Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Article
  • Published:

Rise and fall of political complexity in island South-East Asia and the Pacific


There is disagreement about whether human political evolution has proceeded through a sequence of incremental increases in complexity, or whether larger, non-sequential increases have occurred. The extent to which societies have decreased in complexity is also unclear. These debates have continued largely in the absence of rigorous, quantitative tests. We evaluated six competing models of political evolution in Austronesian-speaking societies using phylogenetic methods. Here we show that in the best-fitting model political complexity rises and falls in a sequence of small steps. This is closely followed by another model in which increases are sequential but decreases can be either sequential or in bigger drops. The results indicate that large, non-sequential jumps in political complexity have not occurred during the evolutionary history of these societies. This suggests that, despite the numerous contingent pathways of human history, there are regularities in cultural evolution that can be detected using computational phylogenetic methods.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: Phylogenetic relationships and geographical location of 84 Austronesian societies.
Figure 2: Models of political evolution tested in this study.
Figure 3: Estimated rate parameters for transitions between different forms of political organization under the RJMCMC analysis.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Diamond, J. Guns, Germs and Steel (Vintage, 1997)

    Google Scholar 

  2. Johnson, A. W. & Earle, T. The Evolution of Human Societies (Stanford Univ. Press, 2000)

    Google Scholar 

  3. Service, E. R. Primitive Social Organization (Random House, 1962)

    Google Scholar 

  4. Flannery, K. V. The cultural evolution of civilizations. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Evol. Syst. 3, 399–426 (1972)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Carneiro, R. L. Evolutionism in Cultural Anthropology (Westview, 2003)

    Google Scholar 

  6. Spencer, C. S. On the tempo and mode of state formation—neoevolutionism reconsidered. J. Anthropol. Archaeol. 9, 1–30 (1990)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Keech McIntosh, S. in Beyond Chiefdoms: Pathways to Complexity in Africa (ed. Keech McIntosh, S.) 1–30 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1999)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  8. Campbell, R. B. Toward a networks and boundaries approach to early complex polities: the Late Shang case. Curr. Anthropol. 50, 821–848 (2009)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Bondarenko, D. M., Grinin, L. E. & Korotayev, A. V. Alternative pathways of social evolution. Social Evol. Hist. 1, 54–79 (2002)

    Google Scholar 

  10. Yoffee, N. in Archaeological Theory: Who Sets the Agenda? (eds Yoffee, N. & Sherratt, A.) 60–78 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  11. Yoffee, N. Myths of the Archaic State: Evolution of the Earliest Cities, States, and Civilizations (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  12. Tainter, J. A. Archaeology of overshoot and collapse. Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 35, 59–74 (2006)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Marcus, J. The archaeological evidence for social evolution. Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 37, 251–266 (2008)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Kirch, P. V. & Green, R. C. Hawaiki, Ancestral Polynesia: An Essay in Historical Anthropology. (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  15. Jordan, F. M., Gray, R. D., Greenhill, S. J. & Mace, R. Matrilocal residence is ancestral in Austronesian societies. Proc. R. Soc. B 276, 1957–1964 (2009)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Hage, P. Reconstructing ancestral Oceanic society. Asian Perspect. 38, 200–227 (1999)

    Google Scholar 

  17. Pagel, M. Inferring the historical patterns of biological evolution. Nature 401, 877–884 (1999)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  18. Mace, R. & Holden, C. J. A phylogenetic approach to cultural evolution. Trends Ecol. Evol. 20, 116–121 (2005)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Gray, R. D., Drummond, A. J. & Greenhill, S. J. Language phylogenies reveal expansion pulses and pauses in Pacific settlement. Science 323, 479–483 (2009)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  20. Kirch, P. V. On the Road of the Winds: An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands before European Contact (Univ. California Press, 2000)

    Google Scholar 

  21. Turchin, P. & Gavrilets, S. Evolution of complex hierarchical societies. Social Evol. Hist. 8, 167–198 (2009)

    Google Scholar 

  22. Currie, T. E. & Mace, R. Political complexity predicts the spread of ethnolinguistic groups. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 106, 7339–7344 (2009)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  23. Pagel, M. & Meade, A. Bayesian analysis of correlated evolution of discrete characters by reversible-jump Markov chain Monte Carlo. Am. Nat. 167, 808–825 (2006)

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  24. Bellwood, P. in Origins, Ancestry and Alliance (eds Fox, J. J. & Sather, C.) 19–41 (Australian National Univ. Press, 1996)

    Google Scholar 

  25. Richerson, P. J. & Boyd, R. in The Origin of Human Social Institutions (ed. Runciman, W. G.) 197–234 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2001)

    Google Scholar 

  26. Wright, H. T. Early state dynamics as political experiment. J. Anthropol. Res. 62, 305–319 (2006)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Glover, I. & Bellwood, P. Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History (eds Glover, I. & Bellwood, P.). (2004)

  28. Richerson, P. J., Boyd, R. & Bettinger, R. L. Cultural innovations and demographic change. Hum. Biol. 81, 211–235 (2009)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Hazen, R. M. & Eldredge, N. Themes and variations in complex systems. Elements 6, 43–46 (2010)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  30. Dennett, D. C. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (Simon & Schuster, 1996)

    Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank R. Green, who passed away recently, for his advice and support of phylogenetic studies of cultural evolution. We thank R. Foley and M. Dunn for their comments during an earlier stage of this research, and R. Blust and A. Pawley for comments on the manuscript. T.C. was supported by an ESRC/NERC Interdisciplinary Studentship and a Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Postdoctoral Fellowship. S.G. and R.G. were supported by the Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Fund. R.M. was supported by a European Research Council grant.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



T.E.C. conceived and designed the study in conjunction with R.M. S.J.G. and R.D.G. collected the linguistic data and built the phylogenetic trees. T.E.C. collated the ethnographic data and conducted the phylogenetic comparative analyses. T.E.C., S.J.G., R.D.G., T.H. and R.M. wrote the paper and discussed the results and implications and commented on the manuscript at all stages.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Thomas E. Currie.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Methods, a Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary Notes and References and Supplementary Figures 1-3 with legends and Supplementary Tables 1-4 (PDF 744 kb)

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Currie, T., Greenhill, S., Gray, R. et al. Rise and fall of political complexity in island South-East Asia and the Pacific. Nature 467, 801–804 (2010).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing