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Robert Carneiro


Robert Carneiro on the Rise of the State

An excerpt from Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change

 By Frank W. Elwell

 A state is a self-governing political entity consisting of multiple communities and their surroundings with a centralized government that has exclusive rights within this territory to employ military force, collect taxes, and enforce order (Carneiro 1970, 733). It emerges as a separate institution about 6,000 years ago. Unlike earlier chiefdoms, which were confined to small village societies and ruled through kinship ties, the state develops an elaborate bureaucracy and with it the capacity to require obedience to its rule. The ruler is no longer constrained by strong kinship ties with those he rules; ever greater numbers of unrelated individuals can be exploited without mitigation. The state establishes a “monopoly of force” within its territorial control as well as administrative structures to expropriate any surplus produced by its subjects.Map of Early States Early states act to intensify the production activities of its subjects so as to increase this surplus to maximize the wealth of the rulers as well as to strengthen and extend their power. Early states generally consisted of several cities and their surrounding area. As they evolve, power becomes more and more centralized and the bureaucracies more elaborate. Power often becomes concentrated in the hands of a single individual and this most often evolves into a hereditary monarchy. Ideologies are fashioned to legitimate the monarch, early states often using religion to justify the divine right of the monarch to rule. The geographic size of states is primarily limited by the features of its geographical location, and the level of its communication and transportation technologies.

Pristine states are early states that evolved from village societies without contact with other state societies to act as a model or stimulus. Archeological evidence points to up to eight such pristine state developments, including Mesopotamia, Peru, Mesoamerica, Egypt, Indus Valley, Yellow River Basin, and probably in Crete and in the Lake Region of East Africa. Many see the growth of the state as part of a natural outgrowth of the development of agriculture and the creation of a surplus of food. These developments, it is hypothesized, freed an increasing number from direct agricultural production and allowed a division of labor of tool makers, potters, priests, and eventually soldiers and politicians. But Robert Carneiro (1970) asserts that the development of agriculture does not automatically create a food surplus; while the technology for creating a surplus of food is present in early agriculture, there was no social stimulus to do so. Most early agriculturalists produced little surplus; states evolve, Carneiro writes, only under specific environmental conditions.

In addition to the natural development theory of the state there is the voluntaristic theory that posits that several villages voluntarily band together giving up their individual sovereignties in exchange for the security of the state. “This and all other voluntaristic theories founder on the same rock: the demonstrated inability of autonomous political units to relinquish their sovereignty in the absence of overriding external constraints. We see this inability manifested again and again by political units ranging from tiny villages to great empires” (Carneiro 1970, 734). Theories of such natural state development ignore the fact that the vast majority of village societies do not make the transition to state level unless there are strong external pressures to do so. Therefore, states are not simply a natural development, not simply the result of a fortuitous accident, a voluntary surrender of village autonomy, or a genius with an idea. Rather, there is an identifiable evolutionary process of pristine state formation that has occurred in different places and times around the world when certain material conditions existed. Carneiro asks, what are these conditions?

Carneiro proposes a coercive theory of pristine state formation, a theory based on military force and war as the evolutionary mechanism by which autonomous villages were wielded into states. The archeological evidence is overwhelming that war is prevalent during the formative period of all pristine state development. But war cannot be the only factor, for war is fairly common among village societies and pristine states have evolved only in a few areas. There must be other specific conditions under which Primitive Warfarewarfare gives rise to the state. By comparing areas of the world in which pristine states evolved and looking for common factors, Carneiro attempts to identify these conditions. He finds that in all areas in which pristine states evolved—“areas such as the Nile, Tigris-Euphrates, and Indus valleys in the Old World and the Valley of Mexico and the mountain and coastal valleys of Peru in the New”—agricultural land was surrounded by mountains, seas, deserts or other areas that were not suitable for cultivation (734). In such “circumscribed” agricultural lands, warfare took on a different character from warfare between agrarian people in areas of open forests or savannah.

In most areas of the world warfare among village societies was common for reasons of revenge, establishing prestige, or for the taking of women. Where there is no shortage of cultivatable land, there is no warfare over land. When defeated a village was not driven fro  m the land; they were not enslaved or forced to pay tribute. As all were practicing subsistence agriculture, the victorious village had little use for slaves, and if the victors treated the vanquished too harshly they always had the option of fleeing to other land in the region. In areas of circumscribed agriculture this option disappears.

Circumscribed areas would present similar conditions as open areas for village life under low population levels. As population grew, villages would split and grow in number and spread throughout the available area. Warfare would be common, but of the type that predominates in village societies around the world.Ancient Egypt This would hold until all of the available land was occupied, at which point further population growth would lead to more intensive use of the available land, as well as warfare over that land. “And, as the causes of war became predominantly economic, the frequency, intensity, and importance of war increased” (735).

Under such conditions a village that lost a war with a rival would face severe consequences. Such a village could be exterminated, enslaved, forced to pay tribute, or outright incorporation into the rule of the conquerors. The need to pay tribute or taxes would be a sharp spur to intensify agricultural production beyond subsistence levels, gradually attaining proportions to support legions of tax collectors, warriors, and other administrators of the state. Through this process the size of political units gradually increased from village society to chiefdoms of several villages, continued warfare eventually leading to political units of sufficient size complexity to be called states. “How well does the theory of environmental circumscription and impaction accord with the evidence?” Marvin Harris (1977) asks. He answers: “The six most likely regions of pristine state development certainly do possess markedly circumscribed zones of production. As Malcolm Webb has pointed out, all of these regions contain fertile cores surrounded by zones of sharply reduced agricultural potential. They are, in fact, river valleys or lake systems surrounded by desert or at least very dry zones…All of these regions present special difficulties to villages that might have sought to escape from the growing concentration of power in the hands of overly aggressive redistributor war chiefs” (117).

These same areas were the scene of rapid population growth before the states emerged, and that weaponry and fortifications consistent with wars of conquest also predominate. Secondary states often form in a given region in response to pristine state development. They form to defend themselves against their technologically advanced and aggressive neighbors, or as a means of preying upon already existing states (121). As with most social evolutionary processes such as the domestication of plants and animals or the industrial revolution, state formation is an unconscious process. “The participants in this enormous transformation seem not to have known what they were creating. By imperceptible shifts in the redistributive balance from one generation to the next, the human species bound itself over into a form of social life in which the many debased themselves on behalf of the exalted few” (122). The state arises in response to specific demographic and environmental conditions, mainly population growth within a circumscribed fertile area. In such conditions war over needed resources becomes likely: fertile land is scarce, villages that are unsuccessful at warfare have nowhere to relocate and must either be exterminated, enslaved, or incorporated into the new political unit. War becomes an economic tool to acquire land or, alternatively, tribute from conquered peoples. The military is central in state formation and retains this central role in the world-system of societies to the present day.

The internal structure of states was also evolving along with their growth in size and territory. “The expansion of successful states brought within their borders conquered peoples and territory which had to be administered. And it was the individuals who had distinguished themselves in war who were generally appointed to political office and assigned the task of carrying on this administration. Besides maintaining law and order and colleBuilding a Pyramid cting taxes, the functions of this burgeoning class of administrators included mobilizing labor for building irrigation works, roads, fortresses, palaces, and temples. Thus, their functions helped to weld an assorted collection of petty states into a single integrated and centralized political unit” (Carneiro 1970, 736). And it was these people who evolved into the elites in early states, gradually growing in number and in their demands on the lower classes. Conquered peoples became the slaves, serfs, servants and beggars under the rule of these elites. Harsh treatment of conquered people is now possible because they have nowhere to run, nowhere else to live. In state societies, ever greater surpluses are demanded to support the elite in wealth and luxury, a situation that was not to be reversed until modern times. Whether or not that reversal is permanent is yet to be determined.

See Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change to learn how Carneiro’s insights contribute to a fuller understanding of modern societies.


Carneiro, R. 1970. “A theory of the origin of the state.” Science, Vol. 169: 733-736.

Carneiro, R. 2003. Evolutionism in Cultural Anthropology. Boulder: Westview Press.

Elwell, F. W. 2009. Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Systems. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press.

Elwell, F. W. 2006. Macrosociology: Four Modern Theorists. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

Elwell, F. W. 2013. Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change. Alberta: Athabasca University Press.

To reference Robert Carneiro on the Rise of the State you should use the following format:

Elwell, Frank W. 2013. "Robert Carneiro on the Rise of the State," Retrieved August 31, 2013 [use actual date]


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