The Feasting Theory – Part 4 – From Chiefdoms to States

In our previous posts, we looked at how feasting may have led from informal Big Men to hereditary chiefs.

Brian Hayden’s analysis does not explain how chiefdoms may have developed further along into what archaeologists call “pristine” states. Pristine states are the earliest states. They did not have other states to look to for examples; they had to develop everything on their own from scratch. Later on, “secondary” states form due to their exposure to earlier states. Sometimes they are also called “competitive” states because they form in response to completion from established states.

Marvin Harris, in his book “Cannibals and Kings” speculates as to a gradual process by which this may have occurred. He starts out with Big Men feasting as described by the Feasting Theory, then progressing to “redistributor” chiefs” brought about by increasing warfare, eventually leading to true kings, where the king is the nominal “owner” of the land, and a feudal/peonage system developed where power flows down from the ruler through a branching hierarchy of intermediaries. More and more of the redistributed wealth is retained by the king’s household and invested in “image-building” activities like a formal retinue of retainers and advisors, palace guards, a full-time priesthood, skilled craftsmen, and large-scale building projects. An administrative bureaucracy is established to manage the king’s interests in regards to labor management and taxation. Taxes are collected and law and order is enforced. The entire state is the king’s personal household. Out of such “patrimonial” states develop states and empires proper.

In the absence of a formal theory that takes us from feasting to states, I will combine Harris’ ideas with my own to speculate on how this may have happened.

First, we must define what we mean by states. Here, I will define something I call state capacity. When most or all of the features of state capacity are present, we can then be said to have a formal state. State capacity waxes and wanes over time; when state capacity withers or disappears altogether, we can be said to have a collapse.

These are my (somewhat arbitrary) determinants of State Capacity.

  • The ability to manage and conduct large-scale warfare.
  • The ability to make binding laws and enforce them.
  • The adjudication of disputes in a fair and impartial manner.
  • The ability to guarantee the personal safety of average citizen.
  • The ability to undertake diplomacy, pay war reparations, and negotiate peace treaties.

The above concepts are often grouped together and described as the state having a monopoly on violence. In addition, we can name several more related to the economic sphere:

  • The ability to conduct long distance trade.
  • The ability to regulate commercial transactions (leading to markets).
  • The ability to set standardized weights and measures (e.g. a price schedule and a unit of account that eventually evolves into a universal currency i.e. money).
  • The ability to collect taxes and redistribute wealth and resources throughout the territory.
  • The ability to organize and undertake large-scale communal labor projects for the benefit of society as a whole (e.g. temples, roads, canals, flood embankments, civic buildings, monuments, defensive works, aqueducts, etc.).
  • Control over certain critical key resources–the “commanding heights” of the economy, such as forests or mines.
  • The ability to make provisions for the unfortunate, often expressed as providing for the general welfare (widows, orphans, the disabled, war veterans, the ill, and so forth).

And we can add spiritual factors as well:

  • In previous (pre-Enlightenment) societies, the ability to undertake religious functions to intercede with the gods or ancestors on behalf of the whole society.

All of these functions rest on claims of legitimacy. In the past, legitimacy seems to have always derived some sort of divine sanction, whether from gods or ancestors. Religious concepts are what bound society together–the word religion comes from the Latin word ligare, meaning “to bind together.” In some cases, the priest caste ruled directly (as in Mesopotamia); in others, there was some sort of connection between religious and secular authorities, such as between a priesthood and a ruler as in Egypt.

In post-Enlightenment societies, however, as in certain classical formations, legitimacy is derived from the consent of the governed, although divine sanction still played a role (e.g Rome had a state religion and a high priest [Pontifex Maximus], Greek cities had a patron deity, such as Athena for Athens). Because the state is not kinship-based, it needs to claim legitimacy, and uses religion to do so. This religious claim may grow out of the supernatural descent claims of certain paramount chiefs who constructed temples to validate their relationship to the gods. In some states, as Egypt, the ruler may be seen as divine, in others, acting on behalf of the gods, and in others, as simply a leader with a good pedigree. The state religion is the endgame of the spiritual beliefs extending all the way back to cultic ritual centers like Göbekli Tepe and before that, the candle-lit caves of Chauvet and Lascaux.

…virtually every other state has relied on religion to legitimate itself. The founding myths of the Greek, Roman, Hindu, and Chinese states all trace the regime’s ancestry back to a divinity, or at least to a semidivine hero. Political power in early states cannot be understood apart from the religious rituals that the ruler controlled and used to legitimate his power. (OPO: 88)

Francis Fukuyama defines a state in the following terms:

First, they possess a centralized source of authority, whether in the form of a king, president of prime minister. The source of authority deputizes a hierarchy of subordinates who are capable, at least in principle, of enforcing the rules on the whole of the society. The source of authority trumps all others within its territory, which means that it is sovereign. All administrative levels, such as lesser chiefs, prefects, or administrators, derive their decision-making authority from their formal association with the sovereign.

Second, that source of authority is backed by a monopoly on all the legitimate means of coercion, in the form of an army and/or police. The power of the state is sufficient to prevent segments, tribes, or regions from seceding or otherwise separating themselves (This is what distinguishes a state from a chiefdom.)

Third, the authority of the state is territorial rather than kin based. Thus France was not really a state in Merovingian times when it was led by a king of the Franks rather than the king of France. Since membership in a state does not depend on kinship, it can grow much larger than a tribe.

Fourth, states are far more stratified and unequal than tribal societies, with the ruler and his administrative staff often separating themselves off from the rest of society. In some cases they become a hereditary elite. Slavery and serfdom, while not unknown in tribal societies, expand enormously under the aegis of states.

Finally, states are legitimized by much more elaborate forms of religious belief, with a separate priestly caste as its guardian. Sometimes that priestly class takes power directly, in which case the state is a theocracy; sometimes it is controlled by a secular ruler, in which case it is labeled caesaropapist; and sometimes it coexists with secular rule under some form of power sharing.

With the development of the state, we exit out of kinship into the realm of political development proper…Once states come into being, kinship becomes an obstacle to political development, since it threatens to return political relationships to the small-scale, personal ties of tribal societies. It is therefore not enough to develop a state; the state must avoid retribalization or what I label repatrimonialization. (OPO: 80-81)

For Fukuyama, the critical feature of the state is that it is not based on kinship, or recourse to kinship, unlike the tribal and chiefdom political arrangements we’ve already seen. In fact, kinship ties actually impede effective state formation, and thus are constantly having to be suppressed or mitigated for the state to function properly. Fukuyama calls this “The Tyranny of Cousins.” It’s notable that in instances of state collapse, such relationships often come back to the fore. Fukuyama see the Chinese state, with its vast impersonal bureaucracy chosen by  merit rather than family ties (nepotism), as the first true state in the modern sense:

…the state that emerged in China was far more modern in Max Weber’s sense than any of its counterparts elsewhere. the Chinese created a uniform, multilevel administrative bureaucracy, something that never happened in Greece or Rome. The Chinese developed an explicit antifamilistic political doctrine, and its early rulers sought to undermine the power of entrenched families and kinship groups in favor of impersonal administration. This state engaged in a nation-building project that created a powerful and uniform culture, a culture powerful enough to withstand two millennia of political breakdown and external invasion. The Chinese political and cultural space extended over a far larger population that that of the Romans. The Romans ruled an empire, limiting citizenship initially to a relatively small number of people on the Italian peninsula. While that empire eventually stretched from Britain to North Africa to Germany to Syria, it consisted of a heterogeneous collection of peoples who were allowed a considerable degree of self-rule. By contrast, even though the Chinese monarch called himself an emperor rather than a king, he ruled over something that looked much more like a kingdom or even a state in its uniformity. (OPO: 92-93)

This is in contrast to other locations, where:

In China, the state was consolidated before other social actors could institutionalize themselves, actors like a hereditary, territorially based aristocracy, an organized peasantry, cities based on a merchant class, churches, or other autonomous groups. Unlike in Rome, the Chinese military remained firmly under the state’s control and never posed an independent threat to its political authority. This initial skewering of the balance of power was locked in for a long period, since the mighty state could act to prevent the emergence of alternative sources of power, both economic and political…Unlike China and like Europe, India’s institutionalization of countervailing social actors–an organized priestly class and the metastacization of kinship structures into the caste system–acted as a brake on the accumulation of power by the state. The result was that over the past twenty-two hundred years, China’s default political mode was a unified empire punctuated by periods of civil war, invasion, and breakdown, whereas India’s default mode was a disunited system of petty political units, punctuated by brief periods of unity and empire. (OPO: 93-94)

Let’s take a look at some of Marvin Harris’ theories on state formation:

Redistribution: Harris speculates that early states developed out of redistributive chiefdoms. In these chiefdoms, the leader (typically a paramount chief)  takes in the surplus production of the whole society–subsistence farmers, households and other corporate groups and redistributes it across the wider society through intermediaries by maintaining a series of storehouses. The chief uses a portion of the surplus to manage and undertake large-scale efforts on behalf of the whole society, such as undertaking long-distance trade to procure distant commodities, building temples to the culture’s major deities, supporting full-time religious specialists, leading military efforts, and supporting specialized craftsmen and artisans out of his household (e.g. weavers and smiths). Chiefs also used a portion of the surpluses to maintain a specialized caste of warriors (specialists in violence) for territorial conquest and defense.

Redistribution was also done to take care of the “unfortunates”—people who fell on hard times, had no family or clan, or whose families could not care for them for some reason such as widows, orphans, war veterans, the elderly, the disabled, etc. Often times such people were put to work by the chief in specialized tasks; for example, the blind often became bards, and widows and orphans wove textiles. In this way, taking care of people who fell on hard times would have been a common pro-social expectation provided by elites and expected by the commoners.

In these cases, feasting was no longer necessary to gain “prestige,” since there was no longer any dispute over formal leadership roles or dynastic succession. Chiefs still redistributed the surplus, but it was no longer through feasting. Rather the undertaking of long-distance raids and the building of great monuments and temples would take its place. Feasting still occurred, however, under the guise of religious holidays. The dates of these public festivals were determined by the managerial elites using the astronomical calendar and served the former purposes of communal feasting  such as reaffirming cultural identity and deploying large amounts of communal labor, as Piotr Steinkeller describes:

…it is generally recognized that in the ancient and premodern societies feasts constituted an exceedingly important strategy to mobilize labor for public projects. As stated by Michael Dietler and Ingrid Herbich at the outset of their exhaustive study of this subject, “The use of feasts to mobilize collective labor has been a widespread and fundamental economic practice of societies around the world. In fact, variants of the practice are so strikingly omnipresent in the ethnographic and historical literature that a good case can be made for acknowledging it both as virtually a universal feature among the agrarian societies and as nearly exclusive means of mobilizing large voluntary work projects before the spread, of the monetary economy and the capitalist accommodation of labor and creation of a wage labor market.”

These authors argue for the need of a fully theorized understanding of the specific range of practices that enable voluntary labor to be mobilized on a scale above the household level, how the possibility for labor exploitation inheres [sic] in some of these practices, and, crucially, the ways that feasting operates as a mechanism of conversation within this realm. ” They further define “work feast” as “a particular form of the ’empowering feast’ mode in which commensal hospitality is used to orchestrate voluntary collective labor.’ Although Dietler and Herbich focus on the feast as a means to mobilize voluntary labor for communal works, it is certain that their conclusions are equally applicable to the societies in which participation in such operations was outright obligatory or, at the very least, sanctioned by Custom ‘such as the Mesopotamian and Egyptian ones. Even though the builders of Tummal and the pyramids of Giza were compelled by their governments to work on these projects, the expectation of communal feasts must have been an important inducement for them to work on such undertakings with a positive attitude. (LIW: 200-201)

Harris believes these redistributor chiefs eventually became so powerful that they became kings:

The larger and denser the population, the larger the redistributive network and the more powerful the redistributor war chief. Under certain circumstances the exercise of power by the redistributor and his closest followers on one side and by the ordinary food producers on the other became so unbalanced that for all intents and purposes the redistributor chiefs constituted the principal coercive force in social life. When this happened, contributions to the central store ceased to be voluntary contributions. They became taxes. Farmlands and natural resources ceased to be elements of rightful access. They became dispensations. And redistributors ceased to be chiefs. They became kings. (C&K: 113)

The entire society becomes, in essence, one giant “household” under the command of the redistributor chief, whose lineage becomes the ruling family and whose headman becomes a hereditary “king” (ancient Egypt provides an example of this model).

Harris names several other factors that would lead to state formation:

Hydraulics – One of the earliest theories of state formation was proposed by Karl Wittfogel back in the nineteenth century. He noted that all early states were in places of scant rainfall and hence were dependent upon massive irrigation works for their food production. He argued that the managers of such projects were the first elites, and the bureaucracy required to build and maintain such large-scale projects were the first governments. He also argued that the control such leaders exercised over water made them “despotic” because they had exclusive control over the critical resource (water) that the rest of the society needed to survive. This led him to concepts such as “Oriental Despotism” and an “Asiatic Mode of Production,” that had a big impact on Karl Marx’s materialistic theories, which argued that the social structure of any given society derived primarily from the mode of production of its food and goods.

“During the four thousand years before Christ, in the great river valleys of Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China, the state took on the function of building grand hydraulic works, which in turn required centralized managerial bureaucracies to operate. Whoever controlled those means of production–in such cases it was a group of agromanagerial experts–became perforce the effective ruling class. The common techno-environmental basis in all those ancient Oriental civilizations, giving rise to similar social structures in them, was water control, mainly a program of irrigation made necessary by inadequate or unseasonal or undependable rainfall…”

Wittfogel’s ideas have fallen out of favor, due to the discovery that the canals were managed on the village, not the state, level. His theories were also heavily criticized by later archaeologists, notably Karl Butzer. However, the need for much closer levels of cooperation and coordination would have clearly been necessitated by canal usage, and it would have required much more complex bureaucracy than the simple farming societies which were governed by chiefdoms with scant bureaucracy. Thus, irrigation no doubt must have played at least some sort of role in the rising complexity of early Near Eastern societies, which certainly had knock-on effects on incipient state formation. Marvin Harris at least partially endorses Wittfogel’s theory:

In my opinion, the actual record of discoveries made by archaeologists has consistently favored the hydraulic theory. When the theory was first formulated, almost nothing was known about the conditions that had given rise to the agro-managerial states and empires of the New World. Wittfogel stimulated the first attempt by archaeologists in the late 1930’s to detect the presence of irrigation during the formative phases of native states in South America. Recent work by archaeologists at Columbia University and Harvard continue to support the view that the growth of cities, states, and monumental architectures in the pre-Columbian cultures of highland and coastal Peru grew step-by-step with an increase in the size and complexity of their irrigation systems. Excavations carried out in Mesoamerica by William Sanders and Richard MacNeish have also tended to confirm the importance of irrigation. As I showed in an earlier chapter, hydraulic agriculture was the basic source of subsistence for Teotihuacan and for the Aztec’s cannibal kingdom. (C&K: 245)

It’s notable that the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture of Ukraine has been “lost” to history because it never crossed over the threshold of becoming a true large empire or state from chiefdom level, despite settled agricultural villages and population density equivalent to that of ancient Mesopotamia. Could this be because agriculture was rain-fed rather than irrigated?  Some estimates (although disputed) have the “cities” of this culture as the largest on earth at one point.

Cereals – All the early centralized states arose where cereal grain cultivation was practiced – wheat and barley in the Middle East, millet and rice in China and India, maize and quinoa in the Americas. Places which primarily grew fruits, tubers or legumes did not become more stratified than chiefdoms.

A recent paper argued that this was because the latter types of foods were fairly perishable, and hence not readily “approriable.” Cereal grains, by contrast, were easy to appropriate by would-be leaders; they were easily moved around and stored for very long periods of time, contributing to incipient state formation:

…consider a hypothetical community of farmers who cultivate cassava (a major source of calories in sub-Saharan Africa, and the main crop cultivated in Nigeria), and assume that the annual output is well above subsistence. Cassava is a perennial root that is highly perishable upon harvest. Since this crop rots shortly after harvest, it isn’t stored and it is thus difficult to steal or confiscate. As a result, the assumed available surplus would not facilitate the emergence of a non-food producing elite, and may be expected to lead to a population increase.

Consider now another hypothetical farming community that grows a cereal grain – such as wheat, rice or maize – yet with an annual produce that just meets each family’s subsistence needs, without any surplus. Since the grain has to be harvested within a short period and then stored until the next harvest, a visiting robber or tax collector could readily confiscate part of the stored produce. Such ongoing confiscation may be expected to lead to a downward adjustment in population density, but it will nevertheless facilitate the emergence of non-producing elite, even though there was no surplus.

Cereals, appropriability, and hierarchy (VoxEU)

In the case of the Trobriand Islanders, for example, their method of food gathering made the emergence of despotic elites less likely to occur:

…even though they feared and respected their “great provider” war chiefs, the Trobriand commoners were still a long way from being reduced to peasant status. Living on islands, the Trobrianders were not free to spread out, and their population density had risen in Malinowski’s time to sixty persons per square mile. Nonetheless, the chiefs could not control enough of the production system to acquire great power. There were no cereal grains and yams rot after three or four months, which means that the Trobriand “great provider” could not manipulate people through dispensing food nor could he support a permanent police-military garrison out of his stores.

An equally important factor was the open resources of the lagoons and ocean from which the Trobrianders derived their protein supply. The Trobriand chief could not cut off access to these resources and hence could never exercise genuine permanent coercive political control over his subordinates. But with more intense forms of agricuture and large harvests of grains, the power of “great providers” evolved far beyond that of the Trobriand chief. (C&K: 110)

Impaction – The areas where the first states arose were all surrounded by areas of sharply reduced productivity. Egypt was confined to a narrow strip along the Nile surrounded by vast and inhospitable deserts. Mesopotamia outside of the river valleys was surrounded by pastoral nomads, mountains, deserts, and other conditions unsuitable for intensive agriculture on a large scale. Similar conditions are found in the river valleys of China, India, Mexico and Peru. Harris argues for Carneiro’s circumscription theory

Under what circumstances would the conversion of a redistributive chieftainship to a feudal state be likely to occur? To intensification, population growth, warfare, storable grains, and hereditary redistributors, add one more factor: impaction. Suppose, as Robert Carneiro has suggested, a population being served by redistributors has been expanding inside a region that is circumscribed, or closed off, by environmental barriers. These barriers need not be uncrossable oceans or unclimbable mountains; rather, they might merely consist of ecological transition zones where people who had broken away from overcrowded villages would find that they would have to take a severe cut in their standard of living or change their whole way of life in order to survive. With impaction, two types of groups might find that the benefits of a permanently subordinate status exceeded the costs of trying to maintain their independence. First, villages consisting of kinspeople forced to enter the transition zones would be tempted to accept a dependent relationship in exchange for continued participation in the redistributions sponsored by their parent settlements. And second, enemy villages defeated in battle might find it less costly to pay taxes and tribute than to flee to these zones.

Very little physical coercion would be needed to keep the emergent peasantry in line. Kinship would be used to justify the legitimacy of differential access to resources on the part of junior or senior lineages or of wife-giving, wife-taking alliance groups (those who gave wives would expect tribute and labor services in return). Access to the stored grains might be made contingent upon rendering craft or military services. Or the “big men” of the more powerful group could simply begin taxation by redistributing less than they took in. External warfare would increase and defeated villages would be regularly assimilated into the tax and tribute network. A growing corps of military, religious, and craft specialists would be fed out of the central grain stores, amplifying the image of the rulers as beneficent “great providers.” And the social distance between the police-military-priestly-managerial elite and the emergent class of food-producing peasant drudges would widen still further as the scope of the integrated food production facilities increased, as trade networks expanded, as population grew, and as production was intensified still further through more taxation, labor conscription, and tribute.

How well does the theory of environmental circumscription and impaction accord with the evidence? The six most likely regions of pristine state development certainly do possess markedly circumscribed zones of production…all of these regions contain fertile cores surrounded by zones of sharply reduced agricultural potential. They are, in fact, river valleys or lake systems surrounded by deserts or at least very dry zones. The dependence of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and India in the flood plains of the Nile, Tigris-Euphrates, and Indus is well-known. In ancient China conditions of climate, soil, and topography limited intensive forms of agriculture beyond the river margins of the Yellow River Basin. Central highland Mexico south to Tehuantepec is also dry and in addition “suffers from severe rain shadow effects in the highland basins and stream valleys that were the aboriginal population centers.” And finally, the Peruvian coast is notable for the stark contrast between the lush vegetation bordering the short coastal rivers that flow down from the Andes and the desert conditions that prevail everywhere else. All of these regions present special difficulties to villages that might have sought to escape from the growing concentration of power in the hands of overly aggressive redistributor war chiefs. (C&K: 114-117)

Density – The first states all began in the broad alluvial river valleys suited to intensive year-round agricultural production, and hence, places which could support much larger and denser populations than regions where shifting cultivation was practiced. With more and more people working cheek-to-jowl in a small area year after year, no doubt more and more conflicts arose, leading to new needs for social management and conflict resolution. Hunter-gathers have very limited population density, horticulturalists would have somewhat higher, but it’s likely that the old tribal systems of conflict resolution and dispute adjudication would have been sadly inadequate for the kinds of densities produced by irrigation agriculture.

Furthermore, there is no doubt that all of these regions were the scene of rapid population growth prior to the emergence of the state. I mentioned earlier that the population of the Middle East increased fortyfold between 8000 and 4000 B.C. Karl Butzer estimates that the population of Egypt doubled between 4000 and 3000 B.C. William Sanders estimates that population tripled or quadrupled in the highland zones of early state formation in Mexico, and similar estimates also apply to Peru, China, and the Indus Valley. “For all areas one receives the impression of an increase not only in the total number of sites but also in the density of distribution, size, and elaboration of sites.” (C&K: 117-118)

It’s notable that the very existence of the state itself caused population growth. With its ability to do things like to build canals, store large surpluses, and restrict violence, as well as the advantages of scale, states would have engendered the very growth they sought to manage. This would have led to a feedback loop as growing populations due to state power would have created the need for more powerful elites and even more state power.

The organization that we call a “city-state” is the logical, indeed the inevitable, outcome of the invention of agriculture by an animal of social habits. Agriculture requires settlement. An unchanged breeding strategy makes that settlement dense. Government in a dense community requires specialization. And a dense settlement containing both rulers and ruled must inevitably divide up the country into land to live on and land to farm. The city-state has emerged, along with a rationale that requires people within it to have different specialties—that is, different niches…The need for government in dense communities did more than just save a few individuals from the worst consequences of our change of niche. It also allowed further increases in the carrying capacity. Government could ration, distribute and hoard. Surplus and deficit could be balanced from place to place, and from season to season, ensuring an even flow of the necessities for life, making the luxury of large families the more safely enjoyed. (FON)

Nutrition & Disease – Both nutrition and disease must have played a role in hierarchy after the emergence of the state  – officials could stay out of the heat and the moisture and escape the overcrowding and disease which beset increasingly densely packed-in food producers. And elites would have had differential access to better nutrition, which would have made their offspring healthier. We know that certain nutrients are critical for proper brain and body development, nutrients that would have become scarce as the means of getting food shifted. We now know thanks to the emerging science of epigenetics, that deficiencies in certain nutrients, as well as changes in status, causes differential gene expression – different genes are switched on and off. Moreover, these deficiencies persist through generations.  David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene, writes, “Some of the most provocative work in this field suggests that these epigenetic marks-and not just the genes themselves — may be altered by experiences and passed down to subsequent generations.” Elites with better access to nutrition early on could have passed down these advantages across generations. William McNeill writes in Plagues and Peoples:

Whatever the ancient distribution of schistosomiasis and similar infections may have been, one can be sure that wherever they became widespread they tended to create a listless and debilitated peasantry, handicapped both for sustained work in the fields and digging irrigation channels, and for the no less muscularly demanding task of resisting military attack or throwing off alien political domination and economic exploitation. Lassitude and chronic malaise, in other words, of the kind induced by blood fluke and similar parasitic infections conduces to successful invasion by the only kind of large-bodied predators human beings have to fear: their own kind, armed and organized for war and conquest. Although historians are unaccustomed to thinking of state building, tax collection, and booty raids in such a context, this sort of mutual support between micro- and macroparasitism is, assuredly- a normal ecological phenomenon.

How important parasitic infection of agricultural field workers may have been in facilitating the erection of the social hierarchies of early river valley civilizations cannot be estimated very plausibly. But it seems reasonable to suspect that the despotic governments characteristic of societies dependent on irrigation agriculture may have owed something to the debilitating diseases that afflicted field workers who kept their feet wet much of the time, as well as to the technical requirements of water management and control which have hitherto been used to explain the phenomenon. (P&P: 63-64)

Charismatic Authority – Sometimes a bold new idea or a particularly charismatic leader can use powers of persuasion or belief to unite disparate people and cause them to surrender their autonomy and bind together in some sort of collective endeavor, sort of like a religious cult on a larger scale. Francis Fukuyama writes:

Archaeologists who speculate about the origins of politics tend to be biased in favor of materialistic explanations like environment and level of technology, rather than cultural factors like religion, simply because we know more about the material environment of early societies. But it seems extremely likely that religious ideas were critical to early state formation, since they could effectively legitimate the transition to hierarchy and loss of freedom enjoyed by tribal societies…Religious authority allows a particular tribal leader to solve the large-scale collective action problem of uniting a group of autonomous tribes. To a much larger degree than economic benefit, religious authority can explain why a free tribal people would be willing to make a permanent delegation of authority to a single individual and that individual’s kin group…the only problem, however, is that you need a new form of religion, one that can overcome the inherent scale limitations of ancestor worship and other kinds of particluaristic forms of worship.

There is a concrete historical case of this process unfolding, which was the rise of the first Arab state under the Patriarchal and Umayyad caliphates. Tribal peoples inhabited the Arabian peninsula for many centuries, living on the borders of state-level societies like Egypt, Persia, and Rome/Byzantium. The harshness of their environment and its unsuitability for agriculture explained why they were never conquered, and thus why they never felt military pressure to form themselves into a centralized state…Things changed dramatically, however, with the birth of the Prophet Muhammad in A.D. 570 in the Arabian town of Mecca…There is no clearer illustration of the importance of ideas to politics than the emergence of an Arab state under the Prophet Muhammad. The Arab tribes played an utterly marginal role in world history until that point; it was only Muhammad’s charismatic authority that allowed them to unify and project their power throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The tribes had no economic base to speak of; they gained economic power through the interaction of religious ideas and military organization, and then were able to take over agricultural societies that did produce surpluses. (OPO: 87-88)

Even today we frequently see people surrender their initiative and independence to a larger religious group of their own volition with no coercion whatsoever. This is evident in cults from ones as small as the People’s Temple and the Branch Davidians, to massive cults such as Mormonism and Scientology. As Dostoyevsky said, “So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship.”

Warfare – Harris also points out that warfare tends to increase the power of elites. He argues that warfare is what allowed the big men to become war chiefs, and points out that earlier big men had not only thrown great feasts, but had also been great war leaders as well (which is why Flannery and Marcus argued that warfare, not feasting, was the root cause of inequality). The original big men also became the generals. Thus, in ancient times, it may be more accurate to speak of a “feasting-fighting” complex, rather than just feasting alone:

Formerly, the mumis [Big Men] were as famous for their ability to get men to fight for them a they were for their ability to get men to work for them. Warfare had been suppressed by the colonial authorities…but the memory of mumi war leaders was still vivid among the Siuai. As one old man put it: “In the olden times there were greater mumi than there are today, They laid waste to the countryside and their clubhouses were lined with the skulls of people they had slain.”

In singing the praises of their mumis, the generation of pacified Siuai call the “warriors” and “killers of men and pigs.”…Oliver’s informants told him that mumis had more authority in the days when warfare was still being practiced. Some mumi leaders even kept one or two prisoners who were treated like slaves and forced to work in the mumi’s family gardens. And people could not talk “loud and slanderously against their mumis without fear of punishment.” This fits theoretical expectations since the ability to redistribute meat, plant food, and other valuables goes hand-in-hand with the ability to attract a following of warriors, equip them for combat, and reward them with spoils of battle…the mumi who wanted to lead a war party had to be prepared personally to pay an indemnity for any of his men who were killed in battle and to furnish a pig for each man’s funeral feast. (C&K: 106-108)

Similarly, warfare was also a catalyst for early state formation:

Egypt’s legendary history begins with a tale of conquest, and specialized instruments of war and fortification appear early in the archaeological record. In Mesopotamia weaponry and representation of slaves and battles are present in early predynastic times. Fortifications and documentary evidence indicate that that Shang China, at the time of the emergence of the first Yellow River states, was an extremely militaristic society. Recent discoveries in the heartland of the earliest Indus River states have confirmed the existence of strongly fortified neolithic villages that were destroyed by conquest. In the New World “both coastal Peru and Mesoamerica show a long history of warfare”; archaeological “indications of fighting are present no later than the start of the first millennium B.C.” The kind of warfare that was conducive to the evolution of the state obviously must have involved long-distance external combat by large coalitions of villages rather than internal warfare…(C&K: 118)

Fukuyama cites warfare as key to the formation of the Chinese state:

The chief driver of Chinese state formation was not the need to create grand irrigation projects, nor the rise of a charismatic religious leader, but unrelenting warfare. It was war and the requirements of war that led to the consolidation of a system of ten thousand political units into a single state in the space of eighteen hundred years, that motivated the creation of a class of permanent trained bureaucrats and administrators, and that justified the move away from kinship as the basis for political organization. As Charles Tilly said of Europe in a later period, for China, “war made the state, and the state made war.” (OPO: 94)

Peter Turchin has argued that warfare is the crucial factor in state formation. States form in order to defend accumulated wealth from raiders, in his estimation. He argues that early states arose in transition zones between nomadic pastoralists and settled agriculturalists. In his view, it is not that these areas are circumscribed, but rather that they sit at the intersection of these two contrasting modes of living, what he calls “steppe frontiers.” He argues that such steppe frontiers are the crucible of state formation: “over 90% of mega-empires arose within or next to the Old World’s arid belt, running from the Sahara desert to the Gobi desert.” More recently, he has also pointed to warfare as critical to state formation and inequality:

I have argued…that conditions of endemic warfare between human groups create enormous selection pressures for larger group size (“God is on the side of big battalions”) and for effective (which means centralized) military organizations. Under such conditions, emergence of centralized military hierarchies becomes virtually inevitable. The result is the rise of increasingly complex centralized societies – chiefdoms, complex chiefdoms, and archaic states…Unfortunately, hierarchical organization gave too much power to military leaders and their warrior retinues, who abused it (“power corrupts”). The result was that early centralized societies (chiefdoms and archaic states) were  hugely unequal… alpha males set themselves up as god-kings.

Is Human Sacrifice Functional at the Society Level? (Cliodynamica)

The Z-Curve of Human Egalitarianism (Cliodynamica)

Even today, warlords tend to be the first form of “government” to form in the absence of a formal state caused by a breakdown in civil order. These warlords tend to be charismatic individuals who can command enough followers skilled in the application of violence to enforce civil order. They put an end to the widespread crime, looting, rape and other assorted violence that occurs during periods of state breakdown. This makes them the de facto government, and over time, they may evolve to become the de jure government as well. We see such a dynamic in post-collapse regions such as Somalia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Afghanistan. Eventually, the warlords seek legitimacy, which, as we saw, they typically get from some sort of external (usually religious) authority, or else they are put in their position by a stronger power. This exact same sequence may have happened in the distant past as well, except the violence was not caused by state breakdown, but rather by the absence of any state in the first place!

Regarding state formation, Francis Fukuyama concludes:

We seem to be getting closer to a fuller explanation for pristine state formation. We need the confluence of several factors. First, there needs to be a sufficient abundance of resources to permit the creation of surpluses above what is necessary for subsistence. This abundance can be natural: the Pacific Northwest was so full of game and fish that the hunter-gatherer-level societies were able to generate chiefdoms, if not states. But more often abundance is made possible through technological advances like agriculture. Second, the absolute scale of the society has to be sufficiently large to permit the emergence of a rudimentary division of labor and a ruling elite. Third, that population needs to be physically constrained so that it increases in density when technological opportunities present themselves, and in order to make sure that subjects cannot run away when coerced. And finally, tribal groups have to be motivated to give up their freedom to the authority of a state. This can come about through the threat of physical extinction by other, increasingly well-organized groups. Or it can result from the charismatic authority of a religious leader. Taken together, these appear to be plausible factors leading to the emergence of a state in places like the Nile Valley.

Thomas Hobbes argued that the state or Leviathan came about as a result of a rational social contract among individuals who wanted to solve the problem of endemic violence and end the state of war… I suggested that there was a fundamental fallacy in this, and all liberal social contract theories, insofar as it presupposed a presocial state of nature in which human beings lived as isolated individuals. Such a state of primordial individualism never existed; human beings are social by nature and do not have to make a self-interested decision to organize themselves into groups. The particular form that social organization takes is frequently the result of rational deliberation at higher levels of development. But at lower ones, it evolves spontaneously out of the building blocks created by human biology. (OPO: 89-90)

In addition to this excellent list, I would add two other critical factors: The role of climate, and The role of bronze.

The role of climate – The formation of the earliest states seems to coincide with a climatic transition. The final dessication of the Sahara desert and the end of the “Green Sahara” period coincides with the formation of the Egyptian state circa 3100BC. Southern Mesopotamia seems to have been unified at around the same time, although the first true Mesopotamian “empire” under Sargon uniting northern and southern Mesopotamia formed later in around 2700BC. A climate anomaly called the Piora Oscillation has been identified by climate scientists at around this time, although its cause is unknown–possibly a volcanic eruption.

How would climate change have spurred the formation of large states? In several ways: 1) An increased need to provide for the general welfare due to cascading crop failures of subsistence farms and loss of arable pasturelands 2.) Increased external conflicts spurred by more intensive competition between polities over a shrinking pool of resources, and 3.) Internal conflicts caused by climate refugees migrating into already occupied areas, spurring a greater need for conflict resolution, suppression of violence,and formal laws, and 4.) Farm failures would have put the unfortunates in debt to the fortunate and lucky, increasing debt slavery and the amounts of labor and control commanded by elites. This command over labor would have spurred the state to form.

A change in climate would have rapidly reduced the carrying capacity of the land. Dust bowl conditions caused by climate change would have led to numerous “climate refugees”–farmers whose subsistence lands had failed, or herders no longer able to find pasturage–migrating into the remaining agricultural areas to seek work. The only way such welfare could be provisioned was through the storehouses of powerful redistibutive elites. This would have further increased their political power. The people now fed through the rulers’ “generosity” would have been “in debt” to him, allowing him to command increasingly larger pools of labor This could be used for handicraft production, construction, or even warfare. The story of Joseph and his brothers in the Bible is illustrative here – perhaps the source of Hebrew slavery was debt slavery caused by famine?

The archaeologist Frank Hole has found numerous villages throughout Northern Mesopotamia which were apparently prosperous for hundred of years and then suddenly abandoned seemingly overnight. He believes this was due to climate change. He argues that the people from these villages became migrants into more prosperous areas, and that these climate refugees became the first “internal proletariat” who built and maintained the canals, city walls, and temples, all under the careful management of the priestly bureaucracy and scribes.

Yale University archaeologist Frank Hole believes that …”the landless and destitute,” … fled their traditional villages when the rain failed. He believes that they became a labor pool that could be mobilized to transform the village-based agricultural system of the ‘Ubaid farmer into a much more productive system under the aegis of growing cities. The same laborers, fed on public rations, could also build temples, city walls, and other public works. All this labor was carried out in the name of the gods, who controlled the fate of humankind and the malevolent forces of the cosmos. The villiages had coalesced into cities, each surrounded by brilliant green tracks of densely cultivated farmland in a brown and yellow landscape.(LS:)

Climate change would also have spurred the potential for increased interpersonal violence, and the need to tamp it down. As unrelated families and clans were forced into circumscribed areas due to a reduction in carrying capacity, the old tribal systems of conflict resolution would have failed in the face of rising numbers. Informal standards of behavior that worked at tribe or village level would no longer have sufficed. This would have spurred  the need for more formal lawgiving, and that is exactly what we see. Informal tribal systems were replaced with formal laws given by the rulers, often claiming sanction from the gods themselves.

Most early kings are associated with lawgiving in some form. The Law Code of Hammurabi is the most famous, but his was not the first law code.  It was preceded by The Law code of Urukagina and the Law code of Ur-Nammu. These codes are specifically attributed to rulers, typically under the tutelage of a deity. The Hammurabi basalt stele famously depicts him receiving the laws from the sun god Shamash (intestingly, legal ocdes at this time first begin to regulate sexual, in additional to social, behavior). Moses, of course, recived the twelve tablets of the law directly from God himself atop Mount Sinai  according to the Old Testament. The Salic Law (Lex Salicus) was first compiled by the Frankish King Clovis. Rulers and lawgiving have always gone hand-in-hand; Napoleon considered his reform of the French legal code an achievement on par with (if not above) his military conquests, and even today our power elite is dominated by lawyers.

In addition, most ancient cultures developed a concept of “order” emerging from primordial chaos, and the maintenance of that divine order on earth was the responsibility of the ruler. Often, this order was seen as a reflection of cosmic order on the earth. To the extent that that ruler was able to maintain such an order and to contain “misrule” he was seen as earning the divine sanction of the gods. For example, the Egyptians had their concept of Ma’at, and the Chinese developed the “Mandate of Heaven,” to justify centralized rule in the person of the emperor.

Of course, laws are useless without someone to enforce them.  Warlords, who were initially appointed to conduct external warfare, may have become the enforcers of internal warfare as well, or what we now call the police. Those who controlled this internal warfare become the de-facto rulers of the society by combining external warfare with internal law enforcement (Wittfogel’s “internal and external bureaus of plunder”).

External conflicts over shrinking resources would have also led to increasing conflicts between polities. In Mesopotamia, increasing diplomatic conflicts over canals and farmlands are well attested to in the historical record. Often times, these conflicts escalated into “hot wars” in which one city and its resources would be absorbed into another. The winner of such a conflict would get the vanquished polity’s resources, soldiers and tax base, given them an advantage in any future conflicts. This would have kicked off autocatyltic process in which “the big fish ate the little fish,” as advantages to larger scales would have become ever greater. (see The Law of Cumulative Advantage, below) For example, the numerous farming villages along the Nile River were eventually absorbed into three major polities by 3000BC : Naqada, This (Abydos), and Hierakonoplis. Eventually, one of these three (Hierakonopolis) conquers the other two, and the leader of this polity becomes the ruler of the Egyptian state (Dynasty 0). A similar process occurs in Mesopotamia as certain larger, more powerful city states “gobble up” other states, eventually resulting in Sargon’s Akkadian empire.

As resources became increasingly under the control of elites due to climate change, control over these resources would have also led to political centralization. A vivid example is provided by  a movie called “The Age of Consequences” which examines the climate devastation of modern-day Syria:

It starts by examining the history of Syrian civil war, which undoubtedly is rooted in centuries o[f] conflict, yet accelerated by a severe three-year drought in the mid-2000s which forced 1.5 million people from the agricultural countryside into major cities.

“A bunch of unemployed young men in a major city is not a recipe for stability,” says Brig. Gen. Stephen Curry, of the U.S. Marine Corps.

Today, Syria is the headquarters for the Islamic State, and they’re using resource scarcity to their advantage, the movie explains. With less water, extremists leverage the resource to take over local populations, as seen with ISIS’ withholding of water storage facilities in Syria.

“Water becomes an instrument of war,” he says.

So, what’s often called the “welfare/warfare state” is not a recent invention at all, but rather the very reason for state formation in the first place!

Ironically, it is also climate which is increasingly being indicted in the collapse of ancient states. For example, the 4.2 Kiloyear BP event is implicated in the fall of both Sargon’s Akkadian Dynasty and the end of the Old Kingdom in Egypt. Rather than just runaway population growth, it seems to be a rapid decline in the carrying capacity caused by climate changes (drought, etc.) that is associated with state failure and a reduction in social complexity throughout history.

The Role of Bronze – The onset of the Bronze Age would have led to two other critical factors for state formation: 1.) Increasingly complex and specialized techniques of warfare and the need to provide “high-tech” weaponry such as bronze swords, armor and chariots, and 2.) Increased requirements for trade, and 3.) Elite control of the trading networks and critical resources to smelt and work bronze, such as mines and smiths.

As noted above, the earliest states seem to have been born in a climate of persistent warfare. With the rise of states come walls around cities, indicating that warfare was ratcheted up a significant degree. Walls around cities only appear in the archaeological record with the early Bronze Age, indicating increased warfare (Jericho is the exception, and many archaeologists believe its walls were a form of flood control) This was the same time that bronze weapons and tools became widespread in use, supplanting bronze’s earlier use in ritual or prestige goods of little practical value.

Warfare at the Bronze-Age level was an order of magnitude more complex than the small-scale tribal battles and skirmishes which preceded it. Societies which could uses bronze weapons and armor would have been able to easily overrun cultures which could not utilize this resource. And, obviously, effective warfare requires a clear top-down hierarchy and formal chain of command. Societies which could mage this level of organization would become predominant, but this would obviously lead to a much more extreme “ranking” system, and larger bureaucracies to manage large-scale warfare. It would have also led to greater coercive power in the hands of elites. The organizers of warfare became the secular ruling class, claiming legitimacy by cultivating ties to the priesthood.

We see in Mesopotamian bas-reliefs massive siege engines built to conquer walled cities. We also see graphic depictions of whole populations being put to the sword. All of these are signs of increasing complexity and state capacity. Warlords who could deploy bronze weapons and armor, and provision the large armies required during this period, would have been the first kings and emperors. Most likely, what eventually became the “palace” began as a prominent household which had workmen attached who were able to work bronze and forge weapons and armor, and who could also organize the massive resources it took to conduct large-scale Bronze Age warfare.

Unlike iron, which is fairly evenly distributed throughout the earth’s crust, the key resources for bronze–copper and tin–are fairly concentrated in very specific and far-flung, geographical areas. This meant that the control of the mines and trade routes for bronze may have played a role in the centralization of power in the hands of elites. In most instances, rulers retained control over critical resources such as mines. In others, the bronze trade was carried out under the aegis of the ruling caste:

Archaeologists have suggested a theory linking the use of bronze to political centralization. Copper and tin are both scarce and need to be traded, their supplies can be monopolized, and so can trade. This seems to have created both the incentive and the opportunity to concentrate power and develop urban centers, for example in Knossos in Crete which was the core of Minoan Greece. While the Greek Bronze Age cities were destroyed around 1200 BCE and some, like Mycenae, never re-emerged, many, such as Athens re-emerged on the same spot so the early centralization of the Bronze Age may have left a path dependent legacy.

Later on, war chariots would have been added to the mix. In the Near East, horses first appeared in battle not as cavalry, but as chariots. Although the exact date and location of horse domestication his unknown, it is though that were first domesticated by the Botai people of Central Asia somewhere around 3200BC. By 2000BC they had found their way to the Near east, but the people there would not have known how to ride them, instead using them to pull  mobile war platforms.

Horses require an enormous amount of land to feed and pasture, meaning that throughout history, only the very rich (i.e. those who controlled large tracts of land) could afford to provision them. Due to their critical role in ancient warfare, this meant that only the rich could practically project force, and thus effectively became society’s ruling class. The connection between horse ownership and the ruling class is an old one extending back thousands of years. From the Roman equites class to the medieval knights, to the Mongols, horse ownership has always been intimately connected with wealth and political power in agrarian societies. Even today, the word for gentleman in most European languages is the same as that for horseman (caballero, chevalier, etc.). As horses became critical to warfare, this would also have empowered significantly wealthy households to acquire enough power to establish state capacity through violence.

What I suspect is that the arrival of mature Bronze technology caused an escalation in the complexity as well as the intensity and urgency, of warfare. Only societies that could manufacture and deploy bronze weapons and armor in battle could expect to survive in this new world. This led to much more social complexity and hierarchical leadership. As such warlords became the new leaders, their specialization in the techniques of violence and coercion allowed states to be much more aggressive and despotic. This was the beginning of the vast empires and conquests of the old world.

The Law of Cumulative Advantage: – Barry Kemp, in his book Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization, proposes a theory of state formation that ties many of the above threads together. It is based on what is known as The Law of Cumulative advantage, or sometimes as the Matthew Effect:

The arise of leading elites happened in fact in various regions and therefore we theorize a situation that the author compares with the game of ‘Monopoly’.

All the players begin to play from a similar point , but when, for combination of chances (environmental and local factors) and personal decisions, they come into contact and conflict with each other, the initial equality begins to tremble until the equilibrium falls : this in turn distorts “the whole subsequent progress of the game. It has a knock-on effect out of all proportion to its original importance… We can imagine thousands of games proceeding simultaneously, with winners promoted to join a progression of increasingly select games ” (note that each player involves a time-scale of many generations).

The ‘victory’ of a small agricultural village over its neighbours takes it on a path towards an higher level of prosperity and power, because the winner can take the wealth of the defeated through taxes; furthermore a ‘multiplier effect’ caused by the interaction of different factors (religion, symbols of power, technology, population, war, elites’ building and tombs, trade routes control and others) increases the size of the village and that of the territory it controls.

” Two factors determine how far and how fast along this path particular communities journey… The natural resource base, the potential for accumulating pockets of surplus commodities which form the basis of power … and the creative power of imagination to fashion a distinctive ideology which through a wealth of symbol and ritual commands widespread respect “.

Kemp discusses 3 ‘foundations of ideology’: the local tradition, the containment of unrule and architecture as political statement.

‘Local tradition’ is all the complex of beliefs and symbols displayed by the elites to reinforce their right to rule. Many of these (some myths, traditions, religious beliefs, symbols of power) became part of the dynastic culture, while others disappeared.

“Containment of the unrule” is the concept which creates the ‘need for kingship’: the mythical golden age where and when ‘maat’ ruled is continuously menaced by the forces of chaos. The divine king is the only power that can make maat prevail over chaos. The ‘Architecture as political statement’ is another complex concept: a number of symbolic (religious, political,social) and also psychological factors are linked with (monumental) architecture; the meaning of ‘palace facade’ enclosure walls and of buildings within them (mounds) and other monuments lies in the sphere of the religious beliefs (think about the Djoser’s complex symbols), but it also has an heavy impact on the minds of the ruled masses, astonished by the elites’ display of richness.

Such a ‘conspicuous consumption’ of wealth for building larger and larger tombs reinforces the right to reign and augments the authority of the leaders over the submitted classes which marvel at the creations of their rulers (made by their own hands).

This “Law of Cumulative Advantage” not only provides an explanation for the centralization of states, but also for the escalating gap between the rich and the poor that resulted in permanent ruling classes and caste systems.


I suspect that any one of the above factors were necessary, but not sufficient, for the formation of early states and large empires (because many places had a handful of these factors, but only the cradles of pristine states had all of them in effect simultaneously). In other words, where all of these functions arrive, you get a perfect “cocktail” that leads to the formation of kingdoms and proto-states out of earlier centralized chiefdoms, with hereditary kingship, hierarchy, formalized offices and aristocracy, standing armies and military specialists, industrial arts, long-distance trade, taxes, universal written laws and courts, large-scale construction and infrastructure projects, and a literate bureaucracy. Construction, art, writing and music become much more prominent and built from non-perishable materials.

Once these states form, the rest just falls into place:

Once pristine states have formed in a given region, secondary states begin to develop under a variety of special conditions. Some secondary states form as a matter of defense against the predatory inroads made by their more advanced neighbors; others develop as a result of attempts to capture control over strategic trade routes and the increased volume of goods in transit which usually accompanies the growth of states in any region. Still others form as part of an attempt by nomadic peoples living on the margin of a state to plunder its wealth.

States found in relatively low-density, unimpacted regions must always be examined with these possibilities in mind before concluding that intensification and reproductive pressures did not cause the evolution of the region’s pristine states. For example, low-density pastoralist people–Turks, Mongols, Huns, Manchus and Arabs–have repeatedly developed states, but only by preying upon the preexisting Chinese, Hindu, roman, and Byzantine empires. In West Africa secondary states developed as a result of Moslem and European attempts to control the slave, gold, and ivory trades, while in southern Africa the Zulu developed a state in the nineteenth century to meet the military threat posed by Ducth colonialists invading their homeland.(C&K 121-122)

Marvin Harris ends his chapter on the formation of pristine states with a meditation on the power of creeping normalcy:

What I find most remarkable about the evolution of pristine states is that it occurred as the result of an unconscious process: the participants in this enormous transformation seem not to have known what they were creating. By imperceptable shifts in the redistributive balance from one generation to the next, the human species bound itself over to a form of social life in which the many debased themselves on behalf of the exaltation of the few. To paraphrase Malcolm Webb, at the beginning of the lengthy process no one could foresee the end result. “Tribal egalitarianism would gradually vanish even as it was being appended, without awareness of the nature of the change, and the final achievement of absolute control would at that point seem merely a minor alteration of established custom. The consolidation of governmental power would have taken place as a series of natural, beneficial, and only slightly (if at all) extra-legal responses to current conditions, with each new acquisition of state power representing only a small departure from contemporary practice.” By the time the remnants of the old council finally sank into impotence before the rising power of the king, no one would remember the time when the king had only been a glorified [big man] whose exalted status rested on the charity of his friends and relatives… (C&K: 122)

Next: summary and concluding remarks.

C&K: Marvin Harris, Cannibals and Kings.
OPO: Francis Fukuyama,The Origins of Political Order.
FON: Paul Colinvaux, The Fates of Nations.
LAW: Piotr Steinkeller, Michael Hudson (eds.), Labor in the Ancient World.
P&P: William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples.

2 thoughts on “The Feasting Theory – Part 4 – From Chiefdoms to States

  1. Yup, an excellent summary. Couple of points; the abandonment of neolithic agricultural settlements was often not so much due to “climate change” though periodic droughts would exacerbate the problem. I side with those who look particularly at soil degradation and forest destruction.

    “By imperceptable shifts in the redistributive balance from one generation to the next, the human species bound itself over to a form of social life in which the many debased themselves on behalf of the exaltation of the few.”

    Very much like the psychological manipulation process by which a young woman is “groomed” to accept and live with more and more domination and eventually frank abuse from her mate. (Happens to men too.)

  2. Question about the distinction between chiefdoms and states. On p. 53 of The Origins of Political Order, Fukuyama states “Chiefdoms and states, by contrast, are organized hierarchically and exert authority on a territorial rather than a kinship basis.” Does this contradict what you’re saying?

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