Researchers studied thousands of ceramic and obsidian artifacts from 1200-1450 AD to learn about the growth, collapse and change of social networks in the late pre-Hispanic Southwest.
The study led by University of Arizona anthropologist Barbara Mills, sheds light on the transformation of social networks and shows that people of that period were able to maintain surprisingly long-distance relationships with nothing more than their feet to connect them.
They found that early social networks do not appear to have been as restricted as expected by settlements’ physical distance from one another.
Researchers found that similar types of painted pottery were being created and used in villages as far as 250 kilometres apart, suggesting people were maintaining relationships across relatively large geographic expanses.
“They were making, using and discarding very similar kinds of assemblages over these very large spaces, which means that a lot of their daily practises were the same,” Mills said.
“That doesn’t come about by chance, it has to come about by interaction – the kind of interaction where it’s not just a simple exchange but where people are learning how to make and how to use and ultimately discard different kinds of pottery,” she said in a statement.
“That really shocked us, this idea that you can have such long distance connections. In the pre-Hispanic Southwest they had no real vehicles, they had no beasts of burden, so they had to share information by walking,” she said.
The study is based on analysis of more than 800,000 painted ceramic and more than 4,800 obsidian artifacts dating from 1200-1450 AD, uncovered from more than 700 sites in what is now Arizona and western New Mexico.
Researchers found that while a large social network in the southern part of the Southwest grew very large and then collapsed, networks in the northern part of the Southwest became more fragmented but persisted over time.
“Network scientists often talk about how increasingly connected networks become, or the ‘small world’ effect, but our study shows that this isn’t always the case,” said Mills.
“Our long-term study shows that there are cycles of growth and collapse in social networks when we look at them over centuries. Highly connected worlds can become highly fragmented,” Mills said.