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Reconstructing The Social Organisation Of Prehistoric Societies

1986 words - 8 pages

Reconstructing the Social Organisation of Prehistoric Societies

While social anthropologists can interact directly with people in
order to draw conclusions of social organisation, which Barnard and
Spencer (1996:510) describes as "the sum total of activities performed
in a given social context", archaeologists have only the physical
remains of a society as their tools to reconstructing prehistoric
social organisation. This essay aims to show that while there are
limitations on reconstructing social organisation, there are a great
number of tools at an archaeologist's disposal that can help uncover

The anthropologist E. Service suggests that social organisation
spreads from dependence on food, clothing and shelter. Service shows
that in the animal world, herds only form as it becomes necessary to
acquire food or in order to gain protection from predators, and this
is how humans act - seeking food or protection, humans form
settlemens and societies (1971:25-26). Each of these settlement sites
is unique, but consideration must be given to its place in the wider
area. A hunter-gatherer base is going to be significantly different to
a large conurbation, and as a result, the first step in many cases is
to use geographical, not archaeological, techniques in order to
determine how 'important' this site was in relation to others in its
area of influence (or 'hinterland'). One method used is Walter
Christaller's Central Place Theory, which describes how on an
isotropic surface (one which is not contoured or broken by routes of
rivers), settlements will naturally form in a hexagonal pattern, and
the settlement in the centre will act as a 'central place' for the
smaller settlements around it. Thus, we may find hamlets, villages,
small towns, large towns, cities, and conurbations and finally a
capital spread in a hexagonal matrix across the surface. While this
is, of course, a perfect scenario, it is never found, but the theory
has been used to much success in determining a former site's influence
on its hinterland. It was used by T J Wilkinson in North Jezira, Iraq
(1990), and confirmed a three-tiered settlement hierarchy was in place
in the area (1990:50). Not only was this social organisation found by
use of Central Place Theory, he conjectured further that society was
organised around trade, allowing further theorising into the nature of
the society (1990:54). Johnson goes further, devoting an entire paper
to the use of Central Place Theory in archaeology, suggesting that
while environmental factors are initially important to choosing site,
it quickly becomes secondary to human relationships as complexity
increases (Tringham (ed) 1973:183-1). Upon removal of anomalies, his
study area showed statistical likelihood that Central Place Theory was
in effect (1973:183-9). Another...

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