Because each of these characteristics are interdependent, it is difficult to simply choose one as the most important. As I explored the interrelationships between the primary characteristics of the state, I have narrowed down what I think are the most important to agriculture and state authority. Of these, I am unsure which is more important since, in order for the state authorities to enforce class stratification, urban planning, specialization for elite consumption, and complex trading systems, they need excess agricultural production for their own consumption. Otherwise they would be spending their days working land or hunting for enough food for themselves and their families. However, in order for agricultural practices to grow enough to have a surplus, there must be some initiative or reason for a people to engage in these practices past their own needs. In this way, the idea of an elite or authoritative class would encourage the agricultural production they then seem dependent on. After exploring these through our course texts for a bit, I have decided that agriculture appears to be the most central, not just in terms of what makes a state, but also what makes a state collapse, making this the key characteristic of statehood, for me.
Most, if not all, of the ancient states we have talked about in class have centered around a river or some other body of water (the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates, monsoons and Indus/Ganga rivers, Yellow River, etc.). In each case, hunter-gatherer societies started to become semi-sedentary to sedentary societies with the cultivation of land around these rivers or bodies of water. In some places, like Andean South America, Lower Egypt, or Lowland Mesoamerica, the ocean itself became a body of water around which agriculture and trade could evolve. Once these semi-sedentary communities were established around the annual floods of the Nile or Tigris and Euphrates, or around the seasonal lake beds and storms in the Indus Valley and China, people started to become more sedentary, staying year-round instead of moving for half the year to go hunt and gather in other parts of the region. Instead, they developed ways to glean the most they could from the land that was already extremely fertile part of the year. For some areas, this meant canals (Mesopotamia), raised fields (Andes), or other types of irrigation to bring water to bigger areas of land.
However each emerging society decided to further their ability to use and harvest crops, they each had to plan for the times of the year in which crops were not available, leading to surpluses that had to be stored for later. In egalitarian societies, the excesses could be stored together from each individual/family, and then dispersed as needed through the rest of the year. As populations grew, however, there came to be a necessity for organizing people and enforcing the ‘rules’ of the society. With this necessity came a position of power for those in charge of distribution and enforcement. As societies grew bigger and ideologies became more present, this minor elite came to have more and more power, eventually able to place themselves at the ‘top’ of a social hierarchy, with varying levels of specialization and class standings. In this way, I think agriculture allows for each of the other primary characteristics to exist, even if the actual existence of agriculture is not what causes the other characteristics to exist.
While I understand that this is a fairly speculative assessment of what actually happened in these ancient states, I also understand that in each ancient state, we talked about the geography, climate, and agricultural possibilities as a first step toward learning about ancient peoples. Because of its importance to our discussions, I also think that its importance to the rise of states cannot be undervalued. There is a reason that ancient states arose where and when they did, and also a reason they fell when they did. In many cases, agricultural decreases played large roles in the collapse of these states. Therefore, it appears to be at least a very major contender for the most important characteristic of a ‘state’.