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 takes 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 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 specialists who control the relevant archaeological and cultural (linguistic, textual, oral historical, graphic) evidence for specific episodes. These specialists will prepare presentations that discuss their specific case in terms of the proposed framework. The current list of speakers and case studies includes:

Steve Langdon (Anthropology, U Alaska-Anchorage)—Salmon People: A Mythic Foundation for Long-Term Human Success on the Northwest Coast.

Scott Ortman (Anthropology, CU-Boulder and SFI)—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 include specialists in evolutionary innovations in biology, computer modeling, experimental psychology, and human societies as complex systems. These specialists will help define general patterns of conceptual innovation and major transitions from the case studies, define strategies for testing their influence, and connect conceptual innovation to a general theory of complex systems. The current list of presentations includes:

Scott Ortman (CU-Boulder and SFI)—Conceptual Innovation and Major Transitions: the general framework.

Doug Erwin (Paleobiology, NMNH) and Evandro Ferrada (SFI)—Major Evolutionary Transitions in biology and applications to Human societies.

Anne Kandler (Applied Math, City University of London)—Modeling the influence of cooperativeness on the scale of communities.

Leaf Van Boven (Psychology, CU-Boulder)—Concepts and perceptions of social/political situations.

Luis Bettencourt (SFI)—What makes human societies grow, or not?

Participants are asked to prepare presentations on the topics defined above, but formal papers are not necessary prior to the meeting. The organizers hope to produce a set of more integrated papers for inclusion in an edited volume following the meeting discussions.