Conceptual Innovation and Major Transitions in Human Societies

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organized by Scott Ortman, Eric Rupley and Jerry Sabloff (SFI)


All complex systems, including human societies, consist of dynamic networks of matter, energy and information. Archaeology has traditionally focused on matter (people) and energy, but a variety of theoretical and methodological developments are bringing the realm of information into focus. This working group will take advantage of these developments to document the association of conceptual innovation with major transitions in past human societies. Case studies from the Northwest Coast of North America, the U.S. Southwest, East Africa, Mesoamerica, Mesopotamia, and Hawaii will document this relationship for a variety of transitions spanning the range of human social complexity. Biologists, psychologists, and modelers will help place these case studies in a more general frame and help define a research program for future work.


In a recent essay (, one of us proposed that major transitions in the scale of human societies derive from conceptual innovations (information) that enable human groups (people) to take advantage of economies and returns to scale (energy). This working group follows up on the ideas presented in this essay. Specifically, the working group will:

1) document the association of major transitions with conceptual innovations for a variety of times, places and transitions; 2) define the general structure of these innovations and transitions through comparison of specific instances; 3) identify additional studies needed to achieve a better understanding of each case; 4) begin formulating models on the role of conceptual systems in the accumulation of social complexity; and 5) explore possible methods (psychological experiments, computer modeling, etc.) for testing the hypothesis of conceptual innovation as a driver of major transitions.

Participants in the meeting include a group of regional specialists who control the relevant archaeological and cultural (linguistic, textual, oral historical, graphic) evidence for specific episodes of human history, and who have signaled an openness to the proposed framework in previous writings. Participants will prepare presentations that discuss their specific case in terms of the proposed framework. The current list of speakers and topics includes:

Steve Langdon (Anthropology, U Alaska-Anchorage)—Relating to salmon on the Northwest Coast of North America. Scott Ortman—Bowls to gardens in the emergence of Pueblo towns. David Schoenbrun (History, Northwestern)—Forging early kingdoms in Africa. Pat Kirch (Integrative Biology, UC-Berkeley)—People to pig altars in Hawaiian state emergence. Holly Pittman (Humanities, Penn), Henry Wright (Michigan & SFI), Eric Rupley (SFI)—Human domestication and the Uruk expansion. David Freidel (Anthropology, Wash U., St. Louis), Maize gods and Maya complexity.

Additional participants will include specialists in evolutionary innovations in biology, computer modeling and experimental psychology, as well as representatives of other John Templeton Foundation-supported projects at the Institute. Participants will work to define the general structure of conceptual innovation from the case studies, to define strategies for testing their influence, and to connect conceptual innovation to a general theory of complex systems.