Paul L. Hooper, Eric Alden Smith, Timothy A. Kohler, Henry T. Wright, and Hillard S. Kaplan

Paper #: 2017-05-016


The origins of complex societies fascinate us: societies with hierarchically organized political systems, specialized divisions of labor, and relatively unequal distributions of power and wealth. These societies tend to be politically and socially integrated at very large scales, encompassing tens of thousands to hundreds of millions of individuals. They are the societies in which most of us live.

It hasn’t always been this way: for 92-98% of the existence of modern Homo sapiens, it appears that most people lived in relatively small-scale, egalitarian societies, with muted differences in wealth, status, and political power (Boehm 2001, Smith et al. 2010). What happened? Why did it happen? These are long-standing questions, ones that this chapter attempts to address in a systematic and novel way.

Every state that exists today is a cultural successor to the earliest states that arose during the Middle Holocene. Each of these states grew on an economic foundation of intensive agriculture cultivated on well-watered, fertile land (Trigger 2003). Agriculturalists, however, are not the only societies to manifest political complexity and inequality.

Despite the fact that most foragers (i.e. hunter-gatherers) known in recent history live in relatively small-scale, egalitarian groups, foragers are also capable of generating hierarchical and unequal societies. Among foragers of the Pacific coast of North America, multi-village political units encompassing 100-10,000 individuals were led by chiefs and exhibited a complex continuum of social rank, slavery, and a significant degree of economic inequality. These foragers relied on resource-producing sites—salmon runs, fruit and nut groves, and coastal sites for maritime hunting and foraging—that were predictably clustered in space and time. This spatial and temporal concentration of resources motivated territorial claims and hierarchically organized, large-scale warfare over access to prime sites (Gunter 1972, Ames 1994, Matson & Coupland 1994, Rick et al. 2005, Kennett 2005).

The common denominator of political complexity among agriculturalists and foragers— the value of claiming and defending durable, defensible resources and resource-producing sites—underlies the central thesis of this chapter: the social dynamics that arise in the context of economically defensible resources are key generators of large-scale political integration and political hierarchy.

We establish the theoretical validity of this thesis with a computational model based on a set of simple assumptions. The model identifies features of the natural, social, and technological environment that favor (or disfavor) the development of an arms race between larger and more hierarchically organized territorial coalitions. The following three sections (II) describe the model, (III) summarize its results, then (IV) discuss the implications for understanding hierarchy and state formation in human history