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I was puzzled and somewhat embarrassed by the reactions of many archaeologists to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997) and Collapse (2005).  Diamond reaches large and potentially influential readerships, and he uses archaeology to make points that inform or might even influence policy!  That seemed, to me, a good thing.  And he was very favorable to archaeology.   In his Third Chimpanzee (1992), Diamond explores archaeological cases and concludes:

“Archaeology is often viewed as a socially irrelevant academic discipline that becomes a prime target for budget cuts whenever money gets tight.  In fact, archaeological research is one of the best bargains available to government planners.” (p. 336)

Diamond likes (or liked) archaeology, and Diamond reaches far more readers than any American archaeologist, with the possible exception of Brian Fagan.  He writes quality books.  Guns, Germs, and Steel won the Pulitzer Prize.  My best (and only) contact inside the Beltway (a brother who, after a State Department career, became a Senior VP at the U.S. Institute of Peace) thinks Guns, Germs, and Steel is a fine – but not flawless – book; and he assures me that most of his policy-wonk pals share that assessment.

What was academic archaeology’s reaction to Diamond’s books?  In a word: outrage.  Guns, Germs, and Steel became (and remains) a favorite target in graduate seminars across the country.   We find errors!  So we flay it, dismember it, and dance on its bones.  That’s what we teach as “critical thinking” – accentuate the negative, eliminate the positive, latch on to loose ends and yank hard.  As if ANY archaeological argument can withstand intense, sustained scrutiny!   Nothing archaeologists write or say is secure from challenge or safe from query, beyond a measurement of a post-hole or a count of flakes.    I try to teach students that critical thinking encompasses positive as well as negative, but these are dismal, cynical times.

Collapse (subtitled “How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”) came in for higher level attention: senior scholars dissected and demolished Collapse.  Joseph Tainter, who had written an influential earlier study of the subject (The Collapse of Complex Societies, 1988) wrote scathing reviews in several venues.    Patricia McAnany and Norman Yoffee assembled a volume Questioning Collapse, which grew out of their session at the SAAs “that would address the issues swirling around the popular writings of Jared Diamond” (p. 2).   (Yoffee has collapse credentials: he edited The Collapse of Ancient States and Civilizations, with George Cowgill, 1988).

The tone of these reviews and books often seems partisan, even shrill.  There is, typically, some faint praise for popular writers, followed immediately by the lowering of several booms.  Both Tainter and Yoffee define “collapse” quite differently than does Diamond – and then take him to task for it.  Authors in the edited volume pick away at what they consider factual errors.  I’m sure there are errors – real errors.  Any work of this scope will have errors.  But much of the carping seems to concern not facts, but interpretations.  Diamond necessarily works from other archaeologists’ interpretations and I suspect the authors upon whom he relies would have something to say about all this.  The interpretations he accepts are not necessarily wrong; they are simply inconsistent with those of his critics.

I’m not saying that Diamond gets it “right.”  It’s hard to get things completely “right,” especially in science when many very reasonable hypotheses are probably wrong.  But the vehemence of academic reaction to Diamond is, I think, far disproportionate to his sins – sins of omission, commission or (worst of all) failure to cite the critic.  It is my opinion that much of the heat comes from Diamond’s success as a popular writer.  It’s not jealousy — well, maybe a little: after all, the guy won the Pulitzer with our data.  We don’t want anyone else to tell our story, even though we almost never tell it ourselves – accessibly.  And, it must be said, there is antipathy, even hostility from academics towards popular writers, even when that popular writer is an academic.     We all should re-read Article 4 of the SAA’s Principles of Archaeological Ethics, especially the bit about “Archaeologists who are unable to undertake public education and outreach directly should encourage and support the efforts of others in these activities.”

Back to collapse.  Tainter has one view, Yoffee another, Diamond yet another on what collapse is and how best to explain it.  We should not expect one cause, or even a single direction in which to look for multiple causes, because collapse encompasses demography, polity, economy, geography – and more.  If population plummets, that’s collapse.   If a regime falls, that’s collapse.   If the economy tanks, that’s collapse.  If a region is abandoned, that’s collapse.  But it’s quite possible to imagine these four situations independently, or in combination, or firing in sequence.  And all might cascade from entirely separate proximate causes.

Tainter, in one of his reviews, used a phrase I like a lot: “collapse happens.”   I’m not sure Tainter used it with approval, but it’s true: collapse happens.  Doesn’t matter how you got big or mighty, what goes up must come down (and the harder they come, the harder they fall).   Might collapse be cyclic, literally the downside of cycles?  In David Stuarts’s terms, the efficiency cycle after the power drive?  Or in resilience terms, the release after the conservation phase?   In another post, I review “cycles” in the Southwest, and how “up” might entail “down” — the fall may be the inevitable and predictable outcome of the rise.  While the overall trends in human evolution and development are stunningly upward (at least as we measure these things) the short-term histories of human polities average only a couple of centuries.   Then things go wrong: boom brings bust.   But that’s another story.

Archaeology, with its backward gaze, sees societies and civilizations wax and wane.  If they wane with a bang and not with a whimper, we call it collapse.  Or we did: our sympathies with descendent communities lead many archaeologists to substitute more agreeable terms.   Collapse, for Resilience Theorists, becomes “release” – sounds almost spiritual.  Abandonment is not as it seems (to paraphrase Nelson and Hegmon’s influential 2001 article).   Because “abandonment” poorly serves Native communities, we substitute “depopulation” – accurate, to be sure, and less prone to interpretations of “vacated lands” with difficult legal implications.

However we euphemize the dramatic abandonment/depopulation of the Four Corners, the facts seem clear:   the region supported tens of thousands of people in the early 13th century and a century later it was essentially empty.  Moreover, depopulation was accompanied by political disorder, warfare, and economic disaster punctuated by a final Great Drought.   Cities fell, governments crumbled, and whole artistic traditions (and whatever cosmologies they reflected) vanished.  All that’s missing are rains of fire, plagues of frogs, and seismic convulsions.  It’s hard to imagine a more complete collapse.

Unless it’s the decline of Classic Period Hohokam.   In the 13th century, the Phoenix Basin (the lower Salt and its confluence with the Gila River) was teeming with people.  Those people were doing wonderful things – developments economic, political, artistic, even economic that overshadowed the Pueblo North, fueled by a massive infrastructure of huge irrigation canals.  By 1450, only a few ragged settlements remained.   The story is contested (ALL interesting archaeological narratives are contested) but David Abbott’s 2003 book tells the tale: Centuries of Decline During the  Hohokam Classic Period.   It’s hard to imagine a more complete collapse.

Unless it’s the fall of Casas Grandes.  Much ink has been spilled on the origins and rise of Paquime, the Casas Grandes capital.  The city rose around 1300.  There is no indication that it survived long after 1450.   When the Spanish arrived, about a century later, all that was left were ruins and a few local legends.  What became of the extraordinary, cosmopolitan people who built and ruled Casas Grandes?   That society was, in many ways, the most remarkable ever seen in the Pueblo Southwest – rivaled only by Hohokam.   I realize that I offer judgments and opinions (“extraordinary,” “most remarkable”) but I stand by those judgments:  Paquime and the Casas Grandes polity marked a clear apex in Pueblo and perhaps Southwestern prehistory.   But after only 150 years, that society collapsed.   The end of Paquime should be among the most pressing problems for Southwestern archaeology.  So far, the collapse of Paquime has attracted relatively little research interest.  It’s hard to imagine a more dramatic and significant collapse.

Unless it’s the end of Mimbres … but enough, enough, enough.  The point is clear, I hope: the Southwest has much to offer for the study of collapse.  As Jared Diamond recognized, in all of those very interesting books.

Chapter fragment: 6 B under construction.

Video: Collapse.

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4 Responses to Collapse

  1. This article was extremely appealing, especially since I was searching for applying for grants this subject
    last Thursday. Keep posting.

  2. Adam Henne says:

    I think I agree with your general criticism of academic social science and its failures to engage the general public more productively. But:
    Diamond reaches large and potentially influential readerships, and he uses archaeology to make points that inform or might even influence policy! That seemed, to me, a good thing.
    It is only a good thing, in my opinion, if the points made are good and the influence on policy is positive. I’m not seeing either of those in the case of Diamond’s work.

  3. marc thompson says:

    Diamond, like Fagan, has been criticized for using the data of others for his own purposes without much scrutiny. To many this appers shallow and unoriginal. I certainly agree that archaeologists make mistakes; thank the gods were are not performing surgey on living cultures. We have very right to feel insecure given the nature of our discipline. Unfortanunately, some of us attempt to compensate with over-blown vocabularly, statistics, and hypercritical reviews of other work.

  4. twoeyes says:

    thanks for this, its refreshing to get a frank archaeological take on the disciplinary dismissal of this popularizing economic theorizer. I think of him as a useful and sympathetic ambassador of the discipline to those legions of decision makers who are otherwise embedded in an contemporary corporatist/capitalist worldview. What I find hilarious, is that it took many years for the discipline to launch a concerted rebuttal against Collapse. To me, this speaks to the poor ability of the discipline to engage in timely public discourse… through conventional academic channels…

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