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A Conversation with Robert D. Drennan

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University of Pittsburgh anthropologist Robert D. Drennan began his career in the late 1960s, during a sea change in his field: Research began focusing less on tombs and ancient monuments, and more on household goods and garbage. Drennan uses such mundane materials to illuminate a much bigger picture: how humans living in tribes and villages formed the earliest large-scale societies, typically called "chiefdoms." Often working with postdoctoral fellow Christian Peterson, Drennan focuses on ancient communities in three regions: Alta Magdalena, in the Colombian Andes; the Hongshan area, in the grasslands of northeast China; and Mexico's Valley of Oaxaca. This summer, he and Peterson return to China.

Why the interest in early chiefdoms?

When you look at the broad sweep of human history, 50 or 60 thousand years perhaps, it's only a really short time we've lived this way. What are the roots of these really big complex societies that we almost all live in now?

Besides their size, what was new about those first big societies?

Two or three really important things happened. Groups in a number of different locations were integrated into what we call a single society. Those societies were usually really strongly hierarchical -- some people are just [seen as] better than other people.

Inequality was new?

No human society is really free of inequality. What often happened [with chiefdoms] is hereditary inequalities -- some people are just better than others from the minute they're born. It tends very strongly to be based on birth.

Was wealth a factor?

That's not always part of it. [There's a] contrast between hierarchy that's based on accumulating wealth, and hierarchy that's based on religious or ideological principles. In some early chiefdoms it's very strongly one way, and in other chiefdoms it's very strongly another way. In other early chiefdoms the two are neatly intertwined.

How did chiefdoms grow?

In Oaxaca, that growth seems to have happened largely by dominating other villages: a territorially expansive mode. In Alta Magdalena, growth never seems to have taken the form of conquest. [Such] chiefdoms don't get territorially bigger; only their populations grow. It may be connected to wealth versus social prestige. In Oaxaca there was a lot more specialization [of labor]: There seemed to be greater wealth differences [among people], and that may have to do with the coercive control and the territorial expansion.

Why don't we know more about these cultures?

The most developed chiefdoms of North America were gone before they were much observed. There was a lot of population decline from European diseases in the decades before Europeans contacted those societies directly. Most of what was written about the societies was by people who were really more concerned about conquering them.

In the 1700s and 1800s, in the South Pacific, [Europeans] observed spectacularly flourishing chiefdoms. They're the ones that are most fully described. Hawaiian chiefdoms have really colored our view of chiefdoms strongly. One of the things we found out only within the last 20 years or so is that they're not all like Hawaii.

Native Americans often object to archeologists studying their culture. How do people elsewhere respond?

In Oaxaca there's a little bit of that element, because one works among a largely Zapotec indigenous population -- and yet it's a Catholic Zapotec population. There's not the same kind of connection to the prehistoric past there is for Native Americans in North America. There's sort of a conflict [with their ancestors]: "They're heathens."

It's a whole different relationship with middle-class mestizo and upper-class Mexicans. ... Sometimes there's real pride in its Mexicanness, and of national heritage

In China, it's very much national-scale identity politics. Of course "Chineseness" is a huge umbrella that covers one dominant ethnic group, the Han Chinese, but incorporates an enormous amount of ethnic variety. Chineseness is very important in Chinese politics, and has tended in archeology to emphasize similarity in ancient cultures.

Is there a practical side to anthropology?

It's not all just intellectual curiosity. As we figure out what our societies are gonna be like -- how we want to change them -- we can hope to arrive at a level of understanding of how human societies work that can help us make decisions. That's a long way off, before anthropology has good solid prescriptions, but I think ultimately it can.

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