M.A. Theses: Shirley Johansen, 2004

Prehistoric Secret Societies: An Ethnoarchaeological Model of Origin and Identification

This research is an attempt to understand the conditions that favor the emergence of prehistoric secret societies, how and why they operate within a bounded population, and how one may recognize their existence in the archaeological record. I argue that prehistoric secret societies may first begin to emerge as a formalized hegemonic subgroup within a community in non-egalitarian hunter-gatherer-horticultural societies. It is in such transegalitarian and chiefdom cultures that inequality, centralized control of surplus resources, and hierarchical power constructs become socially prominent. In such an environment, exclusivity of knowledge may be used to control access to key decision-making processes and power relationships facilitating the creation of hegemonic elite factions. This is a heuristic, exploratory model meant to be a reasonable supposition to be tested against ethnographic data and as such, I utilize an ethnoarchaeological framework and multi-disciplinary research strategy drawing on archaeological, anthropological, and sociological theory.

My investigation into secret societies begins with the observation that a potentially interesting and distinctive phenomenon occurs within human cultures, one that people frequently refer to as a secret society. Based on theoretical analysis, I generate an operational definition of prehistoric secret societies, one that may be consistently used across space and through time, and formulate a speculative model of expected conditions under which such secret societies may emerge.

Testing the soundness of my paradigm involves comparing each component of the model to the theoretically expected conditions that should obtain in cultures where secret societies occur as well as in those cultures where they should not. To determine if the occurrence of secret societies corresponds to the conditions postulated, I compare my operational definition against eight ethnographic cases studies. The provisionally identified secret societies in the six non-egalitarian cultures examined are: 1) the Suque society of the Vanuatu; 2) the First Order societies of the Hopi; 3) the Dance societies of the Kwakiutl; 4) the Whalers ritual and Wolf society of the Nuu-chah-nulth; 5) the Ekkpo society of the Ibo; and 6) the Poro society of Mende. The two egalitarian case studies examined are the Aboriginal peoples of Australia’s Western Desert and the Mbuti people of Central Africa, both of whom epitomize an egalitarian hunter-gatherer lifestyle. As my model postulates that secret societies should not emerge under such social conditions, these two cases studies are used as a form of control group.

Based on the evidence accrued from my ethnoarchaeological investigation, I argue that the proposed model and operational definition of prehistoric secret societies is tentatively confirmed. Although limited in scope, this investigation establishes that my premises are theoretically and empirically grounded providing an initial assessment of the goodness of fit and utility of my proposed model. Given the strength of my tentative conclusions, I end my analysis with a brief investigation into how my model may be pragmatically used in the identification and interpretation of the archaeological record.

Discussions pertaining to historic clandestine groups are prolific, while investigation into this distinctive cultural phenomenon is largely unexplored in the field of prehistoric archaeology. Attempting to understand how and why cultures develop secret societies has broad ranging implications for understanding prehistoric political and economic development, a cultures’ trajectory toward greater complexity, and may provide insights into prehistoric aspects of inequality, elitism, and the developmental structure of power. Moreover, an understanding of how secret societies develop may aid in more accurately interpreting individual sites, as well as add a much-needed component to the study of hegemony.