Friday, September 2, 2011

Settlement Patterns and Cultural Ecology: Geography and Anthropology


This article is a brief history of settlement pattern research in Mesoamerica and South America. It is important to keep in mind that Kroeber and Steward were both in contact and working with geographers at University of California- Berkley and that the method and theory of settlement patterns draws heavily from geographical perspectives. Time and place in archaeology, while important, lacks the perspective of place that geography lends to the discipline of archaeology. Additionally, I would be remiss in leaving out historical particularism, comparative studies of culture (past and present), and ethnographies that are imperative to the holistic understanding of archaeological populations. However, this paper is aimed at understanding settlement patterns.

Cultural Ecology and the Origins of Settlement Pattern Archaeology:

Cultural ecology was born of the reemergence of evolutionary theory in the 1940s and 1950s. Under the tutelage of Alfred Kroeber at Berkeley University, Julian Steward developed multi-linear evolutionary theory in response to uni-linear evolutionary theories. The theory of cultural ecology, or “the examination of cultural adaptations formulated by human beings to meet the challenges posed by their environments” (McGee 2008), was also in opposition to Leslie White’s universal theory of cultural evolution established in his publication “Energy and the Evolution of Culture” (1943). While the theories seem very similar, Steward viewed culture change as “specific and relativistic” (McGee 2008) and searched for “parallels of limited occurrence instead of universals” (Steward 1955). White, on the other hand, looked at cultural evolution as a general overall pattern of technological development and placed given cultures in a universal evolutionary sequence. Furthermore, considering that Steward’s most important contribution to anthropology was cultural ecology and human interaction with the environment, he was particularly offended that White, in his equation of cultural evolution, amounted environment to a “constant factor, which may be excluded from our formulation of cultural development” (White 1943).

In an attempt to understand the effect of environment upon culture, Steward generated a theory separate and distinct from biological, human, and social ecology theories. He differentiated cultural ecology from other theories in that “culture, rather than genetic potential for adaptation, accommodation, and survival, explains the nature of human societies” (Steward 1955). Ultimately, Steward’s goal was to analyze environmental adaptations to demonstrate how new cultural patterns arose as opposed to investigating universal similarities.

Stimulating interdisciplinary cooperation and increasing cross-cultural understanding, Steward applied cultural ecology to “Area Research”, a theoretical and methodological work set on providing a holistic understanding of socio-cultural regions and interaction spheres (Steward 1950). In “Area Research” and “Theory of Culture Change” (1955), Steward called for a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approach to the study of areas. Not only should cultural areas be analyzed politically, socially, economically, and biologically, but, he asserted, environmentally as well. Furthermore, the information yielded from such research should be applicable across fields and subfields.

The theories responsible for the creation of these two works equally influenced Willey’s settlement pattern archaeology. Borrowing the concept of cultural areas and expanding them to geographic regions, as well as the idea of human environment interaction, Willey took Steward’s theories and applied them in an archaeological context. Steward, according to Willey, was even the one who suggested he focus on settlement patterns while other contributors to the project focused on tangible findings when the Virú Valley project began in 1946 (Willey 1999).

Gordon Willey and Settlement Patterns in the Virú Valley, Peru

Gordon Willey is arguably one of the most influential and important archaeologists in the second half of the 20th century. Though he may not have been aware of it, the application of such a seemingly simple method and theory as settlement pattern archaeology in a multidisciplinary project has forever altered the discipline:
He saw the potential of settlement patterns to provide insights into a broad spectrum of human behaviors that were influenced by both cultural and ecological factors. He argued that settlements reflect not only a society's natural environment and level of technological sophistication, but also the influence of various institutions of social interaction and control on which the culture is maintained (Sifuentes 2001).
Methodologically, Willey investigated the spatial distribution of cultural activities across geographically and environmentally distinct landscapes at any moment in time (Willey 1953). Though one can argue that this would seem to be a very static view of culture, Willey had to limit his parameters for the method and resulting information to be sound. Additionally, though he was the first to utilize 1:10,000 scale aerial photographs to facilitate site plotting (Wilson 1988), technology available today such as GIS, GPS, and other remote sensing technologies, were not available to create temporal and spatial syntheses of cultural areas and regions.

The Virú Valley Project consisted of a team of archaeologists and social anthropologists, including Julio C. Tello, Junius Bird, and Thomas Ford, among others, funded by their respective institutions. While the other archaeologists were busy conducting stratigraphic excavations (Strong and Evans 1952) and yielding tangible sequences of material remains, Steward convinced Willey to do a survey of the entire valley to investigate settlement patterns:
I would be doing more for the project, myself, and archaeology, he argued, if I attempted to say something about the forms, settings, and spatial relationships of the sites themselves and what all this might imply about societies that constructed and lived in them (Willey 1974).
However, he was skeptical of “settlement patterns that had been dreamed up by some social anthropologist [Steward]” (Willey 1974). In the 1999 publication of “Settlement Pattern Studies in the Americas”, Willey was still unsure of the direction of settlement pattern archaeology and the reality of the role it plays in the discipline. However, in the grand scheme and encompassing picture of the evolution of archaeological theory, the article “not only recorded the settlement patterns for the whole valley in meticulous detail but it also served as the fulcrum for integrating all the information gathered in the valley” (Vogt 2004). The effect it had on the discipline was tremendous and still ripples in the theoretical and methodological currents as evidenced by continuous application, evolving theories, and creative, multi-disciplinary approaches.

Applying Settlement Pattern Archaeology and Cultural Ecology:

Since 1946 an increasing number of archaeologists have utilized landscape and settlement pattern archaeology to varying degrees, in different environments, and with the use of differing technology specialized to the environment. Soon after the Virú project, archaeologists across the Americas began experimenting with the application of settlement pattern archaeology at their own sites and in their own environments. Sanders et al. (1979) used Willey’s methodology and applied it to the very different environmental factors of the Basin of Mexico.

Since settlement archaeology will only add to the fabric of theory used to explicate culture, it will never replace any one theory but instead builds upon the foundation. Trigger (1967) claims it cannot stand on its own methodologically or theoretically and, in fact, needs currently rejected theories of cultural evolution to legitimize its purpose. Refinement of the theory in terms of definitions of site types and acceptable sampling percentages are needed. For example, individual structures, settlements, and settlement distributions are three levels of settlement areas an archaeologist can investigate, according to Trigger. Once the area is determined, the contextualization of culture and society in time and space is a crucial component of conducting regional archaeology. Subsequently, placing material remains into typological categories develops relative dating of a site (Trigger 1967). This information should then be converted into maps and databases that contribute to a collection used to interpret the relation of sites and form hypotheses on catalysts and directionality of culture. Not all of these methods are new to the field of archaeology nor is the concept of cultural processes new to anthropology but refinement of the broad, sweeping generalizations of method and theory is necessary to move forward into the synthesis of culture areas. However, what settlement pattern studies produce is a culmination of previous methods in archaeology and anthropology, combining them to weave a new way of thinking about prehistoric societies. The creation of these comprehensive maps allows archaeologists to interpret much about social order, political power, and economic distribution as a result of, and in response to, environmental factors.

Sanders et al. (1979) used Willey’s methodology but was more true to Steward’s theory of cultural ecology. The team, however, builds on both theory and method by including a desire to use a simplified systemic approach, undoubtedly borrowed from Lewis Binford, as well as using the 100% sampling method of site distribution. As a result, Sanders et al. was able to generate “law-like generalizations that govern cultural change” (Sanders 1979), which could be interpreted as the ultimate goal of Steward’s cultural ecology.

These ‘laws’ are (1) the law of biotic potential, (2) the law of least effort, and (3) the law of minimization of risk. The law of biotic potential refers to the potential of any living organism to constantly increase. The law of least effort indicates that, when given a choice, the path of least resistance will always be the path taken. Lastly, the law of minimization of risk refers to the choice of the solution that produces the minimal risk (Sanders 1979). One primary purpose of Steward’s cultural ecology was to derive very general parallels between cultures and these laws are an example of such relativities. Though Sanders et al. (1979) applied them only to the Basin of Mexico, these laws that dictate mode of survival and competition could possibly be applied in a variety, if not every, environmental atmosphere. When applied to an entire settlement region, archaeologists can begin to make connections between spatial distributions and cultural processes.

Overall, the Virú Valley survey was lacking in consistency of methodology and direction of theory, though not because Willey was unfocused. As it was the first project of its kind to be implemented, there were necessarily gaps. Sanders et al. (1979) attempted to fill in where Willey did not, improving on the methodological groundwork laid before. The team also opted for a 100% survey coverage that included every site documented on the survey while Willey (1953) applied a random sampling. Including 100% of the survey coverage, though daunting, was probably the most intensive and comprehensive option available. The map created from such an expedition can only contribute to further archaeological research and yielded beneficial results.

New Directions in Settlement Pattern Archaeology:

Problems in regional surveys are extensive but can be methodically solved as new technology and techniques emerge with fresh minds and determination. There are innumerable suggestions as to how to solve the countless issues that settlement pattern archaeology is wrought with that are equally present in all other theories and methodologies of archaeology as a discipline. Fish (1991) suggests, as far as siteless versus settlement pattern archaeology, that more attention must be devoted to the dilemma of past environmental factors as well as modern cultural shaping of landscape as it affects archaeological sites and archaeology's often inaccurate and misleading perceptions of cultural remains. Not only do invisible structures suffer degradation from exposure, but they also become completely removed from the record due to rising coastlines, private property disputes, agricultural production, and the list goes on. While I agree with Fish’s idealistic aspirations for archaeology, it must be questioned whether or not archaeologists can make certain predictions and hypotheses on erosion and degradation in regards to structures and sites we never knew were there in the first place. One of the few ways this could be executed is with the creation of extensive regional site maps in addition to investigations into catalysts of settlement patterns and multi-disciplinary research such as paleo-climatology, geography, and coastal studies. Fish (1991) also suggests that ecological components as well as economic investigations that consider non-agricultural settlement patterns should be included, bringing settlement pattern theory full-circle.

The Future of Settlement Pattern Archaeology

With constantly and rapidly evolving technology, it seems unfair to ask an archaeologist to look into the future, expecting to find answers with veils of increasingly more portable electronic devices and excruciatingly complex computer programs. This is just the problem; technology is the future of archaeology. Willey (1953) even suggested that the original regional survey would not have been possible without 1:10,000 scale aerial photographs obviously mediated through the use of technology. Even 50 years ago, the photographs Willey used were already 40 years old. Consider the possibilities of the new types of remote sensing as far as the quality of photographic technology in addition to satellite and ground-penetrating technology. Remote sensing techniques that are either developed within or out of the field, GIS, GPS, and computer-aided drafting software (CAD) are inescapable routes that cannot be ignored in the field (Howard 2007).

After 60 years of applying the theory and method of settlement pattern archaeology, revisions, additions, and advancement of technology, it is now time to begin the great synthesis of regional surveys that Willey and Steward grandly alluded to in its infancy (Willey 1953) and (Steward 1955). These surveys were always meant to merge culture histories into one schema in order to formulate hypotheses as to the origins of sedentism, early urbanization, and ultimately that of human kind. Now is the time, in the age of the personal computer and easily accessible databases and information, to begin the next step in this ever-evolving and collaborative project.


This paper provides a broad introductory perspective of the origin of settlement pattern archaeology and the direction it has and will possibly take in the future. Obviously settlement patterns have made way for new modes of thought as to the origins of sedentism and early urbanism. Among these are a diverse range of theoretical perspectives such as coercion (Carneiro 1970), environmental factors, and subsistence patterns that ultimately find their roots with Steward in cultural ecology. The spirit of the first regional survey in Virú and its collaborative roots must be remembered when embarking on a regional survey with any number of theoretical directions. Anthropologists and archaeologists must open lines of communication in order to balance the extreme sides of theoretically divergent research and create new ways of thinking.

Caitlyn Yoshiko McNabb


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