How Chiefs become Kings: reflections on the fragile power of states

All societies have ranking among individuals. Some people, by the time they are adults, are more highly respected than others. This is based on character and reputation. It means that most children, as they mature, look to such people – usually respected elders – as role models, as embodiments of ideals.  The “fierce” egalitarianism of hunter-gatherers does not mean the generous people are considered virtuous; it means that people anticipate that acts of public generosity are essentially virtue-signalling;  sarcastic mockery  is all such motivation deserves.  Sharing food and other necessities is simply proper human behaviour, not a calculated act. Desire for acceptance and respect is channelled subtly, the greatest intimacy, for example, can be recognizable as a casual exchange of mutually insulting banter.

Among the Kua there was an old guy who was always joking but as often laughed about (in his absence) as he was laughed WITH. I asked why he was never spoken of as an elder – since most aged persons were referred to me for their specialized knowledge or memory of long ago events or oral history… and I was told that this man was old, very old, but he had always been foolish and he was still foolish. He had not acquired any particular set of skills or detailed knowledge as had many other people his age.. he had not become “wise”.

This is not “social stratification”.  It is not even generational ranking – greater authority given to elders. What many sedentary hunter-gatherers have is a kind of ranking that gives some families more authority over the use of resources in a particular locality than others.  Thus the descendent of the eldest son of the eldest son of the eldest son etc of the man who originally settled his family that location is the highest ranking person to go to if you wish to ask permission to camp there, or to use any resource from that area. All the more adult men from more junior lines would defer to the judgement of this higher ranked person (headman or chief) from the senior lineage… even if that individual were in fact younger than the current representative of a more junior lineage.  That is a ranked society, and it creates a kind of hierarchy of authority, but it again is almost never linked to any differences in access to food, shelter, assistance or care.  In other words, it is not socio-economic  stratification.  

I did not even find any real evidence of socio-economic stratification among horticultural or pastoral people in West Africa. Being a lineage headman or a chief of a village and thus deferred to by the headmen of the various lineages that comprised the village population, did NOT translate into having a bigger house, eating more food or better food, or having more  privileges than anyone else. Village chiefs did not have the right to take away the goods, lands, or lay sexual claim to any of the women in the lower ranking households. In fact the position of village chief, I was told, was affirmed as a result of consultation among the various lineage heads (usually “elders”) of that village. The point of having a village chief was to make someone responsible for overseeing the building and maintenance of the communal granaries that were the main risk insurance against the droughts that frequently occurred in the region.

Similarly, among the hunter-gatherers of the NW coast, the chiefs were usually charged with overseeing the harvesting, drying, and storage of surplus salmon and fish oil stocks. Prestige competitions (potlatches) added extra motivation to these efforts, and it served also to provision neighbouring villages that had experienced a poor salmon run that year. This thus served two purposes.. it increased the motivation to work longer hours during a good salmon run, (not just on the part of the chief, but on the part of everyone connected to him and his community, since it increased everyone’s prestige to be hosts to a big food give-away), and it also was a regional risk insurance strategy. If your village is the one with the very poor salmon run this year, it is very likely that surrounding villages, who have all lost face when you hosted major potlatches in the previous decade, will jump at the chance to invite your village to a potlatch.. as you return home laden with enough dried fish and oil to last you for the winter, you might be lower in prestige, but at least you will not starve. And, significantly, if neighbouring villages share their surpluses with the people of your own village, you will be less tempted to raid these neighbours to take their stored food.

In West Africa, the horticultural villages had big post-harvest festivals, which they took turns hosting. After a big successful harvest, when all the granaries were full to bursting, a village will sometimes invite relatives and acquaintances from three or four of their nearest neighbour villages to several days of feasting. Everyone wears their finest clothes, there are dances, and parades, and afternoons of Kgotla (court proceedings) when disputes between these villages (accusations of affairs, of theft, of nonpayment of brideprice, etc) are heard and resolved by the assembled councils of elders (lineage heads) and chiefs, with the host village chief making the final adjudication.

There are special costumes and carved masks worn by dancers, who are men who, for the duration of their performance, are said to be transformed into the totemic spirits of the various lineages. And tons of sorghum beer is consumed, specially fattened cattle and other livestock is slaughtered, and massive amounts of food are consumed.  One woman told me that her ambition was to serve a heaping plate of food to every invited visitor! It does not take too much imagination to see how these events function much like the potlatches.

Socio-economic stratification is a different kind of application of ranked hierarchy. It indicates a hierarchy of access to resources, so that the position translates into having a better house, or more livestock, or more land than those at the bottom the hierarchy… and this almost always means that chiefs or literally “empowered” – they have potential coercive power over others, and they use this to maintain their unequal access or possession of resources.  This is the point when social ranking is transformed from
a) egalitarianism with a hierarchy where higher rank actually translates as greater responsibility, to b) inegalitarian hierarchy where higher rank translates as greater privilege and power. Privilege relates directly to having enough food while some people in your community go hungry, having good shelter while others are living in squalor or are homeless, having land and/livestock while others must beg or hire themselves out – to exchange their labour for access to food, shelter, land and/or livestock.

Many “tribal” societies, thus, remain essentially egalitarian in access to necessities. I used to misunderstand why the compound of a village chief was often larger and more populous than that of even the lineage headmen… until I discovered that the numbers there were higher because the village chief drew into his close orbit any orphans, disabled persons, and even some families suffering through a long illness such as guinea worm infection or river blindness. In this way, the smaller compounds where these people originated were not burdened with their care. The chief, after all, received donations of surplus grain from all everyone in the village, and often had grain from many previous harvest seasons at his disposal in the communal granaries surrounding his own house. Thus, in addition to insuring the village against the hazards of longer term droughts, such risks of illness and disability – a constant threat in the lives of every family in the village in every year, was also alleviated by the custom that heaped extra responsibility on the shoulders of the village chief. 

One more thing: many ethnographies have noted that village chiefs (“big men”) tend to have more wives. This is true. The village chiefs I interviewed however, were not all that pleased about the extra women whose households they had to provide for. In one interview it was even revealed that the two younger wives were women the chief HAD to marry, since he had supported the brideprice negotiations for these women to be be married to men in junior lineages – but then these young men had gone to work in the Ivory Coast years ago and never returned. The betrothed girls meanwhile grew impatient, took lovers, and got pregnant. The families refused to return the brideprice and accused the families of the absent men of bad faith, and the chief (in two of these disputes) felt obliged to add these women to his own household.  In addition, of course, chiefs were the desired as in-laws for political connections between villages. finally, among the Mossi the eldest son, at his father’s death, inherited all his father’s wives (except his own mother, of course, who was the senior wife). He thus took over responsibility for all the children in the compound, including his younger siblings. One of my assistants in the research team in Burkina Faso was a Mossi; she had several younger half-siblings who were simultaneously her nieces and nephews, since her oldest brother had half-a-dozen children with the two younger wives he had inherited. He also had a number of children with his first wife.

These village chiefs, and regional chiefs who were responsible for dozens of villages, – or even the overall Mogho Naba – the supreme or paramount chief of the entire tribe, in the case of the Mossi, were not always able to live up to these responsibilities perfectly; there were accounts of failures of provisioning during extremely long periods of recurrent drought, for example. There was a certain degree of moral pressure and scrutiny involved as well – since the higher the position, the more the person occupying it was held responsible for any general misfortunes. Extreme droughts, storms, floods, wildfires, or outbreaks of disease were thus sometimes attributed to some failure of the chief of a village. Moral and ritual correctness, on the part of leaders, was considered crucial to the fortunes of their community: the chief had to make sufficient sacrifices, sponsor enough ceremonies, act with due diligence, to keep the gods appeased. Excess personal luxury or arrogance is dangerous for a person of high rank. Good behaviour, on the other hand, will count in their favour if generalized misfortune strikes their people, but it can only go so far.

Tribal chiefdoms of a regional or multi-regional scope are thus on the very brink of becoming socio-economically stratified. If they tip over the edge they become kingdoms. Where are the tipping points… these are not actually to be found in changed subsistence practices – it is not the shift from foraging to farming that engineers socio-economic stratification. Rather the shift appears to follow critical increases in population pressure, in degree of resource depletion (deforestation, soil nutrient losses, local wildlife extinction etc), in climatic changes like prolonged cold or dry periods, or repeated raids or attacks of outsider groups.

This last factor seems to me to be of greatest significance. A more militant defensive control of borderlands, or the development of regular predatory expansion to seize more territory or resources held by neighbours, and even increased internal conflicts between villages or different lineages within the tribe, can all lead to the increased coercive power afford to, and tolerated from, a tribal leader. Once both internal policing and external warfare becomes the exclusive prerogative of this central authority, (once the king has an army and a police force at his command) it becomes possible for title to be inherited as power over land distribution as well.

Throughout history kings have rewarded their trusted and close associates, often members of their own family and lineage, with titles to land holdings encompassing many rural communities. The old traditions of responsibility for “the common people” persisted even though the feudal period in Europe, as noblesse oblige (The Oxford English Dictionary states that the term “suggests noble ancestry constrains to honourable behaviour; privilege entails to responsibility.”) 


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