On his book Orderly Anarchy: Sociopolitical Evolution in Aboriginal California

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In a nutshell

Orderly Anarchy places the Indians of California in modern evolutionary perspective. It disputes the traditional, stage by stage, cultural evolutionary interpretation in which hunter-gatherers represent a primitive, unevolved stage of a developmental sequence that advances with the development of agriculture, the widening of social inequality, and emergence of ever more complex hierarchical social systems, eventually to civilization and the state. In that view, the simpler forms of social organization centered on the nuclear family or a few such families that characterize many California groups represent the earliest form of human sociopolitical development. Orderly Anarchy shows the opposite: these small social groups are a highly evolved organizational form that appeared quite recently, triggering development of an orderly anarchy: a beneficial arrangement between otherwise autonomous, wholly self-interested family-based units in the absence of a higher level of authority to guarantee their good faith interaction. A question immediately raised is why the California version of orderly anarchy developed so late in time, within the last 1500 years?

Orderly Anarchy argues that this was the result of a major technological breakthrough, the development of bow and arrow technology, which made hunters much more efficient food providers. While this could have encouraged the formation of larger social groupings, in California and the adjacent Great Basin it often had the opposite effect. Groups that once needed to be large, to pool and share scarce resources owing to the inefficiencies of ill-equipped hunters, could now be smaller. Quite surprisingly, this had the effect of incentivizing more intensive plant procurement, which had formerly been discouraged by what is known as the “freeloader problem”, the tendency of individuals to limit their contribution to collective enterprises (in this case the acquisition of costly plant foods), for fear that others will contribute less while enjoying an equal share of the proceeds. The smaller, more closely related groups that developed with the introduction of the bow ended the freeloader problem, and the subsistence balance quickly shifted toward abundant, albeit costly to procure and process, plant foods, the acorn (Quercus spp., Lithocarpus) specifically.

The key development following this shift was the privatization of plant food; the convention that collected plant food was a private, not public, good. This permitted small groups, which had formerly lived in isolation, to pursue intensive plant procurement while co-residing with other groups, secure in the knowledge that the hard work they expended would go to their families exclusively. The capstone development in this trajectory was the development of money, which facilitated on the spot transfer of resources between individuals and families without compromising their autonomy. That gathered food could be sold and the proceeds used to buy other things (dowry, tools, ornaments) further encouraged subsistence intensification. In the upshot of these developments, California became more densely settled than any other place in aboriginal North America – hunter-gatherer or agricultural – while group size remained remarkably small, as shown by the remarkable linguistic diversity one sees in California, which accounts for only 2% of the land, yet nearly a third of all the native languages spoken north of Mexico.

October 19, 2016

The wide angle

Orderly Anarchy is about hunter-gatherer California specifically but has three broader theoretical implications.

The first is that self-interest is central to much of the human evolutionary trajectory. This becomes clear if it is understood that human populations can grow very large, very fast, and yet did not do so until relatively late in time, even though many of the behavioral or technological innovations directly responsible for that growth are of themselves unproblematic. The storage of food, for example, is not technically demanding, yet develops very late in time in California, owing to the freeloader problem mentioned earlier: that freeloaders benefitted from the extra effort expended by others was a strong disincentive to the acquisition and caching of food by individuals beyond their immediate needs. The privatization of food incentivized its acquisition and storage in bulk and the California population almost immediately exploded. I have argued that the development of agriculture was delayed for the same reasons, until the privatization of grown food incentivized that mode of production, and there are doubtless other examples.

The second implication for theory has to do with the course and scope of human cultural evolution, which has traditionally been viewed with respect to the suite of trajectories leading through agriculture to state-level systems as they emerged in Mesoamerica, South America, Africa, and Eurasia. This is certainly an important trajectory, but it ignores the many equally interesting evolutionary trajectories of groups that were hunter-gatherer from start to finish, as though nothing interesting had happened, nothing of importance had evolved, over the thousands of years these groups were in existence. It was largely to correct this misunderstanding that I wrote Orderly Anarchy.

The third implication has to do with the susceptibility of different foods to expropriation, which has to do with where the bulk of labor is expended in their procurement and processing. The basic contrast is between what I have termed front-loaded and back-loaded resources. Front-loaded resources are costly to acquire and store but easy to prepare for consumption. Salmon, for example, require sophisticated technology to capture (spears, nets, traps), and must be carefully dried to prevent spoilage, but from that point on require relatively little to be made ready to eat. In contrast, back-loaded resources are easy to collect and store, but costly to prepare for consumption. Acorns, for example, are easily collected by hand and stored in some sheltered place, but after that must be processed to remove tannic acid before they are consumed, which is very costly. The difference between the front-loaded salmon and back-loaded acorn has huge implications for expropriation. Because most of the work has already been done, caches filled with front-loaded salmon are much more attractive to freeloaders, thieves, and raiders than are caches filled with the back-loaded acorn, for which most of the work has still to be done. There is evidence that some northern California groups that had access to both selected acorns over salmon because acorns entailed less risk of expropriation. The same logic certainly applies more broadly to agricultural crops and industrial products in both ancient and modern contexts.

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A close-up

The discussion and arguments are generally easy to follow. Even so, my guess is that the casual reader will most likely turn first to the graphics, which were chosen to highlight key parts of the argument or at least the parts most important to me – though the connection might not appear obvious. I particularly like Figure 5.3, in which Ms. Freddie, a Hupa woman, demonstrates the various steps in leaching acorn meal to make it palatable. I chose this series to underscore the importance of the acorn, which was the single most important foodstuff across nearly the whole of California, entailing significant amounts of female labor, most of it expended as acorn was being prepared for consumption, making acorn a back-loaded resource with reduced risk of expropriation.

I am pleased, too, with Box 3.1, illustrating various forms of California and Great Basin seed beaters, the specialized tools connected with intensive seed procurement in these places but nowhere else in ethnographic North America. Here the connection is to the larger argument that the relatively simple aboriginal sociopolitical organizations of these western Native American groups are the culmination of a long evolutionary trajectory characterized by ever-increasing inputs of female labor, and the implications of this for understanding hunter-gatherer lifeways in modern evolutionary perspective.

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Orderly Anarchy draws heavily on modern evolutionary theory, including evolutionary game theory and related models that incorporate cultural transmission, but differs from the usual offering in those areas in its careful attention to historical context and detail, and the effect of those on trajectories of development.

Evolutionary theorists are aware of the importance of context and detail, of course, but these are by definition beyond theoretical explanation. I would like to see Orderly Anarchy serve as model for future studies incorporating the effect of evolutionary process and historical circumstance, examining their mutual interaction.

In the last analysis, while theory is essential, it is the historical component that makes Orderly Anarchy a case study about native Californians – real people, living real lives, rather than one-dimensional cutouts interesting only to the extent that they do what theory predicts they should do.

October 19, 2016
Robert L. Bettinger Orderly Anarchy: Sociopolitical Evolution in Aboriginal California University of California Press 312 pages, 6 x 9 inches 9780520283336

Robert L. Bettinger, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at UC Davis, is an authority on ethnographic and archaeological hunter-gatherers, the modeling of their behavior, and analysis of the hunter-gatherer record in the western US and China. He is recipient of the 2007 Society for American Archaeology Award for Excellence in Archaeological Analysis, the 2007 Society for California Archaeology M. A. Baumhoff Special Achievement Award, and 2016 Society for American Archaeology Book Award (Scholarly Category) for Orderly Anarchy: Sociopolitical Evolution in Aboriginal California. In addition he is the author of Hunter-Gatherers: Archaeological and Evolutionary Theory (first edition 1991; lead co-author of second edition 2016), Hunter-Gatherer Foraging: Five Simple Models (2009), and many peer-reviewed book chapters and journal articles.

Cover Interview of
October 19, 2016