Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory

, Volume 25, Issue 1, pp 202–225 | Cite as

The Structural and Functional Complexity of Hunter-Gatherer Technology

  • John F. HoffeckerEmail author
  • Ian T. Hoffecker


The complexity of hunter-gatherer technology has been measured by counting artifact parts or production steps. There are a variety of alternative approaches to the measurement of artifact or system complexity. If technological complexity is assumed to reflect the complexity of the problem (or amount of entropy reduction) that the artifact is designed to address, the most appropriate measure of technological complexity is functional design complexity, which entails application of the entropy formula from information theory to the making and using of an artifact and the results obtained by its use. Functional complexity is related to structural or hierarchical complexity, because the entropy formula can be represented as a hierarchy (or step-by-step reduction of entropy) and the functional differentiation is related to the structural differentiation of an artifact. Another approach to hunter-gatherer technological complexity entails definition of a class of “complex artifacts” on the basis of general design characteristics (e.g., incorporation of moving parts). The most structurally and functionally complex artifacts are those that possess multiple states, either through changes in the physical relationship between parts (or sub-parts) during use or through structural differentiation. Although functional complexity is difficult to measure, structural or hierarchical complexity may be measured—and multiple-state artifacts may be counted—with adequate ethnographic and archaeological data on hunter-gatherer technology.


Technological complexity Hunter-gatherers Information theory 



The authors are grateful to Ian Gilligan and several anonymous reviewers for their comments on two earlier drafts of this paper, which significantly improved the final version.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


  1. Adami, C. (1998). Introduction to artificial life. New York: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Babbage, C. (1826). On a method of expressing by signs the action of machinery. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 116, 250–265.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bailey, H. P. (1960). A method of determining the warmth and temperateness of climate. Geografiska Annaler, 42, 1–16.Google Scholar
  4. Bettinger, R. L. (2009). Hunter-gatherer foraging: five simple models. Clinton Corners: Eliot Werner Publications.Google Scholar
  5. Boëda, E. (1995). Levallois: a volumetric construction, methods, a technique. In H. L. Dibble & O. Bar-Yosef (Eds.), The definition and interpretation of Levallois technology (pp. 41–68). Madison: Prehistory Press.Google Scholar
  6. Bonchev, D., & Buck, G. A. (2005). Quantitative measures of network complexity. In Complexity in chemistry, biology, and ecology (pp. 191–235). New York: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Braha, D., & Maimon, O. (1998). The measurement of a design structural and functional complexity. IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics—Part A: Systems and Humans, 28, 527–535.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Carroll, S. (2010). From here to eternity: the quest for the ultimate theory of time. New York: Penguin.Google Scholar
  9. Collard, M., Kemery, M., & Banks, S. (2005). Causes of toolkit variation among hunter-gatherers: a test of four competing hypotheses. Canadian Journal of Archaeology, 29, 1–19.Google Scholar
  10. Floridi, L. (2010). Information: a very short introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Fu, Q., Li, H., Moorjani, P., Jay, F., Slepchenko, S. M., Bondarev, A. A., Johnson, P. L. F., Aximu-Petri, A., Prüfer, K., de Filippo, C., et al. (2014). Genome sequence of a 45,000-year-old modern human from western Siberia. Nature, 514, 445–449.Google Scholar
  12. Gould, R. A. (1980). Living archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Haidle, M. N. (2009). How to think a spear. In S. A. de Beaune, F. L. Coolidge, & T. Wynn (Eds.), Cognitive archaeology and human evolution (pp. 57–73). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Harrison, G. A., Tanner, J. M., Pilbeam, D. R., & Baker, P. T. (1988). Human biology: an introduction to human evolution, variation, growth and adaptability (Third ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Heylighen, F. (1999). The growth of structural and functional complexity during evolution. In F. Heylighen, J. Bollen, & A. Riegler (Eds.), The evolution of complexity: the violet book of “Einstein meets Magritte” (pp. 17–44). Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic.Google Scholar
  16. Hoffecker, J. F. (2002). Desolate landscapes: ice-age settlement in eastern Europe. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Jackendoff, R. (2002). Foundations of language: brain, meaning, grammar, evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  18. Jackson, P. C. (1985). Introduction to artificial intelligence (Second ed.). New York: Dover.Google Scholar
  19. Kelly, R. L. (2013). The lifeways of hunter-gatherers: the foraging spectrum. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Klein, R. G. (1981). Stone Age predation on small African bovids. South African Archaeological Bulletin, 36, 55–65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Kolmogorov, A. N. (1963). On tables of random numbers. Sankhyā Series A, 25, 369–376.Google Scholar
  22. Lee, R. B. (1979). The !Kung San: men, women, and work in a foraging society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  23. Lloyd, S. (2001). Measures of complexity: a nonexhaustive list. IEEE Control Systems Magazine, 21(4), 7–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Lombard, M., & Haidle, M. N. (2012). Thinking a bow-and-arrow: cognitive implications of Middle Stone Age bow and stone-tipped arrow technology. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 22, 237–264.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Marlowe, F. W. (2010). The Hadza: hunter-gatherers of Tanzania. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  26. McDonald, J., & Veth, P. (2011). Information exchange among hunter-gatherers of the Western Desert of Australia. In R. Whallon, W. A. Lovis, & R. K. Hitchcock (Eds.), Information and its role in hunter-gatherer bands (pp. 221–233). Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press.Google Scholar
  27. McGrew, W. (2004). The cultured chimpanzee: reflections on cultural primatology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. McKennan, R. A. (1959). The Upper Tanana Indians. Yale Publications in Anthropology, no. 55. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  29. Mealy, G. H. (1955). A method for synthesizing sequential circuits. The Bell System Technical Journal, 34, 1045–1079.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Minsky, M. L. (1956). Some universal elements for finite automata. In C. E. Shannon & J. McCarthy (Eds.), Automata studies (pp. 117–128). Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  31. Minsky, M. L. (1967). Computation: finite and infinite machines. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.Google Scholar
  32. Mitchell, M. (2009). Complexity: a guided tour. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  33. Moore, E. F. (1956). Gedanken-experiments with sequential machines. In C. E. Shannon & J. McCarthy (Eds.), Automata studies (pp. 129–153). Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  34. Murdoch, J. (1892). Ethological results of the Point Barrow Expedition. Ninth Annual Report of the Bureau of [American] Ethnology 1887–1888. Washington: Government Printing Office.Google Scholar
  35. Nelson, E. W. (1899). The Eskimo about Bering Strait. Eighteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of [American] Ethnology 1896–1897. Washington: Government Printing Office.Google Scholar
  36. Nelson, R. K. (1973). Hunters of the northern forest: designs for survival along the Alaskan Kutchin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  37. Newman, M. E. J. (2003). The structure and function of complex networks. SIAM Review, 45, 167–256.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Osgood, C. (1937). The ethnography of the Tanaina. Yale University Publications in Anthropology No. 16. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  39. Osgood, C. (1940). Ingalik material culture. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  40. Oswalt, W. H. (1973). Habitat and technology: the evolution of hunting. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.Google Scholar
  41. Oswalt, W. H. (1976). An anthropological analysis of food-getting technology. New York: John Wiley & Sons.Google Scholar
  42. Oswalt, W. H. (1987). Technological complexity: the Polar Eskimos and the Tareumiut. Arctic Anthropology, 24, 82–98.Google Scholar
  43. Perreault, C. P., Brantingham, J., Kuhn, S. L., Wurz, S., & Gao, X. (2013). Measuring the complexity of lithic technology. Current Anthropology, 54, S397–S406.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Pierce, J. R. (1980). An introduction to information theory: symbols, signals and noise (Second ed.). New York: Dover.Google Scholar
  45. Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. (1922). The Andaman islanders. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  46. Read, D. (2008). An interaction model for resource implement complexity based on risk and number of annual moves. American Antiquity, 73, 599–625.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Reuleaux, F. (1963). The kinematics of machinery: outlines of a theory of machines, trans. A. B. W. Kennedy. New York: Dover.Google Scholar
  48. Rich, E. (2008). Automata, computability and complexity. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
  49. Richards, M. P., Pettitt, P. B., Stiner, M. C., & Trinkaus, E. (2001). Stable isotope evidence for increasingdietary breadth in the European mid-Upper Paleolithic. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98, 6528–6532.Google Scholar
  50. Shannon, C. E. (1948). A mathematical theory of communication. The Bell System Technical Journal, 27(379–423), 623–656.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Shannon, C. E., & Weaver, W. (1963). The mathematical theory of communication. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.Google Scholar
  52. Shott, M. (1986). Technological organization and settlement mobility: an ethnographic examination. Journal of Anthropological Research, 42, 15–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Simon, H. A. (1962). The architecture of complexity. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 106, 467–482.Google Scholar
  54. Simon, H. A. (1996). The sciences of the artificial (Third ed.). Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  55. Thalbitzer, W. (1914). The Ammassalik Eskimo, part 1. Meddelelser om Grønland, 39.Google Scholar
  56. Torrence, R. (1983). Time budgeting and hunter-gatherer technology. In G. Bailey (Ed.), Hunter-gatherer economy in prehistory: a European perspective (pp. 11–22). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  57. Torrence, R. (2001). Hunter-gatherer technology: macro and microscale approaches. In C. Panter-Brick, R. H. Layton, & P. Rowley-Conwy (Eds.), Hunter-gatherers: an interdisciplinary perspective (pp. 73–98). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  58. Villa, P., Soriano, S., Tsanova, T., Degano, I., Higham, T. F. G., d’Errico, F., Backwell, L., Lucejko, J. J., Colombini, M. P., & Beaumont, P. B. (2014). Border Cave and the beginning of the Later Stone Age in South Africa. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109, 13208–13213.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Wadley, L. (2010). Were snares and traps used in the Middle Stone Age and does it matter? A review and a case study from Sibudu, South Africa. Journal of Human Evolution, 58, 179–192.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Winterhalder, B. (1981). Foraging strategies in the boreal forest: an analysis of Cree hunting and gathering. In B. Winterhalder & E. A. Smith (Eds.), Hunter-gatherer foraging strategies: ethnographic and archeological analyses (pp. 66–98). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  61. Winterhalder, B. (2001). The behavioural ecology of hunter-gatherers. In C. Panter-Brick, R. H. Layton, & P. Rowley-Conwy (Eds.), Hunter-gatherers: an interdisciplinary perspective (pp. 12–38). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Arctic and Alpine ResearchUniversity of Colorado at BoulderBoulderUSA
  2. 2.Department of Medical Biochemistry and BiophysicsKarolinska InstitutetStockholmSweden

Personalised recommendations