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On the Origins of the State

Anthropology 101

Scott A. Lukas, Ph.D.

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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.

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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).

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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

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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).

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How Did it Develop?

Having defined the 'ideal' state, the concern becomes the origin of the state: specifically how did it develop?

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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" (ibid).

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Elizabeth Brumfiel

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

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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).

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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).

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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.

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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 theory…like others, does not explain why and how these problems could be solved” (Habermas 1976: 159-160).

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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).

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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 contract.

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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 manner.

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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.

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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.

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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 structure.

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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.

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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).

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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).

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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).

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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

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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  • China

  • Shang dynasty

  • South America

  • Moche

  • Nazca

  • North America

  • Cahokia

The Major Locations of States

Southern Iraq

Sumerian Civilization



Monte Alba (Oaxaca)


Axum (Ethiopia)



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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.

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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 169:733-738.

Flannery, Kent V.

1972 "The Cultural Evolution of Civilization." Annual Review of

Ecology and Systematics 3:399-426.

Gasser, L. & Bond, A.

1988 Readings in Distributed Artificial Intelligence. Morgan &


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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.