The Chesapeake World-System: Complexity, hierarchy and pulsations

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The Chesapeake World-System:

Complexity, hierarchy and pulsations

of long range interaction in prehistory

Christopher Chase-Dunn


Johns Hopkins University


Thomas D. Hall


DePauw University

Paper to be presented at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association, Washington DC, February 19, 1999 session on “International Relations in Precontact North America: the World-System of the Chesapeake.” This shell gorget was found near the village of the Patawomeke werowance on the Potomac River. The weeping eye or thunderbird motif is similar to a Mississippian design.

Draft v.2-1-99. Comments and corrections welcome.

[table of contents]

This paper provides a brief overview of the comparative world-systems approach and explicates our concepts of “pulsation” and “rise and fall.” It then paints a synchronic portrait of the structures of the world-system of the Chesapeake in 1608 and examines the phenomena of pulsations and rise and fall as they may have occurred in the previous eleven millennia. Readers who are already familiar with the comparative world-systems approach can skip ahead.

World-systems ideas have been widely applied to premodern systems and the relevant literature on North America before the coming of the Europeans has grown in recent years (e.g. Nassaney and Sassaman 1995; Peregrine and Feinman1996; Chase-Dunn and Hall 1998; Chase-Dunn and Mann 1998). This paper focuses on the Chesapeake region in order to comprehend both its uniquenesses and its relevance to questions posed by the comparative world-systems approach.

The world-systems perspective emerged as a theoretical approach for modeling and interpreting the expansion and deepening of the European system as it engulfed the globe over the past 500 years (Wallerstein 1974; Chase-Dunn 1998; Arrighi 1994).1 The idea of a core/periphery hierarchy composed of "advanced" economically developed and powerful states dominating and exploiting "less developed" peripheral regions has been a central concept in the world-systems perspective. In the last decade the world-systems approach has been extended to the analysis of earlier and smaller intersocietal systems. Andre Gunder Frank and Barry Gills (1993) have argued that the contemporary world system is a continuation of a 5000-year old system that emerged with the first states in Mesopotamia. Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997) have modified the basic world-systems concepts to make them useful for a comparative study of very different kinds of systems. We include very small intergroup networks composed of sedentary foragers, as well as larger systems containing chiefdoms, early states, agrarian empires and the contemporary global political economy in our scope of comparison.

The comparative world-systems perspective is designed to be general enough to allow comparisons between quite different systems. We define world-systems as important networks of interaction that impinge upon a local society and condition social reproduction and social change. We note that different kinds of interaction often have distinct spatial characteristics and degrees of importance in different sorts of systems. We hold that the question of the nature and degree of systemic interaction between two locales is prior to the question of core/periphery relations. Indeed we make the existence of core/periphery relations an empirical question in each case, rather than an assumed characteristic of all world-systems.

Spatially bounding world-systems necessarily must proceed from a locale-centric beginning rather than from a whole-system focus. This is because all human societies, even nomadic hunter-gatherers, interact importantly with neighboring societies. Thus if we consider all indirect interactions to be of systemic importance (even very indirect ones) then there has been a single global world-system since humankind spread to all the continents. But we note that interaction networks, while they were always intersocietal, have not always been global in the sense that actions in one region had major and relatively quick effects on distant regions. When transportation and communications were over short distances the world-systems that affected people were small.

Thus we use the notion of "fall-off" of effects over space to bound the networks of interaction that importantly impinge upon any focal locale. The world-system of which any locality is a part includes those peoples whose actions in production, communication, warfare, alliance and trade have a large and interactive impact on that locality. It is also important to distinguish between endogenous systemic interaction processes and exogenous impacts that may importantly change a system but are not part of that system. So maize diffused from Mesoamerica to Eastern North America, but that need not mean that the two areas were part of the same world-system. Or a virulent microparasite might contact a population with no developed immunity and ravage that population. But such an event does not necessarily mean that the region from which the microparasite came and the region it penetrated are parts of a single interactive system. Interactions must be two-way and regularized to be systemic. One shot deals do not a system make.

We note that in most intersocietal systems there are several important networks of different spatial scales that impinge upon any particular locale:

  • Information Networks (INs)

  • Prestige Goods Networks (PGNs)

  • Political/Military Networks (PMNs), and

  • Bulk Goods Networks (BGNs).

The largest networks are those in which information travels. Information is light and it travels a long way, even in systems based on down-the-line interaction.2 We call these Information Networks (INs). A usually somewhat smaller interaction network is based on the exchange of prestige goods or luxuries that have a high value/weight ratio. Such goods travel far, even in down-the-line systems. We call these Prestige Goods Networks (PGNs). The next largest interaction net is composed of polities that are allying or making war with one another. These we call Political/Military Networks (PMNs). And the smallest networks are those based on a division of labor in the production of basic everyday necessities such a food and raw materials. We call these Bulk Goods Networks (BGNs). Figure 1 illustrates how these interaction networks are spatially related in many world-systems.

The first question for any focal locale is about the nature and spatial characteristics of its links with the above four interaction nets. This is prior to any consideration of core/periphery position because one region must be linked to another by systemic interaction in order for consideration of core/periphery relations to be relevant.

The spatial characteristics of these networks clearly depend on many things – the costs of transportation and communications -- and whether interaction was only with neighbors or whether are regularized long-distance trips being made. Because these factors affect all kinds of interactions, we expect the relative sizes of the networks only to approximate what is shown in Figure 1. As an educated guess we would suppose that fall-off in the PMN generally occurs after two or three indirect links. Suppose group A is fighting and allying with its immediate neighbors and with the immediate neighbors of its neighbors. So its direct links extend to the neighbors of the neighbors. But how many indirect links will involve actions that will importantly affect this original group? It is our guess that the number of indirect links that bound a PMN are either two or three. As polities get larger and interactions occur over greater distances each indirect link extends much farther across space. But the point of important fall-off will usually be after either two or three indirect links.

We divide the conceptualization of core/periphery relations into two analytically separate aspects:

  • core/periphery differentiation, and

  • core/periphery hierarchy.

Core/periphery differentiation exists when two societies are in systemic interaction with one another and one of these has higher population density and/or greater complexity than the other. The second aspect, core/periphery hierarchy, exists when one society dominates or exploits another. These two aspects often go together because a society with greater population density/complexity usually has more power than a society with less of these, and so can effectively dominate/exploit the less powerful neighbor. But there are important instances of reversal (e.g. the less dense, less complex Central Asian steppe nomads exploited agrarian China) and so we want to make this analytical separation so that the actual relations can be determined in each case. We also note that the question of core/periphery relations needs to be asked at each level of interaction designated above. It is more difficult to project power over long distances and so we should not expect to find strong core/periphery hierarchies at the level of Information or Prestige Goods Networks.

Using this conceptual apparatus we can construct spatio-temporal chronographs for how the social structures and interaction nets of the human population changed their spatial scales to eventuate in the single global political economy of today. In Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997: 203) Figure 10.1 uses PMNs as the unit of analysis to show how a "Central" PMN composed of the merging of the Mesopotamian and Egyptian PMNs in about 1500 BCE eventually incorporated all the other PMNs into itself.

World-system Cycles: Rise-and-Fall and Pulsations

Comparative study reveals that all world-systems exhibit cyclical processes of change. We focus here on two major cyclical phenomena: the rise and fall of large polities, and pulsations in the spatial extent and intensity of trade networks. What we call “rise and fall” corresponds to changes in the centralization of political/military power in a set of polities. It is a question of the relative size of and distribution of power across a set of interacting polities. The term “cycling” has been used to describe this phenomenon as it operates among chiefdoms (Anderson 1994 and below).

We note that all world-systems in which there are hierarchical polities experience a cycle in which relatively larger polities grow in power and size and then decline. This applies to interchiefdom systems as well as interstate systems, to systems composed of empires, and to the modern rise and fall of hegemonic core powers (e.g. Britain and the United States). Though very egalitarian and small scale systems such as the sedentary foragers of Northern California (Chase-Dunn and Mann, 1998) do not display a cycle of rise and fall, they may experience other related sorts of cycle.3

All systems, including even very small and egalitarian ones, exhibit cyclical expansions and contractions in the spatial extent and intensity of exchange networks. We call this sequence of trade expansion and contraction pulsation. Different kinds of trade (especially bulk goods trade vs. prestige goods trade) usually have different spatial characteristics. It is also possible that different sorts of trade exhibit different temporal sequences of expansion and contraction. It should be an empirical question in each case as to whether or not changes in the volume of exchange correspond to changes in its spatial extent.

The simplest hypothesis regarding the temporal relationships between rise-and-fall and pulsation is that they occur in tandem. Whether or not this is so, and how it might differ in distinct types of world-systems, is a set of problems that are amenable to empirical research.

In earlier work we have presented evidence regarding the answer to some of these questions.4 We have contended that the causal processes of rise and fall differ depending on the predominant mode of accumulation. One big difference between the rise and fall of empires and the rise and fall of modern hegemons is in the degree of centralization achieved within the core. Tributary systems alternate back and forth between a structure of multiple and competing core states on the one hand and core-wide (or nearly core-wide) empires on the other. The modern interstate system experiences the rise and fall of hegemons, but these never take over the other core states to form a core-wide empire. This is the case because modern hegemons are pursuing a capitalist, rather than a tributary form of accumulation.

Analogously rise and fall works somewhat differently in interchiefdom systems because the institutions that facilitate the extraction of resources from distant groups are less fully developed in chiefdom systems. David G. Anderson’s (1994) study of the rise and fall of Mississippian chiefdoms in the Savannah River valley provides an excellent, comprehensive review of the anthropological and sociological literature about what Anderson calls “cycling,” the processes by which a chiefly polity extended control over adjacent chiefdoms and erected a two-tiered hierarchy of administration over the tops of local communities. At a later point these regionally-centralized chiefly polities disintegrated back toward a system of smaller and less hierarchical polities.

Chiefs relied more completely on hierarchical kinship relations, control of ritual hierarchies, and control of prestige goods imports than do the rulers of true states. These chiefly techniques of power are all highly dependent on normative integration and ideological consensus. States developed specialized organizations for extracting resources that chiefdoms lacked -- standing armies and bureaucracies. And states and empires in the tributary world-systems were more dependent on the projection of armed force over great distances than modern hegemonic core states have been. The development of commodity production and mechanisms of financial control, as well as further development of bureaucratic techniques of power, have allowed modern hegemons to extract resources from far-away places with much less overhead cost.

The development of techniques of power have made core/periphery relations ever more important for competition among core powers and have altered the way in which the rise-and-fall process works in other respects.

We have argued that population growth in interaction with the environment, and changes in productive technology and social structure produce social evolution that is marked by cycles and periodic jumps (Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997:Chapter 6). This is because any world-system varies around an equilibrium or mean due both to internal instabilities and environmental fluctuations. Occasionally, on one of the upswings a system solves its problems in a new way that allows substantial expansion. We want to explain expansions, evolutionary changes in system logic, and collapses. That is the point of comparing world-systems.

The plan of this paper is to present a synchronic portrayal of the Chesapeake system in the early seventeenth century and then to explore the processes of rise and fall and pulsation that led up to that consequence. Multiscalar spatial analysis has recently been advocated and applied to the Southeast and the Midwest by the studies contained in Nassaney and Sassaman (1995). Decisions about the importance of diffusion, migration and in situ development should not be a matter of the predilections of lumpers or splitters. In each case we need to examine the evidence to decide what happened. Nassaney and Sassaman also recommend a multiscalar temporal analysis that compehends short-run, middle-run and the longue duree in a single comparative framework. This is the approach that we wish to apply to the Chesapeake.
The Chesapeake System in the Time of Captain Smith

Captain John Smith’s reconnaissance of the Chesapeake Bay in 1607 and 1608 and his detailed map provide a window on the indigenous world-system before it was massively disrupted by the coming of Europeans. Smith knew the Powhatan dialect of Algonquian and his geopolitical strategies made him pay close attention to the niceties of alliances and enmities among the native groups that he encountered (Potter 1993:181).

Figure 2: John Smith’s map of the Chesapeake.

The literature on this region and period is huge and we have only been able to read some of it. 5 The combination of documentary, linguistic and archaeological evidence has produced a fairly clear picture of the world-system of the Chesapeake in 1608 and this helps us to interpret the archaeological evidence from earlier periods.

The linguistic situation in the early sixteenth century had different dialects of the Eastern Algonquian language stock spoken on the entire Chesapeake (See Figure 3). The Algonquian-speaking peoples may have migrated from the Great Lakes region in a number of waves over the past two millennia (Potter 1993:3) To the west in the piedmont of the Blue Ridge mountains were groups of Souixan speakers (the Monacans and the Mannahoacs)6 and on the Susquehanna River at the northern end of the Chesapeake Bay there were the Iroquoian-speaking Susquehannocks. Another group of Iroquoian-speaking people, the Massawomecks, were raiding and trading into the Chesapeake from a homeland somewhere to the northwest (Pendergast 1991). To the south of the Chesapeake there were Algonquin speakers near the coast (Chawanoc, Weapemeoc and Roanoke) and southern Iroquoian speakers near the fall line between the coastal plain and the piedmont terrain (Nottoway, Meherrin and Tuscarora). 7 Thus there were three major language stocks, each with several dialects, many of which were mutually unintelligible.

Figure 3: Language stocks and dialects in the Chesapeake region circa 1607 (Rountree 1993a: frontispiece).

Bounding the Chesapeake Interaction Networks

This is a rough effort to determine the nature and scale of the interaction networks of the Chesapeake world-system based on the descriptions found in the published literature. A more thorough study would code reports of interaction events from the documentary literature and utilize linguistic and archaeological evidence to test hypotheses about interaction densities, ranges and fall-off (e.g. Chase-Dunn and Mann 1998).

As we have mentioned above, the bounding of world-systems requires that we begin at some point in space. The obvious choice, because of evidence and structure, is to put the Powhatan paramount chiefdom in the center and to survey the interaction networks and core/periphery relations from this vantage point.

The Powhatan chiefdom is named after the individual (also called Wahunsenacawh) who held the position of paramount chief (mamanatowick) over about thirty smaller chiefdoms or districts, each with its own “werowance,” or chief. Powhatan’s original home village was very near what is now Richmond, Virginia on the James River. Chief Powhatan had inherited control of nine small districts on the upper portions of the James and York Rivers. In the last years of the sixteenth century he initiated a series of campaigns of expansion by conquest which successfully extended his control over all the districts on the lower James and York Rivers as well as the south end of the Chesapeake Bay. The Powhatan paramountcy also induced tribute payments from districts on the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers and across the bay (what is now Virginia’s Eastern Shore).

Just north of the Powhatan paramountcy was another large polity on the north shore of the tidewater Potomac River just below what is now the District of Columbia, the so-called Conoy paramount chiefdom, whose paramount chief (“tayac”) was a Piscataway. The smaller chiefdoms of the Patuxent River were not part of the Conoy paramountcy, and neither were the groups along the southern shore of the tidewater Potomac. The Conoy paramountcy probably emerged by about 1500 as the first large chiefly polity of the protohistoric period. By the time of Captain Smith it had already begun to decline with the secession of the Patowomeke (Potter 1993:150). Here is a Chesapeake instance of

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