Dr. Barbara Mills, University of Arizona – Social Networks in Pre-Columbian North America

Jul 16, 2013

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Barbara Mills of the University of Arizona explains the role social networks played in pre-Columbian societies of the American Southwest.

Barbara Mills is a professor of anthropology and American Indian studies at the University of Arizona. Her research interests include ceramic analysis, migration, colonialism, heritage preservation, and Southwest archaeology. She also serves as principal investigator for the Silver Creek Archaeology Research Project, an ongoing dig focused on understanding Ancestral Pueblo community formation. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico.

About Dr. Mills

Read the full article

Dr. Barbara Mills – Social Networks in Pre-Columbian North America

The concept of networks permeates contemporary society, yet even past societies had social networks.  Our research looks at social networks in the deeper past, applying it to archaeologically documented societies in the prehispanic U.S. Southwest.

To apply network theory and method to archaeological data we compiled a database of settlements and artifacts dating between A.D. 1200 and 1500 from Arizona and New Mexico.  Settlements are the nodes, and artifacts, including over 800,000 decorated ceramics and 4000 pieces of obsidian, are the ties. We divided our assemblages into 50-year periods and asked: Which settlements were more connected to each other? How much of social connectedness was based on spatial proximity? And how does position in a social network predict future outcomes?

We found that 13th century settlements in the northern Southwest were much more connected to each other than settlements in the south.  This changed at the turn of the 14th century, when large areas of the north were depopulated and migrants moved south.  After A.D. 1300, southern sites became more connected to each other, more than expected given spatial distance.  We also found that network position, such as high centrality, did not always predict persistence.

When looked at over centuries, we can see how networks form and fragment as a result of factors such as human migration.  And for the Southwestern people who lived in the period before written records, archaeological networks illuminate their changing relations over time, highlighting those places and times when their connections spanned vast areas of the Southwest.


Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.