Population growth has long been proposed as a central factor in the development of complex social organization and the emergence of ranking, and the general importance of understanding the scale of human communities has been newly emphasized by the anthropologist John C. Whitelaw. While state-level societies tend to have relatively large populations, egalitarian societies tend to be relatively small due to limitations with their ability to sustain larger more complex social organizations that meet the needs of the community. Archeologists are unwilling to go beyond simply postulating the existence of a direct causal relationship between population and social complexity and rarely theorize about the precise nature of this relationship or how it might be explained. Anthropologists, however, have discussed the issue at length.
The anthropological model proposes a direct causal link between the size of a community and the structures of its social organization. As a community’s size grows larger, the structures of its social organization must also grow to support the increased population. Such a relational growth pattern between community and social organizations reaches a threshold, where once this population capacity has been reached, the social structures are no longer able to support the community’s needs.
The basic premise is that human processing ability and social structures have a limited capacity, and it is suggested that once a community has reached a certain ‘population threshold,’ neither the human brain nor existing social structures will be able to cope. It follows that unless the community fragments into smaller groups, reorganization of social structures becomes inevitable. This reorganization could take the form of revolution or the disintegration of the social community into smaller social communities which then compete with each other. This model has most often been illustrated with modern ethnographic data, where correlations can be made to past societies by considering the lowest of these population thresholds – the point at which egalitarian societies begin to show social status differentiation.
The Early Bronze Age (EBA) Aegean provides a clear example as a case study, as the relative abundance of publications about this period allows for an independent discussion of population sizes and the evidence for social complexity. The appearance of social complexity in the EBA Aegean has been a topic of debate for many years. Seeking to demonstrate the indigenous emergence of the palatial societies of Minoan Crete and Mycenaean Greece, archeologists in the 1970s suggested a gradual development from earlier systems of ranking and social differentiation. Initially, there was disagreement as to whether the social complexity proposed for the Early Bronze II period could be reliably established. Although a general consensus has now been reached that ranked societies did indeed develop in several locations during EB II, the theories of gradual development from these to the later palatial societies have been undermined by the apparent discontinuity in the intervening EB III period. Thus, the history and development of these later palatial societies has yet to be firmly established and is still intensely debated by scholars to this day.
A survey of both the archeological and anthropological literature shows a clear correlation between the increase in multi-family complexes, on the periphery of the larger city states. Due to carbon dating techniques and varying methods of construction used by EBA masons, the rate of the expansion of these complexes radiating outward can be compared with the development and expansion of the social and political institutions within the city states. Such information is available to us due to the wide range of extant manuscripts of legal and governmental proceedings.
By mapping the expansion of these compounds and correlating the data with projected years of construction, the rate of population growth can be reasonably estimated. When this model of population growth is compared with the accounts of the social and political organizations, a direct correlation of social complexity with population growth begins to appear. Although this methodology is still in its infancy, it offers great promise in answering questions relating to the correlations between population and social complexity and offers the opportunity to test the anthropologists’ theory of social complexity.
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