The Development of the State in The Ancient Near East – Part 2

“The problem of varying degrees of socio-political complexity is not resolved by using similar terms for significantly different organizational forms. Equating the state to any or all political organizations makes the worthwhile point that all humans try to live their lives within some form of social order, that includes variations in power, authority, and a system of values that prescribes some and proscribes other activities. However, because all societies have organized social and political behaviour does not mean that all have similar forms within which it takes place.” (Cohen, R in Claessen and Skalník, 32)

“Zῷον πολιτικόν“ (“Man is a political animal.”) (Aristotle: Politics, Book 1, section 1253a)

IN looking for the origins of what we today understand as a state, we must keep in mind Cohen’s warning – to try to understand the early state through our contemporary eyes and definitions can be a dangerous area. The idea of a political structure as one of the foundations of any successful state, be that ancient or modern, is self-evident. Can we, however, look at the early state as a concept objectively? As Kosso has put it:

“Describing the past in ways that make sense to us may amount to just describing ourselves in different circumstances. But subjectivity might be unavoidable, since we have to describe the past in ways that make sense to us and on our own terms.”[1]

With such a long gap between us and the early states, to what extent can we ever hope to understand the naissance of what we would today recognise as a state as opposed to a society? Indeed, can we today truly understand what the contemporary understanding of a state was through our modern eyes or can we only make sense of it through our modern understanding? We can turn to archaeological evidence, but again, how far can we understand that evidence when it is so incomplete? And even where we find almost intact evidence, can we look at it in the same way that those who created it did? Is it possible to look at such evidence as we have in a manner that is in any way objective? We may attempt to look for ‘facts’, but, particularly in the pre-literate period, how can we know what that ‘fact’ is (other than the obvious ‘It is a piece of granite from x’ or ‘The figurines are made from clay from y’)? Kosso again:

‘Even if the facts are collected, discovered rather than invented, the assemblage, the facts we choose and the way we put them together, might be contrived. The inevitable process of selection, description, and arrangement in terms of relevance will be done under the influence of our existing beliefs about the past. In this way, even if the facts are individually independent of our present ideas, they collectively form a picture that is a matter of interpretation. The ramifications of the need to select historiographic facts pose one of the most widely discussed issues of analytic philosophy of historiography. It applies to either sense of the concept of facts, as the events in the past or as descriptions of the events. We are simply not interested in everything that happened in the past.’[2]

As was mentioned in Part I, from Rousseau through to present day, the concept of ‘social stratification’ is one generally accepted idea of the early state in its structural sense. In simplistic terms, the state as a socio-political structure is viewed as something which is created in the first place by the rich or the powerful. Very quickly, this group set up systems – political, religious, judicial – which support their power and dominance over those who are now on the lower social strata; strata which rely upon this powerful elite for much of what they require for their daily life, be that protection, water supply in a desert environment, intervention with the capricious divinities of their pantheon or an expansive trade network which allowed for their goods to be sold and their supplies purchased. For Fried, an institutionalised inequality arises from this early social stratification, and it is the control of the goods and requisites for life which lead to the centralised governmental structure which is the dominant factor in the rule of all the most archaic states.[3] Marx and Engels blamed such structure for most of the evils of societies in their time.

The first question, if this be accepted, is where such an institutionalised societal inequality first arises? Who, in the proto state, decided or allowed those who were to become the socio-political elite of the established state to reach the position of dominant chieftain? Was such a societal structure already established and easily adaptable when hunter-gatherer tribes became domesticators and agriculturalists? When the wanderers became the settled communities? Or was this something which was a post settlement ‘invention’ and a response to the changing requirements of the new form of societal structure that an agricultural settlement brought? And again…how can we know? Are there clues in the later societies (cf the dual titulary of the Kings of Mari as described in Part I and Fleming’s interpretation[4])? Can we see in this the earlier pastoral elite which developed into the later dominant urban elite? Or do we have two separate elites which eventually combined into the one person of the King of Mari? Which of these became the hegemon when the earlier societies came together to form the bipartite state, if such it indeed were?


THE earliest social structures are exceptionally hard to define. It is necessary to look to the archaeological evidence for some of the oldest settlements to attempt to place any institutionalised hierarchy in context. These are tied in with, as would be expected, agricultural developments as such allowed for a settled life, even though this amounted to little more than a purposeful cultivation of wild plants. Liverani:

‘Already in its incipient phases (10,000–7,500 BC), this new mode of production (ie cultivation of wild plants) had a visible impact on the social structure of human groups and the organisation of resources. Communities began to build round-houses, partly set in the ground and with a tent-shaped roof. Therefore, the earliest permanent base-camps appeared (particularly where the first attempts at cultivation also took place), alongside seasonal camps for hunting purposes (which remained a fundamental activity) and other seasonal activities. The appearance of the first silos for the conservation of food and seeds from one year to the next indicates how these communities had by now overcome the daily dimension of nutrition. Moreover, herds and camps also raised the issue of property and inheritances. This led to the development of tombs, either for individuals or family groups.[5]’ (My italics).

While the silos most probably, and the round-houses very likely, were potentially communal constructions, the procedures of interment and the idea of an individual tomb or a family tomb are rather different (cf the discussion of the Early Neolithic tombs at Tell Qarasa North in Part I, though they date from the IXth millennium BC). These fall in what is classed as the Natufian Period in archaeological terminology (which had been preceded by the Kerbaran c. 20,000 – 12,000 BC) and lasted from c. 12,000-10,300 BC). Perhaps the two key earliest settlements are arguably Jericho in Palestine and Göbekli Tepe in Turkey. For evidence of deliberate cultivation, the “Golden Triangle” (Turkish Euphrates and Taurus region of Upper Mesopotamia)

“…according to recent paleobotanical and paleozoological data – Neolithic innovations such as the domestication of wild plants and animals occurred here for the first time (Aurenche and Kozłowski 1999)”.[6]

So, what does this have to do with the formation of a State? In simplest terms, population increase. When the settled agrarian and domestication communities had mastered and more or less guaranteed a regular food supply (indeed, with surpluses as the silos show), this facilitated two major steps in a growth in population – first, the evident – a regular and sufficient food supply with excess to cover any required shortage. The second, however, is perhaps less obvious. In a group where the greater part of the year is spent in migrating, following the wild herds and the wild plants which feed the members of said community, the time-frame for safely producing children is somewhat limited. Evidence from Lee (1972) based on the population changes in Bushmen communities when they settled, suggests:

“…sedentarization alone may trigger population growth, since women may have children more frequently without any increase in work on their part, and without reducing their ability to provide for each one.”[7]

It is most likely that this would be as apposite to the first settled communities as to the Bushmen of the twentieth century. A growth in population has two further key knock on effects – if in a limited geographic area, the growth will put an added strain on the supplies and resources available to the community, yet also, the greater the population, the greater the potential for a community to expand through its new intrinsic power base and pool of human resources. Though a gradual process, this presumably led to wider communities, but stratified on a socio-political level. The weaker are absorbed into the stronger, with the potential for a wide variety of results and concomitant developments: Will the weaker simply be absorbed and adopted into the hegemonic community, adopting their customs, belief systems et al? Will they be left to their own devices and allowed to continue as a separate cultural if not political entity on the proviso that they acquiesce to the overlordship of the hegemon? Will the two communities form a single political entity, yet remain in two parts on a cultural level (cf the dual titulary of the kings of Mari, again)? Will the weaker be forcibly crushed and enslaved by the hegemonic power? Will they be seen as an ‘under race’ and there as a pool of labour and ‘cannon fodder’ in the inevitable clashes which will ensue from aggressive contact with other powerful communities? In fact, as time went on, all of these were found to exist on one level or another.

“Sedentism creates a new value for children, wives and indeed on any or all means by which local groups can increase their size, Thus, from the Neolithic onwards, person acquisition by social units becomes an important feature of social life. This leads to increased birth rates, to adoption, to polygyny, bridewealth, clientage, fostering and even to forcible capture and enslavement of strangers who are then used to add size and strength to local groups.”[8]

The other limiting factor in the population expansion and the march towards the concept of a state is topography. The limitations of the geographical situation of a population have major implications on expansion and developments of a populace and its socio-political structure. In the area now termed the Ancient Near East, limitations were relatively obvious – mountain ranges, desert areas, swamps and marshlands near the Euphrates/Tigris delta on the Persian Gulf. In the earliest periods of settlement, these could also act as barriers from aggressive neighbours, but quickly, trade routes would develop, facilitating exchanges of ideas, beliefs and customs. Again, the dominant culture would assume the position of hegemon over its area, and in large part due to the successful growth in population combined with the best use of the natural resources available to said community. In the areas which relied upon the major rivers for their livelihoods in all forms needed to be able to cope with the major floods which occurred (specific evidence dates from the III Millennium BC[9]), the gradual salinisation of the fields through over irrigation inter alia as, unlike the Nile in Egypt, the Tigris and Euphrates in particular were most certainly not gentle bringers of a benevolent flood! In the third part, I shall look in more detail at individual communities which developed into states and the consequences in both the sort and long term of these burgeoning power bases.

[1] Kosso, P in A Companion to the Philosophy of History and Historiography, Blackwell, 2009, 10

[2] Kosso, op cit, 13

[3] Fried, MH, The Evolution of Political Society, Random House, 1967, 186

[4] Fleming, Democracy’s Ancient Ancestors, Cambridge, 2004, xiv

[5] Liverani, The Ancient Near East, Routledge, 36

[6] ANE Archaeology, Blackwell, 2012, Vol I 382

[7] Lee RB, in Population Growth: anthropological implications (ed Spooner) Cambs, 1972, 342

[8] Cohen, op cit, 43

[9] Oguchi & Oguchi, “ Mid – Holocene floods of the Syrian Euphrates inferred from ‘ tell sediments ’ ” 1998


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