Frameworks of Governance and Social Differentiation in Neolithic Society

In light of the relative wealth of information we have on the nature of Neolithic subsistence economies, I think many researchers (e.g.,Baird 1997; Rollefson 1998) would agree that we know comparatively little about the critical topic of leadership and governance in Neolithic households and communities.While there are exceptions, few studies have directly addressed the nature of leadership and governance at different scales, such as the individual, household, community, and regional levels, or how these frameworks change through different periods of the Pre-Pottery and Pottery Neolithic. Although a number of works have illustrated how many, if not most, Neolithic communities shared material practices at the regional level (e.g.,Bar-Yosef and Belfer-Cohen 1989;Bar-Yosef and Meadows 1995;Cauvin 1994),in many ways our understanding of governance remains highly theoretical, abstract, largely removed from the specifics of archaeological data sets from individual sites (e.g., Hayden 1995a), and rarely moves beyond consideration of community, if not regional, ideology. A portion of this gap is unquestionably linked to the relatively limited amount of excavation at Neolithic sites and the importance of addressing broader anthropological issues such as the emergence of social inequality, but it is also the result of archaeologists, including this author, strugglingwith the much broader problem of how to connect various bodies of anthropological theory on human behavior with Neolithic material culture in a meaningful way.

We see a growing consensus among researchers, I believe, that social practices existed at certain points in the past to differentially distinguish individuals within the overall Neolithic community. On a material level, many discussions of Neolithic social organization focus on the issues of how, or if, select Neolithic material culture reflects the interests, behavior, and social role(s) of individuals versus a collective group of individuals (e.g.,Bienert 1991;Garfinkel 1994). In the broadest of senses, this question challenges us to understand some of the ways in which social practices highlight aspects of cohesiveness and integration or, conversely, the hierarchical organization of power and authority. In cases where we have some idea of how the selection of individuals from the broader community occurred, we have only a limited understanding of why it occurred, the basis for this selection, and how this helps us understand the nature of Neolithic social organization. Recently archaeologists have devoted considerable attention to mortuary and ritual practices as a way to reconstruct broader Neolithic social organization and the existence of some degree of social differentiation.As illustrated by many of the chapters in this volume, Neolithic ritual practices provide important insights about social arrangements at the household and/or community level. In contrast to many other world areas, relatively few studies have explored the possible material correlates for ritual or community leaders in Neolithic communities, nor have they reached some form of consensus cf the existence of social differentiation. It is, therefore, not surprising that there are no clear answers to this question, and it is likely that considerable future debate will revolve around this issue in the future.

Arguably some of the most dramatic advancements in our understanding of Neolithic social systems have centered on identifying the spatial location of community or household rituals. While often based on field work conducted many years ago, recent reflections (e.g., Banning and Byrd 1987; Byrd 1994; Byrd and Banning 1988;Ozdogan and Ozdogan 1989;Schmidt 1997;Rollefson 1997;Rollefson et al. 1992) of observed patterning of residential and nonresidential architecture have enhanced our understanding of Neolithic social organization through the exploration of how space was constructed and used by households and families and by the investigation of the relationships between residential and nonresidential spaces in these communities.

Detailed consideration of Neolithic architecture, mortuary practices and ritual actions collectively brings researchers to the point where we can start to reflect upon how ritual and civic leadership might have been organized in different Neolithic communities. New data, as well as synthesis studies of earlier publications, elicit a number of important questions related to the issue of governance in these communities. For example,were the elaborate mortuary practices of the south-central Levantine MPPNB, such as at 'Ain Ghazal or Jericho, organized at the household, kin-group, or community level? In the case of Catal Hoyuk, Cayonu, and Nevali Cori, were some forms of ritual practices organized by household members and others organized by, and oriented toward, the broader community? If so, how might archaeologists distinguish these in an archaeological context? These questions focus on the nature of the relationships among housholds, ritual, and civic structures. Moreover, if Neolithic social practices did differentiate some members from the community to perform ritual or civic tasks, why do we not see more evidence for differential power and authority? Critical examination of these questions in the future, as well as expanded discussion of issues related to the nature of Neolithic governance and leadership, will be central to expanding out understanding of Neolithic soical complexity and the origins of agriculture.

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