What We Do: Investigations

Social Networks in the Late Precontact Southwest

In the age of Facebook and Twitter, “social network” is a phrase heard or read almost daily—but social networks are a mainstay of the human experience, not a product of new technologies.

In the simplest terms, a social network consists of a set of actors—individuals, communities, or even organizations—and the connections among them. “Connections” can represent any number of relationships between pairs of actors: familial ties, friendship, acquaintance, frequent interaction, exchange partnerships, or political alliances, among others.

Based in network theory, social network analysis (SNA) is a developing field that most often evaluates these kinds of connections in today’s world, as a means of systematically exploring interaction. The Southwest Social Networks project (SWSN) represents one of the first comprehensive and large-scale attempts to apply SNA to relationships in the distant past.

In 2008, the University of Arizona’s School of Anthropology and Archaeology Southwest received a grant from the National Science Foundation to use SNA to explore regional networks of interaction and exchange across the western Southwest between 1200 and 1500. The project formally examines how previously identified demographic and social trends may have influenced, or been influenced by, changing patterns of interaction among the region’s inhabitants. The SWSN project is interdisciplinary, involving archaeologists with various areas of expertise, sociologists, a geochemist, and a computer scientist.

In order to track and describe networks of interaction in the distant past, we had to compile a massive body of data about sites and artifacts. To do this, we expanded the Coalescent Communities Database (CCD), which contained information about the size and habitation span of every documented southwestern settlement with more than twelve rooms that dates between 1200 and 1700.  Our project added information about pottery types and counts and obsidian source determinations for 715 sites west of the Continental Divide.

At present, the expanded database—now known as the Southwest Social Networks Database—contains information on more than 4.3 million ceramic artifacts from more than 700 sites, and more than 6,000 sourced obsidian objects from about 150 sites. This rich compilation allows us to leverage new and existing information at a scale never before possible. (To download our standardized list of ceramic ware and type names, click here [PDF] or here [Excel].)

Our studies present a window on the extremely dynamic centuries immediately preceding the Spaniards’ arrival. Over a period of about 300 years, people in our study area experienced the creation and dissolution of new and widespread networks spanning hundreds of miles. Social connections changed dramatically in nature and scale. Moreover, these transformations occurred in the context of a major demographic decline: by 1450, population in our study area had diminished to about a quarter of what it had been 150 years earlier. Most of the loss occurred in the southern Southwest.

Our work also demonstrates that network analyses have great potential in archaeological research, particularly at regional scales. We are confident that network methods and models will help us find new answers to old questions and develop new questions from old data. Furthermore, as archaeologists use SNA to address archaeological problems, we will also be contributing new tools and perspectives to the broader interdisciplinary field of network science. Indeed, archaeologists are uniquely positioned to offer perspectives on how networks develop over the long term.

Our team:

Barbara J. Mills, University of Arizona

Jeffery J. Clark, Archaeology Southwest

Matthew A. Peeples, Archaeology Southwest

W. R. Haas Jr., University of Arizona

John M. Roberts Jr., University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee

J. Brett Hill, Hendrix College and Archaeology Southwest

Deborah L. Huntley, Archaeology Southwest

Lewis Borck, University of Arizona and Archaeology Southwest

Ronald L. Breiger, University of Arizona

Aaron Clauset, University of Colorado, Boulder and Santa Fe Institute

M. Steven Shackley, Archaeological XRF Laboratory