Emergence of Complex Society

views updated

Emergence of Complex Society

Andean South America and Mexico are the two New World centers for the independent development of complex society leading to major civilizations. Although the concept of "civilization" has been defined in many different ways, it is taken to apply to those few exceptional cultures that develop urban centers, formal institutions of government (sometimes referred to as the "state"), organized religion and art, monumental construction projects, marked social stratification, and a highly productive agricultural economy. The first signs of a distinctive Andean civilization appear in the Norte Chico region of the Pacific Coast in the third millennium bce, and the first signs of a distinctive Mesoamerican civilization are seen in the second millennium bce Olmec culture on the Veracruz coast of Mexico. In both areas, surplus production was transformed by economic processes of trade and craft production along with social processes of leadership and ritual to build monumental architecture. Three characteristics mark the shift toward social complexity in both the Andes and in the Olmec region: the lack of prior antecedents, the rapid pace of early monument-building, and the long-term continuity of complex systems once begun.


On the Peruvian coast, about 200 kilometers north of present-day Lima, is a cluster of four small valleys, Huaura, Supe, Pativilca and Fortaleza, that make up what is known locally as the Norte Chico, or "Little North." This region of approximately 1,800 square kilometers witnessed a stable and qualitative change in the years between about 3100 and 2500 bce. This evolutionary transformation resulted in a significant and permanent increase in cultural complexity with more parts to the overall cultural system and significantly more roles being played by interacting human agents. In contrast to the rest of the Andean region, the third millennium bce Norte Chico witnessed the appearance of large ceremonial/residential centers with permanent monumental architecture and a complex regional economy based on a combination of maritime exploitation and irrigation-based agriculture. This pattern was accompanied by the emergence of locally (as opposed to regionally) centralized decision making, new kinds of relationships between respondent populations and power-holding elites, and distinct differences in status and rank. The transformation of the Norte Chico cultural system at the turn of the third millennium bce took place in a politically "pristine" situation. Although there was certainly contact and some form of interaction between the Norte Chico and outside areas, there are no indications that an outside polity existed that was more complex and exerted influence over the evolution of the Norte Chico system.

Change was relatively rapid. In other world areas, the development of similar levels of cultural complexity took place over millennia, whereas in the Norte Chico it took only a few centuries. There are no signs of large, organized urban/ceremonial centers with monumental communal architecture anywhere on the Peruvian landscape prior to about 3100 bce. Yet by no later than 2800 bce in the Norte Chico, there were multiple large sites with monumental platform mounds and circular plazas. By about 2300 bce there were more than thirty large sites with significant monumental architecture and extensive residential architecture. Extensive radiocarbon dates from a sample of eighteen of these sites confirm that the area was occupied continuously and intensively between 3100 and 1800 bce. In the entire Andean region, the Norte Chico Late Archaic occupation is distinct historically and processually. While there are individual Late Archaic sites outside the region, such as La Galgada to the north and El Paraiso to the south, with comparable monumental architecture, these sites are isolated and have date ranges that fall toward the end of the Late Archaic rather than the beginning. The Norte Chico Late Archaic occupation is not identifiably centralized on any given site or any given valley. When site sizes and the respective volumes of communal structures at the different sites are compared, they produce a relatively continuous curve from small to large across the region. From a pan-regional perspective, however, the Norte Chico as a whole does constitute a dominant center of both power and productivity during this time.

This social, economic and religious transformation in the Norte Chico began in the early third millennium bce with a shift from hunting and gathering to intensified exploitation of marine resources and the introduction of irrigation-based agriculture. Ephemeral campsites and small fishing villages were replaced by permanent residential and ceremonial centers. A simple system of irrigation was initiated, and they adopted plants already domesticated in other areas, including maize, beans, squash, and cotton. A completely new economic regime was quickly established. These inland innovators gained power based on control over the production of both cotton, critical for the fishing nets needed for the effective exploitation of marine resources, and domesticated plant foodstuffs, critical for a nutritionally balanced diet.

The effective exploitation of marine resources up and down the Peruvian coast, in turn, was also inextricably related to the production of cotton at the inland sites concentrated in the Norte Chico region. All Late Archaic coastal sites excavated to date were using cotton for textiles and nets used for the exploitation of abundant populations of anchovies and sardines. All of these sites also have the full suite of domesticated plant resources that were being grown at the inland sites in the Norte Chico. At the same time, the inland sites in the Norte Chico relied heavily on anchovies and sardines as their source of protein, though fishing implements and nets are rare to absent. The scarcity of nets and other fishing apparatus at inland sites also indicates that the residents were not doing their own maritime harvesting but getting their marine resources from fishermen living right on the coast. In turn, the majority of maritime sites are well removed from arable land, and what land is nearby tends to be saline. By combining the total maritime output of numerous coastal villages up and down the coast with the domesticated plant output of the cluster of sites in the Norte Chico, a regionally balanced economy developed and thrived throughout the third millennium bce.

The population/labor base for the construction of all the monumental architecture at the numerous inland sites in the Norte Chico also appears to have combined the forces of the maritime coastal sites with the agricultural inland sites. Although the inland sites are quite large in terms of total area occupied, comparatively little of this space is taken up by permanent residential architecture. Caballete, a site with major monumental architecture in the Fortaleza Valley, has about the largest area given over to residential architecture, and even here the residential architecture covers no more than 20 percent of the site area. Permanent residential housing appears unlikely to have accommodated more than a few hundred people at most. However, there are indications that people from coastal fishing communities were coming to the inland sites on a temporary basis and building more ephemeral structures. Mound excavation data show that many mounds were remodeled and resurfaced repeatedly, indicating numerous construction events over many years. There are also indications that feasting may have been an integral part of seasonal ceremonialism and construction activities, with food remains and fire-altered rock from cooking pits being incorporated into the construction of all the platform mounds. Thus a relatively small resident population at inland sites appears to have been augmented by visitors from the string of maritime sites up and down the coast coming in to stay for short times at the Norte Chico sites, contributing to monument building and remodeling, and participating in associated ceremonial activities and feasting. Presumably these seasonal visits would also have provided the occasion for the regular exchange of dried anchovies from the maritime people for cotton and other domesticates from the inland agricultural people.

The emergent social system in the Norte Chico proved not to be an episodic phenomenon but a lasting transformation that put the Andean region on the evolutionary pathway to subsequent civilizations. Cultural development with very similar terraced platform mounds and sunken plazas to the north and south on the coast as well as to the east in the highlands can be directly traced back to Norte Chico antecedents. Such platform mounds with associated sunken plazas, for example, appeared in the Initial Period (1800–1000 bce) in the Casma Valley to the north and the Lurín Valley to the south. The same pattern is also a dominant element in the site layout of the Early Horizon (1000 to 200 bce) highland center of Chavín de Huántar just to the northeast of the Norte Chico region as well as at the contemporary site of Chiripa in the southern highlands. Thus the beginnings of a distinctive Andean civilization can be traced directly to the third millennium bce occupation of the Norte Chico.


The emergence of complex society in Mesoamerica is quite different from that of South America. The first monumental construction, accompanied by monumental sculptures and a highly distinctive art style, appeared in the Olmec culture in the second millennium bce in the current state of Veracruz. In the period from about 1500 to 400 bce in an area of approximately 9,000 square kilometers, a small number of large ceremonial centers rose and fell in the Olmec heartland. The first of these was the well-known site of San Lorenzo, which has yielded Olmec-type iconography dating from as early as 1500 bce and where the distinctive Olmec culture was well established by 1200 bce. San Lorenzo appears to have fallen as a major Olmec center in around 900 bce, just as another major center, La Venta, was being constructed 90 kilometers to the northeast. La Venta is a much more formally organized site with a central cone-shaped pyramidal mound 33 meters high, with a large associated complex of formally arranged public architecture. La Venta thrived as a major ceremonial center for 500 years, going into steep decline in around 400 bce. There were additional large Olmec ceremonial centers with monumental architecture at Tres Zapotes and Laguna de los Cerros.

The complexity and centralization of Olmec society is manifested in the monumental architecture as well as in the transportation and carving of numerous large stone monuments. Of particular importance are the monumental carved heads for which the Olmec culture is justly famous. These heads have been interpreted as representing a succession of Olmec rulers. Other sculptures depict priests, warriors, and specialists. The stone for these sculptures, weighing as much as 40 tons, was transported to sites throughout the Olmec heartland from sources in the Tuxtla Mountains as much as 120 kilometers away from the major sites of San Lorenzo and La Venta. Additional evidence of craft specialization can be seen in the exquisitely made ceramics and fine jade carvings.

The Olmec diet was based on domesticated plants, augmented by freshwater fishing and hunting. Maize, beans, squash, and tubers formed the bulk of the diet. The arable land in the Olmec region is quite variable, and it has been argued that the highly productive river levee lands in the immediate vicinity around San Lorenzo encouraged significant population growth. These same levee lands also would have provided the foundation for leaders to tap into a wealth of agricultural surplus to support craft specialists and command the construction of monumental architecture. Though social inequality may initially have resulted from differential agricultural yields, monumental architecture and sculpture, labor-intensive buried offerings, and distinctive iconography effectively rationalized and institutionalized distinct roles and high status for religious practitioners and an elite class in Olmec society.

Like the Norte Chico, the Olmec developed independently and had a broad and lasting impact on subsequent Mesoamerican civilizations. The nature of the impact of the Olmec on later cultures such as the Maya, Zapotecs, or Teotihuacán is the subject of much debate. However, there is evidence that parts of Olmec ceremonialism and iconography are indeed found in the form of ceramics and imagery in the earliest complex polities to arise in other locations such as Oaxaca, the Maya area, and Central Mexico.

See alsoCaral; Chavín de Huántar; La Venta; Norte Chico (Peru); Olmecs; San Lorenzo.


Burger, Richard. Chavin and the Origins of Andean Civilization. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1992.

Hass, Jonathan. The Evolution of the Prehistoric State. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Haas, Jonathan, and Winifred Creamer. "The Crucible of Andean Civilization." Current Anthropology 47 (2006): 745-775.

Hass, Jonathan, and Winifred Creamer. "The Late Archaic in Andean Prehistory: 3000–1800 BC." In Andean Archaeology, edited by Helaine Silverman, pp. 35-50. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

Hass, Jonathan, Winifred Creamer, and Alvaro Ruiz. "Dating the Late Archaic occupation of the Norte Chico Region of Peru." Nature 432 (2004): 1020-1023.

Hass, Jonathan, Winifred Creamer, and Alvaro Ruiz. "Power and the Emergence of Complex Polities in the Peruvian Preceramic." In Foundations of Power in the Prehispanic Andes, edited by Kevin Vaughn, Dennis Ogburn and Christina Conlee, pp. 37-52. Arlington, VA: American Anthropological Association, 2005.

Hass, Jonathan, Thomas Pozorski, and Sheila Pozorski. The Origin and Development of the Andean State. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Kembel, Silvia Rodriguez, and John W. Rick. "Building Authority at Chavin de Huantar: Models of Social Organization and Development in the Initial Period and Early Horizon." In Andean Archaeology, edited by Helaine Silverman, pp. 51-76. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

Pozorski, Sheila, and Thomas Pozorski. "Reexamining the Critical Preceramic/Ceramic Period Transition: New Data from Coastal Peru." American Anthropologist 92 (1990): 481-491.

                                      Winifred Creamer

                                        Jonathan Haas

About this article

Emergence of Complex Society

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article