Entrenched Disbelief: Complex Hunter-Gatherers and the Case for Inclusive Cultural Evolutionary Thinking

Jeanne E. Arnold, Scott Sunell, Benjamin T. Nigra, Katelyn J. Bishop, Terrah Jones, Jacob Bongers

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Advocates of traditional, agriculture-based models of sociopolitical evolution argue that the adoption of domesticates is requisite for developments such as sedentism, village life, ascribed status, hereditary leadership, and other features that underpin institutionalized political complexity. We counter in this essay with a well-documented suite of politically complex hunter-gatherer (CHG) societies that exhibit these same features, thereby demonstrating that reliance on agriculture per se—or any other specific food regime such as fishing—should be excised from explanations of emergent political complexity. Despite the failure of the agricentric model to account for a significant number of cases of institutionalized complexity, some of its architects remain entrenched in their disbelief and rigidly ignore the implications of CHG studies. By continuing to situate farming as foundational to everything complex, they perpetuate not only a story of human cultural evolution over the last 10,000 years that is incomplete but also a narrative that is incorrect. We reject subsistence (domesticates) as the central organizing principle and introduce here a new forum for thinking about how societies operate and evolve. We propose a model consisting of integrated platforms of societal dynamics that are inclusive (encourage discourse of all societies), nonprogressive, and serve as an organizational structure to discuss cultural evolution in any comparative or singular ethnographic context. The platforms are nonhierarchical and not fixed in order or importance. They are (1) agency and authority, (2) social differentiation, (3) participation in communal events, (4) organization of production, (5) labor obligations, (6) articulation of ecology and subsistence, and (7) territoriality and ownership. All sociopolitical cases and all topics can be productively discussed on these platforms, from bands to the largest empires, comparatively or diachronically. In the present article, we use the platforms to examine political evolution. We assemble considerable evidence that a variety of dietary regimes are associated with the emergence of institutionalized political complexity. Rather than diet, it is the ways people integrate and use labor that demands our attention.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)448-499
Number of pages52
JournalJournal of Archaeological Method and Theory
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • Agriculture
  • Archaeological theory
  • Complex hunter-gatherers
  • Emergent complexity
  • Platforms of societal dynamics
  • Political evolution

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology


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