Review: Simulating Social and Economic Specialization in Small-Scale Agricultural Societies

Photo of adze head, Mesa Verde National Park. Author’s hands in picture for scale.

Humans are really good at doing multiple different things. If you look at Homo sapiens we have a vast amount of different types of jobs—we hunt, we gather, we farm, we raise animals, we make objects, we learn. Some individuals might be good at one job, and some individuals might be better at another. This is okay, though, because by specializing in what each individual does well we can have a well-rounded society.

But where do we get a switch from generalist to specialist behavior? In small-scale societies, where is the switch from every household making ceramics, to one household making ceramics for the whole village? Specialization only works when there is enough exchange among the individual nodes of the group, so that each specialist can provide their products to the others.

Cockburn et al. in a recent paper for the Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation (JASSS) explore the effects of specialization via agent-based modeling. While the degree to which agents specialize is in some instances unrealistic (Ancestral Puebloans were not able to store 10-years of grain—it would have rotted; also nobody probably specialized in gathering water), Cockburn et al. are aware of this, and state that by using “unrealistic assumptions, we hope to, as Epstein (2008: 3-4) says, “illuminate core dynamics” of the systems of barter and exchange and capture “behaviors of overarching interest” within the American Southwest.”

So, what are these behaviors of overarching interest? Well, for one, specialization and barter lead to increasing returns to scale, allowing for denser and larger groups as well as higher populations than when individuals do not specialize. Also, the networks that formed in this analysis were highly compartmentalized, suggesting that certain individuals were key to the flow of goods, and thus the survival of many people. Cockburn et al. suggest that the heterogeneity of the networks may have helped individuals be more robust to critical transitions, as Scheffer et al. (2012) suggest that modular and heterogeneous systems are more resilient.

This paper should be of interest to our readers, as it combines both agent-based modeling and network analysis, trying to shed light on how Ancestral Puebloans lived. One key drawback to this article is its lack of comparison (in goodness-of-fit measures) to the archaeological record, leaving the reader wondering how well the systems described would fit with archaeological output. Kohler and Varien, in their book on some of the early Village Ecodynamics Project work, develop various goodness-of-fit measures to test the model against archaeology. Perhaps Cockburn et al. intend to use their work with some of these goodness-of-fit measures in the future.

However, despite this drawback, the article does help illustrate highly debated questions of specialization vs. generalization in the archaeological record. Could people have specialized? Yes. Does specialization confer a benefit to individuals? Yes. Taking this article in tandem with debates on specialization may help us to come to a consensus on how specialized people were in the past.

Please read the open access article here:


–Stefani Crabtree


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