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A chiefdom is a form of hierarchical political organization in non-industrial societies usually based on kinship, and in which formal leadership is monopolized by the legitimate senior members of select families or 'houses'. These elites form a political-ideological aristocracy relative to the general group. A chiefdom is thus led by a highly ranked incumbent of an inherited political role, chief: chiefs lead because of their ascribed status, not their achieved status.
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 sex 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.
Chiefdom in India
The Arthashastra, a work on politics written some time between the 4th century BC and 2nd century AD by Indian author Kautilya, similarly describes the Rajamandala (or "Raja-mandala,") as circles of friendly and enemy states surrounding the state of a king (raja). Also see Suhas Chatterjee, Mizo Chiefs and the Chiefdom (1995).
Native Chieftain System in southern China
Tusi (Chinese: 土司), also known as Headmen or Chieftains, were tribal leaders recognized as imperial officials by the Yuan, Ming, and Qing-era Chinese governments, principally in Yunnan. The arrangement is generally known as the Native Chieftain System (Chinese: 土司制度, p Tǔsī Zhìdù).
Alternatives to chiefdoms
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.
In Southeast Asian history up to the early 19th century, the metaphysical view of the cosmos called the mandala (i.e., circle) is used to describe a Southeast Asian political model, which in turn describes the diffuse patterns of political power distributed among Mueang (principalities) where circles of influence were more important than central power. The concept counteracts modern tendencies to look for unified political power like that of the large European kingdoms and nation states, which were an inadvertent byproduct of 15th-century advances in map-making technologies.
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).
- Berezkin, Yu. E. 1995. "Alternative Models of Middle Range Society" and " 'Individualistic' Asia vs. 'Collectivistic' America?", in Alternative Pathways to Early State, Ed. N. N. Kradin & V. A. Lynsha. Vladivostok: Dal'nauka: 75–83.
- Carneiro, R. L. 1981. "The Chiefdom: Precursor of the State", The Transition to Statehood in the New World / Ed. by G. D. Jones and R. R. Kautz, pp. 37–79. Cambridge, UK – New York, NY: Cam-bridge University Press.
- Carneiro, R. L. 1991. "The Nature of the Chiefdom as Revealed by Evidence from the Cauca Valley of Colombia", Profiles in Cultural Evolution / Ed. by A.T. Rambo and K. Gillogly, pp. 167–90. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
- Earle, T. K. 1997. How Chiefs Came to Power: The Political Economy of Prehistory. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Frantsouzoff S. A. 2000. "The Society of Raybūn", in Alternatives of Social Evolution. Ed. by N.N. Kradin, A.V. Korotayev, Dmitri Bondarenko, V. de Munck, and P.K. Wason (p. 258-265). Vladivostok: Far Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
- Korotayev, Andrey V. 2000. Chiefdom: Precursor of the Tribe?, in Alternatives of Social Evolution. Ed. by N.N. Kradin, A.V. Korotayev, Dmitri Bondarenko, V. de Munck, and P.K. Wason (p. 242-257). Vladivostok: Far Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences; reprinted in: The Early State, its Alternatives and Analogues. Ed. by Leonid Grinin et al. (р. 300-324). Volgograd: Uchitel', 2004.
- Kradin, Nikolay N. 2000. "Nomadic Empires in Evolutionary Perspective", in Alternatives of Social Evolution. Ed. by N.N. Kradin, A.V. Korotayev, Dmitri Bondarenko, V. de Munck, and P.K. Wason (p. 274-288). Vladivostok: Far Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences; reprinted in: The Early State, its Alternatives and Analogues. Ed. by Leonid Grinin et al. (р. 501-524). Volgograd: Uchitel', 2004.
- Kradin, Nikolay N. 2002. "Nomadism, Evolution, and World-Systems: Pastoral Societies in Theories of Historical Development", Journal of World-System Research 8: 368-388.
- Kradin, Nikolay N. 2003. "Nomadic Empires: Origins, Rise, Decline", Nomadic Pathways in Social Evolution. Ed. by N.N. Kradin, Dmitri Bondarenko, and T. Barfield (p. 73-87). Moscow: Center for Civilizational Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences.
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