Origins of the State and Civilization
by Elman R. Service

Elman Service describes some of the major theories of the origins of the state. Then he describes the origins of modern primitive states that we know something about: the Zulus, Ankole in Uganda, the Nupe and Ashanti in west Africa, the Cherokee Indians, and the Polynesians in Hawaii, Tahiti, and Tonga. Next he describes what the experts know and theorize about the earliest civilizations in Mesoamerica, Peru, Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus river valley, and China. Finally he reaches conclusions about the origins of the state and civilization and describes his theory about the fall of civilizations. The book contains a useful map of the world that shows the locations of the six primary civilizations and the historically known primitive states.

This book is written partly in English and partly in sociology-talk. At crucial points he sometimes writes sentences that I cannot follow. He often writes in the passive voice, which leaves the actor obscure. Sometimes he writes as if the actor is a collective being such as society. He is reluctant to attribute anything important to individual thought and action. In the chapters about specific civilizations he is usually careful to qualify his conclusions, but in subsequent chapters he writes as though he had reached more definite conclusions. This strikes me as a trick he is playing on the reader or on himself.

In the preface, he admits he was a Marxist, but that he is not a Marxist now. It becomes evident that the aspect of Marxism he rejects is the notion that the original states were established by capitalists and entrepreneurs to protect their wealth. He still retains the Marxist belief in central planning. He cannot imagine any complex social order arising spontaneously without a bureaucracy, although he believes the original civilizations were largely voluntary because the people believed in the supernatural powers of their ruling class. The superstitions of the people made threats of divine retribution effective and made physical coercion unnecessary.

Repressive law is invisible in the archeological record. So we cannot be sure which prehistoric societies had it. It is theoretically possible for large civilizations to be united by religion and to exist without state repression.

The book led me to conclude that the state can arise in several different ways, so it is futile to try to develop a unified theory about its the origin.

Civilization without the State

The Olmec society in Central America flourished between 1200 and 800 B.C. It left behind pyramids, plazas, tombs, and mounds demonstrating a refined art style, specialized architecture, writing, and a calendar. "Both the Olmec and the Maya qualify as true civilizations, except that of Child's ten criteria the urbanization is only modest and there is no evidence of a repressive secular state apparatus." (184)

The diffusion of Olmec art and architecture "was apparently a peaceful matter of borrowing through trade, and presumably through emulation, and so was the spread of the Chavin style [in Peru]." (190)

"... how did societies govern themselves? Obviously they must have done so in essentially the same way that our domestic families and modern primitive societies do, entirely by means of personal-social sanctions and by familistic allocations of authoritative status (as to elders) to praise, blame, and settle disputes." (9)

"The most ubiquitous form of internal maintenance of order in daily social life, a form universal among societies, must be simply etiquette. Next comes the teachings of morality and its internalization as conscience. Finally, social sanctions are informal, personal-social ways of punishing and rewarding, usually simply by the subtraction or addition of prestige, or by social repulsion and attraction, as related to the obeying or ignoring of certain social rules. These three categories are all in the realm of custom, or more explicitly, of normative ideology. It is in the last category, the maintenance of society by power and authority, that we begin to consider rather different contexts of behavior." (11)

"... two brothers fighting may be pulled apart and their quarrel settles by their father, whereas two men fighting who are from unrelated families present an entirely different kind of problem of mediation, one that can have very serious consequences for the whole society." (50)

"... outside of the familistic age-sex hierarchy the society [referring to primitive societies without chiefs] is so profoundly egalitarian." (50)

Because they are anarchical, people in primitive egalitarian societies try to establish alliances with people in other tribes by exchanging gifts. They take advantage of the human trait that "... a valuable present given freely to a person obligates that person to respond appropriately--as though personal ties actually existed as symbolized by the exchange." (61)

One of the best alliance-forming gifts is a bride. Giving a bride to a man from another tribe not only establishes a reciprocal bond, it ultimately establishes blood relationships among future generations, which can perpetuate the alliance. Exchanging brides was part of the Israelite history "Then we will give our daughters unto you, and we will take your daughters to us, and we will dwell with you, and we will become one people." (62 E. B. Tylor 1888, p. 267)

The primitive attitude toward marriage as a practical custom includes alliance making as a primary goal "Why marry into my mother's band? They are our allies already." (62)

Voluntary Chiefdoms

"Chiefdoms have centralized direction, hereditary hierarchical status arrangements with an aristocratic ethos, but no formal, legal apparatus of forceful repression. The organization seems universally to be theocratic, and the form of submission to authority that of a religious congregation to a priest-chief." (16)

In 1634, Father Le June wrote that among the Canadian Cree Indians "All the authority of their chief is in his tongue's end; for he is powerful insofar as he is eloquent and he will not be obeyed unless he pleased the Savages." (51)

In 1962, M. J. Meggitt wrote that the control exercised by Australian elders is "derived from their ability to make suggestions based on first-hand knowledge of commonly-occurring situations" (51)

Eskimos call a person of importance Isumatag, which means "he who thinks." (51)

"... egalitarian primitive society [South African Bushmen, Canadian Cree Indians, Iroquois Indians, Eskimos, North American Plains Indians, the Tallensi in Africa, and Australian aborigines] lacks formal authoritative offices and formal law. ... the negative sanctions in such a society are often not administered by any particular person at all. ... most of the rules of proper social behavior in primitive society are in the realm of etiquette. Egalitarian society is normally small and the social relations are therefore mostly face-to-face. And the usual punishment in any society for breach of etiquette is some amount of general disapproval or withdrawal from the culprit, depriving him of reciprocal courtesy and attentiveness. The extreme of such punishment is of course ostracism, in primitive society a fate practically equivalent to death." (54)

"In the few contexts in which reinforcement is a function of particular persons, it is very informal and largely a matter of social status rather than true authority. The most usual case of this is simply that of an elder admonishing a younger person." (54-55)

Theocratic Theories

People living in primitive societies under chiefs believe their chief has access to the supernatural world, and they obey him out of respect for his authority and out of fear of supernatural reprisals. Consequently, the chief does not have to resort to physical coercion and the tribe can live under a central authority without a state. Instead, the chief-priest "engineers the consent of the governed by the adroit use of supernatural powers." (294)

"Priests know how to scare people" (296)

People living in less primitive societies can also be ruled more easily when their religious beliefs support the ruling class.

After the people from the southern Nile conquered the people of the northern Nile and established the Old Kingdom in Egypt, which lasted from about 3100 to 2200 B. C., the entire navigable length of the Nile in Egypt was like a single temple community on a large scale. The Pharaoh was the leader of the state and of the only religion. "The bureaucracy of the government had a patriarchal character, with sons and close male relatives of Pharaoh as principle figures, and more distant relatives in more minor posts. Thus a familistic aristocratic theocracy, very characteristic of all the chiefdoms we have discussed, stood at the apex of the society" (230)

The Shang dynasty in China (1766-1122 B. C.) was a hereditary theocracy. In the Chou dynasty (1000-256 B. C.) the "emperor, as Son of Heaven, was the link between heaven and earth. ... Each noble, like the emperor himself, thus presided over his own political territory simultaneously as war leader, secular chief, and head priest." (257)

The theology of the Roman Catholic Church is more statist than the religions of the chieftanships. In Catholic theology, the king derives his authority from God an has the right to use force and threats of force to compel obedience to his commands. But once the leaders have monopolized the use of force, they are less dependant on voluntary authority and supernatural powers. Eventually states can become secularized and independent of or even hostile toward the old religions.

Conflict Theories

The general idea of conflict theories is that the state is a result of conflicts between people of different cultures. The state arises either out of conquest or out of organized military resistance to conquest.

Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) of Tunis stressed the influence of climate and geography on the kinds of society that are adapted to them. Specifically, he wrote about the conflict between nomadic and sedentary cultures. A century later in Italy, Niccolo Machiavelli, like Ibn Khaldun, regarded the state from a secular point of view. Both men took a non-moralistic, non-theological view of the state. Later in the 16th century in France, Jean Bodin also theorized that the state rose out of conflict. None of these men believed the state is God-given.

In the 19th century, Herbert Spencer propounded a military conflict theory of the origin of the state and coupled it with a theory of natural selection.

In the 20th century Franz Oppenheimer developed a conquest theory of the origin of the state based on sociological studies. He wrote: "The moment when first the conqueror spared his victim in order permanently to exploit him in productive work, was of incomparable historical importance. It gave birth to nation and state..." (The State p. 68). Other members of the conquest school of sociologists are Gumplowicz, Small, and Ward.

In Nigeria, Moslem conquerors founded several northern states, or at least modified them profoundly. (128)

When a theocracy is conquered by a group that worships different gods or that is not even a theocracy, the conquered people are apt to lose confidence in their own religion. This undermines their tendency to submit voluntarily to their chief-priests. Consequently, to get them to obey their rulers, the rulers may have to resort to force or threats of force. When this happens, a state exists.

The Hawaiian islands changed from a group of independent chiefdoms to a monolithic military state when Kamehameha, whose district had good anchorages, acquired guns and light cannon by trading with Europeans, hired European ships' officers as gunners, and conquered Maui in 1790. Then in 1792, his rival on Hawaii was killed and Kamehameha took political control of both Maui and Hawaii. Later, with the aid of British ships and weapons Kamehameha conquered every island but Kauai. He acquired a virtual monopoly over importation of arms. Finally in 1810, the paramount chief of Kauai surrendered and the conquest of the Hawaiian islands was complete.

Kamehameha was succeeded by his son Liholiho, who deliberately fomented a cultural revolution by flouting the most sacred tabus of the ancient Hawaiian religion. "This was as though a medieval ruler in Europe were to publicly deny the divine right of kings." (157) This provoked the conservatives to rise against him. He was prepared for this and his forces quickly crushed them, which established beyond doubt that guns are more powerful than the old gods. Thus Hawaii was able to change from a theocracy to a secular state in a single generation by the use of guns. (American liberals are taking much longer to secularize the United States culture because they refuse to use guns against the major religious denominations.) With the religious basis for the chiefdom gone, the chiefs had to rely on brute force to maintain their power. The subsequent years in Hawaii were bloody.

In Tahiti, as in Hawaii, the early society before contact with Europeans was theocratic. "There was no structure of legal monopoly of force and no system of police. ... There was not, in other words, any secular state apparatus that could forcibly hold a large political system together. The integrative means were largely customs, etiquette, and religious ideology." (159)

But in Tahiti, unlike in Hawaii, the direct influence of missionaries was a major factor in the rise of the state.

The native Tahitian way of life began to decay when European sailors landed there. Tahaitians became debauched by alcohol, acquired syphilis and other European diseases, left their idols unattended, and suffered population decline. A Tahitian chief named Tu acquired a few muskets from the Bounty mutineers, renamed himself King Pomare, and set up a "bull-boy operation based on violence." Since Pomare was not one of the highest of the hereditary chiefs in the traditional hierarchy, he could not control Tahiti without a full monopoly of military force. When King Pomare died in 1803, "his son Pomare II saw the political advantages of taking on a new state religion. He was baptized in 1812 and set about making Tahiti a Christian state. His rivals defeated him and he went into exile on Moorea. He returned with more adherents and won the final battle in 1815. He followed this success with forced conversions to Christianity. He had the ancient temples and idols destroyed and non-Christians put to death. He simply destroyed his rivals. Contact with Europeans, the establishment of the state, and the conversion of the Tahitians to Christianity cost the lives of ninety percent of the population by 1815.

Archeological evidence suggests that by about 400-500 A.D. Peru was governed by a state. "Militarism was very evident, and functioned not only to provide sacrificial victims, but also as an 'implement of imperialism.'" (193)

"Cultural evidence from graves and iconography ... indicate a warrior-priest aristocracy, an artisan 'middle' class, and a lower class of worker-farmers." (195)

It may be that conquest merely changes the rulers. According to Elman Service, "the only instances we find of permanent subordination from war are when the government already exists." (271)

The Nowhere to Escape Theory

"Dominated or conquered groups cannot easily retreat to another area if the society is bounded by desert or ocean" (298) Robert Carneiro developed a circumscription (nowhere to escape) theory. He argues that states originate in places where defeated groups are absolutely tied down by the geographical features of their environment and constant application of military dominance. For example, states arise in areas where unusually good land is surrounded by deserts such as along the Nile river in Egypt. He also proposed that the circumscription can be social instead of geographical if a group cannot retreat because the adjacent areas are already occupied. The people might submit to conquerors from one direction rather than flee in the other direction where the land is ruled by a worse gang. The people might also submit to indigenous rulers if all the adjacent lands are uninhabitable or governed by worse rulers. The domestic rulers are strengthened by the presence of outside dangers.

Kalervo Oberg's study of the Kingdom of Ankole in Uganda supports the "nowhere to escape" theory. Ankole is "one of a series of small primitive states aligned from north to south in a corridor of grasslands along the western borders of Uganda. Everywhere in the corridor the pastoralists were rulers and the agriculturalists were serfs." (118)

"The heroic legends and songs of the pastoralists all tell the same story. Essentially, they describe Ankole as originally in peace, occupied by agriculturalist Bairu and a few pastoral Bahima. They lived apart and neither group had a developed political organization. New Bahima arrivals led to struggles between the Bahima and Bairu, with the Bahima the victors. The society became organized as a kingdom, and these legends remain to provide the traditions of the society." (118)

According to Oberg, the closed corridor eventually brought the Bairu and the Bahima into conflict and prevented easy escape for the farmers. The invading Bahima herders were only one-tenth as many as the local Bairu farmers, but the Bahima were able to subjugate the Bairu because "like pastoralists elsewhere, their constant raiding had developed a superior military discipline. And like other pastoralists, they had natural logistical advantages: they carried their food along with them." (118)

The Ankole Bahima decided to control the local farmers on a permanent basis. This required that they protect the local farmers from other raiding groups and that they protect their own herds from cattle raiders. The Ankole Bahima succeeded in establishing military dominance over all raiding groups in neighboring areas and extracting tribute from them. They arranged the formerly independent chiefdoms into a hierarchy. The Bairu farmers were not allowed to own herds. Bahima cattle owners became clients of their chiefs and the Bahima chiefs became clients of the Ankole king. A cattle owner would swear to follow his chief in war and give him periodic tribute from his herd in exchange for protection from cattle raiders. The extracting of tribute was regulated and authorized by the king. The Bahima chiefs would swear to follow the king in war and pay tribute him in exchange for protection from rival chiefdoms. The king maintained peace among his clients and tried any transgressors.

A caste system was established in which the Bahima men could take Bairu women as servants and concubines, but Bairu men could not have contact with Bahima women. "As in European feudalism, the Bahima were an aristocracy with a monopoly on force; the Bairu peasantry were prohibited from serving in the armed forces. Important official positions were also monopolized by the aristocracy. The Bairu had no rights to retaliate by means of blood revenge for a wrong done to them by Bahima; the wrong could only be redressed by compensation judged by an agency of the king. Bahima could exact blood revenge among themselves and from the Bairu, but the Bairu revenge was restricted to their own groups. Under no circumstances could a Bairu kill or injure the Bahima." (120)

There was no true police organization. A chief's judgments normally granted the right of revenge to the aggrieved party.

The kingdom became a theocracy based on the Ankole drum cult.

In Peru, "As all the valleys reached their culminating populations by Classic times, the rule of the theocracy over its subjects was made easier because there was no place for dissident groups to colonize, for outside the valleys lay nothing but (literally) desert." (201)

The desert protected Egypt from raids by nomadic herdsmen and foreign ethnic groups such as the Sumerians and Semites. One religion and culture dominated the whole Nile valley because dissident had no where to go. Since they needed no walled cities to defend against raiders, Egypt was able to develop a civilization without much urbanism.

"There seemed to be no permanent military bureaucracy nor standing army, presumably because Egypt was so safely isolated during Old Kingdom times." (233)

In North China, the population became concentrated near large, walled cities where they could be protected from nomadic raiders. "The denizens of a city in such a case are more easily ruled; centrifugal tendencies are overcome by the benefits of the protection of the city, compared to alternatives." (250)

Herders of Cattle Become Herders of Farmers

"... pastoralism is a rather mobile way of life and leads to military superiority of a certain kind, an offensive, raiding, predatory kind of warfare" (206)

Herders need to learn how to cooperate to manage their herds. They have more need of teamwork and a captain or coach to manage them than farmers do. These habits lend themselves to coordinated warfare.

In the Ruanda region of Africa, the "Nilotes [Hamitic herders] and the Bantu are clearly distinct, racially and culturally, and the Nilotes are the ruling aristocracy. The Ruanda states are strongly centralized, despotic, and complex, with hereditary classes of royalty, nobility, commoners, and slaves. ... it is entirely possible that they are conquest states--though this cannot be proven by historical fact." (123)

"Nyoro, a kingdom near Ankole, is similar to it, but with a complication. The Nilotic pastoralists appear to have assumed their position as lords over the Bantu agriculturalists in Nyoro by historical conquest, but this situation was compounded by the later arrival of still another group of Nilotic invaders, the Bito. This not only complicated the composition of the upper classes, but also resulted in a looser arrangement, unlike the rigid, castelike discrimination of Ankole." (124)

"According to Gluckman ... the "Baganda kingdom, like others in the general region of Lake Victoria, were created--probably in fact as well as in tradition--by the conquest of agriculturalists by invading pastoralists. But the castelike distinction found in Ankole and Ruanda had been lost. The social distinction was, rather, that of a cleavage between king's court and bureaucracy and the commoners." (124)

"For about one thousand years, beginning about 2500 B. C., a civilization of the classic type prevailed over the valley of the Indus River and its tributaries. It had writing ... and a decimal mathematical notation, specialized skilled crafts (including metallurgy in bronze), two planned cities as large as any in Sumer, irrigation and flood control, monumental architecture, vast systems of transport ... The valley succumbed to invasions of barbaric pastoralists (believed by some to be 'Aryans') around 1500 B. C., never to recover its independence." (238)

The civilized societies in China were always threatened by nomadic invaders from the north led by a war chief (khan). That is why the Ch'in empire build the Great Wall of China.

Social Contract Theories

The philosophers of the Enlightenment questioned the god-given authority of the state, but in other respects they took a less realistic approach than the conflict theorists. Some of the most influential of them such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau completely ignored history and fabricated improbable accounts of the origin of the state in order to characterize it as a voluntary organization. In the 20th century, John Rawls devised a fanciful theory in which people bargain with each other under a veil of ignorance to derive the general principles of the social-democratic state.

Philosophers have often confused the state with society itself. They imagine that people lived in chaos an perpetual warfare before individual "men, acting rationally, came together to create law and government." (267)

Modern anthropologists have shown that this cannot be true and that ordered societies came long before any formal states were created.

"... we know now that over 99 percent of past human history ... was spent in societies that did not govern themselves by legalistic, institutionalized systems of control. But primitive society was nevertheless not anarchical, for social behavior was strikingly constrained." (5)

The Alur state in Africa may have been expanded as the result of a sort of social contract rather than by conquests. According to Jack Goody, "Recent studies of African states make it clear that while increased centralization in the political system almost always result from conquest, it is not only in this way that states arise. The Alur, for example, extend their domination when neighboring peoples invite their chiefs to come and rule over them; we find, in effect, an upward delegation of authority rather than the assumption of power by a militarily dominant group." (132)

States Arising from Defensive Alliances

Primitive tribes, which in peace time usually recognize the authority of the chief priest, will unite behind a war chief to organize their defense when they are attacked by an outside group. If a tribe is subjected to frequent attacks, the war chief may become a permanent chief, and his military authority may evolve into coercive civil control, replacing the voluntary allegiance to the authority of the chief priest.

The Ashanti chiefdoms were subjugated by the Denkyira and forced to pay tribute to the Denkyira king. This gave the Ashanti chiefs a reason to unite in a common cause--to overthrow the Denkyira state. The priest-leader Anotche and the chief of the Kumasi tribe, Osai Tutu, united the Ashanti, and they defeated their enemies at the battle of Feyiase. They preserved the military confederation after the revolution and formed the new Ashanti state.

The United States of America was formed in a similar way. The thirteen British colonies in North America formed a military alliance to overthrow their foreign rulers. After establishing their independence by force of arms, they created thirteen new states and a centralized state that created a free-trade zone throughout the whole area and that continued their military alliance against foreign intruders.

The Cherokee Indians had no central government in the early 1700s. Each village had its own priest-chief. "the Cherokee ... seem to have realized the fundamental discordance between authority and force, and created cultural means of isolating the latter from the former as though to prevent contamination. The organization of authority, the theocracy, was to them the ideal form of governance; the use of force was not only a makeshift expedient, but somehow untoward, so that rites of purification were needed after repugnant kinds of expedient duties were performed." (147)

The first step toward a central government among the Cherokee was a council to negotiate with outsiders, mainly with the colony of South Carolina, to prevent reprisals for Cherokee acts against white settlers. In 1730, a Scotsman named Sir Alexander Cuming urged the larger Cherokee villages to choose and "emperor" for the tribe. They chose Moytoy, a war chief from the village of Tellics... Not many villages accepted this at first, but after about twenty years the institution of tribal leader became well established, although it was not a powerful position. The most important task of the leader was to prevent unruly youths from harming traders and settlers.

The Cherokees and the English settlers in South Carolina were at war for two and a half years, beginning in 1760. After peace was established the English settlers continued to encroach on Cherokee land and Cherokees continued to make reprisals against them. "The first evidence of truly coercive sanctions against uncontrolled actions by individual warriors is contained in a letter by Standing Turkey, who said, "We are now Building a Strong House, and the very first of our People, that does any damage to the English, shall be put in there, until the English fetch them." (145)

The Cherokee state was formed by Standing Turkey who was a respected priest-chief. It was not a conquest state nor a case of the war organization or its leaders taking over society. Instead it was an expedient solution to the problem of Cherokee-English relations that most of the people accepted and they generally believed that Standing Turkey was the best man to have in charge because of his wisdom.

The steppes of Mongolia came to be dominated by nomadic herdsmen while the valleys of North China filled with farmers. Eventually the nomadic herdsman acquired horses and, with the use of the compound bow, they became an efficient cavalry. The scattered farming villages were easy targets for them and were dominated by them. Rather than stay and be perpetually exploited, the villagers tended to either join the nomads or move closer to the developing cities where they could get better protection from the raiders. The raids of the herdsmen encouraged the growth of densely populated walled cities.

Class Theories

Class theories regard the state as the primary means whereby one class of people dominates another class of people in the same society. In the Marxist version, the classes are defined by their role in the economy--either as owners of land, owners of the means of production, entrepreneurs, peasants, or hired laborers. The basic function of the state, according to Marx, is to preserve the wealth of the property-owning class and allow it to continue to dominate the rest of society. "But there is absolutely no evidence in the early archaic civilizations ... of the dominance of capitalism." (283) "In all of the archaic civilizations and historically known chiefdoms and primitive states, the creation and extension of the authority bureaucracy was also the creation of the ruling class, or aristocracy. The 'stratification' was thus mainly of two classes, the governors and the governed--political strata, not strata of ownership groups." If the earliest states were pre-capitalist, the Marxist theory cannot explain their origin.

Morton Fried developed a theory that fits better with what we know about the nature of primitive societies. In his theory, human societies start out as egalitarian bands or tribes, then they can develop into ranked societies in which the chief and his relatives have higher status, then in times of crisis when there is a shortage of food, water, or other necessary resources the high-status group will exercise coercive control of the scarce resources and make sure they get the provisions they need--even if others have to starve. Thus the state originates as a repressive structure to maintain class inequality. Neither warfare nor slavery nor capitalism has a role in the origin of the state. Instead the state arises in ranked societies where high-status relatives of the chief have better access to resources and a crisis such as a drought leads the in, kin group to resort to coercion to serve themselves at the expense of the low-status groups.

The more generalized version of class theory in which the classes are simply the rulers and the ruled is true by definition, although it is sometimes difficult to determine who constitutes each class. Since class theories are more about who benefits from the state than how it originated, class theories can be compatible with various other theories about the origin of the state.

The Hydraulic Theory

In Oriental Despotism, Karl Wittfogel, a follower of Marx, proposed a theory to explain the rise of despotisms in the Near East and Asia. The civilizations in these areas depended upon irrigation and flood control, which in turn were created and controlled by a central authority. This control of the essential means of production enables the central authorities to exercise total power in other spheres, which allowed them to become despotic states.

In Mesopotamia, the system of canals was evidently created by the political system and control of the canals must have played a role in enhancing the bureaucracy's acquisition of greater power.

"Sanders and Price believe that political organization, civilization, and urbanism in the New World in general were in their origin and development functionally related to hydraulic agriculture in arid environments." (177)

Richard Woodbury has presented a counter-example. "The extensive Hohokam irrigation system of the Salt-Gila river valleys in Arizona seemed clearly to have been built by accretion, on the initiative of individuals, and extended by cooperation." (273)

"Lattimore has adduced the priority of family and neighborhood control of canals over bureaucratic control in the Yellow River Valley in China." (274)

The civilization in the Indus River valley from about 2500 B. C. was characterized by irrigation, which compensated for the low rainfall. But S. C. Malik has argued that small-scale local systems of irrigation are the mode in the Indus Valley today, so why should we suppose, without evidence, that there was a greater system of irrigation during earlier and simpler times? (274)

Elman Service assesses the hydraulic theory this way: "The intensification of production, by small- or large-scale means, does not signify any direct political effects. Rather, the more direct effects are on regional demography, urbanization, craft specialization, and so on--and these effects merely enable change in these aspects; they do not cause change." (275)

The Urbanization Theory

V. Gordon Childe believed that urbanization is the hallmark of civilization and that urbanization requires intensive food production to support a dense population. But intensive food production also enables an elite, parasitic class to arise. This is why the state and civilization are always tied together historically.

The Mayans had a high level of civilization in Guatemala without much urbanization. They had no raiding nomads to worry about, so they had no need for fortifications.

Archeological evidence indicates that in Peru civilization preceded the development of urban areas. "... the intensity of agricultural development and the canal system had reached their zenith long before the culmination of the Mochica (Classic) period, and very long (more than 1,500 years) before the first truly urban, fully developed empires of the Tiahuanaco." (196)

The urban sites were planned in grid form, indicating that central control preceded urbanization. (198)

In both Mesoamerica and in Peru "we find the same phenomenon of a long evolutionary succession in the lowlands from segmental societies to hierarchical chiefdoms ..., culminating in a 'Classic' stage that manifests all of the specialized excellence in intellectual, technical, and economic aspects that characterize full civilization. But in both cases of the Classic lowlands, two of Childe's most important factors are missing: urban centers and evidence of repressive violent statecraft." (202)

Ancient Egypt is another counter-example to Childe's theory.


The economy of Old Kingdom in Egypt was a theocratic form of socialism. "The hamlets and villages worked their lands collectively under a headman who was responsible for turning over stipulated amounts to the state. Craftsmen were organized in groups under a foreman who received and distributed their family rations of food, clothing and raw materials, and who disposed of their finished products." (231)

"the distribution took place 'from above,' the king making gifts and allotments to his officials who in turn rewarded their retainers and so on down the social scale." (231)

The central government controlled trade.

"... in Egyptian texts, down to the end of the second millennium B. C., there is nowhere any mention of merchants." (230)
"The economy, in short, was simply collection and redistribution" (233)
The lower orders of officials, the artists, the skilled craftsmen, and the laborers "all alike were indiscriminately Pharaoh's serfs." (232)

Prerequisites for Creating a State

Since a state exercises a monopoly of force over a population within a geographic area, we can deduce the following prerequisites for creating a state:

The people to be ruled must not be so nomadic that they stray beyond the borders that can be controlled by their would-be rulers. It would be easiest for the would-be rulers if the people to be ruled are predominantly farmers who are settled in a fixed area.

The would-be rulers must be relatively more mobile than the population to be ruled. The rulers need to patrol the borders of the domain to protect against invaders and to prevent escape--so they can maintain a monopoly of force within the territory and so they can have people within the territory to rule.

The number of nonproductive people in a society such as the young children, priests, and warriors is limited by the ability of the productive class to produce a surplus of food to support both the productive and the nonproductive people. To the extent that the would-be ruling class will be devoting their time and resources to patrolling the borders and governing the indigenous people, the ruling class will not have time to produce food for themselves and they will not have time to produce other things that they could trade for food. To make it worthwhile and practical for the would-be rulers to govern, the people to be ruled must produce more food than they need for their own consumption so that the would-be ruling class can expropriate enough of the surplus to feed themselves. This means the people to be ruled must have agricultural technology and they must live in a place where the natural resources and climate are suitable for producing a surplus of food when that agricultural technology is used.

Other Factors That Help Enable Rulership

The effectiveness of sanctions such as gossip, ridicule, and withdrawal for breaking rules of etiquette tend to break down as the population in a society grows beyond the point where everybody knows everybody else. Large groups need to develop additional means to keep peace and order. But even in large societies families can provide the training and discipline for all the children. So the problem in large societies is how to discipline unruly adults. When a society gets so big that saying to an offender "I'll tell your father on you" is no longer an effective deterrent, the society may be ready for a court system.

Even small primitive societies need additional ways to settle disputes between members of different clans. The more distinct the two groups are and the less known they are to each other, the more difficult it is to mediate a quarrel between them. "... the contenders are not likely to view the original injury in the same light, which makes it unlikely that they would agree on what constituted an equivalent retaliation." Among the Australian aborigines disputes are typically settled by means of a spear-throwing duel." (58)

Although this is ridiculous it strikes me as no less likely to yield a just verdict than the legal system in the United States. At least no lawyers are involved.

The greatest danger in disputes between members of different primitive tribes is that the people will regard it as a dispute between the two whole tribes rather than between two individuals. Then the dispute could develop into a full-scale feud. Each battle then becomes the source of more injuries and grievances, which foment more battles for retribution.

Among primitive societies "external affairs are essentially lawless, and unordered by mutual customs or public sanctions. Egalitarian society cannot wage war or make peace effectively via alliances and treaties because a responsible body, a governmental authority, is lacking." (60)

Certain situations lend themselves to leadership and central control: game drives, harvesting of spawning salmon. Deference to authority has natural advantages over independent action in endeavors that require planning and coordination. Communal activities such as whale hunting, netting schools of halibut, and catching salmon during the spawning season, require leadership, coordination of efforts, and even redistribution of goods. Tribes of communal herders and hunters need leaders to coordinate their labor and to redistribute the meat. Tribes of raiders need military leaders to devise war strategies and tactics and to divide the booty. Nonaggressive tribes that are subject to raids need leaders to organize their defenses.

Another enabler of rulership is the human proclivity to confer status on superior persons. People follow natural leaders. "They follow war chiefs, accept advice from wise men, and believe in the unequal access of persons to supernatural power. And this proclivity sets the stage for more permanent hierarchies of differential power." (291)

In addition to the natural deference that people give to superior people, the possibility of rulership is enhanced by the apparently innate deference that people tend to give to those who are closely related to superior people, particularly the first sons of leaders, who may not actually possess the superior qualities of their relatives. It often becomes a custom for chiefdom to conferred on people who have not demonstrated superiority in any way other than by being kin of true leaders.

"... an individual who has acquired a personal following would like to have his own descendants bask in the same glory." (72)

K. E. Read wrote (73)

"There is some expectation that a son will succeed his father. People believe that the character of the parent is transmitted to his offspring, and a man of eminence may be likely to seek and encourage in his son the qualities which inspire confidence and dependence. Indeed, the son of a 'big man' may have a slight advantage over others--access to greater wealth, for example--and various pressures may induce him to emulate his father."
Eventually these natural tendencies toward primogeniture can become established among the customs of the society. Chiefs strengthen their authority by claiming to have influence with the supernatural powers. They are often declared to be gods by their descendants, which in turn gives their close relatives a stronger claim to authority through kinship with a god. In most cases, chiefdoms evolve into theocracies. When this stage has been attained, authority is more associated with genealogical ranking than with demonstrated leadership skills.

"As such a society grows, so does the chief's family and its bureaucratic offices and functions, until through advantageous marriages and internal growth the whole governing group becomes an aristocracy of hierarchically ordered ranks and privileges, standing over and above the ordinary people." (294)

"Primitive states and chiefdoms are bounded, governed, and permanently established to a much greater degree than the egalitarian societies, and thus they offer possibilities for invaders to preserve such populations for exploitation. They may do this by replacing the governing body with their own, or more usually and more successfully, leaving the ruling group in power, as little modified as possible. This form of 'indirect rule' was practiced by the Spaniards in Mexico and Peru, by the English most notably in West Africa, Kenya, and Rhodesia, and by missionaries in Hawaii, Tonga, and Tahiti." (66)

When Europeans came in contact with primitive societies, the primitive societies often became fragmented. First of all, European diseases would wipe out a lot of the aborigines. This decimation made it difficult for them to defend themselves, so they generally had no option other than to retreat and become more fragmented.

The Shoshone Indian tribes that acquired horses "became near-professional predators, raiding whites for guns, horses, knives, and so on, but also raiding other Indians." (67) The raiding tribes became known as the Utes. The unmounted Shoshone (Paiutes and Western Shoshone) took refuge from the Utes in the remote areas, where they lived in small bands so they would not be easily discovered. The Utes would go into the near-desert region of central Nevada, round up the unmounted Shoshone, transport them to Santa Fe, and sell them as slaves.

"Refuge areas for the weaker societies were in Southwest Africa, the Congo jungles, and mountainous parts of East Africa. ... fragmentation was a form of adaptation to a political-military dominance of others, not due to the nature of the food supply." (69)

Growth of the State

Here is a typical scenario:
"Technological improvement in relation to a particular environment may bring about a surplus of food; the surplus enables military, religious, and political specialists to appear, forming an upper, ruling class; as population increases in the nonproducing class the state gets more exploitative, even to the point of conquering neighbors for economic reasons." (276)

If food production in the society declines or if the ruling class simply decides to consume more, the ruling class must either acquire wealth from other societies or reduce the size of the nonproductive class. In other words, the ruling class must pursue an empire or reduce the priestly class and become a more secular state or both. Steward and Faron described three levels of culture as follows:

"The folk communities form the lowest or basic level. They carry on the primary functions of producing goods for their own consumption, procreating and rearing children, and living day by day in the context of local social and religious life. ... The multicommunity, theocratic state represents the second level. The state developed wholly new forms of religion, political and economic organization, and militarism. The empire, an amalgamation of states, constituted the third level. It is like an additional layer of culture superimposed upon the other two levels." (193)

The first Chinese empire (223-206 B. C.) was created by the Ch'in (hence the name Chinese), who swooped down from the northwest and conquered the feudalistic societies. The Ch'in introduced a new, less polite and less ritualistic form of warfare, much like the Zulus did in Africa. "The Ch'in not only massacred the ruling family, but tried to destroy the defeated army by paying a bounty for enemy heads. The surviving population was incorporated into the victorious society, under the direct administration of the Ch'in." (260)

The Ch'in empire only lasted 16 years, but it had an enduring impact. The Ch'in empire built the Great Wall to defend against nomadic raiders from the north, improved the irrigation system, and introduced a new taxation system that made the individual head of each family the taxable unit. Most importantly, the Ch'in established unification and central control of the empire as the primary goal to be pursued by future rulers.

Year Read: 1999

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