In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Archaeology and Political Evolution

  • Introduction
  • Journals and Book Series
  • Conceptual Foundations
  • Neoevolutionary Frames
  • Evolutionary Sequences: Anthropological Models
  • Prime Movers
  • Revisiting Earlier Models of Sociopolitical Evolution
  • Mobile Foragers
  • Transitions to More-Sedentary Lifeways
  • Regional and Macroregional Syntheses
  • Multiscalar Vantages: Households, Communities, Settlement Systems, and Macroscale Networks
  • Cross-Regional Syntheses: Paths to State Formation
  • Cross-Regional Syntheses: Urbanism, City-States, Empires, and Inequality
  • Political Breakdowns
  • Temporal Cycling
  • Defining Cross-Cultural Axes of Political Variation
  • Reconsidering Preindustrial Economies
  • Collective Action
  • Generative Processes, Factions, and Social Networks

Anthropology Archaeology and Political Evolution
Gary M. Feinman
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0252


Humans are able to aggregate and cooperate at scales larger than almost all other animals. In contrast, however, to species such as social insects, whose communities are composed of close biological relations, humans form large groupings with individuals who are not necessarily close kin. Although from a global, long-term perspective, the size and density of human social groupings reveal a basic trend toward larger political affiliations and concentrations of people, the specific historical pathways from place to place and region to region have been neither uniform nor unilinear. Human social networks and cooperative arrangements are generally fragile, so that the course of political history is littered with failed states and institutional collapses, as well as eras of rapid growth, imperial expansions, and the foundation of dense urban centers. The temporal record of human political formations, changes in them, and ultimate breakdowns and dissolutions in cooperative arrangements occurred before the advent of written records. These include key shifts that occurred in many global regions where mobile foraging populations settled down in more-sedentary communities, a shift that frequently provoked new behaviors, challenges, and institutions. Likewise, the establishment of the earliest cities and their associated means of governance often preceded the presence of documentary accounts of how such processes occurred. For these reasons, archaeological fieldwork and interpretation now is recognized as a vital empirical basis to document, study, and compare human political evolution over time. As recently as the mid-20th century, a much-narrower vision for archaeology that scripted little potential for the study of prehistoric sociopolitical organization was followed. Sociopolitical organization was seen as nearly impossible to investigate. To study ancient social organization, archaeologists had to frame the right questions and then devise the investigatory means to address them. The current examination of preindustrial human political evolution and change reflects more than a century of iterative interplay and debate involving models of political behavior derived from history and social sciences and the collection and processing of multiscalar, global suites of evidence from archaeological research. As the empirical foundation of human political history is strengthened, and long-held unilinear models and dichotomous frames that artificially divide the West from the rest and the past from the present are transcended, we enter an exciting era in which the diverse forms and temporal pathways through which human cooperative institutions evolved must be acknowledged and used to help guide better futures.

Journals and Book Series

Although both empirical and theoretical statements relevant to the theme of archaeology and political change are dispersed across a wide swath of social-science journals and books, there are few specific series or sources devoted wholly to the topic. Because they focus on synthetic articles, three journals, Annual Review of Anthropology, the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, and the Journal of Archaeological Research, are rich reservoirs for overviews on theoretical topics pertinent to long-term institutional changes and regional archaeological reviews of diachronic political shifts in specific geographic regions. The articles in the Russian journal Social Evolution & History are more specifically tailored to issues of past and modern political evolution as well as research questions relevant to these themes. Two book series, Case Studies in Early Societies (Cambridge University Press) and Oxford Studies in the Archaeology of Ancient States (Oxford University Press), include an array of volumes on the foundation of early cities and the evolution of states in many global regions.

  • Annual Review of Anthropology. 1972–.

    Annual publication that generally features several articles per year on themes that touch on the study of preindustrial political evolution.

  • Case Studies in Early Societies.

    Set of volumes that synthesize what is known about the foundation of key ancient cities or the rise of states in key regions around the world.

  • Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory. 1994–.

    Quarterly publication that since its inception has published select papers particularly on theoretical topics pertinent to political organizational changes in the deep past.

  • Journal of Archaeological Research. 1993–.

    Four issues per year devoted to broad synthetic overviews in archaeology, many of which cover the emergence of states in different regions of the world or theoretical topics relevant to the evolution of hierarchical political organization in the past.

  • Oxford Studies in the Archaeology of Ancient States.

    A number of books that examine the rise of hierarchical political formations in different global regions.

  • Social Evolution and History. 2002–.

    Biannual interdisciplinary journal devoted to understanding evolution of human aggregation and cooperation over time.

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