The neoevolutionist explanations of the ancient state: toward a universal perspective on state development

After a period of hegemony of cultural historicism in the 1930s and 1940s, the universal evolutionary approach gained some traction in archaeological theorizing. In this case, American anthropologists such as Leslie White and Julian Steward, heirs of Morgan’s thought, promoted an evolutionary perspective that incorporated the concept of culture but favored the establishment of universal laws of human behavior (White 1949; Steward 1949). They envisioned this as a process that included both the ancient world and the modern world. Evolutionism for Steward was multilinear and based on an ecological determinism for the explanation of the development of cultures and, especially, of great civilizations.

Peru became a focus of attention as one of the great centers of early civilizations and the state. This recognition of the early creation of state-like civilizations in Peru by Steward paved the way for future research. Steward’s research was essential in creating a comparative framework, with the Andes as a key case study. The radiocarbon revolution also helped to date archaeological contexts related to possible early states, indicating a greater time depth for Peruvian culture than originally anticipated.

As mentioned, although the neoevolutionist framework was eagerly adopted by Andeanists, the culture concept likewise remained embedded in the explanations of pre-Hispanic societies. For example, Steward and Faron (1959) used the concept of culture as a core part of the way in which distributions of ceramic styles were defined and, consequently, how these cultures were related to state societies. This approach is best described as evolutionary-cultural and ecological-cultural (Steward and Faron 1959).

In addition, Steward’s proposal on the importance of irrigation for the development of state societies was central to his theoretical work (Steward and Faron 1959). The influence of Karl Wittfogel’s work was obvious in his publications (Steward 1955 [I960]: 2). These authors proposed that civilization first developed in the Formative era with the emergence of “theocratic states” in “cultures” such as Chavin and Cupisnique (Steward and Faron 1959: 67).

Donald Collier and Richard Schaedel, followers of Steward, contributed to this approach as well. They followed Willey and his colleagues, who created the first regional research design on the northern coast of Peru (Collier 1962: 172). Again, we see here an evolutionary tradition combined with a heavy emphasis on cultural history that echoed the criteria proposed by Childe (1997 11936], 1950) to establish the urban revolution in the Andes. This revolution took place in the “Classic Period.” Collier identified the Moche as belonging to this period, implicitly suggesting that Moche was the first Andean state.

At the end of the 1940s, Julian Steward, who together with Bennett had motivated Willey to carry out the Viru project, also pointed to the north coast of Peru as the home of the first hydraulic (irrigation) civilizations in the Wittfogelian sense. Intensive irrigation agriculture was the key to the development of these societies. In this way, Peru became one of its pristine civilizations of the world, with empirical patterns that nicely dovetailed with current evolutionary thinking.

In the 1960s, with an important number of researchers studying pre-Hispanic societies in the Andes, an important debate emerged about the cities and ceremonial centers. Among the researchers who focused on this particular topic, it is necessary to highlight Richard Schaedel (1966, 1978, 1980), who advanced a series of ideas regarding urbanism and the state. These ideas would be tested by archaeologists in the field.

For his part, John Rowe (1963), in his article “Urban Settlements in Ancient Peru,” identified the existence in the Andean pre-Hispanic world of “towns” and “cities” and the way in which these could be seen in the archaeological record. Rowe distinguished between towns and cities as “synchoritic” or “achoritic” (presence or absence of diorites or countrymen) depending on whether there was a dispersed population around the main settlement or not.

Along with archaeological field data, information from ethnohistorical sources provided an independent dataset for the reconstruction of pre-Hispanic economic and political forms. The works of John Rowe and John Murra are relevant here. In addition, in the mid-1950s, Murra explored economic models based on a form of Andean particularism, a perspective that would open up a whole debate about the nature of human relationships in this part of the world before the arrival of the Spaniards. His perspective, strongly influenced by Karl Polanyi’s substantivist economic anthropology, focused the attention of researchers on the economic foundations of ancient societies such as the Incas. His work in Huanuco, and, especially, the one carried out together with Craig Morris in the site of Huanuco Pampa in the 1960s, established a series of approaches and hypotheses that have served to guide the investigation over the last decades.

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