Alexander J. Martín

  • Research Associate - Center for Comparative Archaeology

Dr. Alexander J. Martín is an archaeologist whose main research interest lies in the development of prehistoric social institutions to understand how and why human societies became larger and more complex. Most of his research has taken place in coastal Ecuador where he has carried out surveys and excavations to clarify why populations there changed from small independent villages to large polities with densely packed communities, craft specialists, long distance trade networks, and powerful ruling elites that looked to expand their territorial control. In particular, he explores the roles that different economic, political, religious, and military institutions played in these changes. More recently, he has begun comparing institutional change from coastal Ecuador to that of other prehistoric populations of the Americas so as to recognize broader patterns in social development and evolution. Dr. Martín received his Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh and is a core faculty member of the Center for Latin American Studies. He currently manages the Comparative Archaeology Database of the Center for Comparative Archaeology, and teaches anthropology courses for the University of Pittsburgh and the Semester at Sea program.

Research Description

Starting in the Neolithic, many populations around the world changed from small and largely undifferentiated social groups into large, densely packed communities with powerful rulers, craft specialists, organized ritual, and military classes. There are many possible reasons for why this happened. These large dense communities may have fostered intense interaction in a large group of consumers and thus encouraged craft specialization. Their larger populations may also have made it easier for emergent leaders to mobilize resources toward their political aims. Larger communities are also better able to defend themselves or menace their neighbors. More interaction also creates more internal social conflict, which could provide the perfect justification for religious leaders to use their role as intermediaries between the community and the cosmos to gain political power as they maintain order in the daily affairs of the community. However, in order to gauge the degree to which any of these scenarios in fact took place, empirical assessments of the actual organization of social institutions within prehistoric communities are critical so as to confirm which activities were people actually engaged in, how these activities changed through time, and if they fit any, some, or all of the scenarios described above. 

Ecuador Coast

To this end, I carry out large regional surveys along coastal South America while gathering systematic artifact samples that make it possible to reconstruct the types of activities carried out at different locations. Then, I track changes in the organization of different types of activities from period to period to clarify what institutions were at the root of changes in complexity. Most of my field research has taken place in coastal Ecuador, but in recent years I have begun comparative projects that looks to explore similarities and differences in the evolutionary trajectory of those societies to those of other regions in the Americas, including the central coast of Peru and Costa Rica.

Chiefdoms of Coastal Ecuador

Manteno Head

I analyzed archaeological evidence from the prehistoric Spondylus industry of coastal Ecuador to clarify how craft production was structured and the role it played in the rise of social complexity. Many models of social development propose that elite cooption of specialized craft production can be a useful avenue through which aspiring elites can gain differential status. Contrary to the expectations of these models, data from coastal Ecuador indicates that craft production of sumptuary goods was an activity primarily carried out by household units for the benefit of the domestic economy. Increased trafficking with northern Peruvian states at ca. A.D. 750 seems to have promoted local social stratification by attracting large numbers of households to the restricted locales where they could exploit those resources, which in turn prompted a strengthening of the kinds of political conditions that facilitate orderly interaction and minimize internal social conflict. 

Comparative Archaeology and Institutional Complexity

Multivariate Icons

An important factor in the differential development of societies across Northern South America and Central America was the size of each community’s network of interaction (how many individuals could meaningfully interact with one another on a day-to-day basis). This feature was related to how nucleated or dispersed each settlement was, and researchers have suggested that large nucleated communities—where families had access to large networks of interaction—might have fostered more specialized craft production and generally more interdependent social institutions. Small networks of household interaction inherent to smaller villages and dispersed populations, on the other hand, is argued to have encouraged functional redundancy in the activities carried out by each family. In order to test this, we compared the composition of communities in three prehistoric populations of Costa Rica and Ecuador through the use of multivariate icons (graphical depictions of the variation in artifact types for different household samples), and the results indicated that more nucleated settlements indeed showed more evidence of complementary activities between households. 



Martín, Alexander J. (2017) Population Nucleation and Functional Interdependence in Prehistoric Coastal Ecuador. Social Evolution & History 16(2).

Murillo Herrera, Mauricio and Alexander J. Martín (2017) La Relación entre Estructura Comunitaria y Economía Doméstica en Cacicazgos del Centro y Sur de América. Boletín de Antropología (Universidad de Antioquia, Medellín) 54:101-125.

Martín, Alexander J. and Mauricio Murillo Herrera (2014) Networks of Interaction and Functional Interdependence in Societies across the Intermediate Area, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 36:60-71.

Martín, Alexander J. (2010)  "The Domestic Economy and Its Implications for Social Complexity: Spondylus Craft Production in Coastal Ecuador," Research in Economic Anthropology 30:111-155.

Martín, Alexander J. (2010)  "Trade and Social Complexity in Coastal Ecuador from Formative Times to European Contact," Journal of Field Archaeology 35(1):40-57.

Robyn E. Cutright, Enrique López-Hurtado and Alexander J. Martín, editors (2010) Comparative Perspectives on the Archaeology of Coastal South America. University of Pittsburgh Center for Comparative Archaeology, Pittsburgh.

Martín, Alexander J. (2010) "Comparing the Role of the Export Sector in Prehistoric Economies: The Importance of Shell Manufacture to the Livelihood of Coastal Ecuadorian Populations." In Comparative Perspectives on the Archaeology of Coastal South America, edited by Robyn E. Cutright, Enrique López-Hurtado and Alexander Martín, pp. 77-100. University of Pittsburgh Center for Comparative Archaeology, Pittsburgh.

Martín, Alexander J., Enrique López-Hurtado and Robyn E. Cutright (2010) "Comparative Perspectives: An Introduction." In Comparative Perspectives on the Archaeology of Coastal South America, edited by Robyn E. Cutright, Enrique López-Hurtado and Alexander J. Martín, pp. 1-25. University of Pittsburgh Center for Comparative Archaeology, Pittsburgh.

Martín, Alexander J. (2009) Machalilla Settlement Dataset. Comparative Archaeology Database. University of Pittsburgh.

Martín, Alexander J. and Catherine Lara (2009) La Trayectoria del Desarrollo Social Precolombino en el Sur de Manabí, Antropología: Cuadernos de Investigación PUCE 8:121-147.

Salazar, Ernesto and Alexander J. Martín, section editors  (2007) II Congreso de Antropología y Arqueología, Volumen I: Sección de Arqueología. Fernando García (volume editor), pp. 271-630. Abya Yala, Quito.

Martín, Alexander J. (2007) "El Intercambio de Spondylus a lo Largo de la Costa Sudamericana de Acuerdo al Registro Arqueológico." In II Congreso Ecuatoriano de Antropología y Arqueología, Volumen I, edited by Fernando García, pp. 433-462.  Abya Yala, Quito.