlins and Service 1960:7]

Putting North America before Mesoamerica, then, is an implicit reference to Sahlins and Service’s idea of “general or progressive” evolution.

The fundamental difference between specific and general evolution appears in this: the former is a connected, historic sequence of forms, the latter a sequence of stages exemplified by forms of a given order of development [Sahlins and Service 1960:33]

To invoke a biological comparison, this is like noting the difference between slime molds and mammals--qualitatively different levels of biological development.

In the broader perspective of general evolution organisms are taken out of their respective lineages and grouped into types which represent the successive levels of all-round progress that evolution has brought forth [Sahlins and Service 1960:16, emphasis added]

Being trained in anthropological archaeology (particularly descendants of processual archaeology), this framework makes sense to me. But, using this framework means that I contradict earlier class discussions. I always spend at least one class session criticizing the concept of progress in archaeology and anthropology. In my general, theoretical introduction to the last third of my class, I argue that a value judgment has to be involved when one argues that one society is more advanced than another and that such judgments are often problematic. Additionally, I criticize the notion that societies follow such predictable, progressive paths of social change.

This poses a problem. Why should my coverage of the case studies then reify the idea that Mesoamerican societies are more advanced than those of the Mississippian or the Southwest? When I reflect on my past practice of discussing the Southwest before Mesoamerica, I feel I was implying Southwestern societies are some kind of conceptual prelude to the real attraction that is Mesoamerica.

Because of the considerations noted above, I wanted to become more consistent in my treatment of the theoretical outline along with my detailing of specific ancient case studies. So, I’ve decided to stray from this approach and go with straight, linear chronology, discussing Mesoamerica before North America.


The Content of a New Form
As noted, the new structure makes my teaching a lot more consistent than it had been. It also has emphasized things I knew...but it new ways.

For one, I’m reminded just how interesting and unexpected much of Southwestern prehistory is. Human history isn’t a unilineal drive toward increasing complexity, but instead a record of the great many ways of being human. Those societies are fascinating in their own right and not only an example of the stage prior to that of the “civilizations” of Mesoamerica.

For instance, the Hohokam of the Sonoran Desert built and used one of the most impressive irrigation systems in the New World. Despite this, during their PreClassic period, they don’t seem to have developed clear indications of political hierarchy and/or social stratification. As Steve Lekson notes, the Hohokam present a fascinating mix of labor management and coordination combined with social and political egalitarianism:

Hohokam presented a new way of life revolving around ballcourts, elaborate (but democratic) burial rituals, bold new styles of art, and, most importantly, decision-making structures that diffused political power...Hohokam ideologies allowed an enormous, elaborate irrigation economy without centralized political power--and propelled an astonishing cultural explosion...a supragovernmental or antigovernmental or instead-of-governmental cosmological arrangement that encompassed large areas and many peoples, and it got big things done without kings [Lekson 2008:230].

The Hohokam then, had the massive subsistence infrastructure that--according to cultural evolution--should have led to powerful political leaders....but it doesn’t seem that the did. In contrast with the “more socially complex” Maya, whose fragmented and decentralized subsistence systems (Demarest 2004:146-147) should have--according to cultural evolutionary thinking--not led to a “new stage” of cultural development.

On the Colorado Plateau, the Ancestral Pueblo people of post AD 1300 seemed to fashion other ways of egalitarian living in explicit reaction to the perceived transgressions of their Chacoan predecessors.

Pueblos did not exist timelessly in a happy condition of “primitive communism.” They struggled and staggered and tacked, historically, from villages to kings to chaos to equality. Pueblo developed after 1300 as a reaction to state-level governments, conscious rejections of earlier hierarchies [Lekson 2008:251]

I don’t think the Hohokam were a prelude to a more complex society, nor do I think post-Chacoan Ancestral Pueblo people were a “reversion” so some earlier “stage of development.” Instead, both societies were the created and reproduced by those particular people using their own and others’ histories, economies, politics, and religions as guides.

Using strict chronology as a framework for presentation still has a narrative structure to it, but I think that it avoids making societies other than the classic “civilizations” of the New World appear less interesting.


References Cited
Chazan, Michael
2012 World Prehistory and Archaeology. 2nd edition, Pearson Publishing

Demarest, Arthur
2004 Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of a Rainforest Civilization. Cambridge University Press.

Fagan, Brian
2012 Ancient Lives: An Introduction to Archaeology and Prehistory, 5 edition, Pearson Publishing.

Feder, Kenneth
2010 The Past in Perspective: An Introduction to Human Prehistory. 5th edition, Oxford University Press.

Lekson, Stephen H.
2008 A History of the Ancient Southwest. SAR Press.

Price, T. Douglas
2010 Images of the Past. 6th edition, McGraw Hill.

Sahlins, Marshall D. and Elman R. Service
1960 Evolution and Culture. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.

Wenke, Robert J. and Deborah I. Olszewski
2006 Patterns in Prehistory: Humankind’s First Three Million Years. 5th Edition, Oxford University Press.

White, Hayden
1987 The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Johns Hopkins.

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