Andean & Tiwanaku Archaeology page

Simon Fraser University - Spring 2011       Archaeology 100-D200
Ancient Peoples and Places  
Archaeology and the Study of prehistory


 Week 6    Some remarks on the issue of Chiefdoms

A conversation with R.D. Drennan... an archaeologist very interested in chiefdoms


Comments on CHIEFDOMS, in Ancient Civilizations by Christopher Scarre and Brain Fagan, pp. 23-25.

The label chiefdom has been widely used to describe the somewhat less than egalitarian societies that immediately preceded states all over the world. Such a label allowed for comparative studies, but the definition of what constitutes a chiefdom has changed markedly since it was first proposed. Chiefdoms are kin-based societies headed by hereditary chiefs, often priest-chiefs who have a title but little authority except as a master of ceremonies and as a redistributor of goods. They listen carefully to public opinion when wielding their limited powers.

Archaeologists have made wide use of chiefdoms because of a chief's perceived importance in the redistribution of trade goods, food, and other resources throughout society. But many archaeologists disagree and minimize the importance of redistribution; as archaeologist Timothy Earle found with Hawaiian chiefdoms, the chief's major role was as a landowner and supervisor of the labor of the commoners who worked his acreage as dependents. In short, the chiefdom is a political unit, not a mechanism for redistribution. Under this rubric, the chiefdom was a political breakthrough, the moment when the local autonomy characteristic of bands and tribal societies gave way to a new form of authority in which a single important individual controls a number of communities. Thus, the chiefdom was an early stage in the rise of states, a society headed by an individual who ruled over a regional population of thousands and controlled the production of staples and the acquisition of exotic objects.

In recent years, the chiefdom has received further refinement with a subdivision into simple chiefdoms, which rely on kin lines, and complex chiefdoms, in which there is a regional hierarchy of a paramount chief and lesser chieftains. The former have centralized decision making for mobilizing resources, whereas the latter enjoy considerable autonomy over their own subordinate communities. Thus, argue proponents of complex chiefdoms, the paramount chief has external authority to organize the acquisition of resources, but internally there is no complex bureaucracy to administer food surpluses and the distribution and storage of resources. Thus, society is divided into nobles and commoners, with the nobility competing with one another for leadership, prestige, and religious authority. But without a bureaucracy, a standing army, and other means to enforce control of goods on a long-term basis, the chiefdom is a volatile, ever changing form of society in a condition of constant rebellion, breakdown, and flux. Nevertheless, chiefdoms are important since they apparently provide a political stepping-stone toward the centralized state, with its much denser population, infinitely larger food surpluses, and new systems for administering society.

This political view of the chiefdom has been criticized for diverting attention from the trends toward economic and social differentiation, which were a vital part of the early stages of development of the state. These developments can be clearly seen in Mesopotamia (Chapter 3), predynastic Egypt (Chapter 4), and lowland Mesoamerica (Chapter 15). Norman Yoffee, himself an authority on ancient Mesopotamia, believes the ladderlike chiefdom stage as a predecessor to the state is meaningless. For example, Yoffee points out that nothing in the archaeological and historical record suggests that pre-Sumerian cultures in the region were organized as chiefdoms in the sense suggested by the evolutionists. Rather, records speak of ongoing competition for power between kin groups and centralized institutions, as a rapid, large-scale process of urbanization took place just before 3000 B.C. This process brought profound changes in the division of labor, in the organization of the countryside for intensive agriculture, and in unparalleled opportunities for acquiring wealth for a few at the expense of most members of society. Early archives refer to councils of elders, who played a vital role in city-state affairs, for power was vested in communities, not in chiefs. The evolving relationship between the growing power of priests and rulers and the community-based structures of earlier times is a major theme in state formation in this area. Yoffee believes that the emergence of non-kin-based relationships between the rulers and the ruled was the critical departure point for the state. This, not chiefdoms, was the power that provided the ingredients of enforceable authority and more than short-term stability.