Emergence of Chiefdoms

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Leonid Grinin:

"The formation of the first polities reaching complexity level of chiefdoms and their analogues was one of the most important macroevolutionary shifts.

Alternative social evolution, uneven rates of change and development of various social subsystems, various combinations of internal and external factors all led to a greater variety of pre-state societal forms and relation types.

Among them are: more or less centralized polities headed by a chief appeared, as well as self-governed cities, poleis, temple and large rural communities; decentralized chiefless tribes; various complex acephalous sociopolitical systems, etc.

Population size of medium-complexity systems can vary greatly from several hundreds to dozens of thousands. However, for more or less centralized or compact entities like simple chiefdoms, small temple-civil communities etc. the variation is smaller, from hundreds to thousands. On the whole we rely on Earle's estimates of a chiefdom population within centralized regional structure being in the range of thousands (Earle 1987, 1997, 2011; Johnson and Earle 2000; see also Carneiro, e.g., 1981). However, some chiefdoms with population of thousand or less are known as well, such as typical simple Trobriand chiefdoms (Johnson and Earle 2000: 267–279); chiefdoms in some Polynesian islands (Sahlins 1972a [1958]: 85–87, 188–190) or Cherokee chiefdoms (Service 1975: 140144 [for more detail concerning the forms and size of pre-state polities see Grinin, Korotayev 2011]). We tend to speak about the politogenesis proper starting from the level of medium-complexity societies. However, within most of such social systems the need in systematic professional administration was very weak, or absent, whereas the functions of central power may be performed by various alternative subsystems. It was not infrequent when even irrigation works were conducted independently by village communities without any interference on the part of chiefdom leaders or any other supracommunal rulers (see, e.g., Claessen 2004: 79; see also Leach 1970). The emergence of chiefdoms usually involved a transition to a higher level of not only political but also general social complexity.

And this puts the given evolutionary type of medium complexity polities in a special position. In some respects, the emergence of chiefdoms can well be regarded as the leading line of politogenesis. However, this can only be done with very serious qualifications. The point is that no political systems developed in isolation, every political system experienced certain transformations under the influence from outside. What is important is that many primary, secondary, and tertiary early states emerged on the basis of various polis, civil, temple, civil-temple, trade-craft (and so on) communities, just a fraction of which can be regarded as chiefdoms. Chiefs acted as the leading force of the state formation only in some cases, whereas in the other cases these were some other agents (priests, aristocracy, oligarchic groups, democratic leaders, and so on). As regards the social systems in the medium complexity range, we must note that the urban/communal type of Politogenesis was even more ancient than politogenesis through the emergence of chiefdoms (see Korotayev et al. 2000; Grinin 2009a, 2009b, 2011a; Grinin and Korotayev 2009a: Ch. 6; 2011; Korotayev and Grinin 2006)."



Leonid Grinin:

"Basing on the aforesaid we believe it makes sense to subdivide all the diversity of the medium complexity polities (in view of a special role played by chiefdoms in the political evolution) into two major types:

(1) chiefdoms/chiefdom-like polities and

(2) chiefdom analogues.

  • Chiefdom-like polities can be defined as hierarchically organized and relatively centralized medium complexity polities possessing the following characteristics:

a) population in the range of several hundred to several thousand;

b) political autonomy;

c) they are led by a recognized and stable chief/leader or group of leaders who wield power in the framework of certain traditions and procedures; who are able to exercise real control over certain important social relationships and resource flows; who have influential support groups organized around them.

  • Chiefdom analogues, that can be defined as polities or territorially organized corporations that have sizes and functions, which are similar to those of chiefdom-like polities, but that lack any of their other characteristics, such as high levels of hierarchy and centralization, presence of formal leader, organized system of resource control political independence, and so on (for more detail see Grinin, Korotayev 2011).

Such a subdivision of mid-complexity polities into chiefdoms and their analogues

- emphasizes that chiefdoms are not the only type of midcomplexity polities (yet, in the meantime it indicates their special evolutionarily position);

- demonstrates the diversity of evolutionary alternatives to the chiefdoms;

- allows classification of mid-complexity polities that do not fit the chiefdom definition even if there are doubts regarding the exact type of polities to which they belong.

The Formation of the First Archaic States and Their Analogues (i.e. stateless polities comparable with archaic states – see below) became another extremely important shift."


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