Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory

, Volume 16, Issue 2, pp 69–116

Social Signaling and the Organization of Small-Scale Society: The Case of Contact-Era New Guinea


DOI: 10.1007/s10816-009-9062-3

Cite this article as:
Roscoe, P. J Archaeol Method Theory (2009) 16: 69. doi:10.1007/s10816-009-9062-3


Small-scale society furnishes the bread and butter of archeological research. Yet our understanding of what these communities did and how they achieved their purpose is still rudimentary. Using the ethnography of contact-era New Guinea, this paper presents a “social signaling” model of small-scale social systems that archeologists may find useful for contextualizing and interpreting the material record of these societies. It proposes that the organization of small-scale society was oriented, among other goals, towards biological and social reproduction, subsistence optimization, and military defense. To advance these multiple collective interests, however, these communities had to deal with three problems: an optimality problem, a conflict-of-interest problem, and a free-rider problem. The optimality problem was solved with a modular (or segmented) social structure, the conflict-of-interest problem by a process of social signaling, and these two solutions together operated to resolve the free-rider problems they created. In addition to explaining the structure and function of small-scale societies, the model provides a unified framework that can account for the ceremonial behaviors, core cultural conceptions, and leadership forms that these societies generated.


Small-scale societyMiddle-range societyGroup formation and maintenanceSignalingNew Guinea

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Anthropology, South Stevens HallUniversity of MaineOronoUSA