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The Archaeology of Villages in Eastern North America$

Jennifer Birch and Victor D. Thompson

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9781683400462

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: May 2019

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9781683400462.001.0001

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Collective Action and Village Life during the Late Archaic on the Georgia Coast

Collective Action and Village Life during the Late Archaic on the Georgia Coast

Chapter:
(p.20) 2 Collective Action and Village Life during the Late Archaic on the Georgia Coast
Source:
The Archaeology of Villages in Eastern North America
Author(s):

Victor D. Thompson

Publisher:
University Press of Florida
DOI:10.5744/florida/9781683400462.003.0002

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines shell rings of the Georgia Coast. I argue that the vast majority of shell rings represent co-residential village communities, and thus are some of the earliest villages in eastern North America. I identify several types of collective action problems that the formation of villages likely presented to shell ring inhabitants at both the village and landscape scales. I suggest that there were several solutions to these problems, none of which required top-down hierarchical control. Instead, I present a narrative that explains the functioning of these villages as a highly cooperative, self-organizing hunter-gatherer system, rooted in local and regional interaction through rituals and the maintenance of collective mass capture facilities and fishing technology, and management of resources in the context of surplus production.

Keywords:   shell rings, collective action, surplus, hunter-gatherers, ritual

The emergence of villages has presented a cascade of both theoretical and methodological issues for archaeologists, from the search for substantive definitions (e.g., Bandy 2010; Birch 2013) to how we measure, for example, year-round settlement (e.g., Rocek and Bar-Yosef 1998). To a great degree, the literature surrounding the nature of the emergence of villages has largely focused on agriculturalists (Bandy and Fox 2010). While researchers certainly have considered hunter-gatherer economies in sophisticated ways in this process of becoming villagers, the larger narrative seems to lead back to how various dimensions of domestication and agriculture fit into this process. It is not my intent to criticize these studies, as in most of these situations it makes perfect sense to take this approach. Conversely, most of the literature that does focus exclusively on hunter-gatherer economies tends to situate narratives in terms of complexity and the emergence of hierarchy (Arnold 1996; Price and Brown 1985). Certainly, all such studies owe a considerable debt to Price and Brown (1985) and Arnold (1996), whose work made possible research into more varied aspects of hunter-gatherer lifeways than previously considered by researchers. However, as Pluckhahn and Thompson (2018) note, few consider hunter-gatherers exclusively as vectors for the process of village formation without injecting the issue of complexity along with it, despite the latter’s rather nebulous formulations (see Sassaman 2004).

This chapter takes as its starting point that at least some shell rings of the Georgia Coast represent some of the earliest villages in the region (Figure 2.1). As outlined in Thompson and Birch (this volume), these represent very different social relationships than other types of settlements engaged by hunter-gatherers (e.g., aggregation sites). My aim is to address two fundamental problems that relate to the formation of such entities for the first time in a region. First, there is the question of how emergent villages dealt with economic and social problems of coresidence. (p.21) Next, given the creation of a landscape populated with village communities, how then are peer relationships negotiated (see Thompson and Birch, this volume)? I view both of these as collective action questions because at the heart of them resources are involved, and if villagers at any one scale behaved in a selfish way, regardless of whether rooted purely in subsistence economic or ritual economic pursuits, then conflict and tension would arise causing systemic collapse (see Roscoe 2009). As I outline, this is especially challenging for the early villages of the Georgia Coast, as the distribution of resources made it difficult to be insular with regards to the broader landscape.

Collective Action and Village Life during the Late Archaic on the Georgia Coast

Figure 2.1. LiDAR topographic map of the Sapelo Shell Ring Complex, showing the three rings at the site.

(p.22) The theoretical perspective that I take is rooted in collective action (Blanton and Fargher 2008, 2016), with an explicit focus on how ecology articulates with questions surrounding human cooperation and power relations at multiple scales (Thompson 2014). As Blanton and Fargher (2016:Locations 249–252) point out, cooperation research tends to focus on small groups, and more is needed for larger-scale formulations where cooperation is much more difficult. They suggest a need for more research on states from this perspective; however, I would also argue that more work on nonstate societies is needed to examine the nested problems of cooperation (i.e., beyond the single village or coresident group). I will address cooperator problems at both the village and the landscape scale. My aim here is to demonstrate that early Georgia Coast villages developed institutions and norms that emphasized a high degree of cooperation because of the nature and distribution of resources, how travel was facilitated around the landscape, and the frequent nature of community interactions in different settings.

Shell Rings as Villages

Before moving to address how Georgia coastal villages interacted and cooperated, I must address what exactly constitutes villages in this region. Shell rings are a common site type found throughout the coastal American Southeast (Russo and Heide 2001, 2003). The vast majority of the research projects on these sites are along the Georgia, South Carolina, and northeast Florida coasts (e.g., Saunders and Russo 2002; Sanger 2015a, 2015b; Saunders 2004; Thompson et al. 2004; Thompson 2006, 2007). These sites are arcuate deposits of shellfish and other terrestrial and aquatic faunal remains, associated with bone, shell, lithic, and early pottery (Saunders and Russo 2011; Thompson and Worth 2011). Thompson and Worth (2011) summarize some of the models that suggest that these sites were seasonal gathering points for mounding and periodic feasts (Saunders 2004); habitation sites where some portion of the population lived and where ceremonial feasts in the pursuit of prestige were held (Russo 2004); and year-round egalitarian villages (Trinkley 1985; DePratter 1980). The details of these arguments have been presented elsewhere (see DePratter 1980, 2010; Russo 2004; Saunders 2004; Thompson and Worth 2011; Thompson and Andrus 2011; Turck and Thompson 2016); however, I explore some of the more important points of these past studies below.

In order to account for the variability offered in the shell ring models, I suggested a slightly different perspective, the developmental model, which allowed for the main function (e.g., habitation, to habitation/ceremonial, to a solely ceremonial site) to shift over time (Thompson 2007). I was clear in this model that (p.23) researchers should not view it as a unilinear process and that not all shell rings in a given landscape would follow such a pattern. In fact, it could be that most of these sites represent habitation sites, with only a few receiving any type of ceremonial elaborations (e.g., mounding of shellfish along the ring). After all, when we look to later periods in the American Southeast (e.g., Mississippian period), we see a landscape populated with villages and civic-ceremonial centers with mounds, with the latter’s early history as a village. Would not such a diverse landscape make sense for the Late Archaic, albeit in a much more muted way in terms of the archaeological record?

The vast majority of the researchers who consider shell rings to be solely monumental feasting sites do so because they believe that the size and scope of these sites imply something more than simple habitation (Saunders 2004). The reasoning behind this rather qualitative perspective is the thought that shells accumulate quickly, and Saunders (2004) cites evidence of radiocarbon dates from the top and bottom of shell deposits being statistically contemporaneous as evidence for this perspective. This, however, is highly problematic in the case that Saunders cites, for several reasons. The major issues include the use of oyster for dating, which has issues regarding the uptake of older carbon (see Cherkinsky et al. 2014); most of the dates themselves have large standard deviations (i.e., 70 years); and, finally, we have no close marine reservoir correction for this area (see Thompson and Krus 2018). In summary, the temporal resolution of these radiocarbon dates in this case is not commensurate with the question being asked. To address this issue subsequent research at shell rings has sought to examine the temporality of midden/mound formation using season of collection data. This line of evidence also provides information on whether shell rings were occupied year-round.

To date, it would seem that the data supports a perspective that at least some portion of the population lived at shell rings throughout the year, constituting a coresident population. Numerous studies using faunal assemblages—including presence/absence indicators of fishes, growth band analysis on hard clam (Mercenaria spp.), and oxygen isotope analysis on clams and oysters (Crassostrea virginica)—indicate year-round occupation of shell rings (Colaninno 2012a, 2012b; Marrinan 2010; Russo 1998; Thompson 2006; Thompson and Andrus 2011). To date, the best empirical evidence for mounding of shell, possibly from feasting, at these sites comes from Ring I at the Sapelo Shell Ring Complex, where shellfish primarily collected during the colder months of the year were deposited in single events (Thompson and Andrus 2011). However, as Thompson and Andrus (2011) caution, this may not be the result of feasting, but rather from the mass processing of oysters and clams for surplus production and trade, which we know that later groups did along the eastern coast (see Waselkov 1987:108).

(p.24) The empirical evidence for several shell rings in Georgia seems to point to year-round occupation and a gradual accumulation as a result of daily refuse, strongly suggesting that these rings were indeed the location of villages (Thompson and Andrus 2011). While some have pointed out that large shell rings would be an impediment to daily life because of their height (e.g., Saunders 2014:50), some of which are over 3 m, I find this to be poor reasoning for two reasons. First, people lived on top of shell mounds far larger than these in other areas of the Southeast (Thompson et al. 2016), and second, the vast majority of shell rings were not all that tall to begin with, with many under 1 m at their highest point and an average height of 1.8 meters for the Georgia and South Carolina rings (Russo 2014:23). Many of these are often broad and gently sloping in places like Ring I at Sapelo. In addition, some so-called rings are often open on one side or have segmented shell deposits. Ring III at Sapelo exhibits this pattern, and, I argue, given the relatively dense pottery in the nonshell sites along the ring along with some associated features (e.g., post molds), that these represent former house/domestic locations and that the primary function of Ring III was residential (Thompson 2006, 2007). Bolstering this argument is the stable isotope data from Ring III that indicates that mollusks were collected and deposited year-round with opposing seasons of collection located within the same 10 cm level (Thompson and Andrus 2011).

Saunders (2014:55) states, “Archaic ceremonial centers are supposed to look like village sites, only village sites on a grand scale; these sites are intermediaries between individual houses and villages, and the cosmos, which looks like a ceremonial center or a village or a house, only larger.” She says this to offer support for shell rings as ceremonial sites. The question that follows is what to do if Archaic village and/or habitation sites look as if shell rings are solely ceremonial. Many archaeologists, myself included (Thompson 2006), assumed that there was a larger settlement system in place during the Late Archaic that included vast numbers of shell sheet middens and other nonshell sites. However, recent work by Turck and Thompson (2016) calls this into question. In a recent reanalysis of radiocarbon dates from the entire Georgia Coast, we found that these nonshell sites tend to postdate the early Late Archaic, and only appear after shell rings are abandoned as a site type during a terminal Late Archaic period. For the early Late Archaic, shell rings and large shell middens are, by far, the most common, and indeed possibly the only, site type (Turck and Thompson 2016:52).

Collective Action at Shell Ring Villages

By now it should be clear that while I allow for some shell rings to take on a more ceremonial function, I, for the most part, view them as village sites. This does not (p.25) mean, however, that I think all activities were mundane, ecologically related, or restricted to the processing of daily foodstuffs. After all, even in some of the smallest villages there are feasts, rituals, ceremonies, and special events (e.g., births, marriages, rites of passage, initiation, and the like). In fact, I think it is safe to assume that such activities occurred at shell ring villages. Such events would have helped to not only cement fidelity of place (i.e., the village) (Turck and Thompson 2016:52; see also Thompson 2010) but also to reinforce relationships and the identity of the coresident community (i.e., as villagers).

Daily life in villages and ceremonial events required coordination and provisioning. Moore and I (Thompson and Moore 2015) considered the nature of such provisioning at shell rings in terms of surplus production. In that publication, we differentiated two different kinds of surplus: anticipated and opportunistic. In terms of presenting a collective action problem, it is the former of these that likely more frequently required cooperation at the village scale. Anticipated surplus production is highly structured in time and space and can be predicted with regards to both, and as a result creates a greater commitment to certain places on the landscape (Thompson and Moore 2015:248–249).

The greater cooperation for anticipated surplus production activities links in to the type of resources exploited by these communities. In this case, unlike other incipient agricultural villages, shell ring villages exploited a vast estuary and island landscape. The majority of the faunal remains found at these sites are small and medium-size finfishes, with herrings and shads, sea catfishes, mullets, and drums being the most ubiquitous (Colaninno 2010:221; Marrinan 2010). As Colaninno (2010:189) points out, her findings of small fish size for five Georgia Coast shell rings is consistent with ethnographic research that indicates that smaller-bodied fauna that reproduce frequently and in large numbers yield predictable high returns (see also Winterhalder and Lu 1997). These findings have led both Marrinan (2010) and Colaninno (2010:221) especially to suggest that shell ring occupants practiced mass capture technologies in the form of woven fine grain nets and likely fish traps and weirs. Clans or some other form of group with redistricted affiliation may have owned such weirs; however, it is difficult to speculate about this at this point.

Thomas (2008:122–131) notes that ethnohistoric sources indicate the use of fish weirs on the Georgia Coast. Although we have not located them archaeologically in the area, given Colaninno’s recent work (2010, 2012a, 2012b), I believe that it would be safe to assume that these were in operation during the Late Archaic. Such facilities, if managed by individual villages, would have represented significant labor investments and upkeep, necessitating collaboration and cooperation among villagers. Mass captures during specific times of the year would have also financed (p.26) feasts and attendant rituals in the village. The emplacement of fish weir facilities also likely gave certain villages rights, establishing a type of “aquatic landesque capital” (sensu Marquardt and Crumley 1987) to fishing areas in the estuaries (see Reitz 2014).

In addition to the communal labor involved in the production and technology of fishing, the layout of villages also likely downplayed and suppressed free riders and agents in pursuit of social prestige through control and management of surplus production. While Russo (2004) and Sassaman and Heckenberger (2004) suggest hierarchal social relations for shell ring inhabitants, empirical support is currently lacking for such notions (see DePratter 2010 for a critique). Russo’s (2004, 2014) view of feasting and concomitant transegalitarian social relationships is perhaps the better developed of the two; however, Colaninno’s (2010, 2012b:358) testing of this postulate—that big men lived along certain portions of the ring, usually the point with the highest shell deposits—was not supported by the distribution of vertebrate faunal remains. And while this does not discount the idea that certain individuals controlled production (see Russo 2014), it appears that where these resources are concerned ring inhabitants had “similar access to resources, technologies, and processing methods,” suggesting that people “were socially equal when using vertebrate resources” (Colaninno 2012b:358). Thus, it appears that if individuals were involved in some degree of management of feasts, they had little “agency” in terms of the manipulation and management of communal resources to use them, or misuse them, as the case may be for their own prestige and benefit (see Blanton and Fargher 2016:Locations 734–735). There seems to be no excludable resources in Colaninno’s analysis. In other words, these estuarine resources are the “public goods” of these early villages referred to by collective action researchers (Carballo 2012:Locations 262–264; see also Hardin 2015).

While some differences likely existed among shell ring inhabitants and were expressed during times that surpluses were produced for feasts, it does not appear that they had the agency to create any lasting social differences at the individual level (see the discussion by Pluckhahn 2010, 2012 for Woodland period plaza and attendant ethnohistoric evidence). It may be that, as Thompson and Moore (2015:257) argue, feasts and any ritual disposal of the food remains (e.g., mounding of shell) was likely part of the event itself and was “the collective cooperation that ties individual and groups together.” Such ties were possibly reinforced through daily life as the circular layout of shell rings around a central plaza focused all life inward toward the center of the village (see Cobb 2005 for another perspective). Such places were not only the locations of dances, feasts, and rituals, but there is also ample evidence for daily life and processing (Sanger 2015b; Sanger and Thomas 2010; Thompson 2006, 2007). Like many other early circular (p.27) village societies, such a layout may have served to downplay social distinctions, creating a kind of village panopticon discouraging individualizing behaviors and acts (see also Creese 2014; Sanger 2015b). For shell rings of the Georgia and South Carolina coasts, plazas were quite small, with shell ring diameters measuring, on average, 69 m (Russo 2014:23, Table 3.2); presumably, houses and activities would have been easily visible to all living along the ring.

Cooperating Villages, Habitat Exploitation, and the Shell Ring Landscape

Perhaps the largest gap in discussions of shell ring inhabitants is how such people ranged across the landscape. When we look at the survey data and the faunal record from shell ring sites, it is clear that the marsh estuarine system, the habitat located behind the barrier islands, was exploited most frequently, although this too is quite variable (Figure 2.2) (Pennings et al. 2012). If shell ring villages populated the landscape, then people from different communities would have encountered each other on a regular basis in the estuaries (Turck and Thompson 2016). The ties and structures that governed these encounters would require rules of engagement and access to resources, thus presenting a collective action issue of what constitutes public goods and who has access to which resources (e.g., shell beds, fishing spots) at the intervillage level.

Collective Action and Village Life during the Late Archaic on the Georgia Coast

Figure 2.2. Map of the Georgia Coast showing Sapelo and surrounding barrier islands and back barrier marsh estuarine landscape.

(p.28) As Cummings (2013:Locations 739–741) notes, sedentary hunter-gatherers often forage “beyond the immediate area of the village, thus maintaining access to, and knowledge of, a broader area.” This is certainly the case for the Georgia Coast, as Thompson and Turck (2010) and Thompson et al. (2013) found ample evidence for use of the back barrier landscape in the form of sites and artifact scatters dating to all time periods of Native occupation. In addition, it is clear from the species list from shell ring sites that while the vast majority of the fish are estuarine, freshwater fish are present in the middens (Colaninno 2010, 2011, 2012; Reitz 1988, 2014). Marrinan’s (2010:89, Table 4.7) analysis of the invertebrates from the Cannons Point Shell Ring, which includes Littorina irrorata, Busycon carica, Anadara ovalis, Tagelus plebius, Mercenaria mercenaria, Crassostrea virginica, Geukensia demissa, and Crytopleura costata, among others, indicates species taken from a wide range of habitats.

As a way of attempting to quantify habitat exploitation among Late Archaic fisher-hunter-gatherers, Andrus and Thompson (2012) conducted a reanalysis of the oxygen isotope data from the Sapelo Island Shell Ring complex. The data from this study suggests that both oysters and clams were taken from a wide variety of salinity habitats. And, while definitive areas of habitat collection cannot be identified, collection areas would have to be, assuming a relative salinity gradient, in the uppermost portions of the sounds, located some 20 km away. This result was unsurprising to us because canoe travel and the twice-daily tides would have easily facilitated such movement across great distances (Andrus and Thompson 2012:224; see also DePratter 2010:248 for a twentieth-century example). We suggest that, in part, the reason why shell ring inhabitants exploited diverse habitats was to not overexploit any one shell bed and thus was a type of “management” of such resources (Andrus and Thompson 2012:225; Thompson 2013).

There appear to be two collective action problems present if the above narrative fits shell rings. The first is that people from different communities would have encountered one another. Although we do not have a clear idea on the composition of task groups engaged in relations of production, likely this would have included diverse members of the community (i.e., men, women, and children of various ages) participating in gathering and fishing activities (see Marrinan 2010 and Thomas 2008 for thoughts on gender relations). Thus, it would seem that there would need to be some array of mechanisms for conflict resolution among villages 20 km or closer. In addition, there must have also been rules to govern the overexploitation of resources, or else we would see evidence of overexploitation in terms of diminishing oyster size over time. To date, it does not appear that Late Archaic peoples were overexploiting oyster according to our recent study from the Ossabaw Shell Ring (Lulewicz et al. 2017).

(p.29) Turck and Thompson (2016; see also Thompson and Moore 2015) propose that one way intervillage social relations were maintained on the Georgia Coast was through intervillage rituals and ceremonies (see Roscoe 2009 for another example of this). Thus, “while the central focus of shell rings was domestic life, the recurrent hosting of ceremonies and rituals would have helped suppress conflict over resources, as well as reaffirm rules concerning the use of resource areas (i.e., which were exclusively controlled by a single group as opposed to those that were held in common)” (Turck and Thompson 2016:52; see also Sanger 2015b). These periodic gatherings not only likely cemented symbolic ties but also created perhaps more long-lasting ones among communities. For example, the villages of the Yanomamo of South America are constantly fissioning and changing membership so that kin are living in distant villages (Chagnon 1988:990; Blanton and Fargher 2016:Locations 546–549). Shell ring villages likely did this as well. I also suggest that the people occupying shell rings practiced village exogamy, due to the postulated low populations of such communities (see Thompson and Moore 2015; see also Birch and Williamson, this volume, for another example). Such practices could help solve these encounter issues in the back-barrier region, as well as facilitate communication regarding shellfishing and fishing rights and access discussed above.

Conclusion

In this chapter I argue that the vast majority of shell rings represent coresidential village communities. I identify several types of collective action problems that the formation of villages likely presented to shell ring inhabitants at both the village and landscape scales. I suggest that there were several solutions to these problems, none of which required top-down hierarchical control. Instead, I present a narrative that explains the functioning of these villages as a highly cooperative, self-organizing system, rooted in local and regional interaction through rituals and the maintenance of collective mass capture facilities and fishing technology, and management of resources in the context of surplus production to support village life.

The shell rings of the Georgia and South Carolina coasts represent some of the earliest villages in the Eastern Woodlands. This, of course, is significant; however, this is even more of an interesting phenomenon when we consider how rapidly this took place. Although I have not discussed the temporal beginnings (see Turck and Thompson 2016) of shell ring villages, research by Turck (2012) indicates that this occurred rapidly as new populations moved into the region. Thus, not only did a new way of life emerge in this area, it did so as a whole host of contemporaneous villages at roughly the same time. If this truly is the case, then the mechanisms and networks that sustained these shell ring villages emerged rapidly along (p.30) with this rapid infilling of the landscape, until their decline at the end of the early Late Archaic, when seemingly new forms of living together emerged (Turck and Thompson 2016:52; see Kowalewski 2006 for details on such processes).

On a final note, researchers have spent the last two decades attempting to ferret out the nature of hierarchical relationships among groups of so-called complex hunter-gatherers (e.g., Arnold 1996; Hayden 1995; Gibson and Carr 2004; Russo 2004; Sassaman and Heckenberger 2004). We have seemingly forgotten that it takes real work to organize into larger cooperative groups (see Kowalewski 2013; Cobb, this volume). This work of getting along not only occurs at the village level but also must be mediated and maintained across vast networks of complex social relationships that were situated, at least in the current example in this chapter, in a highly fluctuating ecosystem with diverse habitats sensitive to human and climatic disturbance (see Thompson and Turck 2009). This, in my view, is the real power of villages, not located in the individual pursuit of prestige, but rather in the collective agency of these groups to negotiate the complex social and environmental landscape that being villagers entails.

Acknowledgments

This research was supported, in part, by a grant in association with the Georgia Coastal Ecosystems LTER project and two National Science Foundation grants (NSF grant OCE-0620959; OCE-123714). The Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GDNR), the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve, Department of Anthropology at The Ohio State University, Department of Anthropology at the University of West Florida, and the Department of Anthropology at the University of Georgia provided additional support. Several individuals were instrumental in supporting our fieldwork and include David Crass, Dorset Hurley, Fred Hay, Bryan Tucker, and Buddy Sullivan. The author has benefited immensely from conversations with Chester DePratter, John Turck, Matt Sanger, Matt Napolitano, and David Hurst Thomas regarding the Late Archaic shell rings. Finally, I am grateful to Charlie Cobb, David Anderson, Jennifer Birch, John Turck, Warren DeBoer, and Philip Carr, whose comments and critiques greatly improved this chapter.

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