Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Artifacts Shed Light on Social Networks of the Past

Researchers studied thousands of ceramic and obsidian artifacts from A.D. 1200-1450 to learn about the growth, collapse and change of social networks in the late pre-Hispanic Southwest.
The advent of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have made us all more connected, but long-distance social networks existed long before the Internet.

An article published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences sheds light on the transformation of social networks in the late pre-Hispanic American Southwest and shows that people of that period were able to maintain surprisingly long-distance relationships with nothing more than their feet to connect them.

Led by University of Arizona anthropologist Barbara Mills, the study is based on analysis of more than 800,000 painted ceramic and more than 4,800 obsidian artifacts dating from A.D. 1200-1450, uncovered from more than 700 sites in the western Southwest, in what is now Arizona and western New Mexico.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, Mills, director of the UA School of Anthropology, worked with collaborators at Archeology Southwest in Tucson to compile a database of more than 4.3 million ceramic artifacts and more than 4,800 obsidian artifacts, from which they drew for the study.

They then applied formal social network analysis to see what material culture could teach them about how social networks shifted and evolved during a period that saw large-scale demographic changes, including long-distance migration and coalescence of populations into large villages.

Their findings illustrate dramatic changes in social networks in the Southwest over the 250-year period between A.D. 1200 and 1450. They found, for example, that while a large social network in the southern part of the Southwest grew very large and then collapsed, networks in the northern part of the Southwest became more fragmented but persisted over time.

"Network scientists often talk about how increasingly connected networks become, or the 'small world' effect, but our study shows that this isn't always the case," said Mills, who led the study with co-principal investigator and UA alumnus Jeffery Clark, of Archaeology Southwest.

"Our long-term study shows that there are cycles of growth and collapse in social networks when we look at them over centuries," Mills said. "Highly connected worlds can become highly fragmented."

Another important finding was that early social networks do not appear to have been as restricted as expected by settlements' physical distance from one another. Researchers found that similar types of painted pottery were being created and used in villages as far as 250 kilometers apart, suggesting people were maintaining relationships across relatively large geographic expanses, despite the only mode of transportation being walking.

"They were making, using and discarding very similar kinds of assemblages over these very large spaces, which means that a lot of their daily practices were the same," Mills said. "That doesn't come about by chance; it has to come about by interaction – the kind of interaction where it's not just a simple exchange but where people are learning how to make and how to use and ultimately discard different kinds of pottery."

"That really shocked us, this idea that you can have such long distance connections. In the pre-Hispanic Southwest they had no real vehicles, they had no beasts of burden, so they had to share information by walking," she said.

The application of formal social network analysis – which focuses on the relationships among nodes, such as individuals, household or settlements – is relatively new in the field of archaeology, which has traditionally focused more on specific attributes of those nodes, such as their size or function.

The UA study shows how social network analysis can be applied to a database of material culture to illustrate changes in network structures over time.

"We already knew about demographic changes – where people were living and where migration was happening – but what we didn't know was how that changed social networks," Mills said. "We're so used to looking traditionally at distributions of pottery and other objects based on their occurrence in space, but to see how social relationships are created out of these distributions is what network analysis can help with."

One of Mills's collaborators on the project was Ronald Breiger, renowned network analysis expert and a UA professor of sociology, with affiliations in statistics and government and public policy, who says being able to apply network analysis to archaeology has important implications for his field.

"Barbara (Mills) and her group are pioneers in bringing the social network perspective to archaeology and into ancient societies," said Breiger, who worked with Mills along with collaborators from the UA School of Anthropology; Archaeology Southwest; the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee; Hendrix College; the University of Colorado, Boulder; the Santa Fe Institute; and Archaeological XRF Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M.

"What archaeology has to offer for a study of networks is a focus on very long-term dynamics and applications to societies that aren't necessarily Western, so that's broadening to the community of social network researchers," Breiger said. "The coming together of social network and spatial analysis and the use of material objects to talk about culture is very much at the forefront of where I see the field of social network analysis moving."

Going forward, Mills hopes to use the same types of analyses to study even older social networks.

"We have a basis for building on, and we're hoping to get even greater time depth. We'd like to extend it back in time 400 years earlier," she said. "The implications are we can see things at a spatial scale that we've never been able to look at before in a systematic way. It changes our picture of the Southwest."

Barbara Mills | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Social Sciences:

nachricht New population data provide insight on aging, migration
31.08.2016 | International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)

nachricht PRB projects world population rising 33 percent by 2050 to nearly 10 billion
25.08.2016 | Population Reference Bureau

All articles from Social Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Ice shelf vibrations cause unusual waves in Antarctic atmosphere

25.10.2016 | Earth Sciences

Fluorescent holography: Upending the world of biological imaging

25.10.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Etching Microstructures with Lasers

25.10.2016 | Process Engineering

More VideoLinks >>>