A chiefdom is a political economy that organizes regional populations through a hierarchy of the chief(s)
Tribal chief
A tribal chief is the leader of a tribal society or chiefdom. Tribal societies with social stratification under a single leader emerged in the Neolithic period out of earlier tribal structures with little stratification, and they remained prevalent throughout the Iron Age.In the case of ...


In anthropological theory
Anthropology is the study of humanity. It has origins in the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. The term "anthropology" is from the Greek anthrōpos , "man", understood to mean mankind or humanity, and -logia , "discourse" or "study", and was first used in 1501 by German...

, 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
A tribe, viewed historically or developmentally, consists of a social group existing before the development of, or outside of, states.Many anthropologists use the term tribal society to refer to societies organized largely on the basis of kinship, especially corporate descent groups .Some theorists...

 or a band society
Band society
A band society is the simplest form of human society. A band generally consists of a small kin group, no larger than an extended family or clan; it has been defined as consisting of no more than 30 to 50 individuals.Bands have a loose organization...

, and less complex than a state
State (polity)
A state is an organized political community, living under a government. States may be sovereign and may enjoy a monopoly on the legal initiation of force and are not dependent on, or subject to any other power or state. Many states are federated states which participate in a federal union...

 or a civilization
Civilization is a sometimes controversial term that has been used in several related ways. Primarily, the term has been used to refer to the material and instrumental side of human cultures that are complex in terms of technology, science, and division of labor. Such civilizations are generally...

. The most succinct definition of a chiefdom in anthropology is by Robert L. Carneiro
Robert L. Carneiro
Robert Leonard Carneiro is a prominent American anthropologist and curator of the American Museum of Natural History. Carneiro earned a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 1957....

: "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 class
Social class
Social classes are economic or cultural arrangements of groups in society. Class is an essential object of analysis for sociologists, political scientists, economists, anthropologists and social historians. In the social sciences, social class is often discussed in terms of 'social stratification'...

es (elite
Elite refers to an exceptional or privileged group that wields considerable power within its sphere of influence...

 and commoner
In British law, a commoner is someone who is neither the Sovereign nor a peer. Therefore, any member of the Royal Family who is not a peer, such as Prince Harry of Wales or Anne, Princess Royal, is a commoner, as is any member of a peer's family, including someone who holds only a courtesy title,...

) 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
Kinship is a relationship between any entities that share a genealogical origin, through either biological, cultural, or historical descent. And descent groups, lineages, etc. are treated in their own subsections....

 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
A tributary or affluent is a stream or river that flows into a main stem river or a lake. A tributary does not flow directly into a sea or ocean...

 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
Paramount chief
A paramount chief is the highest-level traditional chief or political leader in a regional or local polity or country typically administered politically with a chief-based system. This definition is used occasionally in anthropological and archaeological theory to refer to the rulers of multiple...

. Complex chiefdoms have two or even three tiers of political hierarchy
A hierarchy is an arrangement of items in which the items are represented as being "above," "below," or "at the same level as" one another...

. 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
Paramount chief
A paramount chief is the highest-level traditional chief or political leader in a regional or local polity or country typically administered politically with a chief-based system. This definition is used occasionally in anthropological and archaeological theory to refer to the rulers of multiple...


Anthropologists and archaeologists
Archaeology, or archeology , is the study of human society, primarily through the recovery and analysis of the material culture and environmental data that they have left behind, which includes artifacts, architecture, biofacts and cultural landscapes...

 have demonstrated through research that chiefdoms are a relatively unstable form of social organization. They are prone to cycles
Social cycle theory
Social cycle theories are among the earliest social theories in sociology. Unlike the theory of social evolutionism, which views the evolution of society and human history as progressing in some new, unique direction, sociological cycle theory argues that events and stages of society and history...

 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
Germanic peoples
The Germanic peoples are an Indo-European ethno-linguistic group of Northern European origin, identified by their use of the Indo-European Germanic languages which diversified out of Proto-Germanic during the Pre-Roman Iron Age.Originating about 1800 BCE from the Corded Ware Culture on the North...

 who conquered the western Roman Empire
Roman Empire
The Roman Empire was the post-Republican period of the ancient Roman civilization, characterised by an autocratic form of government and large territorial holdings in Europe and around the Mediterranean....

 in the 5th century CE
Common Era
Common Era ,abbreviated as CE, is an alternative designation for the calendar era originally introduced by Dionysius Exiguus in the 6th century, traditionally identified with Anno Domini .Dates before the year 1 CE are indicated by the usage of BCE, short for Before the Common Era Common Era...

. 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
Nikolay Kradin
Nikolay Nikolaevich Kradin is a Russian anthropologist and archaeologist. Since 1985 he has been a Research Fellow of the Institute of History, Archaeology and Ethnology, Far East Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Vladivostok...

 has demonstrated that an alternative to the state seems to be represented by the supercomplex chiefdoms created by some nomads of Eurasia
Eurasia is a continent or supercontinent comprising the traditional continents of Europe and Asia ; covering about 52,990,000 km2 or about 10.6% of the Earth's surface located primarily in the eastern and northern hemispheres...

. 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
Acephalous Society
In anthropology, an acephalous society is a society which lacks political leaders or hierarchies. Such groups are also known as egalitarian or non-stratified societies. Typically these societies are small-scale, organized into bands or tribes that make decisions through consensus decision making...

, 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
Wadi is the Arabic term traditionally referring to a valley. In some cases, it may refer to a dry riverbed that contains water only during times of heavy rain or simply an intermittent stream.-Variant names:...

 Hadhramawt of the 1st millennium BCE.

Chiefdom in India

Suhas Chatterjee, Mizo Chiefs and the Chiefdom, Publications Pvt. Ltd., 1995, ISBN 8185880727, 9788185880723

External links

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