Primary vs Secondary Characteristics of the State

Before this class I had never actually thought about how state authorities emerged, what went into creating a complex society, or how on earth states could be sustained for extend periods of time, especially in antiquity. In learning about the differences between primary and secondary characteristics of states at the beginning of the semester, I had clearly never really thought about such features playing such important parts in the rise and fall of ancient societies. Though secondary sources are very important and provide physical evidence of state emergence, sustenance, and decline, I personally believe that primary characteristics have proven to be more important throughout this course. Don’t get me wrong, I do know the importance of monuments, writing systems, mass production, religion, etc., but the six primary characteristics that make up the core of state societies seems to be the crucial features of these political entities. Urbanization, agriculture, specialization, complex economies, social stratification, and state authority have all had key roles in the linear transition that occurred as cultures moved from simple to complex societies.

Overall, I believe that the intensification of agriculture was the most important process of state emergence. Not only was agriculture important for the obvious reasons of the food production, but it also contributed to other primary characteristics of the state. With intense agriculture came the need to specialized occupation such as making specialized tools for farming and exploiting resources or storage vessel to extend the shelf life of food products. This intensification and specialization of the agricultural process led to complex economies. While some societies were known for their food production, others were successful in craft trades that produced luxurious or exotic goods. Because of the demand of product that couldn’t be obtained locally, large scale interchanges of goods and services eventually created expansive trade networks throughout the ancient world. Because some of these objects came from so far away, one’s ability to acquire these exotic goods contributed to the growing social stratification taking place in different states. State authority was then needed to aid in keeping order of the state, make decisions, and enforce some type of power. The centralization of the state contributed to the rise of urbanization.

Though secondary characteristics tell great stories of the past, can provide a detailed visual of certain aspects of primary characteristics, and are easily identifiable through archaeological remains, such as the Great Pyramids of Giza or Shang Dynasty oracle bones, primary characteristics tell us more about the actual structure and function of the society. Despite the fact the primary characteristics do seem to be slightly more significant in the history of past societies, both have proven to a play significant role in allowing us to peek into the past, learn from ancient states, and potentially better shape our future.

Agriculture: The Most Important

When reviewing the primary and secondary characteristics that apply to all states, it seems to me that agriculture is the most important.  Others such as specialization, stratification, and state authority all seem to come much later in the general development of a complex society, more “icing on the cake”, if you will.  Apart from agriculture, I also closely considered the factors urban and complex economy.  Deciding was not only a matter of figuring out which characteristic had what the others did not, but also what is fundamentally most crucial to the building of a state.  While complex economies foster technological growth from learning from other cultures, make previously unavailable resources available (trade), and lead to competition and expansion into an empire, it is not the most important factor.  I asked myself if complex economies could offer everything agriculture could: could you simply trade for enough crops to supply a growing state?  While technically I suppose it is possible, it is not very reliable.  As a general rule complete dependency on another state does not a successful state make.  Any state which attempted to do this probably wouldn’t be around long enough for us to need to learn about them.  I also considered the characteristic “urban”.  It could be argued that this is the most fundamentally important thing as a state is constructed.  After all, if you don’t have enough people in one place, not only is it not easy to build a state, it is not necessary.  I agree that you need the numbers first and foremost.  However, where that large population grows – where the first of its people choose to settle down – depends on the land being fertile.  The ancient Egyptians depended completely on the water of the Nile, and the Indus Valley states have become known as the “Cradle of Civilization” and the “Fertile Crescent” for its crop nurturing environment.  Without the means to supply them with food there would be no large and dense population and no urban type of settlement.  Another way to look at the question of which characteristic is most important to ancient states is to ask which one could they not do without?  The removal of which one led to their collapse?  In writing the first question to the take home exam, I noticed that many of the ancient states we studied experience catastrophic environmental changes just before their fall.  Many of these were droughts, while some were floods or storms, but they all disrupted the most important characteristic to ancient states: agriculture.

The Importance of Authority

All primary and secondary characteristics of a state are important to its success, but the most important characteristic is having a state authority. It is vital to the survival of an ancient state to have a central system for decision-making that can also enforce those decisions. In any society, choices will need to be made, and a system must be in place to solve problems. Even the most egalitarian societies will encounter natural leaders in their midsts. In the case of a state, organization of a large, unified population is necessary. Agriculture, infrastructure, and trade need to be managed. Militaristic and diplomatic relations need leadership. Without a state authority, the level of centralization seen in ancient states would not be possible.
Egypt is a great example of the importance of one central power. The pharaoh governed lower and upper Egypt. Symbols of power demonstrate the unified state. The double crown represents the joining of the two lands. Den implemented the use of the title Nsw Bty, meaning, “king of upper and lower Egypt” as a reminder of unification. Other demonstrations like the Heb Sed festival serve to perpetuate the notion of one comprehensive state. The pharaoh was an intermediary between the physical world and the gods, further validating his power. The importance as well as the scope of the pharaoh’s power is evident in the pyramids. He was powerful enough to devote labor and resources for thirty years to grand architecture. In addition to the pharaoh, there was a hierarchy of administrative decision-makers. Nomarchs also led districts, or nomes, and reported to the capital on a regular basis as a reinforcement that they were under his command. Only when these visits and other demonstrations of unification become less frequent did the centralized state collapse.
In the Indus Valley, centralized power comes in a different form than the extreme demonstrations of unification as in Egypt. Harappan cities have tremendous standardization. Incredible amounts of mudbricks, all the same size, make up the rectilinear buildings that line the streets. Cities, all on a grid, feature standardized houses, alleyways, drainage channels, wells, cisterns, and even neighborhood baths. This type of city standardization would not be possible without a master plan, laid out by an administrative body. Standardization was not only within city walls, but extended into Harappa’s extensive trade network in the form of standardized weights and measurements.
While expressed in different ways, every ancient state we have explored this semester contained a governing body. This authoritative power allowed states to grow and flourish; without it, many were unable to have continued success and fell. While every primary and secondary characteristic is important to ancient states, a state authority is the most essential to maintaining organization and structure.

Which Characteristic Is It?

We have talked about many different ancient civilizations and states in various places around the world. From China, to Egypt and the Middle East, to Middle and South America. Each Civilization had similarities as well as differences with each other. However, it seems that none of these ancient states would have formed without people urbanization.

Without a large number of people congregating in  the same area, there would be no need for intensive agriculture. The hunter-gatherer culture persisted for ages until humans started living sedentary lives. Once sedentary, humans needed to have a food source in the spot they were living. Since there is a larger number of people to work the crops, food production can happen on a larger scale. In addition, not every person needs to work in food production, work can be delegated and, because of this, some people gain free time. Now, there is the opportunity for specialization to occur.  With more people living together, not everyone has to perform the same tasks to maintain their livelihoods. This free time allows people to perfect crafts such as pottery making, metallurgy, and different forms of art.

With many people living in this urban setting and being able to specialize in certain crafts, producing goods that can be sold and traded, a complex economy starts to form. Goods and services can be exchanged on a larger scale both within the city and with other large cities. Luxury goods like jewelry and beads can exchange hands along with things like pottery and commodities like grain or other foodstuffs. Due to certain people’s ability to specialize and produce goods and in turn trade those goods, social stratification starts to appear. The haves and the have-nots of the population begin to separate.  With an elite class emerging and a trade network needing to be managed, a state authority can begin to emerge. The people who have managed to propel themselves into positions with power, through capitalizing on trade or agriculture, can make decisions for the population. They can anything from city development and planning, to regulation of crops, to water management. The last would have been extremely important in more dryer, more arid climates as well as areas where annual flooding occurred.

While each characteristic, both primary and secondary, plays important role in the development of a state, one seems to stand out from the rest as the main component. Without an urban setting, many of the other characteristics would not be able occur. When people transitioned to sedentary living and started to live in larger, more urban,  groups many of the other characteristics that make up a civilization fell into place.

Agriculture: The Cornerstone of Statehood

Of all of the primary and secondary characteristics of ancient states that we discussed in class at the beginning of the year, it’s my personal opinion that agriculture is the most important to the development of statehood. It sort of acts as a cornerstone for all new, developing societies; it is the component of ancient state characteristics from which all others are capable of emerging.

Intensive agriculture allows for a surplus of food to exist, which in turn allows for a growing society to vastly increase in population. Increased population promotes a more sedentary lifestyle that comes with intensive agriculture, thus forming the cornerstone of a growing society.

The introduction of intensive agriculture allowed for less people to need to concentrate on farming and food growth. With less of the population required to produce food,  more were free to develop skills or other embark in other specialized occupations.  As we discussed early on in the semester, the specialized production of goods is another primary characteristic of ancient states.

The onset of specialized labor marks the beginning of the production of purely material or luxury goods. Production of luxury goods promotes the development of a more complex economy, trading material wealth for non-essential goods and services. The increasingly large scale of this complex economy is yet another primary characteristic of ancient states, yet again prompted by the onset of intensive agriculture.

Social stratification, another of the primary characteristics of ancient states, is made possible because of the growing separation between the elites in society and the common workers, such as farmers. Overseers or landowners of the working agricultural class forms the aristocracy, while specialized workers and the luxury goods they create perpetuate the marked social stratification.

Clearly, we can see that while all the characteristics that define an ancient state are all important in making that distinction, it can be argued that intensive agriculture forms the basis of the remaining traits. Heavy food production allows for a heavy, dense population to form. Food production worked by a smaller portion of the population frees up more to become specialized or become the landowners that form the basis of the aristocracy and the beginnings of a stratified social hierarchy. Specialized workers produce luxury goods, which then contribute to the production of an increasingly complex economy. Without intensive agriculture, it’s unlikely that any of the other characteristics of an ancient state would develop at all. It also stands to reason that the destruction of agriculture would also lead to the downfall of the ancient states.



Which primary or secondary characteristic is the most important? This one was easy. Agriculture. I find that agriculture actually is the basis of a lot of the other characteristics of a state: Urbanism, specialization, complex economy, stratification, and authority. The beginning of growth of the state is generally based on agriculture as well by the process of domestication. Domestication allows for the hunter and gatherer community to predictably control their own destiny for the first time. They will start to have some grasp of what kind of food they will have and how much they will have from year to year versus the alternative of looking around for food every week and hoping there is enough. This predictability allows for the branching out of society into other social realms. The reliance on seasonal patterns for agriculture may help develop different faiths from culture to culture as well. How often have you heard of a state praying to the sun or rain god? It isn’t a coincidence that the sun god is generally a primary figure and that sun and water are extremely important to agriculture. Also, the planning aspect of domestication and farming requires someone to be in charge for the better of the community. This spurs on some beginning level of stratification in the community as well as authority. Someone needs to be in charge of making sure that agricultural produce is being used or stored wisely. The domestication of cereal grains has been seen to influence the startup of sedentary communities versus nomadic communities. This is the very beginning stage of urbanism and urban growth. Densely populated centers where people reside don’t always allow for everyone to be an agriculturalist. Other careers must be found in creating pottery, religion, and architecture. This is the beginning of specialization in the state. Over time, all of these factors will develop and form the Heirakonpolises and the Tenochtitlans we all know and love. However, just as agriculture was the beginning of all of these characteristics and therefore the state itself, it can also be the cause of collapse of the state. The unsustainable use of land can cause desertification and the collapse of agriculture in a state. The reliance on annual flooding or other patterns for agricultural can bring a state to its knees if it cannot handle an unpredictable change in the pattern. Production of food is very important and can either sustain a state or bring it down; therefore it is the most important characteristic of the state.

Complex Economy Builds a Complex State.

I find that the most important characteristic for the development of a state is a Complex Economy. None of the six traits seem to have the possibility to establish a state by themselves. They do, however, have the capability to develop the needed components for a complex state. In the case of a complex economy, the establishment of a state can begin to happen at full steam as long as one other factor (for this example agriculture) is present. For starters, a complex economy develops stratification and inter communal activities. Stratification develops due to the difference in wealth between members of the society while the inter-communal trade begins to further build the hierarchy. With the addition of agriculture, the person who controls irrigation will hold a large amount of value within the community, therefore providing him with a manner in which to be the higher class. Because of the people would have agriculture, urban centers grow from what was once nomadic groups of people. Authority is also a requirement for a state to function. With an elite class will come a ruler.

It may seem like rambling, but personally I feel that all of these traits of a complex state develop from one another. It may not be nearly as linear as it is shown in this blog post, but the idea still remains that they work in tandem with one another while also being created from the existence of other characteristics. Economic development plays a large role in shaping much of the modern and ancient states. Without a developed economy there would be no standardization for transactions or records such as we have seen with some of our class material. The economy is also important for the further expansion of the state. Warfare and trade are the two prominent reasons for travel  outside of a state’s borders. Such as with the Harappan trade system, the exchange of goods between people of different regions gives relations with foreign lands at the arsenal of a state. This also gives what resembles almost a trademark of the society such as Harappan and their beads they created. The specialization characteristic of the state also seems to be a trait that can grow from the presence of a complex economy.

All of the characteristics of a state that we discussed in class hold importance in the development of a state. Some of these, such as the economy, provide a stronger backbone for how a state becomes more complex.

Bonus Blog: Importance of Religion

I deluded myself into thinking this blog post would be simple, because I truly thought I knew what the most important state characteristic was going into this assignment.  However, further contemplation on all the characteristics (both primary and secondary) muddied my initial thoughts. Thus, I decided to ask myself this simple question: what unifies diverse, autonomous, individuals the most aside from proximity (proximity does not equal being urbanized in this sense)?  Is it collective dependency on common environmental resources?  Coercion of a targeted, weaker group by a dominant, elite group?  Perhaps the key is a complex economy which can sustain a group of people and enable them to develop other essential characteristics of states?  I finally realized that I needed to decide upon the proverbial egg (that gives way to the proverbial chicken, or the other way around), knowing full well that a univarian model is far from perfect.  I decided I could argue that religion is the great unifier because many practices stem from a common belief system, and belief systems can be used to justify almost any action that befits the person or people whom it will benefit.

Religion, as previously stated, is a shared belief system that can arise when a few people have similar representations of their environments and lives, and choose to represent those ideas to themselves in similar ways.  Religion can also be described as an ideology (although the two aren’t synonymous) because they both involve a system of collective beliefs about the world.  Religion takes into account the supernatural, natural environment, ethics, morals, and ways of organizing interpersonal relationships.  It can also include science (astronomy) and calendar systems.  I see these factors as the base on which much of state building can occur, from primary characteristics (urbanism, agriculture, specialization, stratification, economics, and state authority) to secondary characteristics (monumental public works, writing, tribute/taxation, and art).

I see religion/ideology as being a defining justification for many of the primary and secondary characteristics listed above, some more obviously than others (art, tribute, public works are more self-explanatory).  For example,  the Inca were a great case study of how ideology/religion could influence state building in terms of economics, expansion, tribute/taxation, and public works.  The belief in split inheritance and mit’a were catalysts for the expansion of the empire; they inherently involved taxation and tribute, and provided many public works.  I think the most interesting part of the ideology, however, was that the labor forces bought into the collective belief that their taxation went to a dead king, and thus continued to toil because it was what was right.  In China, the Shang Dynasty used oracle bones to help shed light on economic and political decisions.  The pyramids in Egypt show a pharaoh’s ability to  centralize power and labor of the state, which couldn’t be done if his citizens failed to buy into his the ideology that he was correct.  He also hosted the Heb Sed to reinforce and reaffirm his dominance over Upper and Lower Egypt.  Egypt is also a good case study in social stratification, as seen though mortuary practices that have religious affiliations.  Abydos, a royal necropolis, was famous for the powerful dead it held, despite its somewhat unorthodox location.  This was in due to its prime location by the entry to the duwat.  In highland Mesoamerica, Teotihuacan was built according to religious specifications, as the city itself was responsible for maintaining the cosmos.

I’m sure there are millions of other examples of religion or ideology guiding the actions of a state.  I do not think it is the sole reason why states came to be, or why they were sustained.  I believe you can’t have one variable without the other, especially in terms of primary characteristics (hence the inherent importance of ‘primary’), thus, a multivariate approach is always preferred.  However, for the purposes of this assignment, I believe religion/ideology adequately fits the bill because it is such an integral part of human existence.

ANP363 | Spring 2013