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 of 30-40 minutes 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)—HEALERS ARE PYTHONS, political affiliation and collective violence in the Northern Lake Victoria region, ca. 900 to 1300 CE.

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) and Patricia McAnany (UNC-Chapel Hill)—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 of 30-40 minutes on the topics defined above. Presenters are welcome to send written outlines or summaries of their presentations to the organizers for posting on this wiki beforehand, but formal papers need not be produced prior to the meeting. The goal is to produce a set of more integrated papers for inclusion in an edited volume following the meeting discussions.

Guidelines for Case Study Presentations

For those who are preparing case study presentations please consider the following points:

1) What was the major transition that occurred in your case? What were the human societies of your area like before and after the transition you are considering? What was the change in geographic and demographic scale of political units? How fast did the transition occur, and how widespread was it? To what extent was the transition reversible, and did it reverse at some point? Is it possible to tell whether the transition originated in your area vs. spread to it from elsewhere? If the latter, what processes account for the spread?

2) What were the key problems, if any, faced by the human groups in your area prior to the transition, and to what extent did the transition address these problems? Did the people in your case perceive these problems as such beforehand? For how long prior to the transition were these problems an issue? In what senses was the transition in your case a solution, a discovery, or opportunistic?

3) What were the key conceptual innovations associated with the major transition in your case? Try to define the specific metaphors involved and discuss how you think they influenced human action. To what extent are the innovative concepts new configurations of older ideas vs. wholly-new ideas? To what extent did these concepts impinge on human hearts, minds, stomachs, fears, dreams, bodies? How did these new concepts influence different subgroups in society?

4) What lines of evidence betray these key conceptual innovations? What additional lines of evidence could be used? When in the course of the major transition does evidence for conceptual innovation appear? What would it take to determine the chronological sequence if this is unclear?

5) What roles did environmental change, technological innovation and conceptual innovation play in the major transition you are considering? Is it possible to disentangle causal sequences in various internal and external factors? If not, why not?

6) How would you assess the outcomes of the major transition in your case? Did the transition make life better for everyone or only certain people or groups? How would you measure this? Is there a distinction to be made between individual vs. group benefits? If so, how many levels of groups should be considered?

Meeting Preparation

Presenters should provide a 100-200 word abstract of their presentation to the organizers for posting on this Wiki by NOVEMBER 1. In addition, presenters may provide informal written summaries of their presentations and/or other helpful materials to the organizers for distribution prior to the meeting if they so desire. However, presenters need not produce formal papers for the January meeting.

Presenters should prepare presentations of 30-40 minutes on their assigned topics for the meeting and be prepared for questions and feedback from other participants. Details of the discussion formats will be posted closer to the meeting time.

Resources for Meeting Preparation

Links to useful resources for meeting participants will be posted here. Participants are encouraged to suggest additional links. An essay by one of the organizers that outlines the theoretical framework to be considered at the working group meeting. An online essay by Robert Sapolsky on the role of metaphor in social life. Links to a variety of resources related to a recent visit by Steven Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein to SFI. A recent paper by one of the organizers on a key conceptual innovation in Pueblo history.

Ian Morris' Social Development Index This online document presents the details used by Morris to derive a "Social Development" Index for the past 14,000 years in "Western" and "Eastern" Civilization for his 2010 book, "Why the West Rules - For Now." The index is a linear combination of four measures: energy capture per person per day, scale of organization (as proxied by the largest settlement population), ability to wage war (a relative scale) and information technology (proxied by literacy rates). Contributors may wish to consult this document when characterizing the major transitions that accompany conceptual innovations in particular cases.

Human Development Index An alternative to Morris' formulation developed by the United Nations. The most recent version, labeled the IHDI, incorporates life expectancy (health), educational attainment (knowledge), income (energy capture), and income inequality. The link is to the full report.

Dimensions of Human Security This report presents a third approach to characterizing social transitions in terms of improvements in human securities, also developed by the UN Development Program. Many of the dimensions described here are potentially measurable in an archaeological/historic context, although the specific measures may vary from case to case.

Recent paper in Science on the role of religious ideas in prosocial behavior


PDFs of meeting presentations