Ancient ceramics show skill sharing, social networking in pre-Columbian era

In the late 13th century, the American southwest was hit by a major drought. When resources were exhausted and agriculture failed, some groups of people were forced to migrate out of the region. Entire areas of northern Arizona were depopulated.

Other groups also survived by turning outward, but not to a new home. Instead, they reached out to neighboring communities and formed social networks across greater distances. These networks created a support system for people in the region to rely upon for their livelihood. And they allowed cultures, such as the Hopi, to persist in a time of crisis.

A recent University of Arizona study found evidence of these networks in hundreds of thousands of ceramic and obsidian objects from archaeological sites in parts of pre-Columbian Arizona and New Mexico. With a grant from the National Science Foundation, the university and a Tucson-based organization called Archaeology Southwest made a joint effort to catalogue the objects in the Southwest Social Network database, a digital archaeological archive.

Researchers examined objects in the database from 1200-1450, and found that there was a high proportion of objects with similar styles of production across hundreds of locations. This suggested that not only were goods exchanged, but the skills required to reproduce those goods were spread across the region and transferred between generations.

“What was novel about this study was that we were actually able to demonstrate not just that people used social connection, but how people changed their networks through crisis management,” says Lewis Borck, a University of Arizona researcher who co-authored the study. “People were finding communities that were farther away.”

An upcoming paper that details the results of the study says that the findings are useful for understanding disaster response in modern times as well.

“Social networks are incredibly important in understanding how people survive hard times – whether natural disasters or conflicts” said Elizabeth Ferris, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-director of the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement. “For example, about 80 percent of those who are pulled out of the rubble after earthquakes are saved by neighbors and local groups.”

The study also takes on a broader understanding of “social network” to include the relationships formed between large communities, like when community networks in the American southwest resembled interstate relations.

“We’re looking at how a community or multiple communities are going to draw from each other,” said Borck. “You might look at it in terms of how some insular governments or insular countries will have a harder time during a crisis, whereas countries in the EU or the US will have more help.”

However, the authors stress that the data doesn’t point to a singular trend. Rather it suggests that improving external relations made groups who remained in the region more likely to sustain the drought.

A major exception to this were the Zuni people of the pre-modern American southwest, who relied on their internal social network to survive without the need of integrating with distant neighbors.

“If there’s a lot of diversity in your network, then you might have a higher likelihood of keeping you lifestyle intact,” says Barbara Mills, an anthropology professor at the University of Arizona and co-author of the study who, along with Jeffrey Clark of Archaeology Southwest, compiled the archaeological objects onto the Southwest Social Network database.

Mills refers to “social” storage as a useful way to conceptualize the phenomenon discussed in the study.

“When we look at the term, ‘storage,’ we mean they establish relationships that they might have to call upon later on, when there are times of need,” she said.

Borck notes that archaeologists are too often concerned with questions about the disappearance of cultures. Shifting the academic focus to the endurance of pre-modern communities was an important component of the study.

“Instead of looking at collapse and discontinuity, we want to look at persistence and understand how they were able to survive,” he says.