Social Networks Were Still Alive 800 Years Ago
March 26, 2013

Social Networks Were Still Alive 800 Years Ago

Lee Rannals for — Your Universe Online

Researchers wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences about the growth, collapse and change of social networks in the late pre-Hispanic Southwest.

The team studied 800,000 painted ceramic and 4,800 obsidian artifacts from AD 1200 to 1450 that were uncovered from over 700 sites in the western Southwest. Their study sheds light on the transformation of social networks in the late pre-Hispanic American Southwest, and shows people of that period were able to maintain long-distance relationships, as with the today´s use of Facebook and Twitter.

They applied formal social network analysis to see what material culture could tell them about how the social networks shifted and evolved during a period that saw large-scale demographic changes. They found dramatic changes in social networks in the Southwest over the 250-year period.

According to the findings, while a large social network in the southern part of the Southwest grew very large, 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 Barbara Mills, who led the study with co-principal investigator and University of Arizona (UA) alumnus Jeffery Clark, of Archaeology Southwest.

"Our long-term study shows that there are cycles of growth and collapse in social networks when we look at them over centuries," Mills said. "Highly connected worlds can become highly fragmented."

They also found early social networks were not as restricted as expected due to the distance from one another. Similar types of painted pottery were being created and used in villages as far as 150 miles apart, which suggests people were maintaining relationships across 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 practices 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 the idea you can have such long distance connections really shocked the team.

"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.

Mills said they already knew about demographic changes back then, but didn't know about how that change affected social networks.

"We're so used to looking traditionally at distributions of pottery and other objects based on their occurrence in space, but to see how social relationships are created out of these distributions is what network analysis can help with," she added.

Ronald Breiger, renowned network analysis expert and a UA professor of sociology, says being able to apply network analysis to archaeology has important implications for his field.

"Barbara [Mills] and her group are pioneers in bringing the social network perspective to archaeology and into ancient societies," said Breiger. "What archaeology has to offer for a study of networks is a focus on very long-term dynamics and applications to societies that aren't necessarily Western, so that's broadening to the community of social network researchers," Breiger said.

A study reported in 2012 showed Tanzanians 10,000 years ago also understood the importance of social networks. Researchers wrote in the journal Nature about how people back then in an ancient Tanzania culture exhibited many of the "friending" habits similar today.

“The astonishing thing is that ancient human social networks so very much resemble what we see today,” said Nicholas Christakis, professor of medical sociology and medicine at Harvard Medical School and professor of sociology in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and a senior author of the study. “From the time we were around campfires and had words floating through the air, to today when we have digital packets floating through the ether, we´ve made networks of basically the same kind.”