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The Emergence of Cities and States: An Anthropological Perspective Essay Sample

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The Emergence of Cities and States: An Anthropological Perspective Essay Sample

            The emergence of cities and states is the result of a long history of political evolution and advances in cultural abstractions. In this paper, we shall discuss some of social, economic, and political forces that contributed to the development of cities and cities. This discussion, though, would have to be based on anthropological concepts. Anthropology, or more specifically its subfield, archeology, can provide the reader with a wide array of theoretical propositions that possess explanatory power.  Added to that, these concepts are closely related to concepts in social sciences. Thus, basing the development of cities and states from an anthropological perspective is a holistic approach in understanding the dynamics of ancient civilizations.

            In general, there are eight developed (classification) primary states (states which developed out of preexisting economic and political conditions): Mesoamerica, Peru, Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus civilization, China, the Zulu civilization, and Tonga (Service 22). Six of which were created by conquest. One was formed to settle conflicts with foreign settlers, and the other one evolved from a theocratic chiefdom. The earliest civilizations in Mesopotamia, China, the Indus Valley, Peru, and Egypt emerged by conquests. These states were somehow “forced” to subdue other tribes in order to protect its existence from nomadic raiders. Although some archaeologists argued that states, in its primordial form, developed before the birth of these civilizations (as indicated in the ancient city of Jericho), there is no direct evidence to support this claim. In fact, it is a theoretical flaw to assume that there was a definitive “decline” of the state prior to the coming of the earliest civilizations. In light of this mystery, some anthropologists notably Carol Ember noted that the state itself was the main product of civilization. If the state is to develop, it must be located in a cultural setting characterized by complexity and unified worldview. Thus, the earlier proposition of some archaeologists may prove unsatisfactory if the hypothesis of Ember is accepted.

            We come now to the discussion of the political forces (the steps) that eventually led to the formation of the state. Initially, earliest social formations demanded the creation of a small religious class. This religious class would serve as the medium between the divine and the mortal. Let us provide an example to prove this point. The Tonga chiefdom, according to local legends, was created not out of conquest or as a defensive alliance of tribes against invaders, but by the sky-god Tangaroa (Service 57). Tangaroa was the ancestor of all the paramount chiefs of the chiefdom. One of the paramount chiefs began acting like a despot. He issued countless and oppressive orders to his people. Fearing of a general rebellion, he wielded some of his powers to his brother and other members of his family.

The so-called paramount chief became a high priest, and the “chief delegated with the powers of a chief” became the bastion of secular power. Although this story was based merely from a local legend, it should be noted that even today, religious activities are often associated with political decisions of the Tonga chief (even under the authority of the modern state). This points out that the formation of the earliest Tonga political association was highly religious in orientation. This was virtually the same with other ancient civilizations. The ancient cities were built with no walls (unfortified), indicating that they were not built for defensive purposes. Around the cities were small, scattered villages. In these villages, a priest headed various religious ceremonies: those dedicated for harvesting, planting, and irrigation. There is little evidence that these villages were unified by military means. Religion rather than war precipitated the creation of the early state (as shown in the decorative arts and architectures of ancient people).

            The next step in the development of the state is the status transformation of early rulers. Early rulers usually assumed multiples roles: priest (although this vary among the early civilizations), soldier, noble, and at times, farmer (to show his unity to his people). This virtually changed (Service 91). In the course of the archaeological timeline, these rulers possessed absolute authority, often unchecked by the priestly class. The formation of small chiefdoms (some anthropologists like Marvin Harris assumed that the development of the modern state underwent these processes: the formation of tribes, tribes coagulating to form chiefdoms, chiefdoms uniting to form kingdoms, kingdoms evolving to form the modern state). The existence of geographically close chiefdoms inevitably led to wars and alliances. The “successful conqueror” becomes the leader of the unified chiefdoms. The Zulu state, for example, was established by Shaka, a warlord chief who made himself the master of several chiefdoms. Thus, the Zulu empire was created out of several warring chiefdoms. The conqueror then became the king of the powerful state.

            The development of the state though was not just a matter of transforming tribes into chiefdoms, and chiefdoms into kingdoms. The social structure of early societies was also changed to suit the new political forms. For example, the development of the Ankole state was initially triggered by the evolution of its mode of living (Service 43). The people of Ankole were herdsmen. Once they found unsecured pastures, they would utilize it until the land becomes barren. In their nomadic journeys, they attacked farmers and stole their produce. Added to that, they also took the farmers to become their slaves.

In due time, they were able to establish mission bases to oversee their operations. Needless to say, the Ankole people, at one point in their history, appointed an individual (a strong, relentless, and courageous tribesman – to put it in ethnographic term) to lead them. Thus, the Ankole Bahima (a subgroup) decided to “domesticate local farmers permanently. They were forced to form “small” armies to protect these “domesticated” farmers from other raiders. By subjugating other groups, they were able to establish military dominance. This dominance enabled them to create a semi-permeable hierarchy, with the Ankole at the top, followed by the “domesticated” farmers, and other raiders (at the bottom of the social ladder). The farmers were not allowed to own cattle. They paid tribute to the paramount chief (in due, the king), and protected the cattle of the Ankole people. The paramount chief, in return, would maintain peace and order throughout the chiefdom. Thus, a primary state was born.

            Corollary to the evolution of the state was the development of the city. The city is the most direct expression of the level of cultural abstraction of particular groups of people. The production of surplus food triggered the need for centralized structures to manage new social institutions tasked to oversee resources. The surplus created allowed people to differentiate their mode of living. Thus, this resulted to specialization (division of labor). The increasing number of specialized jobs inevitably resulted to the formation of new social groupings. These groupings competed for resources: food, power, and status. The leaders, then, became concerned of managing a diverse workforce. So, in simple terms, they established segregated residential areas for these groups. In due time, these residential areas became ancient cities. Further advances in culture can be attributed to this development.

            The development of the modern state, though, was not the direct result of the “steps” enumerated above. For example, the modern African state was borne out of the ashes of colonial governments. The modern African democratic states (there is a difference between a state and a government – the state is a permanent political body while the government is a fluid one) were enforced by European powers (or by virtue of imitation). It was noted that when the European came to Africa, tribe rather than chiefdom was the predominant political organization. The Europeans just “replaced” the earlier political organization with another based from their own.

            The development of the city was discussed above is too simplistic. There is little evidence to support that surplus triggered the formation of social groupings. Added to that, some anthropologists argued that such assertion might destroy the validity of the concept of cultural adaptation. Note that some cities were borne out scattered settlements (as in the Indus Valley) without recourse to an increase in food surplus.

Works Cited

Haviland, William et al. (2007). The Essence of Anthropology. New York: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Service, Elman. (1976). Origins of the State and Civilization. Vol. 96 (1). New York: Norton and Company. 21 October 2007 from http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0003-0279(197601%2F03)96%3A1%3C149%3AOOTSAC%3E2.0.CO%3B2-%23 (accessed)

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