Cultural Complexity

The study of the emergence of civilizations examines the development of complex societies from previous simpler ones. But the question of how to define complexity is a tricky one that has affected archaeology from it’s beginning. How complexity is defined changes the framework of how societies are studied and viewed, often with problematic results. This is illustrated more dramatically with nineteenth century academics but still applies to archaeological study today.

Looking back to the nineteenth century provides a good example of how the definition of complexity can change how research is conducted. Most nineteenth century archaeologists and academics had a very Western-centric definition of complexity, focusing on things such as technology and capitalism as signs of advancement. During this time period, a great deal of importance was placed on “progress,” the idea of moving forward linearly to better things. This concept was fed by new scientific theories regarding evolution and geology. Complex societies were seen as the natural progression from simpler societies, with Western societies representing the pinnacle of complexity. Using this framework, many cultural beliefs and systems were discounted as primitive or barbaric. The legacy of nineteenth century research is rife with racism, sexism and an over-focus on the elites of society. Defining societies in a biased manner led to biased conclusions. The cultural focus that is present in archaeology makes it especially susceptible to these sorts of problems.

While the field of archaeology has come a long way from its less culturally sensitive roots, many of the same issues still apply today. Complexity is still defined in a very ethnocentric fashion, favoring Western culture. Harris’ model of complexity uses social organization as its primary classifier, with states as the most complex. This favors Western societal organization. If characteristics such as kinship or piety were used, Western societies would be viewed as simple. Harris’ model is used to organize societies for research purposes, but the problem comes when this cultural complexity is conflated with cultural worth. This is a longstanding issue that persists today. In Patterns in Prehistory, Wenke cites an example of an Iraq city-state citizen in 2500 BC who disparage his nomadic neighbors for their simple, “barbaric” culture (203). The danger of this sort of ethnocentrism is still imminent, even with the prevalence of cultural relativism in anthropology today. While biased definitions of complexity are still used for research’s sake, archaeologist must take care to refrain from making judgements on cultural worth based on these definitions.