Transitions To State-Level Societies

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search


From Peter Turchin, in his review of the book, the Creation of Inequality:

"Perhaps the best part of the book is the one that addresses the transitions to state-level societies. Again, the authors begin by reviewing the rise of early states in recent societies: the unifications of Hawai’i by Kamehameha, of the Zulu by Shaka, of the Hunza (northern Pakistan) by Mir Silim Khan, and of Madagascar by Andrianampoinimerina. In all these cases the main sources for transitions to state-level societies are historical, rather than ethnographic.

This review suggests to Flannery and Marcus the following general principle:

- "In the four cases we examined, not one kingdom was the offspring of a rank society that simply got bigger. … Instead, all four kingdoms arose through the forced unification of competing rank societies. It would seem that competition among chiefs … was one of the engines driving the process."

In many parts of the ancient word, including Alabama and Panama and Colombia, such chiefly competition continued indefinitely. In Hawai’i, Natal, Madagascar, and the Hunza Valley one of the competing societies eventually gained an advantage. The advantage could be new weaponry, new military strategy, a new irrigation system, or thousands of new rice paddies.

I think this is right as far as it goes, but what happens after the unification? The problem with initial advantages is that they eventually dissipate. Military technologies and strategies can be copied, and what would prevent other societies from building new irrigation systems and rice paddies? How does the center counteract centrifugal tendencies of the subordinate units once the initial advantage is gone? What prevents kingdoms from splitting apart into a congerie of squabbling chiefdoms? In fact, kingdoms that didn’t outlast their founders were a common occurrence in history.

The answer, I believe, lies again in competition – not between chiefdoms, but at a higher level of social organization, between kingdoms (each a conglomerate of chiefdoms). In other words, it is the outside threat that counteracts the centrifugal tendencies within a kingdom. As Flannery and Marcus point out (following American anthropologist Robert Carneiro), “most societies do not surrender their autonomy willingly.” But smaller-scale societies are much more likely to submit to the authority of a chief or king when they are threatened by hostile neighbors.

It is unclear whether Flannery and Marcus treat this observation as a general principle, but if not, it amply deserves such designation. In fact, in sociological literature the proposition that external conflict tends to increase internal cohesion is known as the Simmel-Coser Principle (after German sociologist Georg Simmel and American sociologist Lewis Coser). What is particularly interesting is that in at least two archaeological cases, which Flannery and Marcus, there is clear evidence supporting the role of the Simmel-Coser principle in enabling the transition to state-level societies.

In the Oaxaca Valley the rise of the Zapotec state, with the capital at Monte Albán, put pressure on neighboring Mixtec societies, which “nucleated and fortified themselves to keep Monte Albán at bay; the resulting political consolidation allowed them to create embryonic kingdoms of their own.” Monte Albán itself was probably in military competition with an even larger state of Teotihuacan to the north.

Another, and even more striking example of the Simmel-Coser principle in action is the consolidation of the Moche state in Peru. Around 2,400 years ago the coastal valleys of Peru came under increasing raiding pressure from highly aggressive highland societies. During the first two centuries A.D. the highland raiders caused the abandonment of a number of coastal population centers. However, in one of the valleys the pressure from the highlands helped to consolidate indigenous population. The new Moche state succeeded in driving out the highland invaders and expanded to dominate fifteen coastal valleys. It seems likely that the external threat from the aggressive highlanders was a key factor in holding the Moche state together between 200 and 600 AD.

These two examples suffice to illustrate the value of an approach integrating social anthropology with archaeology, which is advocated by Flannery and Marcus. Their book contains many other insights and will reward a reader who is not afraid of some work. Naturally, one must be careful in making inferences from recent to ancient societies. Still, as the authors note at one point, “when one sees people doing the same thing at 8000 B.C. and A.D. 1900, one probably has identified a behavior that arose repeatedly in world history.” (