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Bronze Age Economics: The First Political Economies

Author(s):Earle, Timothy
Reviewer(s):Graves, Michael W.
Grave, Michael W.

Published by EH.NET (June 2003)

Timothy Earle, Bronze Age Economics: The First Political Economies. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2002. xi + 452 pp. $95 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-8133-3969-3; $42 (paperback), ISBN: 0-8133-3877-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Michael W. Graves, Department of Anthropology, University of Hawai’i.

This book has been prepared as a companion piece to the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins’ (1972) influential work, Stone Age Economics. Earle, a former student of Sahlins, is well known for his archaeological research on the economy and polities of complex societies in Hawai’i, Andean South America, and northern Europe. This volume gathers together, for the most part, previously published pieces (some slightly revised), along with several new chapters that serve as introductions to the book’s major sections. The earliest chapter was originally published in 1977, the latest in 2001. What strikes one immediately about Earle is how contemporary is his writing and the consistency with which he has pursued his work in anthropology. So, this is not a volume of bits and pieces from the career of an archaeologist but one that is topical, well-integrated and mature throughout.

Earle has remained true to his original roots in the discipline; he is an anthropological archaeologist. As such, his research uses archaeological and ethnohistorical sources of data to advance ideas about ancient economics in societies that no longer exist in their traditional forms, and which span a period of time from 1700 BC through the early nineteenth century. What links these societies is their organization as complex chiefdoms and/or early states — hence the use of the word bronze in the title. Earle’s approach to understanding these entities emphasizes “. . . agricultural intensification, redistribution, prestige-goods exchange, political warfare and ideology” (p. 1), what today would fall under the rubric of political economy. Earle places himself within the community of processual archaeologists, those interested in understanding the general features of human behavior and practices as they evolved over time. What distinguishes him from his peers is the relative lack of emphasis on environmental and climatic factors in human behavioral change. His work is truly a processual form of social archaeology.

For Hawai’i, Earle’s research, carried out in the 1970s, first examined the relationship between irrigated forms of agriculture — in this case, pond field taro — and labor mobilization and organization. He found that contrary to some models (e.g., Wittfogel’s hydraulic hypothesis) that stipulated a necessary functional-evolutionary relationship between these variables, traditional Hawaiian irrigated agriculture did not necessitate the management of large units of labor. Rather, community-based models for agricultural management best fit the available data, and for the most part continue to do so today. With this as a base, Earle next assessed the redistributive model developed originally by the anthropologist Elman Service for chiefly economies, which highlighted its positive society reinforcing functional role. In Hawai’i, Earle suggested that redistribution was not so much to benefit society as it was to benefit elites. This is an important observation for it underlies the concept that in chiefdoms (and other complex organizations) not all individuals occupy comparable structural roles or have access to the same range and quality of resources. Some individuals do better than others and there are political reasons why this was and is the case. Earle has extended his research in Hawai’i to include work on the iconography of style used by Hawaiian chiefs and the extent to which there was specialization in the production of certain artifact forms.

For his Andean research, Earle and his colleagues began a study of the Upper Mantaro Valley, Peru, in what was to become a portion of the Inka Empire in the fifteenth century. It was here that Earle distinguished staple finance and wealth finance in complex political organizations. The former was defined by its role in producing and distributing subsistence and other basic resources (e.g., housing). Wealth, on the other hand, referred to valuables and other commodities that generally were of limited distribution and had high labor costs. Note that these distinctions are not entirely new to Earle, but had been partially developed by the anthropologist Polyani in his discussion of substantive or instituted economic processes.

For Earle, staples are absolutely critical to the survival of individuals/households but generally have high transport costs and can be stored for only limited amounts of time. Objects of wealth, often convertible in terms of staples, are more easily transported and stored. The two are critical components of all archaic states, with the Inka and its precursors exhibiting a trend over time towards increasing extraction of labor specialized in the production and distribution of prestige-goods. Earle and his associates have also contributed to bettering our understanding of the forms that specialization can take, with attached specialists making their appearance in the transition to the archaic state. Under this scenario, increasing wealth finance also spurred additional agricultural intensification in order to support the associated costs of acquiring valuables. Wealth finance, as documented by Earle, was used to underwrite political strategies of elites in early complex societies. Increasingly these strategies resulted in accumulations of wealth in contexts that were more and more distant from the locations where production occurred.

These themes continue in Earle’s most recent research focused on the Bronze Age chiefdom of Thy in northern Denmark. He documents a shift to a system of wealth finance where chiefs occupied critical nodes in an economic network both intra-regionally and inter-regionally/internationally. They are associated with elite residential architecture and were buried in elaborate graves, often with bronze swords and other exotic materials. This system later collapsed as the international source of prestige goods (or materials) was cut-off and as new prestige-goods, most importantly amber, replaced earlier forms. Earle suggests that cattle production was controlled by chiefs and was employed as the basis for export by the early Bronze Age development of chiefdoms in Thy. This form of chiefly economy — networked, drawing on imported exotic materials and artifacts, and based on cattle production for export — was inherently unstable, especially as amber replaced cattle as an export commodity.

These brief synopses of Earle’s research in the ancient political economy of Hawai’i, the Andes, and Europe cannot fully capture the scope and depth of his observations and conclusions. This book reflects his leadership in this area of archaeology and anthropology. Clearly, Earle has pursued a research program that has cohered around a common theme: the political and economic strategies of elites in ancient or traditional societies and their impacts on one another and other segments of society. One consequence of this is that non-elites do not receive the same amount of attention and that sometimes makes it appear that elites are free to do what they please. Of course, they are not, as much as they may sometimes believe otherwise.

I also note a concern, with Earle’s use of “society” as an interpretive or analytic unit, as for instance in, ancient Hawaiian society. This issue brings us back to the point made earlier: the value of a political economy approach lies in its awareness that societies are differentiated into groups/individuals that pursue their own self-interests. Treating societies as wholes or as entities runs the risk of losing sight of these differences and the dynamic they generate in behavioral change.

Some societies, such as Hawai’i, were comprised of multiple polities, not all of which were created equal, had the same environmental conditions, or were characterized by the same range and distribution of economic practices. Individual polities changed over time and at any given time were comprised by multiple communities. These communities did not all appear simultaneously, nor did they necessarily occupy comparable sets of environments. In the search for generalizations and synthesis, Earle occasionally loses sight of these facts and Hawaiian society appears more homogeneous than it was.

Still, this volume is a valuable contribution to the literature on ancient complex societies and their political economies by one of the authorities in this field. From a lifetime of scholarship on this topic, Earle has chosen some of his best work to share with us again, and in doing so has re-integrated these writings into a new volume that demonstrates why the study of political economy endures as a topic in archaeological and anthropological research.

Michael Graves’ current research focuses on the explanation of the evolution of social complexity in Hawai’i and elsewhere in Polynesia, the development of models linking geographical information systems to agricultural practices, and the application of stylistic analyses to explain the evolution of social units and patterns of diversification. Recent publications include Archaeological Evidence for Agricultural Development in Kohala, Island of Hawai’i, Journal of Archaeological Science (with Thegn N. Ladefoged and Mark D. McCoy), 2003, 30:923-940.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):Prehistoric