Chiefdom  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

A chiefdom is a political economy that organizes regional populations through a hierarchy of the chief(s).

In anthropological theory, one model of human social development rooted in ideas of cultural evolution describes a chiefdom as a form of social organization more complex than a tribe or a band society, and less complex than a state or a civilization. The most succinct definition of a chiefdom in anthropology is by Robert L. Carneiro: "An autonomous political unit comprising a number of villages or communities under the permanent control of a paramount chief" (Carneiro 1981: 45).

Chiefdoms are characterized by centralization of authority and pervasive inequality. At least two inherited social classes (elite and commoner) are present. (The ancient Hawaiian chiefdoms had as many as four social classes.) An individual might change social class during a lifetime by extraordinary behavior. A single lineage/family of the elite class becomes the ruling elite of the chiefdom, with the greatest influence, power, and prestige. Kinship is typically an organizing principle, while marriage, age, and gender can affect one's social status and role.

A single simple chiefdom is generally composed of a central community surrounded by or near a number of smaller subsidiary communities. All of the communities recognize the authority of a single kin group or individual with hereditary centralized power, dwelling in the primary community. Each community will have its own leaders, which are usually in a tributary and/or subservient relationship to the ruling elite of the primary community.

A complex chiefdom is a group of simple chiefdoms controlled by a single paramount center, and ruled by a paramount chief. Complex chiefdoms have two or even three tiers of political hierarchy. Nobles are clearly distinct from commoners and do not usually engage in any form of agricultural production. The higher members of society consume most of the goods that are passed up the hierarchy as a tribute.

Reciprocal obligations are fulfilled by the nobles carrying out ritual that only they can perform. They may also make token, symbolic redistributions of food and other goods. In two or three tiered chiefdoms, higher ranking chiefs have control over a number of lesser ranking individuals, each of whom controls specific territory or social units. Political control rests on the chief's ability to maintain access to a sufficiently large body of tribute, passed up the line by lesser chiefs. These lesser chiefs in turn collect from those below them, from communities close to their own center. At the apex of the status hierarchy sits the paramount.

Anthropologists and archaeologists have demonstrated through research that chiefdoms are a relatively unstable form of social organization. They are prone to cycles of collapse and renewal, in which tribal units band together, expand in power, fragment through some form of social stress, and band together again. An example of this kind of social organization were the Germanic Peoples who conquered the western Roman Empire in the 5th century CE. Although commonly referred to as tribes, anthropologists classified their society as chiefdoms. They had a complex social hierarchy consisting of kings, a warrior aristocracy, common freemen, serfs and slaves.

Nikolay Kradin has demonstrated that an alternative to the state seems to be represented by the supercomplex chiefdoms created by some nomads of Eurasia. The number of structural levels within such chiefdoms appears to be equal, or even to exceed those within the average state, but they have a different type of political organization and political leadership. Such types of political entities do not appear to have been created by the agriculturists (e.g., Kradin 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004).

In prehistoric South-West Asia, alternatives to chiefdoms were the non-hierarchical systems of complex acephalous communities, with a pronounced autonomy of single-family households. These communities have been analyzed recently by Berezkin, who suggests the Apa Tanis as their ethnographic parallel (Berezkin 1995). Frantsouzoff (2000) finds a more developed example of such type of polities in ancient South Arabia in the Wadi Hadhramawt of the 1st millennium BCE.


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Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Chiefdom" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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