Let’s look at an example from Sumer:




Case 2.16.  The Ziggurats of Sumer 


In Sumer, ziggurats were believed to be dwelling places for the gods and only priests were permitted on the ziggurat; or in the rooms at its base and it was their duty and privilege to care for the gods and attend to their needs.  The ziggurat was a place of mystery for commoners and the location of the fabrication of mystification.  Because of the made-up mythology connected with the ziggurat, an ideology that was able to capture the minds of the public, Sumerian priests were very powerful members of society.

The job of the priests was to bind the populace to the political center they served.  At the top of each ziggurat was a shrine where secret rites were performed.  The proffered function of these rites was to create social solidarity and what Paul Wheatly calls “cosmic certainty” (1971).  At the core of the polity, the ziggurat priests were thought to be performing the necessary renewal rites to ensure the continuation of life as it was known.  As such, the ziggurat was a material representation of continuity.

If Deity was in the heavens, then being closer to them was a function of building tall structures such as a ziggurat and before their construction, tribal peoples often conducted rites on mounds, natural or humanly formed.  For example, the ziggurat at Babylon, Etemenanki was thought to unite heaven and earth, which is reflected in the meaning of its name – “the temple of the foundation of heaven and earth.”  Built and re-built ages before the rule of Hammurabi (r. 3,792-3,750 B.P.), the seven-story structure was an impressive center of Sumerian life and the core of the political structure.  The reason so many political leaders re-built Etemenanki was that it served as a monumental reminder to the public of the purported sacred nature of the political structure of Babylon.  Hammurabi re-built it and even the conquering Alexander the Great (r. 2,336-2,332 B.P.) was in the process of rebuilding the great ziggurat when he fell ill and died.




Monumental structures built by politicos were not limited to the Old World.  Leaders across the globe have been interested in building such massive structures as symbols of their power and connection to the gods e.g., when the great pyramids of Egypt were being built, in the Americas 220 km north of Lima Peru, early Amerindians of the Norte Chico Civilization had constructed the great city of Caral, with six major ziggurats or pyramidal structures in the city and nineteen others in the Supe Valley, scattered across 35 square miles (80 square kms) (Shady & Kleihege 2010).  Pirámide Mayor, the main pyramid, covers an area nearly the size of four American football fields and is 60 feet tall (18 meters). 

Caral is the oldest known Pre-Columbian urban civilization in the Americas, beginning ca. 4,090 B.P. (Shady 1997).  It, like Tikal, the acropolis of Copán and other monumental structures of the ancient New World was a regional center of a polity that ruled many communities, partly by the force of its massive architecture.

This great complex of gigantic builds sharply contrasted with the lower class barrios where people resided in modest cane houses.  Élite housing was located around the civic core and were constructed of masonry and mortar with plastered and painted walls (Moseley 2005). 


Mystification in the Sisala Gerontocracy


A created office has a force of its own.  It affects the mentality of the individual, as do all social formations that precede that individual in time.  In the Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Durkheim (1947 [1915]) theorized that in worshiping Deity, humans are in fact worshiping the social order, society itself.  Thus the codes of formal office are built on a natural and unavoidable base of association.  That is, humans live in association one with another and thus they recognize the power of the group vis-à-vis the individual.  Officers represent the group and are ipso facto impressive.  Upon this base, the Neolithic leader slowly fabricated ideas and rules that authenticated his right to direct and channel the society’s power over the individual.  In the first farming communities that base was often the kinship structure.

Mystification can be projected by monumental structures or by simple ritual means performed by officers of kin groups.  Let’s look at an example from the people I studied in Northern Ghana – the Sisala.  Their ethnography gives us some insight into how mystification began with the formation of the first corporate descent groups and then became elaborated with the rise of chiefdoms and kingdoms.




Case 2.17.  Sisala Mystification through Ritual 


The Sisala of Northern Ghana have a classic kinship-based redistributive political economy, one in which I did fieldwork (Mendonsa 1975b, 1976, 1977, 1981, 1982, 2000, 2001, 2003).  In that socially constructed world, Sisala men have created a patriarchal order, a gerontocracy that rests on bundles of mystical ideas that are played out behaviorally in two key institutions: vuguƞ divination and ancestral sacrifice or kpaarɛ.  The key player in this drama of domination is the lineage headman, the jachikiƞ-tiina.  He leads the main corporate group, the lineage (jachikiƞ), the members of which work together to produce food, fuel and water, in other words to produce a living.  As their headman, the jachikiƞ-tiina has the duty and right to direct the farm work, distribute the harvested crops and regulate their rate of consumption.  He does this by virtue of having become the senior male in the genealogically senior kaala or household within the lineage. 

The role of the headman is wrapped in the fabric of authority, which has devolved to him in the form of two privileged activities: (1) the right to consult a diviner (vugira) to obtain messages from the ancestors about problems in the lineage or those affecting the lineage; and (2) the privilege to preside at ancestral sacrifices where, based on information received in divination, he placates the ancestors who are thought to retain, as the living-dead, the right and responsibility to keep the living members of their lineage on the wongbiiƞ-titi, the true path, following the moral codes of their society. 

In cybernetic terms, this male-constructed ideology claims that there is special information in the supernatural realm that only senior males can access using the divinatory process.  If junior males or females are in need of such information, they have to access it through the headman of their natal lineage, their husband’s lineage or through another senior male who is appropriately involved with the problem that generated the need for occult information.

The sequence of events is usually as follows: a misfortune occurs, a death, illness or calamity in the lineage.  Such misfortunes are not thought to happen accidentally, as all mishaps are seen to be caused by a willful ancestor.  Furthermore, it is believed that, left unattended, this misfortune will fester and multiply.  To deal with the illness or catastrophe, the headman consults a diviner who has secret information that allows him to contact the spiritual world to get answers to the questions: "what caused this mishap and what do we have to do about it?"

Almost invariably, the divinatory verdict will direct the headman to command someone in the lineage to perform a piacular[1] sacrifice to the ancestors – that is a sacrifice of an animal or animals to bring about the remission of a sin or offence against the moral order (wongbiiƞ-titi). 

After the divination, the headman assembles the parish, the ritual community involved in the divinatory verdict, usually lineage members; but it can also involve affines and outsiders, depending on the nature of the offense.  At the sacrifice the headman will outline the nature of the crime, the verdict of the ancestors and the punishment.  The deviant will then make a speech in which s/he confesses errant ways, acknowledges the validity of the rules of the moral order and makes a blood sacrifice to the ancestors on the appointed family shrine. 

Let us analyze this sequence of behaviors in cybernetic terms, that is, by looking for information, the storage of information and information flows.  In the divinatory process just described information exists in the form of ideas, fabricated in the past, built up over time to be customary understandings that are passed on orally and through redundancy e.g., young men watching older men perform divinations and sacrifices. 

Women are usually absent from such rites, thus there is a whole body of information defined as vital to the control of health and wellbeing that is blocked to women and to very young men.  However the latter, as they age, will gain access to this information.  Women are structurally and permanently prohibited from accessing supernatural communications, hence they are relegated to a timeless state of dependence on the gerontocratic order of things.

The information held by senior males in the gerontocracy constitutes a body of ideas about supernatural governance and causation that is, by right and privilege of office, carried out on earth by certain ordained men.  The belief is that to ignore this information causes pain, suffering, conflict and misfortune in life.  Heeding this information leads one down the path of truth (wongbiiƞ-titi) to happiness and prosperity.

The information is stored, ultimately, in the minds of senior men in this oral society.  Yet there are bundles of information, not unlike documents.  In the diviner's bag there are code-objects that have been fashioned out of various and sundry articles found in everyday life e.g., corn cobs, pieces of gourd, bundles of cloth and the like.  Based on shape, color and number, these code objects are interpreted to have meaning, just as words and phrases do in the literate world.  The diviner’s bag is similar to a scriptural text except its interpretation by elder men through divination is rather fluid and not easily subject to alternate versions.

Meaning is also embedded in the redundant or stylized movements of the diviner's wand as s/he carries out his or her routine of divination.[2] For example, if the wand touches the forearm of the client that indicates that his problem is to be found in his close kin, the vaadoƞoo.  If the wand points to each of the client’s nipples, it signifies the involvement of a woman. 

In this fashion the code objects of the diviner’s bag and the movements of his or her wand spell out the problem and solution for the client, both of which are firmly grounded in the fabricated ideas about the proper way of life, the wongbiiƞ-titi.

We can see that information exists in the minds of the gerontocratic office-holders and is embedded in artifacts and customary movements of the diviner's wand, which are merely extensions of mental constructs in the mind of the diviner and the male client.  This information flows, theoretically, from the ancestors to the living.  In the world of the living, the information flows from the diviner to the client who then conveys it to the group, though the Sisala diviner only communicates this indirectly and notionally to the client through interpretation of sequences of code-objects and wand movements.  The diviner never knows exactly what the problem is.  S/he merely offers a generic solution that can be fit to almost any malaise. 

Post-divinatory sacrifice continues the programmed processing of information, which is then sent back to the world of the dead, completing the cybernetic circle.  The sacrifice is designed to communicate a message to the aggrieved dead, a form of appeasement.  This circular flow of information is brought about by customary behaviors that have been going on for eons.

I contend that this information has accumulated over time to form customary ways of thinking and behaving; but that this is not a benign body of ideas.  It has political and economic implications.  It helps senior males control wealth and labor.  This contrived and guarded information is part of the system of governance I have called the Sisala gerontocracy. 

As with other social formations created after the Agricultural Revolution, this information is more than political in nature; it also has economic consequences.  Material goods and labor are controlled and allocated based on the control and dissemination of mystified information.  As such, this cybernetic system is the heart and soul of the Sisala political economy or gerontocracy.

The innovation of Sisala divination and its uses to fabricate patriarchy was the result of a series of innovations that took place in the past.  Is the result of innovation always adaptive; or can it also be maladaptive?  Clearly, it can be either.  One has to ask: adaptive for whom?  I suspect that, overall, control of labor and its products by gerontocrats was a devise that spread risk and, as such, may have helped groups through times of scarcity, of which there are still many today in Sisalaland. 

But if you approach the exclusive control of divination from the standpoint of women’s rights, for example, the answer would be different.  No woman can access occult information about their health, their children or any important matter in their lives without going through the auspices of a senior male – their headman, father, husband or even the own son of the woman.  Institutions are rarely entirely benign.  They can be beneficial for some (usually those of the cohort or class who created them in the past) and detrimental for others.  The lack of a significant surplus in societies like the Sisala have prevented the system form becoming highly exploitative and evolving into a state controlled by an élite few.




An innovation is new information.  Innovations were made through the Paleolithic, but the information was available to all.  When some innovative hunter discovered how to make poison to put on the tips of arrows, that information spread from hunter to hunter.  Hoarding that information would have been counterproductive for the inventor.  Sharing it brought him more security because others using the poison would have bagged more game, which he was able to share.

With the Neolithic development of a storable-stealable-surplus, hoarding information became good for individuals, families and corporate groups, especially officers, as I described above for Sisala gerontocrats.  At that point in history, the armature of office was “re-tooled” by men intent on harnessing information within a tight-knit cadre – the leadership or privileged élite.

In the creation of formal institutions, especially chiefship and corporate groups (sodalities), information was monopolized and encoded in privileged ways.  The WWWebster Dictionary defines monopoly as "exclusive ownership through legal privilege, command of supply, or concerted action" or "exclusive possession or control," which is the opposite of democratic access to information.  Monopolies became one of the lynchpins of the political economy in the Neolithic, just as we saw modern day Sisala headmen monopolizing access to occult information, as we saw in Case 2.17 above. 

Neolithic men moved to monopolize information, wealth, labor and valuable land and resources.  As trade developed in the Bronze Age, societies became more stratified and rules were created that gave monopolies over salt, metal, trade in prestige items and other commodities to a privileged few.

I see office-holders having used in the past (and to be using today) the cloak of office to create new rules that they define as being advantageous for themselves and their backers.  It would seem that Timothy Earle has come to similar conclusions:


…the evolution of larger, more complex social forms is associated with a greater emphasis on the rights of property as opposed to the rights of person.  In terms familiar to anthropologists, this transition shifted the nature of rights from those vested in a social persona (and determined by the roles and statuses that an individual holds within a social structure) to those vested in material things (firms, estates, and wealth).  In fact, this transition is not a replacement of one system of rights by another but the creation of additional rights that become attached to property that can be transferred by allocation or alienation (italics are mine; 1998:94).


The Neolithic ushered in a gusher of jurality – duties, rights, rules and ideas about ownership of material goods and about who should lead society.  It was an information explosion that generated a materialized ideology.  That is, leaders invented objects (such as shrines) and rituals (such as divination) to guide behavior along chosen paths.  A materialized ideology molded individual beliefs for collective social action.  It organized and gave meaning to the external world through the tangible, shared forms of ceremonies, symbols, monumental architecture and writing.  Materialization of ideology was an invented and strategic process in which leaders allocated resources to strengthen and validate institutions of élite control.  Certain material objects came to symbolize poleconomic power.  They can be seen as repositories of meaning or information.  As such, they could serve as broadcasting devices, telling others of the power of the office-holder.  The symbolic order became grounded in material emblems.  These emblems of ownership in Hawaiian chiefdoms were of two kinds, as described by Tim Earle:


        First, within the cultural landscape, property rights in land became formalized, given permanency, in the constructed, productive facilities:  the irrigation systems, the fish ponds, and the fenced house lots.  The landscape was carefully marked by the walls and other constructions built by social labor organized by the chiefs' managers.  The managers then allocated use rights in these very specific facilities of production.  Who a person was, how he supported his family, and how he sustained his chiefs were written in the landscape by the community's own labor activities.  The symbolic order was grounded and subsumed within the everyday practice of subsistence labor in the fields of the chiefs.  Land tenure was transformed by the control over social labor used to construct a cultural landscape.

Second, the identity and corresponding political rights of these chiefs were bound up in objects, frequently called "prestige goods."  These goods were manufactured and distributed within the political economy, which was closely controlled by the ruling paramount.  The ownership and wearing of goods such as the feathered cloaks defined the political status of a person and correspondingly the person's rights and obligations within the chiefdom.  Access to the status objects and to the institutionalization of hierarchical relationships became controlled through the political economy.   The social relations of the chiefdom were transformed by control over attached specialists and the symbolic products of their labor (1998:112).


In the Neolithic transition, material things became important symbols of status.  We see an increase in burial goods as the Neolithic proceeds.  And we also see people being treated as things.  For instance, a Siberian Pazyryk chief was accompanied to the next life by his wife, servants, horses, chariots and his personal effects e.g., woven rugs (Rudenko 1970).  We find the same type of elevated status in Bronze Age burials from the Shang Dynasty in China where chieftains were buried with chariots, horses and human retainers who had been bound and decapitated (Archaeological Institute of Shanxi Province 2006).

Not only did Neolithic leaders begin to tie Deity and the supernatural to themselves; but also to the material manifestations of office.  In the Sisala example above (Case 2.17), the paraphernalia of divination – the diviner’s bag, wand, code-objects and shrine – can only be accessed by the extraordinary event of a mental break with reality.  Usually this takes the form of going insane, often in the forest, which is associated with the supernatural in Sisala culture.  Authorized members of the divining cult then cure the insane person and s/he is given the tools of the trade.  In tying the creation of such objects to the supernatural, and by positing them to be the exclusive means of contacting that world in lineage matters, such materializations take on great significance in the minds of community members. 

Fabricated ideas and information that cannot be accessed or reproduced by others, once in existence, have great power, especially when there is some tangible object connected to such ideas.  Thus, we find leaders creating official paraphernalia, shrines, relics and reliquaries, temples, palaces (often in conjunction with temples), sacred groves or mounds – all sorts of materializations of officialdom.  This helped early leaders communicate their special nature to the people they wished to control.

For instance, the carved stone head of the emperor Augustus was originally part of a statue in Egypt where the Romans used statues to remind the empire's largely illiterate population of the power of the emperor.  Augustus was always portrayed in such materializations as a youth to depict his strength and power.  This head was decapitated by an invading army from the African Kingdom of Meroë.   This was a counter-symbol, saying that Augustus had no place or power in Africa.  They buried the head under the temple steps as an insult to Augustus, a defiant and defamatory act that ironically preserved it.

And we have seen materialization in recent history.  In Mein Kampf, Hitler said "the principle that once made the Prussian army the most marvelous instrument of the German people" could be incorporated into a new political order, providing it with "hardness" based on the idea of "authority of every leader towards below and responsibility towards above” (Hitler 1939).  Here, a military model from the “glorious past” is used to provide ideological backbone to Hitler's dreams.  And these ideas were materialized in the military uniforms, lightening bolts on uniform lapels, massive flags and banners, enormous rallies, the "Heil Hitler salute, the swastika and so forth.

Such iconic symbols, no matter how irrational, are more likely to move people to action, than strict reason since, in my opinion people are essentially emotional, rather than rational.[3]  Élites sense this and operate in the interstices of reason, in the back alleys of the normative jungle, to establish their truth as the unequivocal truth.   

Most people do not demand cognitive coherence in cosmology.  It is difficult for anyone in a complex society to understand or hold in their minds an entire ideology as presented by élites.  Because any ruling ideology comes to the common man piecemeal, it is difficult to perceive its deficiencies.  Hence, when confronted with contradictions in the system most people are willing to let them slide and go on with their lives.  This is all the more true when the ruling élite was urging them not to tarry over system imperfections.  Using icons and sacred symbols was a standard way in history of glossing over system deficits.

And élites wraped themselves in a symbolic cloak of authority and attempted to project their perspective on society.  They strove to use instruments of communication, organizations and ideologies to maintain sociocultural formations that served their interests. 

In all societies coherence is always in the process of being worked out, or negotiated, because in society at large there are many local perspectives, many competing particularisms.  In early societies élites attempted to foster a more unifying hegemony, they sometimes faced a bewildering patchwork quilt of ideas and beliefs.  The imposition of a universal ideology on society required effort and organization.  It was the work of hegemons.

Élite office-holders in ancient times were social agents who installed and defended institutions and who organized attempts to bring consistency as they projected their ideology, establishing their perspective as prominently as possible against competing points of view.  This was not an easy task.  Leaders who wished to establish a ruling ideology/hegemony faced a problem i.e., most of the masses followed common sense based on local knowledge, tradition and the wisdom of the community.  This was certainly true in ancient times and remains so in the small town in which I live in Northern California.  Apparently it is easier to see the trees in front of you, than to perceive the entire forest. 

The job of hegemons was (and is) to explain the nature of reality as they defined it.  That people tended to develop local ideas that conflicted with larger ideas forced leaders to devise ingenious ways of broadcasting their hegemonic messages to the masses.  This was true in the first Neolithic communities and becomes more apparent in complex state systems; but it has occurred in every society since the Neolithic Revolution.


The Role of Scribes & Scriptwriters


In oral societies, shamans and storytellers created myths, legends and proverbs that were passed on by word of mouth from generation to generation.  After the Neolithic Revolution aggrandizing leaders began to bring the ideas contained in oral histories together for their own purposes, reworking them in the process.  Specialists were attached to chiefly courts to tell and re-tell of the importance of the chief, the chiefly family, their ancestors, their exploits and their heritage.  When writing was devised scribes partially took over this function.  Both storytellers and scribes can be seen as scriptwriters, those specialists who fabricate hegemony, or try to, for the ruling élite.  It was always viewed as helpful if Deity could be seen as the author of hegemony rather than mere human beings.

In many cases, both early on and later in history, these scriptwriters were shamans or clerics.  The politically powerful have frequently tried to attach themselves to cosmic power, in one fashion or another, and storytellers and scriptwriters were convenient ways of establishing and maintaining that connection.  The African chief had his praise-singer, as the modern-day American President has his Press Secretary.  Such fabricatory broadcasting can also be found in the realm of religion, as we will now see:




Case 2.18.  Fabricating the Separation of the Medieval Church and State


In the eleventh century in Europe a crisis arose between the church and state and scriptwriters played a large role in defining who was in charge of what.  At that time the Papal Revolution provided the first concrete organizational materialization of the Augustinian agenda.  Pope Gregory VII (r. 1073-1085) started a reform in the church that permeated all of medieval society, changing the way people thought about the social order.  Faced with the rising power of states, he set his scribes to work to institutionalize the idea of the separation of church and state, with public responsibilities being divided between them as dual public juridical bodies.

Broadcasters of medieval scholasticism portrayed the church as a hierarchical, juridical corporation holding public legal jurisdiction with a limited area of social life i.e., on church property and in matters spiritual.  The state was said to hold temporal jurisdiction, ruling on matters of civil justice, although the church was conceived of as a higher power even if kings and landlord princes were operating more directly in the temporal sphere.

In effect, medieval writers created a formulation that gave secular rulers the right to rule without being divine monarchs, as long as they recognized the importance and supremacy of the Roman Church.  In this process of defining spiritual and secular authority a literate legal science was forming.  As it did, the theory of society changed drastically. 

Prior to this revolution, for example during the time of Charlemagne, government was equivalent to the church and society, all being part of one organic whole called ecclesia, the Corpus Christi.  The Papal Revolution transformed this organic monism into a spiritual body made up primarily, though not exclusively, of clergy; and the state with a worldly prince at the head.  The natural and spiritual were slowly being separated in the minds of medieval thinkers.  A body politic linked in important ways, to be sure, to the “Body of Christ” was a new dualistic way of thinking.  The universal church would rule only spiritually over secular nations, which were members of its holy supervision, the social order of Christendom.




Throughout medieval times there were also other corporations arranged in a hierarchical order of jurisdictions: franchised towns, guilds, manors, the bourgeoisie and special interest groups.  They each had their own scriptwriters.  Many of the major corporations developed specialized laws that pertained to the unique activities in their realms.  From this time on, definite bodies of jural rights and duties were held by all kinds of groups in society.

Scribes captured these legal codifications as they came about at a time when the scribal culture, scholasticism and legal education were emerging as a force in medieval society.  Writing enabled their legal roots to be firmly established.  Literate clerks and jurists were the codifiers and catalyzers of this progress. 

In an analysis of Biblical and non-Biblical texts, Brian Schmidt (1996) has shown that scriptwriters inserted falsehoods here and there to defame the enemies of those paying for the scriptwriting or the established politicos of the day.  Controlling the pen was as effective in dominating the minds of people as using weapons on the battlefield.  Indeed, one can consider it another form of weapon.

From early oral legends of the Neolithic to emails in the computer system of the White House, aggrandizing office-holders have attempted to fiddle the information of the script, to present a picture to the world that is altered or doctored i.e., re-worked for public consumption.  Such information control is part and parcel of any platform of power.


What has Increased or Decreased with Time?


Since the end of the Paleolithic, there have been evolutionary changes that have led to certain stages in leadership.  We can format this as follows:




Chief >


Chief  >

King  >

President or

Prime Minister

Family group






We can ask what has increased and/or decreased as we move from stage to stage.  We can format this as follows:





Chief >


Chief  >

King  >

President or

Prime Minister

Family group





Increasing poleconomic control/decreasing self reliance Þ

Increasing scripting (mystification)/decreasing understanding of the whole Þ

Increasing knowledge base/decreasing understanding of whole Þ

Increasing opacity of office/decreasing transparency Þ

Increasing inequality/decreasing egalitarianism Þ

Increasing distance from decision-makers/

decreasing ability to communicate with decision-makers Þ

Increasing group control of individual/decreasing self control Þ

Increasing claims on truth by factions/

decreasing ability to discern which claims on truth are valid Þ

Increasing possibility of the self-inflicted end of Humankind through

environmental degradation or nuclear war/

decreasing capacity of the individual to stop this Þ


In sum, as we move beyond non-storing hunter-gatherer societies into the peoples that had learned to domesticate plants and animals in the Neolithic, those producing a storable-stealable-surplus, we see the rise of aggressive managers and their deputies who seriously began to fabricate rules, constructed institutions and proclaimed doctrines with the intent of dominating the people and gaining control of prestige, power and property. 

In the Jural Revolution, information control became crucial to the new oppressors.  Manipulation of information and the creation of a mystique surrounding office were techniques to create a passive society, one that would follow the aggrandizers constructing and materializing the new edifice of power.  That societies in history were not always passive, shows how hard it was for hegemons to maintain a single, unified order of things.


The Rise of States    


Let's look at what happened in this regard in Mesopotamia, an area long considered a major “cradle of civilization,” a region where the first city-states arose.




Case 2.19.  Evolution of the Mesopotamian State


Though we are familiar with the barren look of the Iraqi countryside today, the inhospitable land has two great rivers – the Tigris and Euphrates and their tributaries that gave early inhabitants a source of irrigation waters to enable them to grow crops in the fertile soils along the waterways.  About 7,000 B.P. village farmers began diverting the waters of the rivers and within two millennia the urban civilization of the Sumerians was prospering in Mesopotamia (Maisels 1993).

Previously farmers of the region had relied on rainfall horticulture and products from their domestic animals; but they eventually moved into the riverine lands between Mosul and Baghdad and there used heat-tolerant strains of wheat and barley, coupled with the irrigation techniques they developed, to prosper in permanent villages.  Their sedentism, population growth and irrigated agriculture led to a burgeoning civilization that forged external social and economic bonds that provided the catalyst for greater complexity. 

They began to produce painted pottery and trade it and grain, obsidian and other luxury items over a wide-ranging span.  Goods could be easily moved along the great rivers and also by donkey caravans. Far-sighted chieftains soon moved to control trade, restricting access of nearby subordinate settlements to the profitable venture (Redman 1978). 

These leaders now had two productive enterprises from which to siphon value: agriculture and trade.  It became crucial to account for the organization of productive activities and their products.  Consequentially, leaders instituted financial checks and balances and maintained a system of oversight in what scholars call the palace-temple complex.

Along the Euphrates channels, clusters of hamlets formed around 7,700 B.P., which are subsumed under the name ’Ubaid (Huot 1989).  The inhabitants of these hamlets depended on irrigation agriculture to live and digging even the smallest canal required political leadership, as well as communal management of the annual clearing of silt from clogged river courses and canals. 

There is a causal relationship between creating a food surplus and developing a stratified society (Adams 1966; Flannery 1972).  Once the producers accumulated a sufficient surplus to permit siphoning, the irrigation managers moved to secure a portion of their labor.

As the ’Ubaid society flourished trade expanded and leaders began to use surpluses to support non-farmer craftsmen and traders.  The control of productive activities and trade led to greater stratification, as evidenced by the fact that there was quite a bit of variation in the construction of houses in the many hamlets, with some being poorer.  The houses of the poor consisted of huts made of mud and reeds; while richer and more powerful families lived in substantial buildings, often with courtyards.  The richer hamlets also sported ceremonial centers that attracted the inhabitants of the various hamlets and where presumably the irrigation managers presided.  As the society grew, more signs of wealth differences emerged (Adams 1981).

One of the dominant towns was Eridu, settled about 6,750 B.P.  It consisted of a temple with reasonably substantial mud-brick houses around it, some with a rectangular floor plan.  Houses with a rectangular floor plan are usually taken by archaeologists to be more advanced than circular ones.  Élite houses were near the temple, with craftsmen farther away and still farther away were the farmers, who labored to support everyone. 

By about 6,500 B.P. Eridu’s temple had expanded, containing altars where offerings were made.  It had a central room where in all probability the ceremonies were held.  This was accompanied by rows of smaller rooms.  Such great temples in Mesopotamia were not idle projects.  They were statements of power and symbols of political integration (Nissen 1988). 

This can be seen in a settlement near to Eridu, the more well-known Uruk.  This Mesopotamian city represents cultural developments at the birth of Sumarian Civilization (Crawford 1991).  Like Eridu its irrigation managers constructed a great ziggurat, a stepped pyramid temple that formed the politico-religious center of Uruk society.  The construction of this enormous monument was done at tremendous expenditure of work and wealth, a community project under the leadership of the city fathers.  They also employed hundreds of craftsmen who labored at the ziggurat, which served as a redistribution center (see chapter 3) for surplus food under the control of the managing politicos and priests (Lloyd 1983).

All economic and political activities revolved around the great ziggurat in Uruk, including satellite towns, mines, craftworkers, merchants and farmers.  All were ruled by a central leader entitled en, who ruled with both religious and secular authority.  Fagan (1995:368) writes:


The Mesopotamian city had developed an elaborate system of management with a well-defined hierarchy of rulers and priests, landowners and bureaucrats, traders and peasants.  This system organized and regulated society, meted out reward and punishment, and made policy decisions for the thousands of people who lived under it.


Mesopotamia had become a highly stratified society with rulers, wealthy landowners and slaves taken in war.  Power and wealth increasingly resided in the palace, the temple and in élite households (Cripps 2007).

The administration of the palace-temple complex, the irrigation systems, copper mines, craftsmen and the stores of grain was a complex undertaking.  To aid in the running of the politico-religious enterprise, there evolved the world’s first system of writing on clay tablets, called cuneiform (Glassner 2007).  A new form of craftsman emerged at the ziggurat – the scribe.  In time the power of writing was added to the political and supernatural powers of those administering the ziggurat.

There is the need for defense where there is wealth in the presence of outsiders who are less wealthy.  Accordingly, managers eventually walled their cities, all too aware of their neighbors who coveted their stores e.g., the Mesopotamian city-states of Lagash and Umma were engaged in a border dispute that dragged on for three centuries or more (Cooper 1983).  When the ruler of Lagash felt that Umma had violated their boundary treaty, war ensued.  In this war King Eannatum of Lagash defeated the King of Umma and erected a commemorative stele to celebrate his victory.  The excavated stele is known as “The Stele of Vultures” because it depicts vultures carrying off the heads of the defeated Umma troops.  

Historically, success in war often led conquerors to want more, and Eannatum was no exception.  He eventually went on to subjugate all of Sumer, including Ur, Nippur, Akshak, Larsa and Uruk.  He also annexed the Kingdom of Kish near Babylon and went warring beyond the boundaries of Sumer, conquering a city on the Persian Gulf, and was able to demand tribute from distant polities in Syria who feared his armies.  King Eannatum was one of the first empire-builders and perhaps the first monarch to overextend himself, as parts of his empire began to revolt against Lagash. 

The wealth generated by irrigated agriculture and trade had unleashed aggrandizers’ desires for more, leading to frequent conflicts and aggression.  The Stele of Vultures, for example, shows King Eannatum standing in his chariot with a curved weapon in his right hand, while his helmeted and kilted followers, lances in hand, march behind him.  Warfare had become so institutionalized that the people of Lagash even had a god of war, named Ninurta, who often appears in recovered depictions holding a bow and arrow, a sword or a mace in his hand (Cooper 1978).

In Sumer, about 5,300 B.P., coppersmiths learned how to mix copper and tin to make bronze, which made for much studier weapons, a technological innovation that fueled warfare in the region (Moorey 1982; Hassan 1987).  That was the negative side of metallurgy; but Sumerians also used metal to tip their plows, an innovation that greatly increased productivity putting greater wealth in the hands of the temple-palace complex.  These yields supported a greater population, urban and rural; but also granted a means for political leaders of city-states in Sumer and elsewhere to exercise greater control over food surpluses, as well as the wealth obtained by tapping into long-distance trade (Crawford 1991).  Life in Sumer was becoming more affluent, at least for those at the top.

Sumerian monarchs grew wealthy by siphoning off value from farming, trade and through warfare.  As there was greater access to more wealth by ca. 4,800 B.P., ambitions grew and competition was fierce between city-states.  Consequently, there was also a greater concern with defense, as indicated in Sumerian tablets and the archaeological record.  Both tell of warfare between neighboring city-states in the region and of constant threats from raids by nomads sweeping out of the deserts or down from the surrounding mountains.  This threat became so great and so common that travel outside the city walls was precarious.  Rulers moved to defend their farmlands, water rights, trade routes and cities.   

As has happened subsequently in many chiefdoms and kingdoms, some Sumerian kings began to think of empire (Postgate 1993).  Aggrandizing kings were well aware that greater power rested with control of sources of raw materials, some of which were in distant lands, as well as trade routes.  The earliest known leader to attempt establishing an empire out of Sumer was King Lugalzagesi (c. 4,360-4,335 B.P.).  Based in Umma, he controlled Uruk (where he established a new capital), Urukagina, Ur, Ur-Zababa, Lagash, Larsa, Kish, Nippur and several other Mesopotamian cities; but wanted more.  He boasted that he would oversee the entire area from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. 

While he raided outside of Sumer, Lugalzagesi never reached his expansive goal.  Instead he was conquered by Sargon of Akkad (r. 4,334 to 4,279 B.P.), the first king in recorded history to create a multi-ethnic, centrally ruled empire.  His Akkadian dynasty controlled Mesopotamia for around a century and a half (Van der Mieroop 2006).




Time and time again we will see such aggrandizement and desire to expand one’s power, prestige and property as chiefs and kings rarely seem content with what they have.  It seems in the nature of power structures that office-holders are fed a potent authoritative diet that stimulates desires that drive them to behave in ways that might not be in the best interest of their followers.  We saw this in the previous case and it is also evident in the next:


Case 2.20.  Evolution of the Egyptian State


It is significant that the rise of the state in Mesopotamia occurred only a few millennia after the end of the Paleolithic, those millions of years when there were not even any chiefs.  And Mesopotamian city-states were just the beginning.  We have seen how Ramesses II was a powerful Egyptian pharaoh (Case 2.1).  How did magnificent and powerful leaders like Ramesses II come into being?

Egypt is an interesting case for our inquiry into the creation of political and economic institutions of domination.  Early on the area along the great Nile River of Northeast Africa was inhabited by hunter-gatherers who also began to nudge nature, relying on the river’s annual floods and the rich soils of the Nile Delta to grow wheat, barley, vegetables, figs, melons, pomegranates and other crops such as flax, which was used to make linen.  Early farmers also had cattle, pigs, goats and sheep.  They were also fishers (Clark 1971).

This was accomplished by about 7 thousand B.P.,  during a Predynastic Phase[4] with various communities of farmers exercising local control.  These hunter-gatherer-farmers produced at least a seasonal surplus since granaries have been discovered in their dwelling sites (Caton-Thompson & Gardner 1934:41). 

It would seem from the archaeological data that these Neolithic people had more or less permanent settlements, the population of which was women, children and the elderly, with some men away hunting, fishing and herding.  They also penned their domestic animals and produced pottery while living in wickerwork huts covered with woven mats, although by about 5,750 B.P. these circular wickiups were replaced by mud huts, some of which were rectangular in shape (Hassan 1988:155). 

These settlements show evidence of communal granaries, which seem to indicate community organization and managers (Hassan 1988:150).  Most dwellings were those of commoners, but chiefly houses with shrines have been unearthed (Hassan 1988:157).

At this time (ca. 5,800 B.P.), hunting became less important and farming and herding came to predominate, though the people continued to fish.  There is some evidence of water management, though we have no data to indicate true irrigation at this point (Butzer 1976:20-21).  Nevertheless, it is unlikely that control of water had much to do with the rise of the Egyptian State (Krzysaniak 1977).

In spite of the annual flooding of the Nile, water was problematic.  These Predynastic communities faced a common predicament –fluctuations in the life-giving flooding of the Nile River, which not only brought water to the land; but also spread silt that renewed and fertilized it.  Communities tried to deal with this destabilizing influence on their agricultural economy by organizing inter-regionally, which apparently led to the rise of chiefs (Hassan 1988).  These leaders began to bolster their authority with supernatural ideology and rituals associated with fecundity, fertility and death, themes that would linger with later kings and priests in the Era of Dynasties.

About 5,600 B.P. alliances and warfare between chiefdoms led to the rise of a centralized state ruled by supreme rulers.  These early kings based their authority on the Predynastic funerary cult and associated occult ideas.  They also moved to consolidate control over agricultural production and the trade, which flourished along the great river.

Inter-regional trade was facilitated by the domesticated donkey (ca. 5,650 B.P.), which augmented river trade.  Bulky grain and other stored foodstuffs could be moved on the river by barge; but overland transport was a different story.  The use of the donkey, which could carry 200-300 kg of goods (440-660 lbs), helped with transport between communities by land routes.  Thus, accumulated stores could be used, not only for personal consumption; but also for trading purposes.  This made the control of stored foodstuffs even more desirable to aggrandizers, as grain was the main medium of exchange and also could be transported to be exchanged with distant traders.  Control of grain meant control of trade and both meant power.

By about 6,000 B.P. the Nile Valley was dotted with small communities linked by trade routes along the course of the Nile River from Central Sudan to the Delta.  The communities were larger and more sedentary than the earlier hunter-gatherer-farmers.  At this point, commerce along the Nile in canoes and boats was the norm, accelerating intra-Nilotic contacts. 

There appears to have been extra-Nilotic trade as well in the Late Predynastic.  Kantor (1965) notes that pottery motifs and imported pottery indicate trade with Palestine. While there were cultural differences between the Upper and Lower Nile communities, yet cultural concepts and artifacts diffused along the Nile Valley, among them ideas about political organization.

Craft specialization was on the rise to meet demand in the trading networks in the Late Predynastic and trade shifted from the barter system to more formalized commerce.  This specialization was accompanied by an increase in social hierarchy.  Famously, at the site called El-Omari, a skeleton of a chief holding a carved wooden scepter was unearthed, no doubt a symbol of office.  Hassan (1988:160) says, “The scepter foreshadows the ames-staff carried by Egyptian kings and gods.”  The body was surrounded by many imported examples of jewelry.  Both the positioning of the body and the extensive grave goods, not seen in other burials, indicate chiefly status.

Furthermore, at the site of Maadi there is unequivocal evidence of long-distance trade.  Maadi wares have been found far and wide within the Egyptian context, as well as in Syria and Palestine (Hayes 1964).  Excavations have uncovered dwellings inhabited by traders and their storehouses, which were large and separate from their residences.  The traders of Maadi were involved in donkey caravan commerce that extended beyond the Levant (Caneva et. al. 1987), where artifacts from Sumer have been found.

The narrowness of the flood plain in the Nile Valley prevented the rise of large cities in Predynastic times.  The largest towns unearthed have been ceremonial centers with shrines and likely were inhabited by politicos and their priests.  These were in Wheatly’s terms (1972) “centers of dominance.” 

Urban areas are often power centers.  For Dynastic Nile Valley Civilization, e.g., in Ramesside Egypt (19th and 20th Dynasties – 3,293-3,070 B.P.), textual evidence shows that towns were differentiated into administrative, economic and religious bases (Kauffman 1981:36).  Location of nome[5] capitals were aimed to maximize control over valley population (Kauffman 1981:85). 

In Predynastic times, Hassan (1988:162) sees the rise of a managerial élite around 5,600 B.P. associated with the development of their control of a funerary cult.  In towns with ritual centers, walls were erected around the sanctuary-palace complex to symbolize chiefly power. 

Why did they arise?  Why, in a society with previous minimal social differentiation, did chiefship develop?  Hassan (1988:165) is clear on this point for Egypt when he says, “Attempts to dampen the effect of agricultural fluctuations by pooling the resources of neighboring communities led ultimately to the emergence of chiefs.”  However chiefship did not arrive as a flashpoint; but rather in increments of adjustment in the process of coping with risk.

What started as a communal effort had destructive seeds that were toxic to communitarianism because as a hierarchy of chiefs developed, that led to a regional framework of politicos who were competing for control of trade and attempting to cope with aggressive neighbors and foreign intrusions e.g., “Libyan” and “Asiatic” raiders. 

The wealthier the Egyptians became, the greater the risks to their storehouses and hence the greater the need for political and military development.  Once established, military prowess added to the aura of regional chiefs as keepers of the world order.

Then nature intervened.  About 5,300 B.P. Egypt suffered a severe draught and a dramatic reduction in the vital flood waters from the Nile.  This stimulated the fusion of the two main regional polities – Hierakonpolis and Nagada.  Hassan (1988:165-166) explains, “Further expansion northwards to control the rich granaries of Lower Egypt and the trade routes to the Near East led to a gravitation of power from south to north via Abydos to Memphis.” 

In Hassan’s model of the emergence of the Egyptian State, over a long period chiefs emerged and functioned as active community workers solving problems that earned them the respect of the people, validating their power.  These problems were, in part, the fluctuations in the annual Nile floods, siltation of the floodplain, lack of sufficient fodder for herds and shifting river channels. 

Manager/chiefs established and maintained regional ties to facilitate economies of scale in dealing with such problems.  In so doing they attempted to increase productive lands as well as enhancing yields on those lands they had under cultivation through weeding, fertilization, genetic selection and water management.  In time, these “managers” were accepted as a necessary part of the community framework.  Their success in improving the quality of grains is indicated by discovery of a wide range of cereals of high purity in storage pits at Maadi (Caneva et. al. 1987:106).

It would appear that power was a drug for these early Egyptian managers.  They became intoxicated with being special.  Over time they withdrew from the people and created a “power mystique,” as the leaders and their attendant priests fabricated ritual symbols to maximize their control of agricultural wealth and trade.  The trappings of state power formed incrementally as these privileged operatives, chiefs and priests, set about to ensure their hold on power over the economy. 

There were two key aspects of the economy vital for ongoing control of the population: (1) the great stores of grain and herds; and (2) the movement of trade goods, both luxury items and grain, by boat on the river and overland by donkey caravans. 

Behind their veil of supernatural balderdash, privileged élites strategized about the best means of securing their hold on the economy.  Part of their legitimizing cover was the elaboration of funerary rites and monuments (Bard 1987:188-196).  Furthermore, the elaboration of funerary institutions stimulated the production and trade in luxury goods, used as grave ornaments (Hoffman 1982:130).

Control was partly militaristic.  Chiefs not only organized military units to defend against foreign invaders; but also to settle internal disputes and maintain order, as indicated by painted tombs at Hierakonpolis depicting chiefs smiting local men (Kantor 1944; Hassan 1988:172).  In actual fact, the chiefs did not do the smiting; but it seems that they had henchmen who kept local order. 

Archaeological finds of weapons indicate that as the Predynastic Era drew to a close (ca.5,300-5,050 B.P.), conflict increased dramatically, likely over control of trade and stores.  Egyptian iconography shows political leaders with weapons, also smiting enemies and in control of symbols of male power associated with control over animals and women, the latter being symbolically associated with grain (Fattovich 1979).  In the minds of those viewing the iconography, this would have read: “the chief controls foodstuffs, both cattle and grain.”

But holding onto such control was difficult, especially in the Terminal Predynastic (ca. 5,300-5,050 B.P.) when the falling levels of Nile flooding and wild swings in the agricultural cycle created unpredictability and great stress in Egypt, anxiety that led to warfare between chiefdoms.  With the economic and political stability of the chiefdoms at high risk and tensions between neighboring polities elevated, the legendary Narmer, a warrior-king, began his wars of unification (ca. 5,100 B.P.). 

Narmer is credited with having created the First Dynasty of Egypt.  Legend is one thing; but it is highly likely that no one warrior-king or any one battle led to the unification of the many competing polities along the Nile River.  Nevertheless, as a process that lasted some 250 years (Hassan 1988:173), Egypt was unified under the rule of pharaohs who continued the fabrication of symbols and rules that gave them control of the people’s labor, herds, stores of foodstuffs and trade along the great river and beyond. 

Also, as most of the iconography from this period represents battles with foreigners, the first pharaohs may also have had to fend off invaders trying to take advantage of the unruliness in Egypt.  Pharaohs attempting to establish and maintain control would have earned honor in defeating such foreign invaders; but throughout the First Dynasty it is highly likely that unification was an iffy thing and that there were a lot of ups and downs to the process; with a great deal of effort going into unification, consolidating and elaboration of kingship and its attendant priesthood.

Fabricating officialdom takes time and the creation of Egyptian bureaucracy was a process of battles and alliances between provincial officials, some of whom favored unification and others involved in destabilization (Trigger 1984).  As Hassan (1988:174) wisely notes, “From Late Predynastic times onwards, the play of power among various actors within a hierarchical organizational pyramid is perhaps the most important force structuring social relations and economic pursuits.”

What is clear, for our purposes in this present work, is that the pharaohs and their priests succeeded in the long run to fabricate a state organization that lasted, with a few bumps in the road, through 26 dynasties, from 5,100 B.P. to the conquering of Egypt by the Persians in 2,525 B.P., a period of just over 2,500 years.

During that time the élites of the temple-palace complex lived mightily on the labor of the masses, who they kept in check with fabrications of the lettering chisels used to make hieroglyphics (in essence, the pen) and with the weapons of their warriors.  

The writing utensils and weapons have changed throughout the world over the centuries that followed the rise and fall of Pharaohic Egypt; but the process has been consistent: élite politicos and their spindoctors concocting political institutions to control people and the wealth they produce.




Here is another case of the fabrication of domination concerning élite domination in South Asia.




Case 2.21.  The Rise of the State in South Asia


South Asia, primarily modern-day Pakistan and India, was inhabited long before the rise of the Indus Valley Civilization.  Early in Harappa, now an archaeological site in Punjab, Northeast Pakistan, people domesticated humped cattle, buffalo and the pig, eventually domesticating rice, dwarf wheat, peas, barley, lentils and other West Asian species (Possehl 1993).

The area was influenced by two different economies, the herding culture developed in the highlands; and the lowland culture focused more on farming.  Both traded with each other and the Harrapans eventually became involved in long-distance trade with Sumer. 

The valley had fertile soils; but no metals and little timber.  They had to get these and semiprecious stones through trade with the Kulli communities of the highlands.  This symbiotic relationship between the lowlands and highlands went on for centuries.  Trade became a way of life.

The early stages of the Harrapan culture date to somewhere between 5,200 and 4,600 B.P.  Archaeologists have uncovered no signs of social ranking from this era (Kenoyer 1991).  That changed rather rapidly, when compared to the slow, incremental changes that led to states in Sumer and Egypt.  The transition in Harrapa from an egalitarian society to a stratified one was what Possehl (1986) called “a veritable paroxysm of change.”  There was a quick spurt of explosive two century growth, ending ca. 4,500 B.P.  This upsurge of civilization was due, according to Possehl (1993) to increased trade with Sumer.

The Indus Valley peoples lived in five major cities: Harrapa, Mohenjo-daro, Kalibangan, Chanhu-daro and Dhoraji in Gujerat (Allchin & Allchin 1983).  Besides trade, the other economic base was agriculture.  By 4,600 B.P. the Indus Valley people had mastered irrigation and flood control, partly by fabricating millions of fired bricks made of river alluvium.  This communal organization required leadership and, as we see in all civilizations, aggrandizers rose to the occasion developing a stratified, urban society.  As Sir Mortimer Wheeler (1962) put it, life in the Indus Valley cities required “zealous municipal supervision.”

This organization can be seen in the fact that there were standardized bricks used in construction, as well as uniform weights and measures.  The cities’ excavations show evidence of planning, with centralized granaries, an artisans’ quarter, public and private wells, water drains, bathing platforms and reservoirs.

The political pattern of Indus Valley Civilization is familiar.  Harrapa and Mohenjo-daro both had a high citadel at the west end of the city, which dominated the city below, symbolically and politically.  With great fortifications around it, priest-kings lived in the citadels and supervised agriculture and flood-works, which were at the base of the local economy.[6] 

This was a complex and stratified society.  This can be seen in the architecture of Indus Valley cities.  Near the citadel the houses of élites were more spacious, with courtyards and better construction, while poorer people lived farther from the seat of power in substandard housing.

The politicos and élites had three economic streams from which to siphon: (1) agriculture, (2) trade and (3) artisanship.  While much of the local craft production was controlled by kin networks, élites managed long-distance trade in metals and semiprecious stones (Fagan 1995:415). 

Each farmer, in the irrigated lands near the cities or the dry-land farmers of the distant villages was made to turn over a substantial portion of their crops to the state, the periphery feeding the center.  The poor farmers of the periphery supplied the foodstuffs that helped support the citadel priests and kings and a comfortable middle class of merchants and petty officials.

Harrapan urban civilization reached its peak in about 4,000 B.P. and in about 300 years, Harrapa and Mohenjo-daro were in decline and soon abandoned, possibly because of the decline in long-distance trade.  When the state dissolved, urban populations dispersed into the countryside and continued an agricultural life.




In another part of Asia we see similar processes.


Case 2.22.  The Rise of the State in China


Chinese Civilization is ancient.  About five thousand years ago farming began to change life in China and the population density began to rise (Chang 1986).  Rice cultivation expanded in areas where flood irrigation was possible and villages situated on such lands soon prospered, developing a stored surplus.  Soon they had to construct earthen walls to protect their precious stores.

This was a kinship-based society, which venerated age and the ancestors.  The aged community members conducted the rituals of the ancestor cult and the ancestors were considered to be a conduit to the gods, who controlled the world’s harmony. 

About five thousand years ago, some settlements began to have elaborate burials adorned with fine clay vessels, jade ornaments and weapons.  These were the graves of war chieftains who established themselves as community leaders based on warfare and divination through scapulimancy i.e., communicating with the ancestors and gods by interpreting the cracks in heated bones and tortoise shells (Keightley 1978). 

Their rise to power was based on aggrandizement on their parts and the unswerving conservatism of the community members.  Questioning the social order was not part of the lexicon of the country farmer and the wealthy and privileged thrived on such acceptance of political rule and economic siphoning of the surplus.  As Brian Fagan (1995:432) put it, “Every Chinese noble, however unimportant, cashed in on this loyalty.”

These were regional chiefdoms which began to link up with each other through trade and marriage alliances (Chang 1986).  Artisans were working in pottery on the potter’s wheel and metal smiths worked in copper.  Society was flourishing and the surpluses grew; but as they did the leadership had to construct greater earthen walls to protect against marauders.  Graves show evidence of violence and warfare, including decapitated captives thrown into abandoned wells. 

New robust rituals were created by the leaders as well as a cosmology based on birds and animals and divination used to communicate with the supernatural world, a divinatory tool that helped the leadership maintain a cosmology that kept their followers placated.  Scapulimancy and associated rites were a vital part of government and all divinations were addressed to the royal ancestors who were go-betweens connecting earthly rulers and their followers with Shang Di, the creator-god.  Divination provided leaders with authority that was allowed for effective rule.  Any disagreement with the chief was, ipso facto, treason and blasphemy because such a difference of opinion not only contradicted the will of the ruler; but also that of god (Keightley 1978). 

As we see in many emerging political economies burials are indicators of increasing inequality.  A regional chiefdom on the east coast in the Shanghai Delta, called Liangzhu, has become known to archaeologists for its elaborate burials and special burial precincts.  Some of the noble burials are surrounded by silk, ivory, lacquered bowls and artifacts, weapons, ceremonial axes, jade and the bodies of sacrificial victims.  Commoners had less in their graves, usually clay pots.

And religion is almost always connected to the rise of inequality and the emergence of the state.  Archaeologists have discovered a Liangzhu altar at Yaoshan in Zhejiang demonstrating that religious organization was elaborate.  It was made of carefully organized stones and walls with three levels of platforms paved with cobblestones.  Accompanying the altar are twelve graves carefully laid out in two rows (Xujie et. al. 2002:16).  Clearly, Liangzhu was a highly stratified society in which chiefs used cosmology and divination to control their followers.  These kingdoms and chieftains exhibit in their burials extreme wealth and enormous social distance separating rulers from ruled. 

These were the loosely linked polities called the Shang Dynasty, according to legend founded by a warrior-king who overthrew the incumbent at the Battle of Mingtiao.  This civilization continued mostly intact, a loosely united confederation of warring communities under changing Shang kings who ruled from various capitals at different times.  In 3,557 B.P. the Shang kings moved the capital to Ao, which is today an archaeological site in the modern-day city of Zhengzhou (Wheatley 1971).  They had great stores of food and the need for protection from both neighbors and nomadic herdsmen from the inner Asian steppes so they created fortifications that would have taken ten thousand workers laboring 18 years to erect.  In the center was a walled compound housing the political leaders, other nobles, temples and ancestral altars.  Outside the compound were bronze factories, bone workshops and a satellite village of potters.  Artisanship was under the control of the politicos.

Bronze Age Ao has given us some of the world’s most spectacular élite burials.  The best known grave is that of a king buried with bronze vessels and ornaments made of shell, bone and stone.  The grave also contained a halberd inlaid with malachite as well as bodies of slaves and sacrificial victims, many of whom were decapitated.  This sepulcher was surrounded by hundreds of nearly 200 lesser burials, most containing decapitated, dismembered or mutilated bodies.  Some of the victims had been bound before being killed.  These were ceremonial offerings to the dead king or someone in the royal dynasty died (Chang 1986).  One grave contained a chariot, its horses and the charioteer, who had been killed at the funeral of his king.

These warlord-kings ruled by having a strong standing army and being able to call up reservists from their followers who had to serve the king in war because they were linked with him in bonds of kinship.  These kin ties were carefully fabricated into real and fictive genealogies tying the king, royals and followers to each other and to their god.  To revolt against the leadership would be to deviate from all that was sacred – kinship, the cosmology of sacred harmony and kingship.

The Shang Dynasty eventually fell in about 3,100 B.P. to the invading Zhou (Fitzgerald 1978).  It wasn’t until 2,221 B.P. the Qin Dynasty united China into a single empire using the same techniques of war and cosmology to rule.




The Rise of the State: Some General Comments


It must be evident to the reader that there are striking similarities in the rise of states in various parts of the globe.  We have seen the processes by which the emergence of complexity came about in the early Neolithic and beyond in Mesopotamia, Egypt, South Asia and in China.  The sequence in each case was this: emerging agriculture leading to the storing of food wealth and the materialization of aggrandizers who wished to control that surplus and set themselves up as community leaders.  These leaders invariably created fortifications, armaments and garrisons to protect their stores.  Usually warfare was on the rise with these developments.

Again I must emphasize that it is not the mode of production per se that stimulates the rise of advanced civilizations, although most were spurred on by agriculture.  As yet we have no clear-cut cases of civilizations equal to that which emerged in Sumer, the Indus Valley or China directly connected with other modes of production e.g., fishing.  We know that hunter-gatherer-fishers did develop complexity e.g., the Chumash of Southern California, the Northwest Coast Amerindians and the Calusa of Florida.  There are scholars who believe that the Norte Chico Civilization of the Supe Valley in Peru was initially influenced by anchovy fishing along the coast (Moseley 1975). 

This hypothesis proposed that about 12 thousand B.P. the rich Andean fishery sustained the growth of early seaboard populations organized into large sedentary communities and the formation of complex societies.  Moseley’s hypothesis did not claim that the full-blown Norte Chico Civilization developed without agriculture; but that its complex basis was laid down based on large catches of the Peruvian anchoveta (Engraulis ringens), a fish of the anchovy family.  He admitted that civilization itself arose after 3,800 B.P. with the introduction of pottery, the intensive cultivation of farmed staples and the construction of large-scale irrigation systems.

Recently Moseley (2005) has said that fresh archaeological work in the area has shown that some cultivation occurred in the littoral precursor of the Norte Chico Civilization of the interior.  Horticulture was most easily conjoined with fishing at the mouths of those valleys that offered wide river flood plains where farmers could straightforwardly access sweet ground water.  This was the location of Aspero and other large monuments known at the time Moseley formulated his initial hypothesis, however the importance of arable land was overlooked at the time.   Such horticultural resources are now thought to account for the presence of El Paraiso with its vast masonry complex sprawling over some 58 hectares, a late Pre-ceramic site in the present-day Chillón Valley on the Central Peruvian coast, generally believed to date prior to 4,100 B.P.  Moseley believes that coastal fishermen built this site, or at least contributed to its construction.

It seems that by 5 thousand B.P. sedentary maritime communities were building temple mounds in Peru.  Within one millennium society had crystallized into the Norte Chico Civilization Rio Supe region, as revealed by new research according to Moseley (2005).  Although the early Peruvians were farming Moseley claims that the focus was upon industrial cultigens that could support fishing, such as cotton for nets and gourds for floats.  

True confirmation of his hypothesis that fishing formed the basis of the rise of the Norte Chico Civilization awaits chemical analysis of human bones of the area’s excavations.  If they demonstrate that people received most of their calories from the ocean, then early Peruvian fishermen can be credited for creating the earliest civilization in the Americas.  

What about Europe?  If we look at the data for the Bronze Age, for instance, will we see the same sequence of: agriculture ► complexity ► management that we saw in Mesopotamia, Egypt, South Asiia and China?  We do.  While Europe had been inhabited for ages with hunter-gatherers and small-scale horticulturalists, the development of plow agriculture and the clearing of many forests led to a rise in population and a florescence in technological progress, most importantly for our purposes – the metal-tipped plow.  From about 4,000 B.P. metallurgy became a growth industry with a concomitant improvement in weaponry.  With this we see in the archaeological record the emergence of social ranking, reflected largely in the differentiation of grave goods between a few individuals and the rest of society (Coles & Harding 1979).

When Bronze Age chieftains emerged they did what chieftains did in Mesopotamia, Egypt, South Asia and in China: they gained control of the agricultural surplus, developed a military capacity and they did one more thing that we see in all cases when trade becomes important – they moved to control access to the movement of goods in and out of their communities.

But during the Bronze Age in Europe, the polities of the warrior-chiefs were relatively undeveloped compared to the kingships of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Teotihuacán, Ankor Thom, the Inka Empire etc.  In those higher – viz., more complex – civilizations we see the propagation of cosmological ideas designed to mystify and control the population and, in some cases, the emergence of divine kings, or at least the use of divination and rituals to impress the general populace.  For Europe, divine kings would come in the Christian Era (Kern & Chrimes 2006; Brisch 2008).

Aggrandizers also elevated themselves by controlling trade and artisanship, but this usually followed gaining control over the labor of agricultural producers.

Taken together we can discern this historical sequence operating in the Neolithic after the Agricultural Revolution:


Surplus ► complexity ► management ►

warfare ► mystification.


Today élites are able to control information in order to manipulate markets and benefit from Casino Capitalism (Strange 1986).  This is most blatant example is those caught ingaging in insider trading.  The most recent example is that of Raj Rajaratnam convicted of fraud and conspiracy (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/r/raj_ra...).  But “shady” trading also occurs regularly among those “in the know” in financial circles.  While ancients may have dominated the caravan trade, modern-day élites deal in bits of information passing along the airwaves and the web.

Also I am attempting to show that anciently there was a connection between holding office and gaining wealth.  That, too, continues today.  Office can lead to wealth, as with the revolving door in Congress where modern-day Congressmen attain office to beef up their contacts and clout and then leave office to take lucrative jobs as consultants and lobbyists. 

It can work the other way round, of course.  Having made a great deal of money can help propel a wealthy individual into the political limelight e.g., the presidential bid being made by George Romney or the success of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

I will deal with the modern examples of these phenomena in the last chapter of this work.  My main point about political economy, whether in its ancient or modern form, is that office, power and wealth are bedfellows and their pursuit began when there was a storable-stealable-surplus for which men could compete.  The political and economic history of the world after the domestication of plants and animals has entailed variations on this simple quest for power and wealth.  


[1]A piacular or expiatory rite is one that is performed to make up for

some committed wrongdoing on the part of the petitioner.

[2]It is paradoxical that in Sisala society, women can be diviners; but cannot consult them or participate in the gerontocratic governance of society.

[3] Of course, there is an enormous debate in the social sciences over this. 

I happen to agree with Vilfredo Pareto (1980) that people use reason in a post facto cover-up fashion to explain why they acted emotionally.

[4] The Predynastic Period is considered the rough equivalent of the

chalcolithic, that period between the Neolithic and the Bronze

Age.  The Chalcolithic is that time period roughly between  6500

and 5 500 B.P.

[5] An Egyptian province.

[6] There is some debate about this.  See: Renfrew 2007:167-168;

Possehl 1993.

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