The Jack Golson Lecture 2012 – Political economy in Pacific prehistory: How chiefs came to power

Emeritus Prof. Timothy Earle, Northwestern University, USA

7:30 PM – 8:30 PM, Wednesday, 2 May 2012
Theatre 3, Manning Clark Centre, Union Court

In prehistory there was a time before strong leaders and social stratification. Chiefs were the first political actors in human history, but it is not clear why human societies would either want or need them. The development of chiefdoms was a political act, fundamentally concerning the elemental powers derived from the political economy, from warrior might, and from religious ideology. Three prehistoric cases from the Pacific (the Lapita, Vanuatu and Hawai’i) are used to construct a model of how chiefs come to power. The necessary conditions for their emergence rested on an ability to control specific economic bottlenecks, such as a long-distance trade, complicated technologies, or highly productive lands. Resources, including both subsistence foods and prestige goods, could then be mobilized to support the chiefly strategies that involved their power specialists, who included land managers, captains, warriors, and priests. The chiefs of prehistory may also help us understand how powerful personages continue to operate today, within the interstitial spaces of the modern state.

Professor Earle was Professor of Anthropology, at UCLA (1973-1995) and at Northwestern University (1995-2011) where he served as Chair (1995-2000, 2009-10). He uses a political economy approach to study the development of complex societies and use of material culture. He has conducted major archaeological projects in Polynesia (Hawaiian Islands), South America (Peru and Argentina), and Europe (Denmark, Iceland, and now Hungary). His most important books include: Exchange systems in prehistory (1977, with Jonathon Ericson); The evolution of human societies (1987, 2000, with Allen Johnson); How chiefs come to power (1997); Bronze Age economics (2002); and Organizing Bronze Age societies (2010, with Kristian Kristiansen).

The Golson Lecture is held biannually to honour the work of Jack Golson, who is Emeritus Professor of Archaeology at ANU. He was a founding figure in developing modern archaeology in several nations and is a key researcher investigating the evolution of horticultural economies in the Pacific.

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