“Big things” in archaeology: cliodynamics and chiefdoms

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

Gavritlets and2 2010 fig 2

Detail from Gavrilets, Anderson, and Turchin (2010), Figure 2. The plots model the growth and decline dynamics of relative size of the largest polity, it’s complexity, etc. in a chiefdom situation.

Archaeologists consider small things—even microscopic things. They examine the soot on the outside of ancient pottery fragments to know what kinds of firewood were used. They study genetic data to understand population dynamics. These are tiny things—albeit with big implications.

Archaeologists also consider big things. Like globally big.

Consider the work of cliodynamicist Peter Turchin. Turchin trained in population biology, or the study of populations of organisms. However, over the last decade, he has expanded his focus to populations of populations of organisms—especially humans.

Thus, cliodynamics, a term Turchin coined in 2003, focuses on macro-history, or the mathematical modeling of long-term social processes. He defines cliodynamics online here.

Turchin sees cliodynamics as requiring a multidisciplinary perspective, and relying in part on archaeological data. He says:

Historical processes are very complex, they involve not only economic, but also demographic, social, political, ideological, climatological, and many other kinds of factors. Probably because one has to approach history with such a massively interdisciplinary approach, it is the last of social sciences to become amenable to the scientific method.

As you might expect, applying cliodynamics to archaeological data is tricky. However, Turchin has collaborated with Sergey Gavrilets and David G. Anderson to examine patterns of the rise and dissolution of what archaeologists call chiefdoms (that is, political units comprised of networks of villages that are part of a sociopolitical hierarchy of importance and power—there are head villages, secondary villages, and lesser hamlets, for example) in late prehistoric southeastern North America. Access their 2010 article by clicking here. They say:

In our model polities are represented as hierarchically structured networks of villages whose size, power, and complexity change as a result of conquest, secession, internal reorganization (via promotion and linearization), and resource dynamics. A general prediction of our model is continuous stochastic cycling in which the growth of individual polities in size, wealth/power, and complexity is interrupted by their quick collapse.

Cliodynamics, then, get at questions that are among the largest-scale research topics that archaeologists consider. The data may be much smaller or finer-grained—e.g., ceramic distribution, the size of houses—but the questions are expansive.

What research questions can you think of that cliodynamics would be useful for?


Gavrilets, Sergey, David G. Anderson, and Peter Turchin. 2010. Cycling in the Complexity of Early Societies. Cliodynamics 1(1):58–80. [Click here to access article online.]