Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2005
  • Online publication date: September 2009



Blessed be the Lord, our God, who introduces variety amongst His creatures.

old hebrew prayer to be uttered when seeing a monster, according to isaiah berlin

The old rules of social evolutionary theory that were used to explain the rise of the earliest states haven't worked – as I have argued in the preceding chapters. Indeed, the neo-evolutionist model developed by social anthropologists in the 1950s and 1960s and then operationalized and employed by archaeologists in subsequent decades now hinders research or, more often, is simply ignored by contemporary archaeologists. The old neo-evolutionist game was played on the central assumption that modern “traditional” societies represent stages in the development of the earliest states. These old rules were developed within American departments of anthropology as archaeologists, seeking respect from their social anthropological colleagues (as well as jobs, promotions, grants, and status), attempted to model prehistoric societies via analogies to cases described by ethnographers.

These archaeologists, who thus claimed to be genuine anthropologists, were surprised when their colleagues insisted that “traditional” societies had histories of their own and could not be inserted as “models” into a prehistoric, neo-evolutionary trajectory. In the 1980s and 1990s the whole edifice of social evolutionary theory was abandoned by non-American archaeologists, who were never part of an academic anthropological establishment. The remaining neo-evolutionists were disquieted further when many archaeologists turned to evidence provided by ancient historical sources, from Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets to New World relaciones and visitas, new decipherments of Maya glyphs and Chinese oracle bones, and art historical evidence from Egypt to Teotihuacan, evidence of particulars that confounded facile analogies.