From the book: The Creation of Political Domination: From the Paleolithic to the Present by Eugene L. Mendonsa, Ph.D


The Emergence of Stratification in Little Chiefdoms


Clastres seems to pine for simplicity and order in Amerindian society; while the Yokut-Mono data show men strategizing and scheming on the backstage of office.  The Yokut-Mono ethnography demonstrates that even little chiefs used their limited authority for both altruistic and selfish ends, sometimes simultaneously.  These data clearly refute Clastres' thesis of benign chiefship among the early Indians of the Americas. 

This approach by Clastres is an example of the unfortunate tendency among many social scientists to reify society, to view social structure as an automaton, grinding along in a machine-like fashion without any real life actors involved.  Good history and properly-done ethnography show otherwise.  Behind the evolution of social forms lies men and women acting on their agency.  Paleolithic societies did develop a social aversion to self-aggrandizement; but agents were able to chip away at the ethos of egalitarianism once there was storable wealth to stimulate their agency.

My point is that exploitation began with such "little" or incipient offices as the Yokut-Mono tiya and with the development of informal ideas like shamanism.  Even in such a small society, these operators conducted themselves in terms of the political economy as it existed in their kinship-based world but, no doubt unwittingly, they were laying the building blocks for later complexity. 

At a more general theoretical level, one can say that any social or cultural formation has the potential for being used by others in society in coercive ways.  Many of the ethnographic and historical examples I present in this book show that aggrandizers were (and remain today) good at finding the “toolness” of any institution in order to achieve their personalistic ends, usually in pursuit of power, prestige and property.

Domination began to occur in small doses even in very simple societies, early on in history.  We can see those “baby steps” toward despotic institutions in Yokut-Mono society, which was a very simple society that professed an egalitarian ethos.  This must have happened multiple times throughout the early Neolithic.  In time, with the emergence of leadership roles, extractive and authoritarian leadership became codified.  The continuum would look something like this:


incipient leaders >>>>

little (titular)

chiefs >>>>


chiefs >>>>



All along the continuum, labor was being controlled; but only when we get to the stage of titular chiefs do we begin to see the emergence of institutionalized privilege to control it and some wealth accumulation resulting from labor value extraction. 

In the Melanesian big man societies, for example, labor value is being controlled; but only for purposes of building the prestige of the big man.  Power is exercised for reasons of redistributing the products of labor more evenly in society.  Control of labor and production remains in the hands of the people; but some of the surplus is tapped to be made available more broadly. 

And the incipient and ephemeral control of labor in the very earliest societies, or in the simplest contemporary ones, is qualitatively different from permanent leadership or authority of chiefs, kings, and emperors.  What we see happening along the continuum is the development of rules that increasingly allowed extra-familial control of labor.  This control became institutionalized in later stratified social structures e.g., large-scale chiefdoms and kingdoms.

Mainly this happened in history after plants and animals were domesticated; but it also happened in storing societies e.g., the Amerindians of the Northwest Coast of the Americas, who have become renowned for their complex institutions, such as ceremonial potlatches, slavery, cedar plank-house villages and rich artistic traditions (see Case 1.5).

In these Pacific Northwest storing tribes, dried fish and candlefish oil constituted their storable-stealable-surplus.  In time, with gradual changes in the nature of the system, large-scale harvesting, processing and storing activities resulted in increased control over resources and stimulated a hierarchical organization of power over labor.  Chiefs also extended hegemony by sponsoring competitive feasts that drew upon the labor of family members and skimmed interest from others' donations of goods and foods.  No doubt these big men knew that when they distributed gifts at feasts they were establishing debt relations that they could later call in as labor.  This proved beneficial for élite families. Northwest Coast chiefs and nobles formed a ruling class that controlled labor.  Status was indicated by differences in housing, foods, and privileges between nobles and commoners.

Another example from California is to be found among the Chumash storers.  Having a storable-stealable-surplus, they are recognized by anthropologists as complex hunter-gatherers with the following organizational characteristics: ascribed chiefly leadership, a strong maritime economy based on oceangoing canoes, an integrative ceremonial system, and intensive and highly specialized craft production activities (Arnold 2004).  But the Chumash were different from the Northwest Coast Amerindians in that their surplus was only a stimulus to the development of little chiefs.  Later, big chiefs came along with the building of costly and elaborate ocean-going canoes that only the wealthy could afford to construct.  That gave privileged access to sea foods and long-distance trade in prestige items, all controlled by canoe-owning chiefs and élites.

The material world in California and higher up on the Pacific Coast were different.  It appears that the Chumash began not unlike the foraging Yakut-Mono, with titular chiefs; but developed sophisticated ocean-going canoes that increased the income of owners, catapulting them into greater complexity and a highly stratified society.

Storers like the Kwakiutl of the Northwest Coast, who had access to annual runs of salmon and steelhead, which could be smoked and stored for long periods of time, developed full-blown authoritative chiefs, competition and a complex hierarchical social order in a straightforward fashion.  We see in comparing the Yakut-Mono with storers like the later Chumash and the Amerindians of the Northwest Coast a hypothesis: the greater the access to a storable-stealable-surplus; the greater the complexity of the society.

In essence, I am saying that once systems had become redistributive, germinal opportunities for exploitation were put in place.  When that which was being redistributed became an enormous store, complex institutions were created that allowed chiefs and élites to siphon off some of the surplus.  This was in an incipient stage in the Yokut-Mono case; but more advanced in the Kwakiutl and late-Chumash, where élites and political factions emerged as it became possible to mobilize and manipulate basic resources and valuables.  As with élites later in agricultural societies, Kwakiutl and late-Chumash aristocrats expropriated resources, material and nonmaterial, from the larger population through manipulation of the rule structure of society.

Of course, as chiefdoms developed into states, for example in Mesopotamia, stratification became even more pronounced (see:Case 2.4).  There, wealthy and powerful men devised ways of extracting greater wealth for themselves from the productive labor of the majority and men.  They did this using destitute women and children were forced into menial labor, servitude and even slavery, though most slaves were prisoners of war or descendants of them (Falkenstein 1956:86-87; see also:Case I.2).  While Mesopotamian government propaganda proclaimed a welfare state, the reality was that many were destitute and women and children who were left without a breadwinner fared the worst. 

It was a world unlike anything that could have evolved in a non-storing society.  Most free people had no domestic servants, yet records show that one great household had 220 (Gelb 1960; 1976).  Furthermore, while there were land sales and private property, some scholars indicate that the Mesopotamian government issued a declaration prohibiting land sales and was activity trying to possess for itself more and more of the productive land (Steinkeller 1989:128).  While this might have been proclaimed, it is unlikely that such a decree could effectively be enforced and land sale documents indicate this.  Nevertheless, such a decree points to the attempt by aggrandizers at the top to amass wealth.


Northwest Coast Big Men and Little Chiefs


In behavior, big men and little chiefs blended into each other.  Even if an influential man was called a chief, he may have had to fight to hold that position and to profit from it, much like the classic big men of the anthropological literature (Godelier & Strathern 1991).  Among the Northwest Coast Amerindians influential men were addressed as “chief” but they had to vie for the support of their villagers and even their closest followers had to be constantly hounded to produce the products chiefs desired (Johnson & Earle 1987:166-167).  Rank was constantly being tested and reordered through competition between big men.  A man could move up or down the prestige scaled depending on his economic capacity.  A man’s rank was a reflection of the amount of wealth he could extract from the group that acknowledged him as a leader and one’s economic fortunes could ebb and wane.




Case 3.4  The Economic Implications of the Northwest Coast Potlatch


Northwest Coast life was replete with ceremonies – especially the famed potlatch – wherein wealth redistribution occurred.  In this context, the social power the big man came from the fact that his status was considered a mirror of his group’s position in the community.  The big man was invested with emblems and titles representing the social group and its territories and wealth objects.

In writing about big men/little chiefs I am trying to get across the point that redistribution systems gave go-getters a chance to develop skills and means by which they could control economic processes.  The Northwest Coast potlatch is a good example.  It may have begun simply as a means of augmenting the prestige of aspiring men; but with time they converted it into an institution that allowed them access to and control over labor and capital goods.

The Northwest Coast data reveal that, over time, aspiring men linked certain symbols, titles and totems to capital goods.  In other words, they fabricated a mental linkage between possession of these symbols, titles and totems with control of productive resources such as fishing grounds, sealing rocks, offshore islands, berry patches etc. 

Ocean waters and inland hunting grounds were generally considered communally owned.  They offered only marginal income, whereas the main source of wealth came from the twin runs of salmon and candlefish (oolichan in the Chinook language) and they could be caught in significant quantities only in certain key fishing grounds.  Control of them was the key to establishing and maintaining wealth and its attendant status. 

A big man of the Northwest Coast therefore had to continually display his symbols of economic wealth e.g., in the totem poles by his house or behaviorally in wealth-related ceremonies, as well as by earning respect through bravery, managerial skill and displays of generosity.  As such, the Northwest Coast big man was a manager of an economic enterprise based on control of capital investments and a complex division of labor in his household.  A successful big man would have resident canoe-makers, harpooners, carpenters and the like under his control.  His job was to manage their efforts to amass wealth and then to display that wealth or symbols thereof to enhance both his status and that of his followers.  Thus, being wealthy or of high status was more a process than a state of being.

The economic enterprise supervised by the big man revolved somewhat around killing seals, picking berries; but is main source of income was the catching of fish, processing and storing them.  But some of the capital improvements were too large and impinged on stream flows for one family to supervise, so big men would have needed to form alliances and cooperate e.g., in deciding when to open the fishing season, when to open lower river weirs to let fish upriver to the weirs of other families.  Such economic activities were tied to an annual cycle that dovetailed with the ceremonial responsibilities of a chief.  He provided a critical management function that helped prevent the tragedy of the commons (Morrell 1985); nevertheless there was no single paramount chief who dominated, although at times one big man would gain temporary ascendancy.  All big men aspired to be called “chief” and to be at least a primus inter pares

Sometimes when one reads the anthropological accounts of big man redistribution system it seems they are benign – food into the store/food out going back to the original producers.  But when one looks a bit closer to the Northwest Coast situation, it was far from an innocent redistribution system.  Boas (1921:1333-1340) reports that primary producers had to give one-fifth of their produce, game or fish, to the big man.  Should he choose not to comply he would be blacklisted and not eligible to receive the help of the big man and he could even be beaten.  This system is not unlike the extractive activities of the castle lords of Catalonia during the infamous seigneurie banale, what I have called the Time of Troubles (1020-1060) during which the lords and their armed men extorted wealth from a weak and vulnerable peasantry eventually reducing them to serfdom (Mendonsa 2008a:chapter 3 and chapter 8 of this present work).  Both of these siphoning activities of powerful men are not unlike the behavior of Mafia dons (Mahan 1998). 

Northwest Coast big men did provide food, service and support to their followers but not all extracted wealth found its way back into the community.  A big man had to keep a portion for himself to remain the wealthiest of his following and to be able to sponsor a potlatch.  Some of his wealth – for example foodstuffs, tools, boxes, canoes (Barnett 1968:76) – is given away at such a ceremony; but other wealth was destroyed simply to show the great wealth and security of the big man and thereby elevate his prestige.

Furthermore, the giveaways at a potlatch did not guarantee that the poor would be provided with food and even in years of want, the rich would meet their own needs first out of limited supplies (Adams 1973).

Potlatching was a way to gain prestige, not redistribute food in an altruistic fashion (Boas 1966:77).  Potlatches were even about destruction of food that could have gone to the needy e.g., the “grease feasts” in which competing big men poured boxes of grease extracted from eulachon fish on the fire in order to demonstrate their lack of concern for conserving their enormous wealth (Boas 1966:93).  The potlatch was about competition between men.  This competition was, to a degree kept peaceful by the potlatch; but at time even these ceremonies were used to lure rivals to their deaths (Drucker 1965:80).  Competition could also spill over into outright warfare. 

It was the goal of aspiring men to amass a fortune so that it could be distributed at later feasts to outdo other men and show their power.  It was also about reaping some economic benefits e.g., blankets were loaned at festivals at one hundred per cent interest to men who could not refuse the gift for fear of retribution by a strong man and in this manner the big man appeared generous but turned a profit (Boas 1966:81).  It is also about one-upmanship e.g., a big man giving a potlatch would break valuable trade coppers, which also functioned as money, give them to a rival chief who then had to either break an equal number of coppers and then either return the broken coppers or throw them all into the ocean.  If the receiving chief threw them into the sea he showed himself to be superior to the first giver (Boas 1966:93-94).  The same could be done with valuable boxes of candlefish oil. 



Thus, we see that a redistribution system labeled as big man system or little chiefdom was stepping stone to a system in which aspiring men could extract labor value and material goods from the members of society.  We will now turn to such systems in which aggrandizers constructed institutions allowing them to receive tribute or rents from the general public.



The Tributary Mode of Production


As chiefship developed, political leaders created what has been called the tributary mode of production (Marx 1967 [1894]; Amin 1972; Wolf 2001:345-349).  In this mode a chief, king or emperor created a strategic element that enabled them to siphon off the labor of primary producers by being able to deploy their tribute gatherers or by co-opting local power holders (e.g., head of descent groups) to gather the tribute for them.  They constructed a society in which there was a powerful center that fed off of the periphery (Shils 1975).  The power at the center was usually antithetical to peripheral power, so the monarch had to co-opt or eliminate local power holders in order to put in place a system of tribute extraction.  

To do this the monarch must have had a strategic element that gave benefit (or perceived benefit in the case of constructed cosmologies) to society e.g., waterworks (Wittfogel 1957); or a formulated set of ideas that dominated the minds of the population (see Case 3.5 below); or a military/police force that can bludgeon the people into handing over their surplus.

He must also have been politically astute, being able to overcome established power structures held by local élites or society’s corporations e.g., kin groups, sodalities (voluntary associations and secret societies), cults, guilds and age-sets.  Historically political aggrandizers often inflamed factional struggles between these groups or the conflict between primary producers and their local siphoning élites to take a “divide and rule” avenue to despotic control.

Having said this let me be clear – a state’s control over other interest groups is never complete or unchallenged.  There are no multitudes eternally groveling under despotic rule; but a constant struggle between the power of the center with the power of the periphery (Shils 1975).  In fact, resistance to the state or élite oppression never entirely disappears (Scott 1985; 1990) and despotic states have been known to break down with the concomitant rise of political oligarchies and dispersed control by local power holders and landlords (Milliken 2003).  Nevertheless it is in the interest of those at the top to continue to extract value from the primary producers and to maintain political control, hence the ongoing struggle and “back and forth” between peripheral power holders and those benefiting from the state.

In short, the tributary mode of production is one in which a ruler devises institutions and power structures enabling his center of power to extract tribute from the less powerful periphery (Shils 1975; Smout 1980).


The Construction of the Tributary Mode of Production


Stratification does not somehow magically appear in a society.  It must be fabricated by those who see benefit in doing so.  Using the base of redistributive systems, aggrandizers constructed a powerful center which began to demand tribute from the weaker members of society – the periphery.  Let's see how that happened in the Aztec world in the Pre-Contact Americas.




Case 3.5  The Aztec Tributary Mode of Production


Stratified social structures that allowed élite and royal Aztecs to live off the labor of peasants began with chiefdoms but expanded in scope into kingdoms and an empire.  The Aztec state, the leaders of which were expansionist, had a set hierarchy with the royal families at the top:


Aztec Hierarchy

Polygynous households of intermarrying royals – aristocracy of lineage (Tlatoanis)

Priests.  In Tenochtitlan the high priests of the two temples were called by the title Quetzalcoatl with the high priest of Huitzilopochtli being Quetzalcoatl Totec Tlamacazqui & the high priest of Tlaloc being Quetzalcoatl Tlaloc Tlamacazqui

Nobles of the upper eschlons of the military & political administration – aristocracy of service (Pillis)

Corporate groups of merchants who were involved in long-distance trade, largely on behalf of the nobility

The major portion of the population, the macehuales, in groups of state-organized calpullis (work groups)

The serfs of noble estates, the mayeques



At the apex of the Aztec social pyramid were the families claiming royal lineage.  They formed an endogenous upper class by virtue of their marriage alliances and they were sharply differentiated from the general population in wealth, education, diet, dress and multiple privileges.  They and the next wrung on the ladder, the aristocratic Pillis, lived off the labor of the general population, who were organized by the state into work groups (calpullis), corporate groups that were ranked from highest to lowest.

Below the machehuales, or common folk of the calpullis, were the mayeques, the serfs who were tied to noble lands.  They could be sold with the lands; but not separated from them, much as European serfs (see chapter 8).  They owed rents and labor services to their noble landlords and to the state.  Only in wartime did they need to provide service in the army (Carrasco 1989).  These serfs were squeezed by the nobles to the lowest margins of subsistence and if they failed to meet their obligations they faced being sold into slavery.

The state, which was headed by the Tlatoanis and run on a day-to-day basis by the Pillis, controlled agricultural production as well as trade (Caso 1963; Kirchoff 1954; Zurita 1941).  Hernan Cortés (1952 [1524]:96) wrote that about 600 Pillis, as well as their servants and followers, attended to the royal court on a daily basis.  This large retinue of nobles was supported by the state treasury, which extracted labor value from farmers, wealth from traders and demanded tribute from subjugated towns.   

The leaders of the Aztec State and their immediate retainers and viziers lived off the labor of peasant farmers.  The state was politically organized to extract surpluses from Aztec primary producers by political and military means.  In political extraction, the kings and their priests fabricated cosmological ideas and social relations of domination that allowed them to demand and receive tribute.  In this extractive mode, the primary producers retained control of the means of production; but as Marx long ago noted, in the tributary mode of production, the primary producer still falls into something akin to serfdom (Marx 1967 [1894]:790-791).

In the military mode of extraction, they connected the cosmology to aggressive warfare in order to subjugate neighbors to access their wealth, both by taking booty after successful battles and by demanding ongoing tribute from those they overpowered.

This system did not “naturally” evolve out of a small chiefdom.  Rather, it was constructed in the same manner that the chiefdom was – it was built up by men who provided some benefits to the people but who were eventually able to extract great labor value from them.  This is the pattern we see again and again in the political economies fabricated by aggrandizers throughout history.




We saw the beginnings of wealth-siphoning by little chiefs in Case 2.7 & Case 3.3.  In those instances, the little chief and shaman collaborated to periodically and sporadically extract value from the general population.  By the time we get to city-states in Mesopotamia the siphoning is constant and organized, as we see in the following case.




Case 3.6  The Mesopotamian Tributary Mode of Production

In our historical examples of the tributary mode of production we see that tribute flows upwards to élites who most often live in a palace or palace complex.

At Elba, which is located in modern-day Syria, the palace was able to accumulate between 70 and 80 thousand sheep to sustain the over-consumption of royals, priests, chancellors, retainers and court favorites (Gelb 1967).  How did the palace élites manage to amass such a fortune, which was supplemented by goats and bins of grain as well?  The detailed accounting on cuneiform tablets from the tax collections at Nippur, the religious capital of Mesopotamia, provides an insight into the arrangement.  There was an elaborate system of traveling officials who visited other lower-level office-holders in outlying districts to collect the animals and grain.  These resident office-holders were provincial governors or district commissioners who were drawn from the local population; but were under the watchful eye of a resident general (Snell 1997:43).  The government used both army and police to enforce its policies (Civil 1980), that is, the heavy hand of the state reached out into the provinces to control and extract.

The grain was used to feed humans in the palace-temple complex and favorite families, as well as the animals in fattening pens.  The collected herds were distributed to shepherds who were required as corvée labor to herd the animals for one year, taking a small part of the increase for themselves and returning to the palace the fattened and enlarged herd.  Here we see an example of how such systems provide some small value to the people, while extracting greater value for the palace.

Some were consumed by royals and their close associates, which was a gourmet delight because sheep were too valuable to consume by the general population on a regular basis.  Others were further fattened and yet others were distributed to favorites.  Most sheep, however, were kept for their wool and herded by centrally supervised shepherds.  Textile exports brought in further revenues for the state (Jacobsen 1970).

The palace benefited from internal and external flows of tributary wealth.  Tax collections like this came from direct producers under the political watch of district commissioners and provincial governors, as well as from neighboring princes and even the Amorite groups, who were likely still pastoral (Zeder 1994). 

Even with all these assessments and levies bringing in vast quantities of food and animals, the Mesopotamian kings apparently wanted more.  While there was a palace-temple complex, each with its own lands, the palace even seems to have been trying to take the independent temple lands for themselves.  For example, King Šulgi had reorganized the temples and made them more controllable by the state under the direction of royal governors. 

Clearly, the Mesopotamian rulers could not have controlled much without help from the king’s men, the favorites who made up the bureaucracy.  They were the tax collectors and scribes, as well as the guardians of the sacred places considered to be important to royal dominance.  Royal officials controlled most of the public institutions of their cities, including the a-ru-a system for exploiting women and orphans in work camps.  Such men, and a few influential women, impacted the economy in many ways and greatly benefited from the system, yet it is interesting that for all their efforts to control the economy city-states in Mesopotamia almost invariably went into decline, even to the point of abandonment or they fell to invaders. 

Two main reasons for decline show up in uncovered texts: (1) failure to control prices leading to social unrest; and (2) fragmentation of power due to some of the king’s men rising to power levels greater than their monarch.  This was due to a contradiction in the system.  Most officials inherited their cushy positions from their fathers.  This resulted in powerful lines and fiefdoms that developed interests contrary to those of the palace.  Inevitably this led to inflexibility in the bureaucracy and “eventually limited the kings’ power over their supposed servants” (Snell 1997:43-44). 

In spite of such failures of state control, men attempted to politically control the economy.  The reason is the same for the kings and viziers of Mesopotamia five millennia ago as it is for those feeding at the trough in the state-management system in Washington D C today (Case 11.1) – opening up avenues to the economy provides pipelines along which flow great rewards, far greater than those available to the average worker.  In Mesopotamia aggrandizers didn’t anticipate the failures.  They were motivated only by their successes at siphoning off great wealth for themselves in the short run.  In the long run the system’s contradictions brought it down.  As we see in this case, and in many others, when aggrandizers manufacture an exploitative system by inventing and manipulating rules and institutions, they not only create a system that benefits themselves but also structural inconsistencies that in the long run destroy what they had fabricated.




Case 3.7  Aztec Expansionism


In Mesoamerica Aztec royals and élites also lived well off the wealth they took from the people, but they eventually developed a desire to expand their suzerainty.  King Moctezuma I (c. 1398–1469) was said to have owned some 32 towns and 26 estates for his private benefit.  Furthermore, the Three Kings of the Triple Alliance (the city-states of Tenochtitlan; Texcoco & Tlacopán) personally held as much as one-third of all the lands conquered by their armies.  Other state lands were given to temples and schools and were cultivated by enserfed tenants for the sustenance of military garrisons and to provide for expenditures of warfare.

Aztec royals and élites had two sources of income: the service of serfs and peasants and tribute from conquered towns.  The king held great estates, much like in Mesopotamia, lands which he held privately as a result of inheritance or conquest.  Further lands were set aside for the maintenance of state administrators.  In addition, the nobles held private lands, most of which they got by way of warfare and conquest.

The nobility in the mature Aztec Empire was almost exclusively militaristic in nature and predatory in effect, as their lands were received as gifts of conquest from the state.  As such, they were scattered and did not lend themselves to rational management, as well as the fact that Aztec techniques of agriculture were primitive (Gibson 1964:263-264).  Nobles simply lived off of rents from their serfs and were inclined to desire more land to increase such rents rather than closely managing a demense.  Furthermore, since they could only receive land gifts through warfare, Aztec nobles were bound to provide political support for the militaristic state and were predisposed toward participation in wars of conquest.  

The warlike expansionist system benefited the few royals and nobles at the top of the social pyramid and worked to the detriment of the masses.  As with other advanced civilizations, the state and attendant nobles were exploiting the people and often operating against the wishes of the general population.  Diego Durán (1867-1880:1:79-80) indicates that the largest and best arable land was taken by the Crown and that two plots were given to each of the nobles who had pressed for war against the wishes of the people.  Presumably, since the people received no benefits from war and could pay for warfare with life and limb, they were not enthused by the prospect of expansionist adventures dreamed up by élites. 

It would seem that egos and the lust for riches and power at the top of Aztec society led to the same expansionist aggression that we will encounter in chapter 9, where I discuss the Extortionate State in Medieval Catalonia (Case 9.1) and, certainly, we should be familiar with land-seeking warfare by reading the histories of most empires or those of kings who aspired to be emperors.

What was the basis of Aztec élite exploitation of the masses?  There was no standing army or police force that could physically subdue the masses.  The answer is that royal leaders were supported by an elaborate state religion, a set of cosmological ideas fabricated by temple priests, as we have seen for the state in Sumer (Cases I.3 & 2.16), Egypt (Case 2.20), the Aztecs (Case 3.7), the Maya (Cases 5.2, 5.5 & 7.3), Hawaii (Case 2.2) and the Inka (Case 2.14 & 7.7).  Thus, royal claims to leadership were primarily validated in religious terms (Braidwood & Willey 1962:350).  The state cult was a way of dominating the minds of the people without directly resorting to physical coercion.

There were beginnings of such a cult in the middle years of the Formative or Preclassic Period of the Aztec Empire (ca. 4,000 B.P. to A.D. 300) apparently providing an intelligible moral framework of societal organization as society increased cumulatively in scale and complexity.  Conceptions of Aztec Deity began to crystallize as an assurance against disasters (e.g., floods, famines, droughts and conquest), as well as an aid in fertility of crops and fecundity of women.  For belief in the cosmology the people were given a promise of rewards.

This crystallization began around ancient pre-state shrines and sacred places that were instituted in the first settlements of the nascent empire.  By the Classic Period in Teotihuacán (A.D. 300-900) the deity Tlaloc had emerged as a “life-giving god” – he who controlled all processes of life and who was supported by a pantheon of lesser gods and goddesses (Millon 1967).  These deities were supervised on earth by the king and his priests.

This is consistent with data from other ancient states where state-supported priesthoods used the concept of religious protection to augment political control.  One way to make religion real for the people was to monumentalize Deity architecturally and another was to create portraiture of the gods on stelæ, walls and monuments.  

The Aztecs are well-known for their great pyramids and elaborate art work.  These enduring symbols of Deity were consciously created as a polito-religious statement about the power of the state.  This introspective approach works well in a small state, such as Copán (see Cases 5.2 & 5.3); but as the Aztec Empire expanded we see more and more emphasis in the art of weapons and military symbolism. 

The state moved from introspection to a desire for conquest.  At Teotihuacán, for instance, the prestige of the city’s temples as a focus of pilgrimage and offerings by the people must have gradually given way to a more strongly polito-military nature (Adams 1966:132).  The Aztec State was becoming expansionist and increasingly autocratic and the emphasis on ethereal religion focused on the otherworld gave way to the politics of war and expansion. 

Pedro Armillas (1951:29) noted that this can be seen in the spread of the Quetzalcoatl Cult to distant centers.  The former object of the cult – worship of a peaceful Deity – was superseded by a rationale of a warrior aristocracy that was intent on imposing their hegemony on widely scattered Mesoamerican peoples.  Walter Krickeberg (1964:229-230) observed that the religious emphasis shifted from life-giving, benevolent gods to celestial warrior-gods.

From atop their temples, priests began to organize the Eagle and Jaguar societies that were intent on securing prisoners for sacrifice to these aggressive warrior-gods.  The sacrifice of prisioners of war came to be widely represented in temple reliefs.  This seems to signify a shift away from sacerdotal leadership toward the ascendancy of leaders with militaristic designs and a tendency toward expansion.

Fabrication of a state ideology was partly instituted in the Aztec world creating glyphs but also by destroying those with competing perspectives.  For example, in addition to creating a Cult of Deity, the Aztec leaders and nobility erased past records of their less-than-noble status and deeds and increasingly created dress codes and behavioral norms to elevate themselves above the rest of society.  The king did the same to distinguish himself from the nobility (Durán 1867-1880).  Achieving distinction was the name of the game and the game produced a good life for those willing to play.

Life for Aztec royals and nobles was good.  For example, the city-state of Nezaualcoyotl at Texcoco, which covered an area of about 80 hectares (ca. 200 acres), had great living quarters for élites, pleasure gardens and even a zoo.  Robert McC. Adams says that the magnificence of Aztec palaces was even grander than royal structures in Mesopotamia.  And like their Mesopotamian counterparts, Mesoamerican kings had servants; but whereas the records from Mesopotamia count them in the hundreds, the Aztec monarch Moctezuma II (ca. A.D. 1466-1520) in his two-story palace in Tenochtitlán was served by 3,000 drudges and attendants. 

The Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés (A.D. 1485-1547), who conquered the Aztecs, was very impressed by the opulence of the Aztec court and noted that Moctezuma’s animals in his private zoo consumed 500 turkeys a day.  The conquering Cortés was a hidalgo (nobleman) of Spain and, as such, the fact that he saw Moctezuma’s court as lavish is all the more telling (Soustelle 1962:25). 

To be at the top of Aztec society insured a life of sumptuousness.  In addition to a thirst for power, prestige and property, aggrandizers seeking royal status, or even to be attached to royalty, were motivated by the chance to live such a life of lavishness and ease.  Furthermore, the mounting demands of Moctezuma II and his courtiers for luxuries led to the establishment of provisioned quarters for many craftsmen brought in from the provinces to churn out many of the fine items today being discovered by archaeologists in Mesoamerica.

Even kings die, yet they try to take their treasures along to the grave.  When the father of Moctezuma II died (Moctezuma I, ca. 1398-1469) big men from all over the empire brought lavish gifts to his elaborate funeral, which were buried along with him, as were many slaves and retainers who were ceremonially killed during the funeral (Durán 1867-1880:I:253-254).

I have noted that stratification must be fabricated by those who see benefit in doing so and also that elevation of royalty and nobility provides those elevated with many privileges and pleasures in life.  Nevertheless, chiefs seem to be desirous of becoming kings and they, in turn, apparently want to become emperors.  Another way of saying this is that there seems to be in states a natural expansionist tendency.  The Aztecs were no exception.  From humble tribal beginnings Aztec royals forged a kingdom and then spread their hegemony far and wide through warfare.  This aggression was cosmologically linked to a belief that their gods demanded to be appeased periodically by the blood sacrifice of captives.  Emperor Ahuizotl (r. 1486-1502), for example, sacrificed a reported 20,000 or more prisoners in a four-day hecatomb of blood in 1487, a year after he succeeded his father as king.

Clearly, warfare was being driven by cosmological ideas about the need to appease the gods; but also by the lust for powerful displays of authority that the hecatombs must have been for the general population, as well as the fact that younger military men could make their careers by conquering and capturing.  There was always a certain amount of booty to be had in a conquest; but war was also being driven by fabricated and inherited ideals royals and nobles had concerning the gods.  It is significant that, as in Mesopotamia and elsewhere in the Old World, in Mesoamerica the Aztecs destroyed opposing temples and desecrated the glyphs and symbols of power in those city-states they conquered.  But human motivation for power, prestige and property was never subsumed by mystical ideology, as Robert McC. Adams points out, “Whatever part the defense or gratification of the deity may have played as a conscious motivation for warfare, it is clear that his human protagonists had their own interests in mind as well” (1966:150). 

Men create ideas and then are driven by them, to a certain extent, especially when in subsequent generations they become the inherited “truth,” but such ideas are also tools in the hands of those seeking to dominate, justifications for the pursuit of power, prestige and property.  Human pride and ambition are sometimes nudged by such created and inherited ideas; but in the hands of success-oriented men they can also be bludgeons.  However much kings and their warrior-generals huff and puff that they are going to war to protect the polity, warfare has always brought fame and wealth to those engaged in the self-proclaimed dutiful and virtuous battle.  The common enterprise might be shouted from the tops of pyramids; but successful conquest brought power, prestige and property in its wake, “not uniformly enriching the community but, instead, increasing the stratification within it and permitting the consolidation of an independent power base by forces whose initial role had merely been that of leading element in a common enterprise” (Adams 1966:152).

This structural weakness of empire was perhaps all the more amplified in the case of the Aztecs because of the demands of the center for enormous numbers of sacrificial victims.  While the Triple Alliance (the city-states of Tenochtitlan; Texcoco & Tlacopán) was a formal structure of empire, the inability of the Aztec king in Tenochtitlán, Moctezuma, to marshal support among his vassals and supposed allies during the final stage of the Spanish siege is a graphic example of the empty formality of the Aztec empire.  The demand for sacrificial victims may have played a role in hollowing out the empire; but also the Triple Alliance had originally been constituted on a more or less equal basis, with tribute to be divided equally between Tenochtitlán and Texcoco and a half-share going to Tlacopán.  In time, however, Tenochtitlán began to siphon off wealth, perhaps because as an island fortress without agricultural lands of its own, its control of tribute was crucial for the survival of royals and élites there. 

But if the cities of Tenochtitlan; Texcoco & Tlacopán formed the center of the empire, Tenochtitlán was the “center of the center,” at least in formal terms and its aggrandizement weakened the alliance.  Differences between Tenochtitlan; Texcoco & Tlacopán were submerged without an open break until crisis of the Spanish invasion (1519-1521).  The Aztec demands for tribute and large numbers of sacrificial victims had already begun to provoke serious unrest among subject peoples in Mexico, a structural weakness the Spanish were quick to exploit. 

As with empires such as the Akkadian Empire, the Aztecs attempted to control the periphery with tribute-collectors (calpixques) sent out from the center.  This siphoning of wealth from locals in the periphery can create social unrest and even rebellion on the margins of power.  Additionally, the Aztec calpixques took on such airs with luxurious attire, rapacious demands on locals and such autocratic behavior that, no doubt, their behavior contributed to the hollowing out of the Aztec hegemony (Díaz del Castillo 1960:1:148). 

The siphoning of wealth from the periphery was so intense, according to Anne Chapman (1957:122) that the outlying areas that came under Aztec rule were so depleted in wealth that trade there dried up, there not being enough surplus beyond subsistence to create a healthy market environment.  This seems to indicate that the siphoning of wealth from the periphery was significant.  Indeed, the quantities are very impressive.  For instance, the bulk foodstuffs amounted to some 53 thousand tons or enough to feed more than 360 thousand people at the estimated mean annual consumption.  Additional flows of cacao beans, cloth mantles and other goods were also important items of tribute (Adams 1966:165). 

Since these vast amounts of food and goods were channeled through the palace-temple complex, their flow strengthened the autocratic nature of the Aztec political economy and increased class stratification and urban-rural differences.  Some of these goods were redistributed to amplify the power of the palace; but some were sumptuously consumed by the palace residents and those closely associated with the king e.g., some 25 percent of the cacao, 50 percent of the salt and about 20 percent of the maize were directly consumed by the élites of the palace-temple complex (Katz 1956:96, 106).

Military conquest brought tribute to the center but control of trade was also on the minds of the king and his viziers.  Soustelle 1962:204) notes repeated instances of mistreatment of merchants who would not cooperate with Tenochtitlán and, at times, the refusal of traders in the periphery to trade served as a pretext for invasion. 

The system was about the center controlling the periphery; but it is likely that the people did see some benefit from the redistribution of food and goods from the palace-temple complex, the state’s responses to famines and productive investment in flood control, nevertheless it was a highly stratified system, with high-living at the top and death to thousands of sacrificial victims at the bottom.  No doubt those in between just tried to get along in a system they did not control.




In these cases we see royals and their officials seeking to create upward flows of tribute.  They essentially used four means to produce rents: (1) They inexorably moved to control a portion of primary producers’ output.  (2) They also conquered neighboring communities to transform them into tribute-paying clients.  (3) Another tactic was to control artisans and the production of prestige items.  (4) A further device was to control traders in order to exact from them a portion of their wealth.


Redistribution and Means of Control


Redistribution in the political context is the process by which a political center extracts value from the dependent periphery, for instance a palace-temple complex extracting rents from farmers or even a city from outlying districts.  The center then stores that value, usually foodstuffs, to be given back to the producers as the leaders in the center deem (Polanyi, Arensberg & Pearson 1957; Earle 1977).

But was redistribution really returning value to the people?  My perspective is that by setting up systems of redistribution, broadcast to the general public as being in their own interest, aggrandizers were able, over time, to draw off value, accumulate it and invest it in four means of control: the means of:


1) Production


2) Destruction (war)


3) Construction


4) Information management


Production and destruction are clear.  By construction I mean the creation of nontransparent institutions, offices and roles that allowed élites to extract value from producers, while still proclaiming the ethos of communalism, egalitarianism and group solidarity.  Today we could add “democracy.”

The created opaque institutions also can be seen as constituting a means of mystification, a way of influencing the minds of societal members.  The power of aggrandizers to exploit non-élites, then, was present in their control of a production-destruction-construction-mystification complex; but before those means were openly pursued and held by opportunists, they were pursued covertly by skimming off the flow of goods and services through the hands of big men, titular chiefs and others such as the shamans of Yokut-Mono society (Case 3.3 ).  In other words, in redistribution systems men in positions of power who claimed to merely be primus inter pares could foster private aggrandizement, becoming monarchs in the process. 

By allowing redistributors to gradually develop symbols of office and power, followers were slowly lulled into accepting subjugation, its fabrication appearing to be benign in its imperceptible gradualness and redundancy.  Either by being elevated to the pedestal, or by climbing up there, a long series of aggrandizing office-holders spun the ideological fabric of coercive power in which future monarchs could wrap themselves.

In the beginning decades of the Neolithic redistribution was a common way for big men to establish and maintain high prestige in societies lacking fixed political leaders.  By amassing wealth and giving it away such men were able to gain influence in their societies.  But redistribution does not disappear in established polities.  Rather, it becomes more complex. 

For instance, the palace-temple complex in Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Aztec Empire becomes a center of redistribution, at least in theory one that recycled wealth to all members of society.  But in reality the records we have from these societies indicate that redistribution in chiefdoms, kingdoms and empires functioned more as a way of rewarding favorites and those who performed military service for the monarch e.g., the ilku “service” to the Babylonian King, which was more or less a means of dispensing salaries to those whose political support the king needed (Snell 1997:71). 

Whereas in simpler societies redistribution functioned to garner influence for aggrandizing men, in politically complex societies it came to serve as a means of establishing and maintaining political support among the powerful families of the realm.  Gifts of land and other valuables, acquired by extracting value from primary producers and through warfare, thus acted as a means of firming up the authority of the top political leadership.


A Cybernetic Perspective


The fourth means of control mentioned above is “Information management.”  That is, through their constructed offices and devices (oracles for instance) they were able to filter information and even manufacture it in forms that suited their purposes.  By encoding certain strategic bits of information in unquestionable forms e.g., divinatory revelations, legends, proverbs, sacrificial customs, annual ceremonies, monumental structures etc., opportunists were able to slowly formulate the institutional outlines of a hierarchical society.

Once redistributive structures were created – headmanships of lineages, big man systems, titular chiefs – some encodements began to restrict the flow of information through the auspices of the redistributors.  In other words, they began to filter what the general populace should know.

At this early stage, with big men and little chiefs, information was not blocked to any great extent from the general public, nor was information exclusive enough to allow the exercise of a fully developed political economy.  However, with the passage of time, managers were able to fabricate new rules and structures, which can be seen as encodements of information.  For example, among the Kuba of Africa under the office of king were a number of eagle-feather chiefs, the offices of which were symbolized by wearing an eagle feather in their hair.  That feather was the encodement of information, a powerful symbol that even prevented the king from abusing them and required the people to honor them with privileges (see Case 7.4).

By creating official rules and powerful symbols of office such leaders were able to extract wealth from people and there were many more blockages of information flows, as well as the creation of misinformation.  Of course, one especially clever way of blocking the public from key information was to create mystical ideas to support one’s leadership, ideas that could not be checked or easily countered by opponents.

The important information concerning how to control people and wealth became embedded in legends and sacred texts and carefully constructed codes, a poleconomic treasure for aggrandizers intent on controlling the storable-stealable-surplus and on attaining more and more prestige, power and property.

Furthermore, once hierarchical structures were formed, only some members of society had access to this information.  Early gerontocracies, for example, kept information from women and younger men.  For the Sisala of Africa I have shown that this still existed at the time of my initial fieldwork (1970-1971) within the patriarchal structures of ancestor sacrifice and divination (Mendonsa, 1976; 1982a; 2003).

In short, only the most senior Sisala men could approach their ancestors through divination and only elders could call upon the dead to help with problems within the family group.  Since deviance was thought to be punished by the ancestors, divination and piacular sacrifice functioned as a political economy, permitting senior men to control the behavior of younger men and women (my 2003 article shows that this is deteriorating under the influence of modernity, which has provided young men and women with options). 

In any case, under the traditional system, information about how to solve problems of health and interpersonal conflict was ritually walled off.  Subordinate males and all females were not able to access this encoded information except by going through the auspices of the patriarchal structure.  Since patriarchy did not exist for eons before the Neolithic, these limiting structures and ideas had to be constructed, most definitely in a slow, accretionary fashion in order to control the flow of information and subjugate an uninformed public.

In the early Neolithic leaders had to be able to influence public opinion.  I noted in my fieldwork that Sisala elders did this through inherited institutionalized means – divination and ancestor veneration.  But in earlier societies, management was more fluid.  Most early chiefs were titular chiefs, men of influence rather than officers with authority.  For them controlling information must have come in the form of negotiation, persuasion and exercising influence achieved in their past actions e.g., success in combat or the appearance of solving problems through magical means.




Case 3.8  The Titular Chief of the Rwala Bedouin


An example can be seen in the office of Sheikh of the Rwala Bedouin.  Speaking of the Sheikh's duties in external relations Lancaster (1981) says that the sheikh's prime task is mediation and negotiation.  He does not operate based on authority, for there is no legal framework or compelling force available to him.  All the sheikh can do is represent the tribe and rely on knowing what the tribe wants in any particular circumstance.  He then has to convince the tribe to accept the results of his negotiation.

In the case of the Rwala Bedouin, the titular chief does not have an authoritative vault of information or legal framework that can be used to dominate his followers.  Given the small nature of his polity, the Rwala Bedouin titular chief cannot manufacture information or manipulate it behind closed doors, as has become the norm in larger polities with authoritative leadership.  Rather, he can only manipulate information in a public forum, and presumably in conferences with key decision-makers, to bring about a solution acceptable to his followers.




While information had not completely gelled into authoritative institutions in the Early Neolithic, men of influence were beginning to manipulate information to their advantage and in doing so gained more power as they dealt with certain problems or opportunities.  Yet they ruled in an ad hoc fashion and by persuasion rather than as authoritative sovereigns.  In spite of the lack of firm authoritative rules with generations of tradition behind them, these early managers were able to use early forms of redistribution for their own self advancement during their tenure and redistribution systems came to form a basis for later hierarchical systems, to which we now turn.


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