Path Dependence: Archaeological Perspectives on a Contemporary Issue

Path dependence describes a situation in which initial conditions establish a trajectory, making changes or reversal increasingly difficult.  The concept was developed, and has been studied, primarily in contemporary contexts and in the fields of economics, political science, and science and technology studies. This work has suggested factors that may contribute to path dependence, including large set up costs, coordination effects, and power asymmetries.  Archaeologists often discuss similar concepts, including historical contingency and trajectories, and technological traditions; and the long-term of the archaeological record provides an ideal setting for examining path dependence. This session explores the applicability of the path dependence concept to archaeology, and draws on archaeological cases to develop the concept.
The session will begin with an introduction that defines the concept of path dependence as well as salient variables and dimensions, and more formal theoretical discussion by Hegmon and Bolin that develops comparisons and syntheses among various perspectives. These will be followed by six papers that describe apparent cases of path dependence in the archaeological record, Cameron and Duff and Nelson, Kintigh and Abbott describing two sets of alternative trajectories in the US Southwest, Striker examining historical trajectories and conflict in the Eastern US, Goodman-Elgar on agriculture in the Andes, Ferguson on monumentality in Europe, and Wattenmaker focusing on state building in Mesopotamia. Then, after the break, we will have a roundtable discussion focused on how to best apply path dependence in archaeology, and considering how archaeology may be able to contribute to the contemporary issue.  

Path Dependence: Theoretical Comparisons and Synthesis  – Michelle Hegmon (co-author Bob Bolin)

The intransigence of structures (both social and material), and the need for change, is all too obvious in the world around us. The concept of path dependence was developed, primarily in technology studies, political science, and economics, as a way of describing and explaining this phenomenon of intransigence.  Although history matters in almost all cases, the analytical and theoretical utility of the concept of path dependence is enhanced by adopting a clear definition that specifies in what cases it does, and does not, apply.  Among the characteristics – and causes – of path dependence are the importance of initial conditions; increasing returns, self-reinforcement, and positive feedback; large set up costs; and coordination effects.   This paper serves as an introduction to the case studies that follow.  It (1) explains these characteristics; (2) explores ways in which they might be assessed archaeologically, and whether archaeology might suggest other characteristics; (3) considers implications for general social theory, especially the relationship of structure and practice.
History Matters:  Divergent Paths in the Post-Chaco Southwest. – Catherine Cameron (co-author Andrew Duff)

Two patterns characterize the late prehistory of the northern Southwest (twelfth to fourteenth centuries):  abandonment of the Mesa Verde region to the north and aggregation of population into large villages in the Cibola region to the south.  Three initial conditions, evident as early as the Pueblo I period (A.D. 700-900), established trajectories in each region that resulted in different paths.  These initial conditions were: 1) the strength of ties with the regional center at Chaco Canyon during its expansion and collapse, which implicates demography; 2) the importance of the household as an independent social unit, and 3) the development in the north of a primate center, Aztec Ruins, and the lack of such a center in the Cibola region.  The concept of path dependency is used to explore initial conditions and trace their effect on the trajectory of development in each region.  While not discounting social and environmental explanations for aggregation and abandonment in the northern Southwest, we show that different initial conditions and resulting historical processes caused differences in the ways people organized themselves and used their landscape, processes difficult or impossible to reverse.  That the earliest European explorers found abandoned cliff dwellings in the Mesa Verde region and bustling villages in the Cibola region—that endure today—was in part a product of different initial conditions in these two regions resulting in their divergent paths through time.

Irrigation  Infrastructure, Path Dependence, and Vulnerability: A Comparison of Three Cases in the US Southwest - Margaret C. Nelson (co-authors Keith Kintigh, David R. Abbott) 

What relationships can be understood among the factors that contribute to path dependence, a path dependent trajectory, and the resilience and vulnerability of the systems involved?  This question is explored through analysis and comparison of three cases in the prehispanic US Southwest, the Mimbres area in southwestern New Mexico (AD 650-1450), the Zuni area in northern New Mexico (AD 850-1540), and the Hohokam area in central Arizona (AD 700-1450). In all three of these arid landscapes, people relied on agricultural systems that, in turn, depended on physical and social infrastructure that diverted adequate water to agricultural soils. But across the cases, investments in infrastructure (i.e., the importance of initial conditions) varied as did local environmental conditions and ties to specific places, especially sources of water.  Zuni farming employed a variety of small scale water control strategies including centuries of reliance on small run-off agricultural systems; Mimbres fields were primarily watered by small-scale canals feeding floodplain fields; and the Hohokam area had the largest canal system in prehispanic North America.  The cases also vary in their historical trajectories; at Zuni, population and resource use remained comparatively stable over centuries, extending into the historic period, while in Mimbres and Hohokam areas there were major demographic and environmental transformations, although these were far more devastating in the Hohokam area. We consider whether the concepts of path dependence help us understand the differences among these cases, especially regarding vulnerability, and whether the cases suggest how path dependent trajectories might be avoided. 

Examining Historical Trajectories of Inter-group Conflict in the Protohistoric Eastern Woodlands – Sarah Striker 
This paper explores the application of the concept of path dependence to the well studied case of Iroquois involvement in the North American fur trade.  The Iroquois occupation of key Great Lakes waterways at the time of European contact set the stage for their unique and transformative role in developing European and Native relations.  In exchange for the furs they provided, Iroquois groups received European material resources and greater regional power, a process that, at least initially, can be described as involving increasing returns, one of the key characteristics of path dependence.  However, the political and economic successes enjoyed by the Iroquois exacerbated pre-existing political and cultural conflict between the Iroquois and their Native and European neighbors.  As the beaver and other preferred sources of fur became rarer, the costs of participation in this once lucrative industry began to outweigh the benefits.  The political, economic, and cultural ramifications of deep involvement in European commerce resulted in difficult conditions for the Iroquois, as well as severe ecological consequences for beaver populations.  The complex change associated with this involvement created a situation of social and economic “lock-in,” such that the Iroquois did not have the flexibility to alter their course, despite its compounding disadvantages.

Agriculture, Landscape Architecture and Path Dependence  - Melissa Goodman-Elgar

The long-term impacts and accretionary nature of agricultural landuse suggests that path dependence will be a productive approach to its study.   Farming systems utilize technology at different scales with variable degrees of flexibility to change and different temporalities.  For instance, stone hoes are relatively easy to make and their forms can vary without compromising functionality making them easily replaceable or reversible.  In contrast, landscape architecture (e.g., field wall, terracing, irrigation) has high labor and environmental set-up costs.  Once established, coordination effects for field architecture are pronounced, particularly for terracing as walls adjoined by stacking upward or extending laterally have lower set-up costs.  Replacement or renovation at a landscape scale is also costly and landscape modifications are often impossible to reverse.  These long-term impacts may favor selective use of such technologies in order to maintain future landuse flexibility.  In addition, field architecture materializes land tenure conventions based on fixed boundaries.  As a result, it arises under social conditions that favor land enclosure. This may initiate path dependence towards increased land enclosure amongst subsequent generations seeking to secure resources, especially if such mechanisms have been institutionalized.  These dynamics will be explored by comparing indigenous farming strategies in the Peruvian Andes between the highly modified Upper Mantaro Valley and the Cajamarca Valley, where landscape architecture is quite limited.  These regions share a basic range of technology and were both developed by the Inka as administrative centers.  Yet, they demonstrate widely different landscape architecture. Moreover, the trajectories established in prehistory continue to effect farmers in both regions today.

Early Medieval Monumental Re-use in the British Isles: Reinterpreting the
evidence through path dependency – Christopher Ferguson

This paper will examine how theories of path dependency, emergent within
political science and economics over the past decade, can be applied to the
study of archaeology and archaeological events. Through this, the Annalist
interpretation of the longue dureé can be refined to account for the
archaeological event, allowing the interpretation of different temporal scales
within one framework. The interpretation of early medieval mortuary sites within
the British Isles will be used as a case study.

Monumentality and place within the occupation of the landscape has been the
focus of much discussion within early medieval archaeology (Semple 1998;
Williams 1998). In particular, the re-use of prehistoric sites within early
medieval mortuary contexts has received much comment. Documentary sources, such
as Beowulf and The Wife’s Lament highlight the importance attached to
prehistoric mortuary sites by early medieval society. The re-use of prehistoric
barrows, and the subsequent movement to Christian churchyard burial can be
understood through the development of a path dependent analysis. Theories of
path dependency may offer the archaeologist an alternative approach to the
interpretation of temporal change, space and monumental re-use within early
medieval archaeology and the discipline as a whole.

Path Dependence, State-building and the Urban Process in Ancient Mesopotamia – Patricia Wattenmaker

Urbanism in ancient Mesopotamia in the fourth and third millennia entailed profound and far-reaching transformations in the ways people interacted with one another, relations between neighboring settlements, systems of production and exchange, and inter-polity dynamics.  These changes took place at an unprecedented pace, and involved the formation of new social institutions far larger, more intricate, but also more fragile, than those seen in the past.  This paper draws on the archaeological evidence from the ancient Middle East to delineate some of the key changes in cultural values, social institutions and inter-polity relations that took place as settlements expanded dramatically and their populations increased in both size and density.  Path dependence theory, including concepts of lock-in and increasing returns, provides the framework for examining linkages among changes in cosmologies and sociopolitical institutions that accompanied urbanism, the ways that the urban process apparently enhanced the social inequalities that initially helped set it in motion, the new political landscape that led urban societies to risk their survival by exploiting resources on an unsustainable scale, and the persistence of the urban way of life long after it proved to be unstable and its many drawbacks became known to city dwellers and rural residents alike.