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On the Origins of the State


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Title: On the Origins of the State

On the Origins of the State
  • Anthropology 101
  • Scott A. Lukas, Ph.D.

The Issue
  • The origins of the first civilizations, these
    pristine states, have been the subject of much
    interest and debate in anthropological literature
    (Flannery 1972 400). Indeed, state formation
    theory has been a theoretical mainstay of
    anthropology for some time (Johnson Earle 1981
    246). Around the time of 6000 b.c., in parts of
    the Near East and in other locations, we begin to
    see a great transformation in the quality and
    scale of human life. We see more differences in
    communities, forms of specialization and examples
    of social stratification.

The Issue
  • In general, we see an interest in the variability
    of increasing worldwide complexity (Binford
    1983). Unfortunately, archaeologists have had
    difficulty with the concept of complexity,
    specifically what causes it (ibid).
    Additionally, at a semantic level, the term
    "complex" is wrought with difficulty (Flannery
    1972 400). At the epistemic level, the origin
    of the state and increasing sociocultural
    complexity has often been misunderstood (Carneiro
    1970 733) - with theories of state origins being
    often unsatisfactory (Carneiro 1970 733,
    Flannery 1972 399).

Definition of the State
  • The state is defined as a regionally-organized
    society with a population (of hundreds of
    thousands or millions) which is economically and
    ethnically diverse (Johnson Earle 1981 246).
    By 3500 b.c. we see some of the common
    characteristics of civilization (inscription
    cities full-time craft specialists monumental
    architecture social stratification become even
    more distinct and strong hierarchical systems of
    centralized organization, what we traditionally
    classify as being the state.)

Hierarchical, Centralized Political Systems
(No Transcript)
Characteristics of the State
  • Other characteristics of the state (Brumfiel
    1983 261, Carneiro 1970 733) include the
    presence of a military, a bureaucratic level,
    stratification, an emphasis on technology and
    trade (Johnson Earle 1983 248), specifically
    in regards to control over production and
    distribution, and an institutionalized religion
    (ibid.). The state has often been characterized,
    perhaps metaphorically, by the pristine examples
    discussed by Flannery (1972 400).

(No Transcript)
How Did it Develop?
  • Having defined the 'ideal' state, the concern
    becomes the origin of the state specifically how
    did it develop?

Those Early Vulgar Theories...
  • Early theories of state formation were vulgar and
    simplistic. The superimposition theory,
    forwarded by F. Ratzel, P.W. Schmidt, A. Rüstow
    and F. Oppenheimer, explains the emergence of a
    political ruling class and the development of a
    political order by "nomadic tribes of herdsmen
    who subjugated sedentary farmers and set up a
    rule of conquerors" (Habermas 1976 158).
    Unfortunately, nomadism appeared later than the
    emergence of first civilization. The emergence
    of the state must have had "endogenous causes"

Elizabeth Brumfiel
  • Brumfiel (1983 261) discusses two origin
    theories of the state

Ecological Approach
  • The ecological approach, suggesting that
    demographic growth and resulting pressures
    provide the impetus for state formation, is a
    footnote to Steward and cultural ecology
    (Flannery 1972). The ecological approach suggests
    that the state arises in "socioenvironmental
    contexts where effective management is either
    necessary or especially beneficial" (Brumfiel
    1983 262).

Ecological Approach
  • Wrights model is represented below

Ecological Approach
  • According to this model, the interaction of the
    two variables of population growth and
    environmental setting will result in (1)
    overpopulation, (2) decrease in resources (strain
    on carrying capacity). These variables are in
    turn accommodated by the "application of some
    managerial strategy" (Brumfiel 1983). The
    discussion of the ecological approach is relevant
    along lines of environmental circumscription, as
    discussed in Peru and the Amazonian basin
    (Carneiro 1970). The theory of population
    density (R. Coulborn and others) argues that the
    state emerged chiefly through ecological and
    demographic factors. As Habermas said, the
    complexity of densely populated settlements
    could be managed only through state organization
    (Habermas 1976 159).

Ecological Approach
  • Abernathys suggestion

Ecological Approach Critiques
  • However, some criticism has been leveled against
    the ecological approach. Flannery (1972), for
    example, suggests that ecological variables may
    indeed have implications for hunter-gatherer
    adaptations, but he argues that such variables
    might be irrelevant in the study of state
    development. Additionally, Johnson Earle
    (1981) suggest that the intensification of the
    subsistence economy, along with corresponding
    ecological variables, might not be the main
    variable in state formation economic and
    political integration must first take place
    (ibid.), which suggests, perhaps, a more
    structural-functional approach.

Ecological Approach Critiques
  • Habermas critique of the ecological approach
  • even if population problems of this type could
    be demonstrated to have existed in all early
    civilizations, this theorylike others, does not
    explain why and how these problems could be
    solved (Habermas 1976 159-160).

The Structural Approach
  • The structural approach, suggesting that the
    state results from "particular sociocultural
    orders" while the relationship between the
    environment and population is seen as relatively
    stable, has roots in Marx and Engels (Brumfiel
    1983). According to this approach, certain
    sociocultural systems, because of inherent
    structural principles, are dynamic (ibid.).
    Receiving the most attention as far as state
    origin theories are concerned, the structural
    approach is an argument that the state emerged
    when new industrial techniques made possible an
    array of economic institutions, destined to
    divide society into a variety of classes
    (Engels) the state arose to mediate conflict
    between these various classes.

The Structural Approach
  • Many such structural theories of state
    organization have relied on the (often reifying)
    concepts of status contract, community
    (Gemeinschaft) vs. society (Gesellschaft), social
    forces productive forces, the legitimation and
    monopoly of force, the hierarchical organization
    of class and office (Peebles 1988). One must
    question whether or not these concepts lead us
    any further to an understanding of the state, or
    if they simply serve to muddle our picture of it.

The Structural Approach
  • Or as Flannery (1972) suggests, the state is
    necessitated by new problems and risks arising
    from technological innovation, increased
    complexity, trade (Rathje), and inherent
    conflict (Wittfogel). Another variation of this
    theory is the inequality theory, forwarded by
    G.E. Lenski and to some extent Habermas in his
    early years, which traces the emergence of the
    state directly to problems of distribution
    (Habermas 1976 159). With the productivity of
    labor "there arose a surplus of goods and means
    of production. The growing differences in wealth
    resulted in social differences that a relatively
    egalitarian kinship system could not manage. The
    distribution problems required a different
    organization of social intercourse" (Habermas
    1976 159).

The Structural Approach
  • The "classic Marxist" argument, namely that base
    determines superstructure and social being
    determines consciousness, has been appropriated
    by the structural Marxists to explicitly
    deterministic ends. The structural Marxist model
    of the state (below) places complete reliance on
    the relations of production its argument is that
    these relations of production completely
    determine the state.

The Structural Approach Critiques
  • There have been numerous criticisms leveled
    against the structural approach. Service argues
    against the structural approach disputing notions
    of economic inequality and wars between social
    classes. Brumfiel (1983) adds that, like the
    ecological model, the structural approach is also
    dependent upon environmental factors. Others
    have argued against its simple deterministic
    nature. Habermas concludes that the structural
    division of labor theory is "not coherent" (1976
    158). A social division of labor implies
    functional specification within the vocational
    system however, vocational groups
    "differentiated by knowledge and skill need not
    per se develop opposing interests that result in
    differential access to the means of production"
    (Habermas 1976 158-9). Additionally, the
    structural approach fails to address why the
    functions of domination had to "emerge from the
    contrast of interests rooted in vocational
    specialization" (ibid 159).

The Structural Approach Critiques
  • The Marxist Diakonov offers the following model
    (Wright 1977)

Voluntaristic and Coercive Models
  • Carneiro (1970) sees the evolution of states as
    having been explained through either a
    voluntaristic model or a coercive one. The first
    is rooted in the Rosseauian idea of the social

The Voluntaristic Model
  • One representation of the voluntaristic model is
    the "automatic theory" of Childe a food surplus
    and agricultural development leads to free time,
    craft specialization, and the eventual
    integration of people into a state. Carneiro
    doubts that this always takes place in this

Voluntaristic Model Hydraulics
  • Another manifestation of a voluntaristic model is
    the hydraulic hypothesis (Habermas 1976 159)
    proposed by Wittfogel as people got together,
    the completion of large-scale irrigation works
    led to the construction of the state.

Voluntaristic and Coercive Models
  • Again, Carneiro suggests that the model
    disregards many archaeological instances in which
    the state developed prior to such irrigation
    implements. Coercion models are exemplified by
    the classic Mayan example - war lies at root of
    the state.

Voluntaristic and Coercive Models
  • The documentation of political evolution in state
    formation has gained significant attention. The
    case of state formation in thirteenth and
    fourteenth century Aztec civilizations in the
    Valley of Mexico characterizes the role of
    political evolution, specifically as seen in the
    conflicts between small polities, militaristic
    expansionism, and resulting internal political

Voluntaristic and Coercive Models
  • Carniero's discussion of political evolution
    includes variables of environment, demography and
    circumscription the abundance of food in the
    Peru coastal region led to population increase
    the restrictedness of the food, however, resulted
    in complete occupation of all exploitable areas
    the carrying capacity reached a critical stage
    competition resulted and thus internal evolution
    took place. The evolution of political economy,
    along other lines, often represents the erosion
    of smaller aggregates, such as the family unit
    (Johnson Earle 1981). At the highest level of
    inclusion, elements such as symbolization
    (perhaps a result of state religion) represent a
    further erosion of smaller units.

Voluntaristic and Coercive Models
  • Carniero's discussion of political evolution

Voluntaristic and Coercive Models
  • Johnson Earle (1981 24) suggest a multilineal
    - evolutionary perspective in their various case
    studies. Dispelling simple notions of "feudal"
    societies, the authors embark on a
    cross-continent comparison of Middle Age Japan
    and France. They suggest many commonalties both
    were influenced by external empires, both
    represented a steady population growth at the
    bases of their societies and a resultant change
    in food production, both saw an intensification
    of existing land or a use of marginal lands
    through new techniques (irrigation).

Voluntaristic and Coercive Models
  • Developing their notions of a dual evolution of
    economic bases, the authors look at the Inka case
    study in terms of political integration and
    political economy with its interregional
    institutions. Brumfiel's model of the birth of
    the Triple Alliance looks at a variety of
    conditions which were conducive to the rise of
    political centralization in the Aztec case,
    eventually resulting in the development of
    bureaucratic complexity. Brumfiel's argument
    addresses an "interplay of ecological variables
    and political dynamics" (1983 278).

Voluntaristic and Coercive Models
  • Carneiro (1970 733) provides that state origin
    theories based upon notions of (1) race, (2)
    genius, and (3) historical accidents are
    unacceptable. The development of a state is not
    a fortuitous act, but rather a result of "a
    regular and determinate cultural process"
    (ibid.). The early theories of socio-cultural
    complexity, those of Morgan, Maine and Service,
    offer little more than simplicity. Indeed, many
    archaeologists have been vexed by the simplicity
    of such models in turn, they have re-examined
    them in a new light. Flannery, for instance,
    addresses the notion of impetus of state
    formation and suggests a prime-mover scheme
    (1972 401).

Voluntaristic and Coercive Models
  • Adopting the understood model of complexity (band
    - tribe - chiefdom - state), Flannery is
    interested in exactly how a band, for example,
    might become a tribe, and eventually, perhaps, a
    state. The author identifies various mechanisms
    which may have lead to state formation
    irrigation (Wittfogel), warfare (Carneiro),
    population growth and social circumscription
    (high population density produces effects similar
    to environmental circumscription, Chagnon), trade
    symbiosis (Rathje), cooperation and competition,
    integrative power of art and religion

Voluntaristic and Coercive Models
  • Johnson Earle (1981) provide some additional
    mechanisms, or conditions it should be said,
    including the necessity of (1) a high population
    density (with need for a system of integration),
    and (2) opportunities of economic control, thus
    leading to class formation, and general
    population control and stability functions
    (Brumfiel 1983 277).

Voluntaristic and Coercive Models
  • Habermas (1976) approaches the problem of the
    state through a model of co-evolutionary
    development of (1) technical knowledge, (2)
    practical / moral knowledge. The evolution of
    the state, and the rise of communicative action,
    is related to the development of production which
    is nourished through the application of these two
    forms of knowledge.

Voluntaristic and Coercive Models
  • Habermas' model is an attempt to explain the
    fundamental importance of communication within
    the context of the state, and a call to put the
    individual back in the center of the picture.
    His model argues that Neolithic societies, with
    complex kin organizations, eventually became
    hierarchical ones. The initial infantile 'state'
    was presented with particular systemic problems,
    including population over-density and land
    scarcity. The testing of new structures (the
    administration of justice at a conventional
    level, for example) lead to institutionalization.

Voluntaristic and Coercive Models
  • As Ember suggests in Peebles (1988)

Voluntaristic and Coercive Models
  • Stabilization then occurred through the formation
    of these new systems. In turn new class
    structures emerged and the development of
    productive forces occurred, i.e. the forces of
    production discovered at the Neolithic Revolution
    could now be used on a large scale (Habermas
    1976 161-3). Unfortunately, Habermas' model
    seems reminiscent of the ecological models
    discussed earlier.

The Major Locations of States
  • Southern Iraq
  • Sumerian Civilization
  • Mesoamerica
  • Teotihuacan
  • Monte Alba (Oaxaca)
  • Africa
  • Axum (Ethiopia)
  • India
  • Harappan
  • China
  • Shang dynasty
  • South America
  • Moche
  • Nazca
  • North America
  • Cahokia

The Theories
  • The problems of state formation are tied to
    deficiencies in the archaeological record and
    deficiencies in the epistemic theories to which
    the record is attached. It seems frivolous to
    attribute state formation to a single variable
    rather, we might look at a multitude of reasons
    behind the apparent increase in social
    complexity. As with the study of agricultural
    origins, archaeologists need to re-evaluate
    existing theories of the state (Gasser Bond
    1988), as well as develop sound methods of
    inquiry, including studies of chronology, from
    cultural remains.

References Cited
  • Binford, Lewis R.
  • 1983 In Pursuit of the Past Decoding the
    Archaeological Record.
  • NY Thames and Hudson.
  • Brumfiel, Elizabeth
  • 1983 "Aztec State Making Ecology, Structure,
    and the Origin of the
  • State." American Anthropologist 85(2)261-284.
  • Carniero, Robert
  • 1970 "A Theory of the Origin of the State."
    Science 169733-738.
  • Flannery, Kent V.
  • 1972 "The Cultural Evolution of Civilization."
    Annual Review of
  • Ecology and Systematics 3399-426.
  • Gasser, L. Bond, A.
  • 1988 Readings in Distributed Artificial
    Intelligence. Morgan
  • Kaufmann.

References Cited
  • Habermas, Jürgen
  • 1976 Communication and the Evolution of Society.
    Boston Beacon Press.
  • Johnson, Allen Earle, Timothy
  • 1987 "The Archaic State," "Conclusion. " InThe
    Evolution of Human Societies. Pps. 246-270,
    313-325. Stanford Stanford University Press.
  • Peebles, Christopher
  • 1988 Lecture on the origins of the state.
    11-2-88. Bloomington
  • Indiana University
  • Wright, Henry T.
  • 1977 "Toward an explanation of the origin of the
    state." In The
  • Explanation of Prehistoric Change. J. Hill,
    ed. Pps. 215-230.
  • Albuquerque University of New Mexico Press.
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