Powhatan's Pursestrings: On the Meaning of Surplus in a Seventeenth Century Algonkian Chiefdom

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Abstract

The implicit tension in chiefly economies–between a political economy predicated on surplus supplied by a domestic economy content with sufficiency–is explored, and an example of its political and processual consequences discussed. Comparison of ethnohistoric narratives with estimation of annual agricultural production for the seventeenth century Powhatan chiefdom suggests that the expansion and increasing complexity of the Powhatan political system was not due to overpopulation but was instead a response to sudden depopulation following establishment of the Spanish mission at Ajácan. There were not enough producers to generate the agricultural surpluses necessary to drive the political economy while maintaining the necessary relations of power supporting ranked structural positions in the social and political hierarchy.

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