Thursday, 8 December 2011

Touchstone Thursday: George Cowgill's "On Causes and Consequences of Ancient and Modern Population Changes"

American Anthropologist 77:505–525, 1975.
I have to credit Brian Hayden (Emeritus Professor at SFU) with introducing me to George Cowgill (Professor Emeritus at ASU). This insightful article makes sense on so many levels, common and anthropological. It has something for everyone. There's a take-down of the population pressure model used to explain intensification and innovation, and which I fear still underpins many arguments for culture change. Also in it is a rejoinder to the bigots who've always claimed that brown people don't know any better than to breed and starve. Best of all, it explains why at certain places and in certain times states grew up when elsewhere people were 'content' to live the happy, affluent forager life (as if).
     It's a pity that so few archaeologists have assimilated Cowgill's article (if the Google Scholar citation numbers can be believed). There might not be so much blather in the literature about the determinants of cultural elaboration and the growth of socioeconomic inequality.
     So, if you're just starting out in this field, get it and read it now--you'll never regret it. If you've been in this business for a while, you should have read it by now. Established archaeologists could do worse than to remind themselves of its contents. And, if you're as long in the tooth as George Cowgill, I'll forgive you if you've forgotten that you ever read it! 
     Truly a touchstone.


  1. I would say that population growth and cultural change happen when an abundance of resources enable a society to feed more people than is needed to produce that food, thus freeing up some to work with their brains instead of their hands. A graphic example of this can be seen by overlaying a world population growth chart over a timeline of fossil fuel use. When the going gets tough the tough don't get going, they concentrate their efforts on surviving, with little time for anything else.

  2. I believe you're right about that, David. It's all about abundant, predictable, and dependable resource bases, whether it's salmon on the Northwest Coast or catfish in the Yangtze.

  3. I actually think that David has missed the point. Cowgill is saying it is not inevitable and the consequences are not inevitable, while I take David to be saying something almost exactly the opposite. For what it is worth I have just finished editing (and translating) a nice paper that says that you also have to take into account the gender division of labour in the acquisition of those resources because they affect the likelihood of women bearing children.

  4. Oddly enough I just read Cowgill's article for the first time last week, recommended to me for a chapter I'm writing for the diss. I took away a similar message as Iain, that population growth isn't inevitable, which when you're dealing with Boserup's vision of intensification, or much of the "population bomb" influenced literature of the 1970s (e.g., Cohen 1977), assuming population pressure a priori doesn't really help explain social change. There's a subtle argument Cowgill makes too that stable conditions need explanation as much as changing conditions do. That seems to get lost, especially now as archaeologists and others are so focused on cultural responses to rapid climate change. Societies in a "static" mode (as far as we can tell archaeologically) aren't doing nothing, but there seems to be less of a concern about explaining what dynamic processes are keeping things "stable". In certain ways explaining stasis is more theoretically challenging than explaining change, since for the latter case you can always find a squiggle on some climate proxy and say it's the smoking gun.

  5. @Spawn + @Iain
    I have to admit that I'm torn between sounding like an environmental determinist and sounding like a raving madman. But here goes. How past human groups developed from the mythical/stereotypical 'sharing-and-caring,’ ‘for-99%-of-human-history-we-were-egalitarian,’ ‘described-by-Marx-as-primitive-communism’ baseline foragers to groups that tolerated competition is one of the most, if not THE most important and peplexing anthropological question of the modern era.
    And if you want to argue that any such competition is NOT inevitable, or even generally expectable, I would ask you to look more closely at subsistence-level ethnographic cultures. They may appear to be functionally egalitarian, with equal access to resources, but rather than being by nature all tree-hugging and environmentally and socially conscious, instead they ALL have strong proscriptions against self-aggrandisement, hoarding of food, possessions, unequal exploitation of resources, and so forth. And when I say 'strong' I mean STRONG: e.g. spearing amongst the Aboriginal inhabitants of what's now called Australia, or worse, ostracization, which in any marginal ecosystem would almost certainly mean death.
    How in the world such putatively egalitarian social systems come to forego those social restrictions and end up being cultures that allow socioeconomic competition is at the heart of the matter. I believe that the kind of resource base that I'm referring to in my earlier comment--dependable, abundant, predictable--does provide the 'substrate,' if you will, for culturally sanctioned economic and social competition that's based on the number of hands over which a given subset of the society has control--the kind of competition that I would argue underpins the rise of social and economic inequality, of stratified societies, of chiefdoms, of states.
    Snark all you want, but I suspect I have the germ of an answer. [And don't go telling me that my nascent explanation is a lot like a real germ--unbidden and unwanted!]


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