As the means to smelt ores and produce bronze spread through Europe, the new technology was one small part of broader sweeping changes in agriculture, animal husbandry, warfare, traditions of construction and settlement, and trade.
In Mesopotamia and across much of the Mediterranean, these changes occurred alongside a corresponding increase in social complexity. In the Aegean, Minoan, and later Mycenaean regions, palace-based rulers used writing and accounting systems to monitor economic production, for example.
But to the north, in present-day Hungary and Romania, tribes kept simpler political systems despite having a rich farming base, all the components of bronze technology, and some evidence of trade contact with their southern neighbors.
The advent of the bronze age clearly affected different cultures differently, despite similarities in their situations. Whether, and in some cases how, such complexities arose is the theme of a mid-October working group at SFI: "Similarity and Divergence in Post-Neolithic Europe: Mediterranean and Carpathian Comparisons."
"It's an unevenly explored subject from a continental point of view," says anthropologist and archaeologist Eric Rupley, an SFI Postdoctoral Fellow who is co-organizing the meeting with SFI President Jerry Sabloff.
Participants considered questions such as how certain cultural configurations promoted social leveling mechanisms and prevented more complicated integrative social hierarchies from arising, how much environment shapes regional economics, and how these leveling mechanisms were overcome in instances where economic political hierarchies evolved.
Archaeologists with specialization in Mesopotamian, Aegean, and Minoan societies and in regions in central Europe, Scandinavia, and Spain brought their insights into the drivers and constraints of social evolution. Spain is of special interest, as it traded with and had a similar environment to secondary states to the east, but didn't build state-like bureaucratized hierarchies.
Experts on Oaxacan, Peruvian, and Venezuelan polities brought a comparative New World perspective, in which similarly administered political economies evolved independently of the European cases.
"There's no single way these states happen on the surface, as there is significant variability. But there's possible patterning below the surface," says Rupley. "We aim to explore the possibility that such hidden patterning existed."