Domestication: A Revolution


Domestication of plants and animals must be seen as a process.  Hunter-gatherers would have been keen to observe natural forms and processes in the course of their economic pursuits and nudging nature here and there would have been a normal thing to do.  There are many examples of this from the ethnographic literature.  Little domesticates were probably well established prior to the Agricultural Revolution. 

Domestication likely began with non-foods, such as the dog and even the bottle gourd, Cannabis, chile peppers, cardamom and other condiments (Hayden 1995:294).  Professor Hayden feels that since at the doorstep of the Agricultural Revolution domesticates were labor intensive, in the beginning they would have been used sparingly, perhaps only in wealth displays by aspiring élites, special gift-giving events, competitive feasts, bridewealth payments, death compensation payments and trading events. 

These activities indicate that on the cusp of the domestication revolution aggrandizers were involved in socioeconomic competition, for which there is archaeological evidence e.g., at Stonehenge and other monuments constructed prior to, or in the early years of the Neolithic (Byrd 1989:78; Richards 1990, 1991; Rosenberg & Davis 1992).

Some scientists believe that in the proto-Neolithic animals may have been domesticated, in the first instance, for sacrificial purposes (Hayden 1995:296; Cauvin 1978).  These early domesticates and even pottery, which is often found in ritual contexts, may reflect less about economics than about the quest for prestige by aggrandizers (Richard 1990, 1991; Thomas 1991:102). 

Remember, during the Paleolithic among non-storing foragers only prestige was available for aggrandizers to seek.  If we postulate that aggrandizers seek power, prestige and property, only one was achievable: the prestige acquired by becoming a renowned hunter, curer, storyteller or shaman.   

While domestication was a process for the people involved, when we step back and view it historically it is to be seen as a huge change in human economic behavior.  As we saw with the Natufians, the big jump in complexity came when humans learned how to grow crops and breed animals as a major food source.  This is called the Neolithic Revolution or as some say, the Agricultural Revolution. 

Why a revolution?  Because this gigantic shift in human productivity provided a source of wealth that was not necessarily tied to a tiny eco-niche of abundance, as with the hunter-gatherer-fisher-storers.  Even people in especially marginal environments, such as the cold steppes of Eurasia, could survive by herding reindeer and, at the same time, people in the tropics could subsist by growing bananas and root crops. 

Once domestication of plants and animals became known, it spread to the four corners of the earth rather quickly.  So did institutions of domination.  T. Douglas Price & Anne Birgitte Gebauer (1995:3) write, “This revolution entailed major, long-term changes in the structure and organization of societies that adopted the new way of life, as well as a totally new relationship with the environment.”  They continue, saying agriculture is a commitment to a relationship with plants and/or animals and:


It ultimately involves changes in the human use of the earth and in the structure and organization of human society – the widespread use of ceramic containers, the extensive clearing of forest, the cultivation of hard-shelled cereals that can be stored for long periods of time, the invention and adoption of new technologies for farming and/or herding, more villages and more people, and an increased pace along the path to more complex social and political organization (Price & Gebauer 1995:6).


With the advent of domestication, exploitation by an élite few was no longer tied to ocean-reared salmon or candlefish coming up a river, as in the case of the Northwest Coast Amerindians (Case 1.5).  With a flexible and moveable capacity to create a surplus almost anywhere on earth aggrandizers could fabricate domination in multiple environments, using wealth generated from fields or herds or from mixed farming.

Wherever a surplus was produced – be it from a lush marine environment, farming, herding or a mixture of farming and herding – the propagandists went to work.  We saw that happen with the nascent political activities of Natufian leaders who regulated mortuary rites (Case 1.3).

Initially aspiring leaders were headmen and chiefs who fabricated ideas and codes that gave them permission to control things.  The usual justification for this was the need to defend the group, which often was a valid argument, as there were impoverished hoards that occasionally attacked those with stored provisions and tried to take the wealth invested in granaries and herds.  Additionally, since land could produce wealth with labor input, slaves to work the land taken in warfare were a premium catch, thereby stimulating raids on settled communities by those seeking enslaved workers.  In other words, raids could come from nomads or sedentary neighbors once there was a storable-stealable-surplus to be stolen.

The domestication revolution stimulated both altruistic and exploitative tendencies in upcoming leaders.  Alrusitic management of a community’s resources moved, in time, and in some locales, to exploitative management.  Once surplus wealth existed, in any form, some leaders began to formulate codes and scripts to justify their privileged access to this wealth.  They used diviners, purveyors of magic and all sorts of “hocus pocus personnel” to make it appear that they were up to something other than exploitative domination.  They established sacred sites, shrines, talismans and all manner of supernatural paraphernalia to pull the wool over the eyes of the public.  In Chomsky’s terminology, they were “manufacturing consent” (Chomsky & Herman. 1988).

These early storytellers, purveyors of myth and legend, were, consciously or unconsciously, establishing the basis of a political economy.  To use terminology I have emplyed in the context of the literate Catalonians of the Middle Ages (Mendonsa 2008a, 2008b), they were blossoming scriptwriters.  In Foucauldian terms they were involved in laying down a mythological discourse to access wealth and power (Foucault 1981).

One might be inclined to disagree with a chief; but not with God or cosmic powers; so propagandists usually set about to make a linkage between leadership and Deity, as we saw with the megaliths of Europe.  When we get to societies like ancient Egypt, the scriptwriting is literally on the walls of monumental architecture. 




Case 2.1.  Ramesses II: Self-Promoting Publicist


For example, Ramesses II (3,279-3,213 B.P.) is known as one of Egypt's greatest pharaohs, which is a testament to his expertise at self-promotion.  Nine further pharaohs tried to emulate his success by taking his name.  Although Ramesses II was renowned as a warrior-king he suffered several military setbacks; but he successfully covered up his blunders in the field by creating lasting images of himself at home. 

In his architectural endeavors, Ramesses wanted very big monuments built to honor himself and his relation to the gods.  He used hieroglyphics as a means of propaganda for his military ventures and victories over foreigners.  He also erected more colossal statues of himself than any other Egyptian pharaoh.

Ramesses II saw that the carvings of previous pharaohs were not deeply engraved in stone and could be easily obliterated.  Commensurate with his image as a god-king, he wanted his name to last.  Consequently he had his stonemasons and carvers deeply carve his name in all stone monuments he constructed and even some that he did not.  He did this by eradicating the names of previous pharaohs and replacing them with his name.  By having his name deeply etched, it was felt that his relationship with the Sun God Ra would be highlighted when his name caught the sun’s rays.

Based on his self-promotion, in the legends and stories handed down through generations of scribes in Egypt, he became known as Ramesses the Great Ancestor.  He owed his reputation to his skills as a self-publicist, though it didn’t hurt his efforts to glorify himself that he lived into his nineties.  He produced 52 sons, though scribes did not report the number of daughters.

His promotion of his kingly image was evident in the fact that he held 14 Sed Festivals during his long reign, these being celebrations held to commemorate the continued rule of a pharaoh.  Also, the Sed jubilee was a festival in which the pharaoh was symbolically transformed into a god, thus reinforcing the authority of the throne and deifying Ramesses during his lifetime.   

Ramesses the Great also had his architects erect more statues than any other Egyptian pharaoh.  One stone statue of himself that Ramasses had constructed stood 56 feet high (17 meters) and weighed more than a thousand tons.

Early in his reign, Ramesses focused on building temples, monuments and cities.  He founded the city he named after himself – Pi-Ramesses in the Nile Delta.  The full name was Pi-Ramesses Aa-nakhtu, which meant “Domain of Ramesses – Great in Victory.”  Building an entirerly new city provided him with ample opportunity to cover the walls with inscriptions honoring himself; but he even changed or added to the inscriptions on former pharaohs' statues and monuments in other cities to glorify himself.  To further his image as a builder of monuments, he had his cartouches – his name encircled – prominently displayed in buildings that he did not personally have constructed.   This ensured that Ramesses II was worshiped as a god for centuries after his death.  Apparently, prestige is a powerful motivator for aggrandizers. 




It is said that Egypt was one of several places on the globe were civilization began.  Others were in China, the Indus Valley, the Andes, Mesoamerica, Crete and Mesopotamia.  Defining civilization is difficult.  Let’s just accept that it was a coming together of innovations that led to an increase in the rate and scale of change that was dramatic by comparison with anything achieved in earlier times.  Some call the resultant societies “advanced.”  Our interest in “advancement” in the present work is the advancement of a political economy and in these “civilizations” the newly established ability of a few members of society – the rulers and their backers – to dominate the lives of laborers and to accumulate significant amounts of their produce.  Let’s look at rulership.


The Emergence of Rulership


Both Karl Marx (1906 [1864]) and Max Weber (1978, 1994) were concerned with the rise of the state and they both portrayed it as an apparatus of governance, administration and coercion; but both tended to reify the state, taking its existence as a given.  Yet some modern scholars have focused on statemaking processes and see the state as problematic and as a historically contingent subject of contention.  Bright & Harding (1984:4) say:


States are neither static givens lording over society nor subservient by-products of other social forces; they are the institutional and ideological products of historically specific processes structuring power relations in a society.


Christine Ward Gailey (1987:1) says:


The conflict between producing people, orienting their work toward subsistence, and civil authority, protecting the classes that siphon off goods and labor, is a continual, ongoing process.  Most theories of state origins consider the state as a thing, with a life of its own.  Further, most consider the state as a stable force in society [italics in the original].


I want to broaden the discussion of statemaking to include those processes that created rulership, that is, the ways in which aspiring men fabricated power relations before the institution of formal large-scale states, though the processes remain similar in the activities of chiefs or emperors.  One end result of both sets of processes is that workers were, throughout history, required to give up a significant portion of their labor value, paying rents to the state.

The extraction process was normally carried out by the exercise of political power (Service 1962, Bowles & Gintis 1981).  Thus power was the avenue to obtaining control of wealth.  Viewed in this manner, the emergence of rulership began in nascent form in the first corporate kin groups and evolved into chiefship and then kingship.  The making of rulers is, therefore, broader than statemaking.

When rulers rose above the general population they constituted a class that came to have differential control over what was produced in society and how it was distributed.  This domination was built upon the principle of rank, that is, ideas about superiority/inferiority laid down in kinship groups prior to the rise of chiefs.  In the kinship context the concepts of superiority and inferiority were vague and ambiguous, being attached to age and gender; not to ambition.  Ambitious men built new structures of domination based on more precise ideas in this regard.  Their actions hardened power into authority within a new context – chiefship – and bureaucracy trailed closely behind, as chiefs surrounded themselves with viziers, priests and all sorts of hangers-on.   

The political struggle by the emerging élites had the effect of turning rank into stratification i.e., a new structural situation in which they were able to siphon wealth from the labor of the people.  This involved a reworking of the ethos of kinship.  No doubt, that reworking did not go entirely smoothly or without opposition.  One strategy that was used, in all likelihood, as it appears again and again in the ethnographic literature, was the alteration of tradition.  Gailey (1987:195) indicates, “Typically, there is an attempt to mute antagonism to the changes by using customary forms with revised content.”  Early aggrandizers, then, were revisionists, intent on mutating customs to bring about a new order that would be differentially beneficial to aspiring élites.  In the restating of custom to facilitate the creation of an apparatus of governance, administration and coercion, these innovators altered the public’s perception of the idiom of kinship tradition. 

Under the traditional weight of kinship tradition, leadership was not exploitative and a state of generalized reciprocity prevailed.  It is likely that early aspirants to power began by requiring prestations that were reciprocated, a step not far removed from the circular reciprocity which took place within kinship groups.  The next step was to move away from reciprocal obligations to one-way tribute with concrete, material goods going upward to powerful leaders and promises of protection and support coming from on high.  In reality, this involved the extraction of goods or labor without equivalent compensation over time.

There is little doubt that the political struggle was carried on between competing élites with the winner taking the prize – the right to formulate rulership as a social form that would confer upon them control over a sizeable surplus product. 

Yet, aspiring leaders did not present themselves as anything more that those who could and would benefit the community, for example, with community projects.  One such has been uncovered by archaeologists in Britain as shows that such leadership brought about significant improvements for a group that lived over 5 thousand years ago.  It is a 2 km stretch of bog between Polden Hills and Westhay Island in the Somerset Levels that was bridged by a wood trackway of pegged oak planks.  As Professor Wainwright (1989:27) notes, the existence of such a complicated structure “implies regular traffic, the existence of settlements and the need to construct such permanent ways which had a value to the community as a whole.”  This took leadership and coordination.  It is very early example of the kinds of benefits aspiring men offered in return for power and prestige.  Lurking in the background, to come to the fore later in history, was the control of labor for personal aggrandizement.

The archaeological data from early Neolithic Britain show that leaders undoubtedly coordinated labor for community projects as far back as 5,000 B.P., but we do not begin to see evidence of social differentiation until about 500 years later.  Data indicate that hierarchical societies began to emerge at that time, combined with social conflict.  The tombs of the early farming communities were of a monumental character, with long barrows.  Grave goods were initially sparse and simple and mostly restricted to the normal range of artifacts of the period – pottery, polished axes of flint and stone and chipped flint tools.  Such “tombs did not serve for displays of personal wealth nor do the objects indicate that the dead were of high status” (Wainwright 1989:27).  After ca. 4,500 B.P. we see a change in burial practices.  Monumental tombs and the cult of the ancestors declined and we see the appearance of single articulated inhumation burials.  From about 4 thousand B.P onwards about 75 percent of burials were in such graves and their contents belie increased social differentiation.  While graves usually contained some items, a few were accompanied by “a considerable number of items.”  Professor Wainwright notes regarding the élite graves that “many of the objects found in the graves are connected with dress since this is one of the most frequently used and visual ways of displaying and symbolizing power, rank or status” (1989:28).  Additionally, at this time élite graves begin to show the presence of finely-finished red-colored vessels – beakers – showing carefully executed decoration.  Professor Wainwright remarks that “there can be no doubt that they represent part of a package of artifacts adopted by a small group in order to emphasize their rank and status.”  First copper began to appear along with the beakers, then bronze and then quantities of gold so that by about 3,700 B.P these materials “serve to confirm the emergence of a class society in Britain.”

The archaeological remains from the British Isles indicate that the emergence of social differentiation and élites created social tension and we begin to find clear evidence for hostilities in the form of high status fortified settlements.  They are situated on hilltops and appear in positions chosen for their defensive potential.  Clearly, those with wealth and power now had to defend them against usurpation by competitors. 

Initially, I am sure, those who wanted to lead did not present themselves as greedy for wealth or inordinate prestige and power; but rather as ones who only wanted to control labor and a portion of the surplus in order to benefit the community.  Their projections to the population could be diagramed like this:



Instead they got something like this:




Furthermore, when one factors in the extraction of value by élite politicos, the diagram would look like this: The slant toward negative effects of rulership can be diagramed below:



Ceremonies &                         Private Stores

Display to Enhance                         of Élite Wealth

State Prestige





Monumental                                    Offensive Construction                                    War to

to Increase State                              Increase State

Prestige & Wealth                           Prestige & Wealth

S ↓                   S

e ↓                   i

r  ↓                  p

v ↓                   h

i  ↓                   o

c ↓                   n
e ↓                   i

 s ↓                  n






Nonetheless, power allowed the winners of struggles between contestants to constitute an administrative, religious, judicial and military hierarchy that constituted, in various state forms throughout the ages, a means of exploitation.  In short, minor forms of rulership evolved into greater forms; but all were under the leadership of non-working élites who were able to extract surplus value from producers.

In the initial phases of the development of rulership, as in subsequent state forms, the extraction of wealth was primarily a political one.  Rulers conspired to stamp out opposing forces.  For example, in the Aztec context, the Triple Alliance was able to co-opt powerful local élites and dominate economic production.  Elizabeth Brumfiel (1983:279) writes:


The intensification of competition within and between petty kingdoms was crucial to the entire process of Aztec state formation; it created conditions conducive to political centralization.  The flurry of shifting alliances, conquests, and acts of usurpation that accompanied the expansion and final collapse of Azcapotzalco’s power virtually eliminated by death or exile the higher-ranking nobility of many petty kingdoms.  Political coalitions at the local level were destroyed; networks of kinship alliance between local ruling lineages were disrupted.


While there were some notable rulers in history that were beneficent, the history books abound with contrary examples.  This is our subject matter: how did ruling élites use the power of office to act in ways that were contrary to the commonweal? 

Most anthropologists agree that, broadly speaking, many small-scale societies were and are egalitarian.  In such societies in the Paleolithic, where economic scarcity was rarely a problem, men and women who sought and attained high status were not able to attach greater material goods to those positions – only prestige limited to their lifetimes. 

Professor Woodburn (1998) calls such systems “immediate-return” economies.  They function as leveling mechanisms.  In Paleolithic societies there was social pressure to immediately share any significant wealth, usually food, rather than accumulating it; as in delayed-return systems that developed once there was a storable-stealable-surplus.  As Professor Peter Wilson (1988) notes, this ethos of communalism made it difficult for individuals to achieve powers of debt and credit over their fellows.

In immediate-return systems we see those who kill a large animal or find an important cache of food, sharing that food immediately with others, which is a form of “social storage,” as professor Halstead (2004) put it; or the system can be considered a wealth-in-people one (Guyer 1993).  In such societies investment is in on-going relationships, not in private property.  In essence one builds up credits in a social network “bank;” not in a store of privately-held wealth.

Once the productive capacities of humans reached a stage where a surplus could be generated, no doubt risk and uncertainty with regard to the food supply would have led people to store up as a defense against times of shortage (Halstead & O'Shea 2004).  Storage meant that someone had to oversee the stores and, in time, as the storage bins came to contain great wealth, their managers could presume the possibility of siphoning some of the wealth for themselves.

Having high status was an emergent idea in the Neolithic, at least in the sense of holding position in an institutional framework and displaying that official high status through the conspicuous display of wealth.  As Colin Renfrew (2007:135) put it, “One of the mysteries of prehistory is the emergence of inequality.”  

Materialism lies at the base of the mystery.  Once substantial worldly goods came into existence, ones that a person could not carry from place to place in a mobile lifestyle, the world changed forever.  Systems of value emerged based on traded polished stone axes, flint, lapis lazuli, metals and other artifacts deemed worthy of special attention.  Men who controlled the flow of such objects held powerfully-high ranking.  Once the Bronze Age was born, they came to control the flow of metal weapons, which provided them with even greater power and status.

The development of metallurgy created new advantages for assertive men.  Commodities such as copper, tin, bronze, gold and silver were worth accumulating and storing in volume.  As they would not easily perish, they constituted a more or less permanent fund of wealth, if they could be defended against theft.  A new ethos arose to deal with this situation.

In fact, driven by the stimulus of material wealth, a warrior ethos developed with warrior chiefs evolving into warrior kings and further being transformed in Archaic Greece.  For example, when Heinrich Schliemann dug at Mycenae he found a circle of grave stones, with several stone stelæ, some showing hunting scenes and a high-status warrior in a horse-drawn chariot (Schliemann 2010 [1898]).  He also found shaft graves with precious grave goods: swords, drinking vessels and other weapons, some of which were gilded in gold and jewels.  Some of the swords appear to be ceremonial in nature with gold gilt and studs of ivory, alabaster, or marble.  The warrior ethos had clearly arrived in ancient Greece, with warrior-kings buried in spectacular tholos or beehive tombs e.g., the Bronze Age Tomb of the heroic King Agamemnon (Wace 1923).

We see evidence of this attraction to war in the Late Neolithic cemeteries e.g., the Necropolis at Varna in Bulgaria dating from the 5th century B.P. (Bailey 2000).  Grave artifacts found there indicate that the people had sophisticated religious beliefs about an afterlife and hierarchal status differences among the living.  Many graves are burials of élite males with their weapons and symbolic evidence of the rise of a culture of male dominance.  Professor Gimbutas (1994) felt that this macho culture had ridden in on horseback from the Asian steppes and had come to replace the more matrifocal and peaceful culture of the residents of the area. 

The Varna Necropolis is just one Neolithic example of a gravesite that indicates that ownership and conspicuous display of wealth and status had become a central aspect of early European life, along with a warrior culture.  Professor Renfrew (2007:142) writes:


A new linkage develops associating bronze with weapons of war, and they with a masculine ethos that continued to develop over three millennia, leading first to the chiefly societies of the Celtic iron age, with its rich burials, and subsequently to the chivalry of the medieval knights.


This masculine warrior culture, thus, came to dominate the world of surplus-producing societies in ancient Europe.  Paul Treherne (1995) noted that the warrior was considered a beautiful thing during the Bronze Age, again as evidenced in the sumptuous burials of such bold men.  He indicated that this was a new kind of identity, one that came to be associated with the horse and the chariot, forming a new “cognitive constellation” that was to sweep through Europe.  It was the bedrock of a tradition connecting élites with equestrian life.

In the storing societies that developed in the Neolithic aggressive men arose to lead and manage; rulership that was given expression in monuments and glorious burials, evidence of the rise of individuality and the creation of newly-perceived and conceptualized position above others in society. 

However these assertive men gained power in society, they maintained it through symbolic means.  They fabricated a crucial nexus of symbolic concepts that defined how material fruits were to be controlled and distributed.  In other words, they created a political economy.  In creating symbols of rulership, they were not simply reflecting preexisting concepts; but actually constituted new ones that formed a system of dominance.

Certainly among the non-storing immediate-return societies of the Paleolithic individualism would have been in limited supply.  Only with development of storing societies, those producing a material surplus, did individualism become widespread.  Display of status and wealth by prominent individuals became the norm.  As the mechanisms favoring equality were broken down, individuals were enabled in their quest for more power, prestige and property. 

This was the crucial nexus: society needed to store up food as a hedge against bad harvests and these stores needed to be guarded against theft.  This led to a need for manager-defenders and a warrior culture developed to solve the problems created by the presence of a storable-stealable-surplus.  That was on the defensive side.  On the offensive side the same warrior ethos could give rise to those seeking to steal the stores of others.

In general, the rise of the state entailed the conquest of territory by centralized authorities.  Military achievements by rulers were expected, both as defenders and sometimes as those attacking their neighbors.  State iconography from the great states of both the Old World and the New World depict conquest and the humiliation of captives (Renfrew 2007:149).  The same iconography usually depicts the fame of the ruler along with his impressive weapons and militaristic skills.  Again, we are given the same message in royal burials of warrior-kings, their weapons, their magnificent attire and sometimes chariots, horses and even captive slaves.


The Rise of Political Economy


Those social scientists who study political economy view power and the economy as related.  They see political power as influencing economic processes, especially distribution; as well as wealth influencing those in office.

Political economies arose once there was a storable-stealable-surplus.  The non-storing peoples of the Paleolithic had what one could call a subsistence economy with few political implications.  In other words, no one could use power to access food or goods.  Nor could any wealthy individuals or families control political processes.  There were no social classes.

The term “political economy” would not apply to those kinds of societies because, even though there may have been powerful people based on achieved prestige, no power structure existed, therefore the overlap between political power and economic power did not apply, though one could say that a minimal definition of political economy “involves the exchange of goods and services in an integrated society of families” (Johnson & Earle 1987:13).

Nevertheless, a substantial, enduring political economy evolved only when there was a storable-stealable-surplus for which to compete.  It developed to a large extent in the Neolithic and was geared to mobilizing the surplus that agriculture produced and was used by élites to finance social, political and religious institutions, which were organized and managed by non-food producing personnel.

This political economy was geared to maximizing income for the ruling élite and was growth-oriented in a highly competitive political sphere and therefore was inherently unstable, though élites took pains to make investments in capturing the income from productive activities to try to cope with this instability; but history shows that they were not always successful and complex societies tended to have a “rise-and-fall” nature (see: chapter 5 – “The Instability of Chiefdoms” and “Collapse of a Chiefdom”).

Perhaps if élites limited their investments to enhancing productive activities alone history would not demonstrate so many failed states; but élite politicos also put their siphoned wealth to non-productive uses (Diamond 2004).  Two of these non-productive activities contributed to political and economic instability: (1) the expansion of personal wealth and pleasure-seeking activities on the part of government office-holders and, (2) investment in war and efforts to expand hegemonic control.  Johnson & Earle (1987:13) note that a political economy grows by the “process of positive feedback between investment and expanding income,” but often élites squandered their expanding incomes on building private fortunes and military adventures that did not always lead to community security or enlargement of community resources.  In fact, history is replete with folly in both regards.

Political economies were driven by élite planning to promote growth unless checked by “factors that cause declining yields” (Johnson & Earle 1987:13).  I take excess siphoning of wealth from the primary producers to be a significant cause of decline, though there are cases of environmental destruction due to investment in expansion of production (Diamond 2004 and my Case 5.2). 

A political economy can also have a setback thrust on it by nature e.g., floods, earthquakes, draughts or pestilence.  Military invasion is another cause of decline or collapse.  Thus there is a recognizable trend in historical cases of expansion-decline-expansion and as the case of Copán shows, (see Cases 5.2 & 5.3) all these can come together in an unholy force to bring a society to and end.

In this regard, let's look at the case of a complex chieftaincy in the Hawaiian Islands (Johnson & Earle 1987: 229ff).  Complex chiefdoms were those that have evolved to the point of being on the brink of statehood.  Their level of social inequality was based on inherited status and possession of great wealth and power by those controlling the process of siphoning of the surplus value of the labor of primary producers.




Case 2.2.  Hawaiian Chiefdoms: Rise of a Political Economy   


In Hawaii, at the time of contact with Europeans in 1778, there were four large competing chiefdoms on the islands.  Chiefs struggled to expand their hegemony wider by investing in capital improvements such as fish ponds, hillside terraces, irrigation systems and land reclamations; but their capacity to expand was restricted by a limitation in “transport technology required to mount a successful attack on an island and resupply an invading army” (Johnson & Earle 1987:14).

How did these political economies come about in Hawaii, where society came to be sharply divided into two classes – chiefs (ali‘i) and commoners (maka'ainana)?  Was it the need to manage the hydraulic systems (Wittfogel 1957:241)?  Or was it the need to control and centrally manage the elaborate systems of exchange (Service 1962)? 

Tim Earle (1978) disagrees with both scenarios, noting that most of the labor needed for irrigation agriculture could easily have been supplied by the nuclear family, organized along the lines of a division of labor by age and sex.  Most irrigation construction and repair was done by small family or community work teams.  Work beyond that could be handled by community cooperation.  In other words, chiefly managers were not needed for the development of irrigation systems.

Again, exchange in ancient Hawaii was not long-distance exchange, inasmuch as the three major resource zones – fishing, lowland farming and upland foraging – were close to each other.  Most households had access to resources from all three zones and did not need to rely on long-distance trade in foodstuffs.  Exchange usually took place between households of the same community (Handy & Pukui 1958). 

In spite of this familial and community self-sufficiency, Hawaiian chiefs did create a system for extracting value from the primary producers.  It operated at three levels: (1) the paramount chief, (2) the district chief and (3) the community chief. 

The paramount chief (ali‘i nui) claimed to be the owner of all land and the director of war.  He provided chiefships to his kin and clients and when he died district chiefs usually went to war with each other, the winner becoming the paramount chief.  The system of patronage would then change, with chiefs being replaced by the clients of the new paramount chief. 

District chiefs received land grants from the paramount.  These were income estates with a license to extract value from the land and residents (similar to Medieval European fiefs).  District chiefs also acted as go-betweens, dealing with community chiefs, who were the primary hands-on siphoners of value.  In fact, the community chiefs were called alí i ‘ai ahupua’a or “chiefs who eat the community.” 

As a rule, none of the chiefs were from the community and were, in fact, resident extractors of wealth that funneled up through the system to the paramount chief, each chief along the way taking a portion of value for himself and his followers. 

Community chiefs also appointed a local land manager who, like the chiefs, was not a person from the community.  He handled day-to-day affairs with regard to production.  Men at each of these four levels “ate the community.”

These chiefdoms were restive and expansive.  Warfare was the mechanism for acquiring new territories and thus greater income.  Every paramount chief had a small army of trained military specialists for use in warfare against neighboring chiefdoms (Johnson & Earle 1987:235).

As with other chiefdoms we will encounter in this book, the Hawaiian chiefs fabricated religious ideas and institutions to help consolidate their political and economic control.  Royal priests were drawn from the ruling élite and functioned to perform rites to honor and placate the gods e.g., Ku, the God of War.  Ceremonies at Ku’s temple (heiau) served to build a consensus among lesser chiefs for military action.  Only priests (kahuna) and important chiefs (aliʻi) were allowed in such sacred spaces. 

Also there were smaller community altars (ahu) that were used during the annual Makahiki festival.  At this time the paramount chief and a retinue traveled around the country to perform rites to Lono, the God of Land and Fertility.  According to the official ideology, the land would not regenerate without such royal intervention with Lono.  On these trips the paramount chief was given food, craft goods and raw materials.

Clearly, this was a time when the siphoning system was ritualized publically and the role of the paramount chief was demonstrated to members of each community at ceremonies at their fertility shrine.  The altars and rites were a materialization of the political economy that formed the basis of royal income.  At a theoretical level we can say that if an ideology is materialized it is more real and relevant to the people and the process of materialization makes it possible to control, manipulate and extend the ideology (Butters, DeMarrais & Earle 1996).

Another time at which chiefly control was emphasized came when the chiefs introduced capital improvements to the productive system e.g., irrigation and terracing.  The ideological premise of the entire political economy was that the land-owning paramount chief was the provider of land as well as improvements to it.  He also bestowed rituals of renewal and protection from attack by expansionist chiefdoms.  In return for these provisions peasants provided labor on royal lands, gifts and “rent.”  

In Hawaii and elsewhere throughout history aristocrats have formed concepts to explain why they “owned” the land.  In Hawaii the paramount chief was said to be the direct descendant of a colonizing boatload (ca. 50 people) from the Marquesas or the Society Islands (Kirch 1974).  From that small beginning arose chiefs and priests who claimed to have a right to the land, great power (mana) and the entitlement to rule the common people.  This is just one historical example of the process whereby aggrandizers set themselves up as lords over people in order to access land and its fruits. 

Establishing hegemony involves creating fictions and finding ways of perpetrating them as facts e.g., “we rule because god has chosen us to rule.”  These fabrications were, in the case of Hawaii as elsewhere in history, designed to set up a political economy that was geared to maximizing income for those who set themselves up as the ruling élite. 

The small boatload of colonists that initially arrived in the Hawaiian Islands and began a new life there probably carried with them some established ideas of hierarchy.  No doubt the boat had a captain and a cadre of men close to him; but presumably there was no political economy at the time of landing.  That had to be constructed on the islands, just as the colonists constructed buildings, farms and waterworks.

These aspiring men fabricated ideas that defined them as kama ‘āina or “children of the land.”  Those born later or immigrants to the islands would not be so defined, thus the kama ‘āina became a ruling class on the islands (Kirch & Sahlins 1992:17).  In fact, over time these fabricators of legend defined themselves as lani or “heavenly ones,” which of course is a common way that dominators justify their hegemonic control of a political economy i.e., claiming a special linkage to Deity.




We have seen that political domination by a few was, over time, instituted in Hawaii.  This fabrication of a political economy stimulated great stratification on the islands.  I have described a similar process for the early settlers in Catalonia (Mendonsa 2008a:13ff) in which colonists who defined themselves as nobles gobbled up large parcels of land in what was then a no man’s land called the Marca Hispanica.  In this regard also see Case 8.1.  The Catalonian data indicate that with “their” new land in possession, the landlords then “offered” this land to commoner settlers who were promised freeholder status, at least after an initial period of working for the lord of the land.  However, over time the landed nobles, with the help of the Count of Barcelona, rewrote the laws to enserf the peasants, tying them to the land claimed by the lords.  

This process of fabricating land ownership was perpetuated as, over time, several of the Counts of Barcelona led war parties against the Moors taking their land and offering it to the non-inheriting sons of nobility who were thirsty for land on which they could recreate the political economy that had made their fathers rich (see Case 9.1).

Thus, in both Hawaii and in Catalonia, we see the same process of fabricating an ideology of ownership of the primary means of production – land.  In both cases, as time passed, this became an avenue for élites to construct a political system that enabled them to dominate commoners and siphon from them rents, tribute and taxes.  Throughout this book we will see this process repeated many times in different ethnographic and historical contexts.


The Urban Revolution


Domestication of plants and animals spurred an Urban Revolution as a palace-temple complex arose, with its attendant tempelwirtschaft (élite-dominated economy), among sedentary farmers tied to their fields in Mesopotamia, Mesoamerica, Egypt and elsewhere (Adams 1966).  After the Agricultural Revolution some people no longer roamed in search of food; but were able to stay in one place, clustering near their fields, the palace-temple complex in the center of the town and, eventually because of security concerns, behind walls and moats.  In a way, the people were bunching around an ideology being formulated in the palace-temple complex and projected from there by the priests who preached of gods acting through the leader and the priesthood.

Of course, the people formed around the palace-temple complex also because it was a center of redistribution.  The priests collected grain, took some for the palace-temple complex and redistributed the rest to the producers.  The palace-temple complex was not only an idea-factory; but it was also a storage facility for grain and, in some cases, the priests had “sacred herds” of animals and “substantial palace land holdings” (Adams 1966:49).  In short, it was a wealth depot and as such had to be protected from internal and external threats.

In history almost no political economy has gone uncontested.  External danger came from marauding barbarians and aggressive neighbors.  Internal threats came from political dissidents, some of whom fled to the hinterlands or were exiled there, at times forming dangerous gangs that endangered the urban area.  Others operated sub rosa in the community, secretly plotting the overthrow of the leadership.  As Leo Oppenheim (1964:83) noted for Mesopotamia, “The most effective remedy against these potentially dangerous elements were projects of internal and frontier colonization which only a powerful king could set afoot.”  Authoritative leaders were also needed to supervise the construction of a city’s battlements, defensive walls, towers and moats, as well as commanding garrisons. 

Behind these urban defenses citizens of the new cities may have been relatively safe from attacks by barbarians and political dissidents massing on the frontier; but they were not protected from the depredations of their leadership.  Very soon into the process or urbanizing, operatives of the palace-temple complex moved to control the fruits of the labor of the people.  For instance, the clay tablets of ancient Shuruppak, a Sumerian city on the banks of the Euphrates River, indicate that élites set about to control and account for both seed and plow-animals in a system of central accounting and redistribution.

Priests of the palace-temple complex made themselves responsible for plowing, even on private land, by means of corvée labor gangs under the direction of appointive officials.  They laid claims on herds and substantial palace-temple complex land holdings.  These privileged palace-temple complex dwellers also moved to control trade, as wool was important for the manufacture of textiles upon which long-distance trade rested – Sumerians exchanging wool and textiles for needed raw materials like copper.  Even the fishermen were required to pay tribute to the palace-temple complex (Adams 1966:48-50).  In fact, the economic activities and relations of all specialized groups of producers were mediated by the palace-temple complex operatives.

Many of the work projects of early states were based on forced labor.  Sumerian corvée labor under the Isin kings following the fall of Ur consisted of 10 days of required labor on the part of each unmarried man, a kind of “national service,” except for the citizens of Nippur, who were exempt.  Some were bound to corvée labor on a year-round basis, much like serfs or slaves (Evans 1963). 

Slave labor was also used; but because of the difficulty of monitoring them in the fields, drudges were primarily used in Mesopotamia as domestic servants.  Still, escapes were mentioned in the cuneiform texts.  To prevent runaways, slaves were sometimes required to wear a metal armband and have their heads shaved in a typical thrall haircut, called the abbuttu – a knob of hair worn prominently on the top of the head (Harris 1975:335-336).

The social complexity of the early urban areas was accompanied by social stratification and early state characteristically were class societies (Adams 1966:79).  For instance, by the beginning of the 4th millennium B.P., the early development of metallurgy in Asia Minor brought about an intensive participation of the local tribes in exchange with the complex civilizations of Western Asia, bringing a great deal of wealth to Asia Minor.  At the same time it promoted the concentration of personal property among the leaders of the community, which brought about a faster disintegration of community-owned property, both in land and cattle, and in the end quickly brought the society to the level of early urban complexity (Diakonoff 1984). 

In Sumer trade stimulated the development of city-states governed by a prince and a queen-priestess in coordination with a council of elders.  Kin corporations were not completely obscured by the rise of the state and indeed here as in many other localities state leaders used kinship as a building block of the state.

The stratification that accompanied the Urban Revolution and the rise of the state gave élites a life of relative luxury at the expense of the general population.  For example, in the Early Dynastic I from Ur (ca. 4,900 to 4,800 B.P.), texts indicate that there were a substantial number of specialized servants serving palace royals, priests and nobles.  These were identified as gatekeepers, cooks, entertainers, stewards, cup-bearers, messengers, musicians, chamberlains; butlers, craftsmen, including brewers, a harem of concubines and slaves, both male and female.  These drudges, attendants and servants were not a small following; but numbered several hundred folk.  Records from the ziggurat at the ancient city of Susa show a staff of 471 men and 482 women (Adams 1966:143).

The center of the state in Asia Minor was a fortified town and the mountain areas surrounding these urban fortresses were inhabited by barbarians.  The nascent city-state was linked to more complex societies elsewhere by the presence of Assyrian trading factors and this trade stimulated greater and greater complexity i.e., rapid stratification took place among the inhabitants of Asia Minor and both a slave trade and debtor servitude developed.  

About the beginning of the twenty-first century B.P. powerful expansion-minded rulers began to conquer neighboring city-states, which in the end led to the creation of the Hittite Old Kingdom and to the cessation of the Assyrian trade activity.  This expansionism created highly stratified society in the region.  Magnificent tombs of the leaders have been found in Armenia and Eurasian Georgia.  They point to the fact that property concentration or stratification among the leading tribes had also made marked advances here.  These élite crypts contained highly artistic gold, silver and bronze objects, as well as many sacrificial cattle and slaves.

These data from Asia Minor indicate that the rise of urban complexity and the state were not necessarily hostile to kin organization, which continued to play an important organizational role after the rise of the Hittite Kingdom (Byrce 1999).  More broadly, we can say that in early state systems, kinship was frequently used as a building block for the state.  Rather than being antagonistic to kinship relations, early aggrandizing leaders initially used kinship to their advantage, although as the state developed they moved away from descent-oriented strategies (Kontopoulos 1993:314).  In time, class structure became a force in and of itself, no longer relying on ascriptively defined kinship groups but on kingship institutions.

In urban civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt and Mesoamerica a tempelwirtschaft emerged, though with variations.  Broadly, this was an economy controlled by the office-holders of the palace-temple complex who organized and controlled craftsmen and other occupational specialists, mustering them in platoons, perhaps based on recruitment by kinship leaders, and formed into work units under the leadership of palace-temple complex directors.




Case 2.3.  Aztec Work Units of the Palace-Temple Complex


For example, the Precolumbian Aztec calpulli was organized by the palace-temple complex leadership as a work unit.  The altepetl or city-state was comprised of such units.  As directed by state politico-religious leaders, calpulli inhabitants were collectively responsible for different organizational and religious tasks in relation to the larger city-state.  The calpulli made land available to its members to cultivate and provided other services to them e.g., education.  The calpulli also trained its young men for war.  Craftsmen of a given calpulli resided in a named quarter in cities like Tenochtitlan, which was established on an island in Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico in A.D. 1325.

How calpulli members were related is a matter of scholarly debate.  It was first assumed that these were kinship units or that kinship was an organizing principle for the calpulli.  Rudolph Zantwijk (1985) disagreed.  He felt that at least in some Aztec city-states the family-based nature of the calpulli was replaced with a ranked structure based on wealth and prestige and that the unit was made up of residents and newcomers who, from time to time, would be incorporated into the calpulli.   

Michael Smith (2003) indicates that the calpulli in some Nahua cites operated very much like trade guilds, each with a specialized craft.  No doubt, these calpulli were not unlike the Highland Scots’ clans, where a leader welcomed non-kin and bestowed upon them kinship status to build the strength of the group (see Case 6.1).  Bandelier (2010) and Morgan (1877) felt that kinship remained a vital part of Aztec society even after the rise of the state, though most scholars today feel that kinship declined in importance under the impact of rising palace-temple complex institutions.

While the palace-temple complexes of the Old World (e.g., Egypt and Mesopotamia) perhaps tended to have more direct tribute paid and also used corvée labor; in Mesoamerica the state system received some tribute; but its political economy was largely based on labor service provided through the calpulli units, at least in the beginning.  As the Aztec Empire matured, commodity tribute increased under the directorship of specially-appointed collectors, perhaps as a result of new administrative problems (Adams 1966:92).  As the system evolved calpulli then paid in both labor and goods.

This was a redistributive system, with the urban population receiving some goods back through state-provided gifts and land given to its victorious soldiery.  Ideally, the state was also responsible for providing relief for the poor and underwriting the costs of many festivals.  Such redistribution was also going on internally in kin and calpulli units and no doubt the state used the idiom of kinship amity and reciprocity to frame its collection of tribute for those at the top.  Professor Kirchoff actually considered the conical clan as a basic building block of more stratified state system in Mesoamerica (1959:268).  This fits with my point that political complexity and stratification were built initially on a foundation of corporate kin groups and the social differentiation found therein.  




So we can say that urbanization tends to lessen kinship bonds and with it new forms of organization emerge.  Nevertheless, in many historical instances, kinship did not disappear in the Urban Revolution; but on top of it a pyramidal structure of stratification emerged, albeit slowly.  In other words, with the rise of statism and urbanism came increased stratification that we do not normally see in kinship-based societies.




Case 2.4.  Mesopotamian Stratification


Mesopotamian development of stratification was a gradual process.  The archaeological data from Mesopotamia indicate this i.e., in the Ubaid Period (ca.  7,300 to 6,000 B.P.) significant wealth differentiation in grave goods was largely absent.  In the Protoliterate Period (ca. 5,500 to 4,900 B.P.) grave goods become more elaborate and with the advent of writing we see the term “slave” had entered the lexicon of the Sumerians and bound war captives are shown on a seal impression from Uruk. 

Furthermore, in the Early Dynastic Period (ca 4,900 to 4,334 B.P.) we see larger houses with courtyards and tombs with ornate grave goods, especially the presence of copper, gold and silver objects.  Also spectacular graves have been uncovered in the so-called “Royal Cemetery” at Ur, with the same general pattern occurring in hundreds of additional burials. 

The archaeological evidence reflects a general pattern of a decisive increase in social differentiation in cities with the great-houses of élites being differentiated materially from the more plebeian dwellings of commoners.  There was also a gradation in towns, with some like Al-Ubaid being dependent and poor, their wealth drained off by urban centers such as Ur (Adams 1966:101).  In addition there were many tiny hamlets and a rural population that was not as affluent as those in the great cities.

In general, from the archaeological data and written records we can say that the Sumerian hierarchy looked something like this:







Slaves were not an insignificant part of the Sumerian urban economy.  Temples and great-house élites employed them to produce goods for trade e.g., wool and thread.  Snell (1997:21) reports that cuneiform tablets reveal that women who were called guruš and geme were those forced into labor for the palace-temple complex and even children were sometimes subjected to forced labor.  The earliest documented slave sales were in the southern Sumerian city of Girsu about 4,430 B.P. 

It is likely that slavery, servitude and simple labor were categories that blurred into each other as élites strategized to control labor (Finley 1964).  In other words, there were various stages of servitude in the ancient world.  While there was not a single status of clientage, those in various forms of bondage, as a whole, contrasted with the free population, though most “freemen” were under some sort of obligations to the palace-temple complex.  Those at the top siphoned labor value from almost everyone in a mixture of ways.

The Sumerian government was obsessive about controlling production and trade.  The supervision and siphoning processes were accomplished through the auspices of court-appointed office-holders, called shub-lugals.  They conscripted laborers for work on public projects such as irrigation canals and the building of temples and also for use in production facilities.  Semi-free workers controlled by the government were called gurush (Gelb 1964).  Workers were regimented into production teams e.g., fishers, farmers, shepherds and porters.  Artisans and craftsmen were organized into workshops.  All government workers were paid in foodstuff rations – agricultural laborers, skilled craftsmen, administrators and soldiers.

Agricultural laborers were not entirely free.  Officials could capriciously transfer labor teams or their individual members to other types of work or even to other parts of the empire.  Government control extended beyond farming to trade, which was placed under state officials called tamkars.  Livestock production was also government-controlled with some animals being raised and kept for temple-use as sacrificial victims.

An elaborate bureaucracy was needed to control production and trade over such a vast empire.  Intricate records were kept by trained scribes according to the government's obsession with organizing all other facets of productive activity, including farming through the activities of the dub-sar-gan or field scribe.  For instance, the Blau Monument comprises two inscribed stone tablets likely depicting the sale of land (Collon 1995).

Even share-crop lands were centrally controlled, being supplied with draught animals, seed, equipment and plowmen by state officials.  The Sumerian State deemed itself responsible to catalog and protect the stores of grain produced on such lands e.g., at Bau about 30 storehouses were centrally managed.  In one alone there was 9,450 tons of barley (Adams 1966:108).

Max Weber (1864-1920) gives us a perspective of how inequality is perpetrated under such state structures in Sumer, as elsewhere.  For Weber the distribution of power in society was intrinsically connected to the distribution of prestige and economic goods and services (Gerth & Mills 1962:47).  Weber said that within state societies the bureaucracy became the main power base.  It was a rational-legal locus of authority that came to dominate social life.  Élites used the bureaucracy as a power base and their power came from their exercise of their own will in communal action over and against the resistance of others in society (Gerth & Mills 1962:180).  Those in control of the Sumerian State had advantageous social prestige, class position and political clout to overcome any push-back from the general public.

By controlling production Sumerian élites were able to become land-rich.  Ruling families and high officials had large estates, which were worked by corvée labor and drudge laborers.  While the theory of the state was that the palace-temple complex was a point of redistribution, in reality the skimmers at the top were enriching themselves at the expense of the people.  As Adams (1966:107) wrote, “the trend in general was not toward redistribution but toward the growth of large, directly managed holdings.” 

A small number of élites were vigorously extending their control over land by conquest, allotment and purchase, especially during the Early Dynastic (4,900 to 4,334 B.P.) and the Akkadian Period (4,334 to 4,218 B.P.).  During that time we see the emergence of a fully developed class society.

It was not an all-embracing tempelwirtschaft; but high officials received generous amounts of land and some of these estates were huge.  For example, the arable land under the rule of the administrative officials of the temple at Bau covered some 65 square kilometers, which was land set aside for the wife of the Lagash city ruler (Deimel 1931).

Kin groups still existed both within and outside of manorial units; but with élite land-grabbing, such corporate groups were on the decline by the Early Dynastic (4,900 to 4,334 B.P.), just as we saw in the Aztec State.  In both Sumer and among the Aztecs kin ties were used for recruitment and administration of army and labor service, clientage and organization of craft production.  Older forms of kinship and corporation were remolded and retained as important structural features of state organization. 

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