The non-hierarchical development of complexity in the semitropics: Water and cooperation

Vernon L. Scarborough, Lisa J. Lucero

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Seasonality and unpredictable rainfall patterns in the tropics and semitropics make living in such regions challenging. Further, dispersed agricultural soils and critical resources result in low-density urbanism where people are blanketed across the landscape. As we show through a discussion of Amazonia, Bali, Angkor, Maya Lowlands, and West Africa, however, people adapt in a sustainable manner through constructing water management systems and developing specialized occupations. Specialized economies develop that take advantage of the varied resource niches that rely more on productive labor rather than technology per se. Cooperation and heterarchical networks are key; the former to build and maintain water systems, and the latter to provide the means to exchange information, goods, and knowledge from among the varied resources areas. Central nodes or urban centers also emerge to bring people together at set times for markets, ceremonies, and other activities that serve to socially integrate the dispersed and diverse groups. Over-exploitation is kept in check through myths that consecrate aspects of the landscape as sacred, especially those revolving around water.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)185-205
Number of pages21
JournalWater History
Issue number2
StatePublished - Nov 25 2010


  • Cooperation
  • Heterarchy
  • Low-density urbanism
  • Semitropics
  • Water management

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • History
  • Water Science and Technology


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