6. Conclusions and Implications

Our analysis of the process of neighbourhood expansion, its correlation to traditional law as found in the kanun, and what happened when the Communist regime clamped down on male out-migration, suggests several conclusions about Shala's interaction with the wider world during the pre-Communist era. The partible system of inheritance in the kanun and the demonstrably large families of the blood feud era prior to King Zog's rise to power would quickly have had serious consequences in a mountainous region with extremely limited access to arable land. The pressure for out-migration by at least some brothers would quickly have become irresistible.

Some anthropologists have argued previously that blood feuds and their high male mortality rates solved the problem of population pressure on a limited landscape (Boehm 1984; Coon 1950. Coon could, however, also be quite moderate in his views about feud and its effects on demographics: he explained the early spring's lack of food as 'the result of a complete economic occupancy of the land, coupled with an excess of births over deaths. Raiding brought in more food, but feuding caused more deaths. Between the two, plus a certain amount of emigration, the balance was reached' (Coon 1950, 19). Coon nevertheless tended to overestimate the sense of isolation based on what seemed to him long and arduous walking distances, which other sources clearly reveal as inconsequential to locals; see e.g. Lane 1923; Young 2000.). There is no doubt some truth to the idea that feud might relieve male population pressure, but it is also true that feud led many people to live under one roof as part of an extended family for defensive purposes (Hasluck 1954). Dividing the household was something to avoid, and only when it became unavoidable did brothers move out and establish new houses and neighbourhoods. Until the end of the blood feud, that was clearly relatively rare or we would have found many more older houses. In other words, the desire for large defensible households restricted the number of houses and would have increased the likelihood that those brothers who did depart the extended household would actually depart the village for the outside world. In fact, there is modern evidence that men who become the target of a feud are likely to leave their home territory, in effect going into hiding by moving away (Fischer 1999; audio clip #7).

There is another, additional, problem with the conclusion that feud functioned as a population control mechanism. Catholic Church documents indicate that in the period 1901-1905, the male death rate from feud in Shala stood at 26% (Fischer 1999; Nopsca 1925; Whitaker 1968). And yet, population statistics for the mountain regions from the early 20th century indicate an excess of males. In Theth in 1918 the female to male sex ratio was 355:414 (Coon 1950; Seiner 1922; under-reporting of women is a possibility, although students of the Austrian census argue against that, citing the thoroughness of the preparations for the census; see e.g. Gruber 2001). Edith Durham attributed the sex ratio imbalance in northern Albania to the deaths of many women during childbirth. But another intriguing possibility is that with Albanian independence in 1912, the onset of WWI, and, from 1922 a stronger central government under Zog, men who had gone into exile returned to the mountains, many after having served in the Ottoman army (suggested by an interview with a family head in Lekaj Musha, 2006). Not only had it become more dangerous on the plains and in the cities as compared to the mountains, but under Zog, blood feuds were strongly curtailed (thus the changes in architecture in the 1930s, noted above). As a result, centuries of out-migration were reversed as men - often single, having just left the army and/or having been cut off from traditional marriage partners - moved back to their villages. Villages whose local markets now offered, according to a witness from 1929, zebra hides sent all the way from South Africa, intended for the manufacture of traditional sandals or opingas (Coon 1950, 16).

The ending of the blood feud first allowed for a more rapid expansion in the number of homes and in living space, and even the creation of the new village of Rrogam, but then Communism clamped down on out-migration, initially forcing a further proliferation of houses, and then, after collectivisation, a proliferation of other kinds of buildings (co-ops, markets, administrative and military buildings, and even state tourism facilities). What our (ethno-)historical, archaeological, and ethnographic research in Theth indicates is that, given northern Albanian socio-political structure, and given the severe subsistence limits of mountain economies, changes in population are strongly reflected by changes in the built environment. Population did not hold constant, but was influenced by external forces, despite the seeming isolation of the northern tribes. It seems clear that the mountaineers of northern Albania were in constant interaction with the world around them, at least as a place to go when their already large households became intolerable.

These patterns of population growth, household and village expansion, feud, and limited out-migration, that began in the Late Medieval period, continued into and were warped during Communism, and ended in 1991, are a direct result of Shala's status as a 'refuge area warrior society' (cf. Boehm 1984). By contrast, Neanderthals came each summer to Shala to hunt, left nary a trace, and returned to coastal ranges in the winter. Unlike the Modern inhabitants of northern Albania, they did not possess the complex tribal relationships that allowed social isolation to be dynamically bridged, making year-round settlement in Shala conceivable. By comparison, the Iron Age inhabitants of Shala probably did possess a tribal socio-political system but lacked the subsistence technologies, such as mountain-adapted New World crops (Andrews 1993), necessary to viable year-round settlement. More importantly, they were not refugee populations. They controlled the mountain passes from nucleated bases of power, seasonally, at places like Grunas and Dakaj, and therefore had relatively little impact on the wider landscape. The logical Modern response to the Ottomans was negotiation, strategic isolationism, overt militarism, including feud, a 'Mediterranean' system of marriage that produced extremely large families and high population growth rates, large defensible houses, subsistence intensification including the building of terraces and irrigation systems, and, finally, extensive village communities. The impacts on the landscape of Shala were indelible and dramatic.


© Internet Archaeology/Author(s) URL:
Last updated: Thu Feb 25 2010