Warfare, Population, and Society in Late Prehistoric Eastern North America

Friday, 13 February 2015: 1:30 PM-4:30 PM
Room LL21E (San Jose Convention Center)
George R. Milner,Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA
George Chaplin, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA
Archaeological remains provide a temporally deep perspective on small-scale society warfare. Despite such societies being characterized as typically peaceful or excessively warlike – views common among scholars and the public alike – evidence shows that there was much variation in intergroup relations over time and space. Two challenges currently face archaeologists: obtaining data from geographical regions that are sufficiently large to detect regional patterning instead of purely local events, and linking those patterns to measurable demographic, societal, and environmental change. Late prehistoric eastern North America (ca. AD 1000-1600) is a particularly good area to examine long-term trends in small-society warfare because of an abundance of archaeological materials. Compilations of settlement and skeletal data indicate the nature and intensity of late prehistoric warfare differed across the region, and that variation is plausibly tied to climatic (hence environmental) change, population distribution and density, and sociopolitical systems. An archaeological marker of attempts to forge alliances and dampen tensions, dating mostly to the 16th century, has a geographical distribution complementing signs of outright war. This research highlights the need to adopt a broader regional perspective than is commonly done, in this instance on the order of three million km2. Furthermore, systematically collected archaeological information is sufficient to show that the temporally and spatially variable nature of warfare in the distant past is partly explicable in terms of the material conditions of life. Long histories of conflict, however, also apparently played a part since societies were sometimes unable to extricate themselves from hostile relations, even in situations where there was relatively little pressure on essential resources.