You are here

The Evolution of Human Co-operation: Ritual and Social Complexity in Stateless Societies

July 2019 (123.3)

Book Review

The Evolution of Human Co-operation: Ritual and Social Complexity in Stateless Societies

By Charles Stanish. Pp. xiv + 336. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2017. $110. ISBN 978-1-107-18055-0 (cloth).

Reviewed by

In this volume, Stanish, an Andean archaeologist with an interest in prehistoric political economies, begins by carefully critiquing reductive models of homo economicus. He recognizes that traditional economic theories of extended kin-based systems of altruistic action fail to explain the rise of what he calls complex, stateless societies. He also rejects older explanations that rely on incipient crowding or on the innate evil of human cupidity to impel the emergence of internally restrictive control as a social survival mechanism. Rather, he would substitute a positivist scenario in which more densely packed post-Pleistocene populations offered ecological advantages to social groups that opted to cooperate with other groups beyond the extended kin base, first by allowing them to better exploit as well as to more efficiently collaborate in scheduling the acquisition of new subsistence resources, and then by enabling them to develop rituals involving the creation of physical monuments. He then argues that the rituals underlying the monuments created by these cooperative but stateless societies create reinforce social cohesion. They do so by highlighting the benefits for collaboration and by justifying the sanctions against cheating.

Following an examination of the limited value of psychological and strictly biological explanations for the rise several millennia ago of what are called complex societies, Stanish presents the details of social complexity and monument construction at sites such as Poverty Point in the bayous of Louisiana, shell rings along the Georgia and Florida Atlantic estuaries, Cerro Sechn on the Argentine pampas, the Tarpaca sites in coastal valleys of Peru, and the recently excavated Tepe Golbek on the Anatolian steppes. He presents these archaeological site complexes as unambiguous examples of ritual social collaboration, and he attempts to amplify this interpretation with explanations for such activity drawn from the ethnography of the American Southwest, the islands of the Indian Ocean, and European historical records. To an unfortunate extent, the author advances these sites and cases as unimpeachable evidence for the correctness of his explanation. To this extent, he fails to correct for the fact that these examples cannot escape being concatenations of physical data and anthropological theory that underlie all ethnographic and archaeological constructions and their ephemeral interpretations.

Stanish takes particular delight in distinguishing ritual from religion, pointing out the Eurocentric biases that saw generations of anthropologists and their archaeological colleagues attribute any ceremonial structures not directed by a state to some cryptic or alien religious motive. Although undoubtedly correct, the logic of a scientific approach, which the author’s neo-biological terminology indicates he accepts, should also allow him to recognize that even a few clear counter examples will undermine any theory purporting to document causal relationships, regardless of any number of positive cases showing correlation. Many earlier archeological explanations have considered that the relatively severe post-Pleistocene environmental changes in climate and hydrology forced increased intersocial collaboration. Stanish’s less draconian proposal argues that those ecological conditions benignly permitted interfamilial collaboration. However, while the conditions he outlines do seem to have been operative in the score of cultural cases he documents, he offers no explanation why similar ecological conditions did not produce similar cultural results in a larger number of prehistoric and recently extant societies: the majority of such societies failed to develop anything beyond closed kin-limited social cooperation. One should also note the problems of disjunct chronology: while social ritual and monument construction often co-occur and reinforce each other, assigning either the role of causal agent seems fraught, a point long ago made by Edelman’s discussion of architecture and social spaces in From Art to Politics: How Artistic Creations Shape Political Conceptions (Chicago 1965).

In his final, retrospective chapter, Stanish suggests that his evolutionary scenario finally explains the initiation of social complexity. Yet, many of the very archaeological authorities he cites believe that understanding this process remains one of the “grand challenges for archaeology” (K. Kintigh et al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 111 [2014] 879–80).

Stanish valiantly wrestles with the difficulty of marshaling accurate and technical detail from a number of traditionally disparate academic disciplines to develop a new, comprehensive picture for readers unfamiliar with the range and potential contributions of one or another of those disciplines. If they can overcome a price designed to elicit faculty recommendations to an institution’s library, AJA readers will find in The Evolution of Human Co-operation a great deal of interesting and well-written information regarding a variety of important, albeit seldom highlighted, archaeological sites. They will be introduced to some of the current thinking in evolutionary economics. And finally, they will be presented with an innovative story of cultural development.

David S. Brose
Imprints from the Past, LLC



Book Review of The Evolution of Human Co-operation: Ritual and Social Complexity in Stateless Societies, by Charles Stanish

Reviewed by David S. Brose

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 3 (July 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1233.brose

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.