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  • Orderly Anarchy: Sociopolitical Evolution in Aboriginal California by Robert L. Bettinger
  • Ashley Sousa
Orderly Anarchy: Sociopolitical Evolution in Aboriginal California, by Robert L. Bettinger. Berkeley, University of California Press, 2015. xii, 286 pp. $70.00 US (cloth).

In this provocative reinterpretation of California Indian prehistory, Robert Bettinger argues that California Indian societies north of the Colorado River defy standard theories of sociopolitical evolution. Or rather, Bettinger uses California Indian sociopolitical evolution to challenge the assumption that hunter-gatherer societies represent an evolutionary relic on the path to [End Page 381] agriculture and greater political centralization. He argues that ‘‘hunter-gatherer systems continued to evolve’’ after the invention of agriculture ‘‘in ways that put them on equal footing with agriculturalists, and sometimes at a definite advantage’’ (16). He asserts that California Indian societies’ persistence as hunter-gatherers was not a product of California’s geographic or cultural isolation, but was instead a successful economic adaptation that spread from the Owens Valley west into the rest of California and east into the Great Basin. In California, Bettinger defines this advantageous evolutionary trend as having produced a political system he calls ‘‘orderly anarchy,’’ defined ‘‘as a persistent state of order and productive social interaction in the absence of formal authority or means of enforcement’’ (12–13).

Bettinger identifies the adoption of the bow in the Owens Valley (around 600 ce) as the key driver of these changes. As hunters worked in smaller and smaller bands, transitioning to a more individualistic mode of food procurement, food production intensified as personal efforts benefitted the individual, rather than the group. As political units became smaller — usually developing into extended family bands — and the individual rewards of production increased, gathering of plant resources also intensified. With the ‘‘privatization of food’’ (59), older patterns of extensive social and economic obligation and reciprocity gave way to ‘‘rationalized social interactions between individuals’’ (237), which further rewarded more intensive production. Consequently, as individuals pursued economic self-interest by gathering plant resources with ever-greater intensity, populations boomed. Population growth brought territorial expansion, which hastened the spread of these anarchic political and economic practices throughout the rest of California.

Bettinger’s argument is strongest where he draws upon archaeological evidence to historicize his theory. This is particularly evident in descriptions of the impact of the bow on plant intensification, residential mobility, and population growth. The archaeological record makes for a compelling case that Indian societies throughout California developed into more densely settled, less organized, family-based political units. The proliferation of smaller settlements, the movement of these settlements away from marshlands and coastal areas where bow hunting was less productive, and the increased use of acorns over a wide and environmentally diverse expanse of California indicate the profound influence of the bow on settlement patterns and resource exploitation. For regions not characterized by a movement away from marshland or a transition away from fishing and toward bow hunting, Bettinger could have commented to some extent on how such groups were or were not affected by these sociopolitical evolutionary trends. [End Page 382]

His engagement with ethnography is more problematic, especially where he uses ethnographic evidence to show outcomes of the evolution toward orderly anarchy. He uses Alfred Kroeber’s early twentieth-century observations of Yurok law to support the idea that the Yurok are representative of a system which considered crimes to be offenses against individuals, rather than against the larger society (174). I suspect most readers would need more evidence to accept the idea that observations of a twentieth century society that had experienced decades of terrible violence, and social and economic upheaval as a result of Euroamerican contact, are illustrative of hundreds of years of Yurok history. Similarly, his emphasis on the ‘‘extreme parochialism in attitudes, culture, and worldview. . . distinctive to aboriginal California’’ (2) seems to defy what historians and archaeologists know of many California Indian societies: California Indian people were eager for more expansive trade opportunities and engagement with people different from themselves. Much of the isolationism Bettinger identifies is surely a product of European and American conquest and colonialism. Both examples beg for historical contextualization, as do many of his other uses of ethnographic evidence.



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pp. 381-383
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