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Norman Yoffee: Myths of the Archaic State:
evolution of the earliest cities, states, and civilizations
(Cambridge: 2005)


“The evolution of the earliest cities, states, and civilizations is an enormous topic...[for] economically stratified and socially differentiated societies developed all over the world, from societies that were little stratified and relatively undifferentiated; large and densely populated cities developed from small habitation sites and villages; social classes developed from societies that were structured by kin-relations which functioned as frameworks for production, and so forth. These changes must be explained, and...it doesn’t much matter what we call things, as long as we explain clearly what we mean, and as long as our categories further research, rather than force data into analytical blocks that are self-fulfilling prophesies.... The central myth of this book is not that there was no social evolution...but the claim that the earliest states were basically the same sort of thing: large territorial systems ruled by totalitarian despots who controlled the flow of goods, services, and information and imposed true law and order on their subjects.... Indeed, much of the literature on the evolution of ancient states focuses nearly exclusively on political systems, and has tended to reduce the earliest states to a series of myths about godly and heroic (male) leaders who planned and built prodigious monuments and cities, conquering their neighbors and making them powerless subjects of the ruling elites.... [In contrast,] a large part of my project is to illustrate the varieties of social systems and modes of power that existed in many of the earliest states.... By means of case studies that survey the world-landscape of emerging states, I depict an evolutionary process in which social roles were transformed into relations of power and domination. Stratified and differentiated social groups were recombined under new kinds of central leadership, and new ideologies were created that insisted that such leadership was not only possible, but the only possibility. I center social evolutionary theory in the concerns of how people came to understand their lives in the earliest cities and states, how the new ideology of states was instituted in everyday lives, and how leaders of previously autonomous social groups in states negotiated with rulers and/or contested their dominion.”
(Yoffee, pp.1-3)

Despite the undoubted fact that homo sapiens is becoming, more and more, an urban creature, there is very little serious writing for general audiences on the evolution of the first cities & states (which set the intial patterns for urban life)...and almost all of what there is basically recycles the myths noted above. As one might expect, Jane Jacobs was one conspicuous exception to this...however - despite its insight - her work on the question is now almost forty years old, and the scale of subsequent research makes it imperative that we incorporate it into our understandings...even if this means having to deal with the formidably bad writing required in the social sciences.

This gap in the literature, however, is also replicated to a large extent by the divide in professional specializations...leaving this crucial area to those few scholars willing to cross boundaries...albeit, the most important questions can only be addressed via enquiries that range across such boundaries:


“Mesopotamian historians often view Mesopotamian prehistory as a long, largely incomprehensible and dreary backdrop to the events documented in cuneiform writing. Indeed, Mesopotamian histories often have the urgency of a von Daniken script: after a long period in which little of consequence occurred, vast building schemes and imperial adventures were undertaken by great men who transformed their world. The Mesopotamian historian’s myopia is, of course, matched by the prehistorian’s tendency to fold his or her tent and steal away at the dawn of history...as if knowledge of Mesopotamian history was quite irrelevant to the understanding of the prehistoric institutions that underlay, and in a real sense caused, the economies and societies of the historic periods.”
(Yoffee, pp.198-9)

Still, in  Norman Yoffee we do have a genuinely insightful guide to this era - even if he frequently lapses into social science-speak - for his work is not merely a critique, but also supplies us w/a real understanding of exactly what was going on in these societies, without having to make any dubious extrapolations from the recent ethnographic record, or attempting to force these into a unilinear “evolutionary” scheme.

The scare quotes are entirely justified here...for the orthodoxy in this area is based on a profound misunderstanding of Darwinian evolution and, in fact, regressed to exactly the kind of typological thinking that Darwin struggled against. Rather than inherently variable populations, societies were “classified”/shoehorned into a very limited range of ideal types - bands, tribes, chiefdoms, states - which served mainly to obscure the very real differences between them...often in flat disregard of the genuine evidence we do have...

For, in direct contradiction of such unilinear assumptions, nothing supports the idea that the precursors to the world’s very first cities were chiefdoms...since the archaeological record shows no evidence whatsoever of the key indicators of such social arrangements!

So, we need to abandon such preconceptions...and try making sense of what we actually do have. Yoffee’s approach re theory is exemplary here. For, whilst he takes on board the reasons for relativistic assumptions, he is - sensibly - unwilling to follow such conclusions...preferring instead to reform social evolutionary approaches by much more judicious (and varied) borrowings from a wide range of sources, including complexity theory. But, in each case, he is insistent that such borrowings deliver real insight on the ground, and he backs this up by continually referring to a variety of examples where different aspects of his emergent synthesis can genuinely deliver. Unfortunately, though, he frequently descends to social science-speak...particularly in the general statements which I want to quote here. So, you’ll just have to make your own translations...


“Complex societies have institutionalized subsystems that perform diverse functions for their individual members, and are organized as relatively specific and semiautonomous entities.... Further differentiation, in normative social evolutionary thought, leads to problems of social order and to a need for generalized centers of political and economic administration that provide the linkages in these consequently functionally integrated parts. I stress in this book both that these putative linkages are often quite weak in the earliest states, and also that centrality is mainly concerned with the creation of new symbols of social identity, ideologies of power, and representations of history. [And,] although centralization may ‘solve’ some problems, it is the source of other ones.... Kinship ties and their various functions in local production, distribution, and legal arrangements that characterized the organization of local communities did not disappear in states. The emergence of a political center depended on its ability to express the legitimacy of interaction among the differentiated elements. It did this by acting through a generalized structure of authority, making certain decisions in disputes between members of different groups, including kin groups, maintaining the central symbols of society, and undertaking the defense and expansion of the society.”
(Yoffee, pp.16-17)

“Since...most early states are territorially small, indeed can be called city-states (or micro-states), and a number of such city-states share an ideology of government, I refer to the larger social order and set of shared values in which states are culturally embedded as a ‘civilization’.... State and civilization are in a sense coeval, since it is the emergence of the idea that there should be a state - a central authority, whose leaders have privileged access to wealth and to the gods - that must accompany the formation, legitimacy, and durability of a political center. The state as governmental center, and its attendant hierarchy of officers and clients maintains features that are distinct from kinship, priestly, and other hierarchies, whose members interacted in a variety of ways with the government, and who were transformed by those interactions. The evolution of a new ‘civilizational’ ideology, namely that there should be a state, was critical, because the state constituted and stipulated the orderly functioning of the cosmos, especially by requiring rulers to intercede with the gods, and to represent the rest of society in such intercession.”
(Yoffee, p.17)

Yoffee, like Jane Jacobs, is also alert to the reciprocal influence of city and countryside upon one another, and similarly argues that what we now see as the norm for the latter was actually a product of the emergence of cities...since these totally transformed the relations of people to their environment. But, unlike Jacobs, he does not totally centre such processes on the city and, in fact, notes that democratizing processes frequently relied on countervailing alliances between country and city:


“In every region of the world where the first states appeared, cities were the collecting basins in which long-term trends towards social differentiation and stratification crystallized. The earliest states, with the exception of Egypt, in which cities and the early competition among cities were also important, did not encompass large nation-like territories. Furthermore...the social evolutionary trend that we normally call ‘urbanization’ has often an equally important counterpart: ‘ruralization’. That is, for many of the earliest cities, the urban demographic implosion was accompanied by an equally important creation of the countryside. This process of ruralization can be observed in two dimensions. First, existing towns and and villages became networked to urban places [and] the social and economic roles of non-urban dwellers were tied to decisions made in the cities.... Second, countrysides became relatively depopulated as many people became incorporated in the new cities....[and] subsequently, new villages, towns, and hamlets arose on the backdraft of urbanization. This condition also led to the intensification of specialized activities, such as pastoralism and nomadism, which flourished not only to supply goods and services to cities, but also served as refuges for urban flight.... Furthermore, the process of ruralization fostered endemic conflict between those in the countryside and those in the cities. The situation, however, was not simply one of peasants in the countryside and elites in the cities.... Rural elites, traditional leaders of kin groups or rural gentry, had roles in urban-based political-religious ceremonies. The stability of the state often lay in the balance between the status and legitimacy provided by these ceremonies to rural leaders, and the tangible support in goods and labor that rural elites and their dependants had to provide to urban leaders.... Within Mesopotamian cities, local assemblies were constituted by community members and traditional leaders, often those who still maintained ties to the countryside. These assemblies exercised judicial privileges...and leaders in the countryside could ally themselves with their kinsmen in the cities by mobilizing traditional ties of group solidarity against the great institutions of the royal court and its retainers.”
(Yoffee, pp.60-2)

“In the early history of the first cities, states, and civilizations, differentiated social groups became recombined in cities. These cities were focal points of pilgrimages, exchange, storage and redistribution, and centers for defense and warfare. In these cities, along with their associated and restructured countrysides, new identities as citizens were created, but did not entirely supplant existing identities as members of economic, kin, and ethnic groups. Certain aspects of identity were also forged with citizens in other cities who shared a common, if created, heritage, and these were maintained and reproduced over time.... New rituals and ceremonies connected rulers with citizens and the gods. These displayed and justified the supremacy and legitimacy of kings, and reaffirmed command over the social order. The social roles and practices of citizens were routinized within the urban layout of monumental constructions, streets and pathways, walls and courtyards. The built environment itself demonstrated the superior access to knowledge and planning held by rulers, ostensibly on behalf of all. Statecraft in the earliest cities involved providing an order to the present, which the rulers relentlessly proclaimed in literature and in a created landscape that overlay the unruliness of a society composed of many groups, each with its own interests and orientations.”
(Yoffee, p.91)

This story, Yoffee argues, is considerably truer to the actual archaeological record than conventional accounts which rely on narrow typologies and, therefore, of course, can offer no real explanation of change. And, whilst I can’t quote the entire essay which completes this work - in which he offers a very sensible interpretation of the rise of the world’s first cities in Mesopotamia - he does also offer us this potted version, which succinctly outlines the basic process:


“The earliest villages in Mesopotamia, and I believe elsewhere, persisted as modest villages for thousands of years, while social roles and identities changed in significant ways. From the environment of village life, the circulation of goods and marital partners led to institutionalized interconnections among unrelated people, and to the formation of interaction spheres. Codes of communication and symbols of shared beliefs allowed and expressed new aspects of cultural identity among villagers. Certain individuals, nascent elites, began to restrict access to the technology of symbol manufacture and also the means...and venues of communication, such as feasts and ceremonies. Control over these symbols and esoteric knowledge became a domain of power in these early villages.... In Mesopotamia, the formation of larger spheres of interaction over time, and the growth of a belief system that connected both northern and southern Mesopotamia resulted not only in regularized exchanges of goods, but also reasons to shift production goals from local consumption to production for exchange...[and] villages that were centers of production and exchange, that were located on trade routes and/or rivers, that lay near great agricultural land, seats of temples and regional worship, and that were defensible locations from attacks by neighbors - for hundreds or thousands of years - suddenly became cities, as people from the countryside increasingly moved into them.”
(Yoffee, pp.229-30)

Here, urbanization is, in essence, a positive feedback process...but one, however, which can only succeed if the long, slow pre-adaptations towards social segmentation in these particular domesticated societies have generated viable grounds for the “legitimacy” of government and, although these may differ widely, they generally partake more or less strongly of the numinous, the assembly, and/or the military - and the first definitely appears to be the strongest in pristine state formations, and particularly so in the Chinese case:


“The evolution of the first [east Asian] cities and states took place in north China, as part of a process in which local cultures became embedded within a created ‘Chinese’ sphere of interaction. That is, increasing amounts of trade, warfare (especially over access to resources), and migrations in the third millennium BC led to the formation of new material symbols that were shared by previously distinctive cultures.... In the first cities and states in the early second millennium, rulers wished to control access to the metals needed to make bronze, and also to control the technology of constructing bronze ritual vessels...[which] allowed rulers to claim privileged access to the ancestors. These symbols could ‘simplify’ the path to authority in ancient China.”
(Yoffee, p.96)

“K.C. Chang and David Keightley have asserted there was a unique path to the state in late Shang times, but this is one variation on the theme of how early states attempt to simplify their societies. Chang...argued that wealth was the product of political power in Shang China, and that political power was derived through a ‘monopoly on high shamanism’...[and] Keightley insisted that Chinese society was one with few, if any, institutions that transcended kinship, and that ‘the lineage was the source of authority in both government and religion... The organizing metaphors of Shang life were those of...ancestor worship’.... According to Keightley, late Shang kingship was highly itinerant. The king travelled constantly throughout the countryside, sacrificing to local spirits.... The purpose of the Shang royal road-show was to hold together a federation of lineages by the glue of the royal ancestor cult. [But] kinship alone could not sustain the Shang status hierarchy, and rulers had to earn their right to rule by demonstrating superior access to the ancestors and high gods...[while] ‘the Shang state was gruyere, filled with non-Shang holes, rather than tofu, solidly Shang throughout.’”
(Yoffee, pp.96-8)

“Benjamin Schwartz and Hsu Cho-yun...have noted a trend in late Shang times, in which the shamans, diviners, oracle bone scribes, and priests who conducted ceremonies were becoming bureaucratized, and the process of divination was routinized.... This was still the period when the king was his most mobile highness, and was attempting to introduce the royal ancestor cult of his urban center into the rural pantheon, which was mainly concerned with ensuring  prosperity of the annual agricultural cycle.... This reconfiguration of ideology, in which power accrued to those able to contact all ancestors most efficaciously through bronze vessels and writing, resulted in the...emergence of a class of officials specializing in the control and dissemination of ideology [and] was critical in the evolution of the earliest cities and states in China.”
(Yoffee, p.98)

In Mesopotamia, in contrast, we appear to see an emergent polity where religion and  assemblies were twin sources of legitimacy, with royal power - and, in fact, the role itself - emerging only belatedly through increased military threats...and, hence, the need for a strongly organizing authority in that area. So, rather than persisting w/ancestor worship, the emergent order in Mesopotamia tended to politicize/de-sacralize the family and kinship...therefore opening up the social order to the possibilities of further sources of legitimacy, such as commerce. Furthermore, this also made any reversion to a unity of lineage and sacredness inherently unstable...which is why claims to “God-King” status in this tradition were always dubious - unlike those in China, and Egypt, for that matter...

Even the sources of writing differ...family/ritual in the Chinese case, and exchange accounting in Mesopotamia. Moreover, the crucial breakthrough to syllabic (and hence, eventually, alphabetic) literacy is also explained by the greater level of openness in the latter... And, rather than seeing such differences as mere minutia within a typological scheme, Yoffee accords them the importance they genuinely deserve...as key factors which fed into the very different trajectories of these civilizations...


“The precursors of writing in both China and Mesopotamia concerned the ownership of materials. In the Chinese case, Neolithic potters’ marks seem to be the emblems of families, lineages, or clans...while in the Mesopotamian Neolithic some ‘tokens’ apparently denoted various commodities and numbers.... [But,] early systems of writing in both places, however lengthy their prehistory in kinds of notation, were inventions in the first cities...[and] there was nothing rudimentary about their earliest forms. Boltz shows that both systems began as pictograms that soon became logograms (word-signs). In order to express abstractions, however, both systems utilized principles of homophony, in which words with different meanings but similar sounds could be written with the same graph, and polyphony, in which the same graph could stand for semantically congruent but phonetically distinct words.... The invention of semantic and phonetic determinants as guides for the scribally perplexed also characterizes both systems of writing. Unlike the Chinese script, Mesopotamian writing underwent another stage of development to become syllabographic. The major impetus for such development, as Boltz notes, was contact with dissimilar languages in Mesopotamia, and so the need to represent foreign names in a script that was not developed for these sounds.”
(Yoffee, pp.94-6)

Another area badly dealt with in conventional social evolutionary schemes is collapse...something that actually happens very often in history. And, by noting a progressively greater impact of such over the lifetime of civilizations, Yoffee’s work dovetails nicely with that of Mancur Olson in The Rise and Decline of Nations, whilst also providing one compelling reason for the ideological crisis of the Axial Age...


“Collapse, in general, tends to ensue when the center is no longer able to secure resources from the periphery, usually having lost the legitimacy through which it could disembed goods and services of traditionally organized groups. The process of collapse entails the dissolution of those centralized institutions that had facilitated the transmission of resources and information, the settlement of intergroup disputes, and the legitimate expression of differentiated organizational components. The maintenance of those institutions demands a flexibility, a resilience of responses to stresses that are continually produced, often contradictorily, by the various competing groups on the periphery and those within the center itself, as well as by external threats or expansionist policies. A maximizing strategy, in which the political center tends to channel resources and services for its own, rather than for societal, ends, and in which support and legitimation from the periphery are therefore eroded, can lead to collapse.”
(Yoffee, p.139)

“It is relatively easy to understand why, with the defeat of the Assyrian army in 614, the Assyrian state fell. It is less easy, and much more important, to understand why it did not regenerate, as many defeated states in Mesopotamia had done. Obviously, the loss of revenues to support the enormous military and bureaucratic establishments meant the certain failure of Assyrian urban life. However, it is also clear that the agricultural basis of the Assyrian economy had also been undermined.... The old rural estates, now worked by substantial numbers of unfree and non-Assyrian labor, had been increasingly granted to generals and bureaucrats...[while] the population of Assyria, which included a large number of deported people, was no longer predominantly Assyrian, and the traditional nobility had long been systematically removed as a hindrance to royal centralization and military efficiency. No reformulation from such a collapse was possible. [But,] as Assyrian fortunes waned, those of Babylon waxed ephemerally bright...[with] Nebuchadnezzar II mimicking the Assyrian strategy of campaigning abroad and deporting large segments of rebellious populations to his homeland. The end of Babylonia, too, followed closely its greatest imperial success...perhaps to the relief of important elements of the Babylonian population. Once the hub of the West Asian universe, Mesopotamia had now become merely a province, albeit an important one, in a completely new form of imperial system.... [And] although Mesopotamian civilization did not collapse in pace with the fall of the state...Mesopotamian culture had been demoted, in effect, to one among many social orientations...[and, eventually] became only dim reflections of an antique past.”
(Yoffee, pp.152-9)

Thus, as power solidified - and ossified - and the techniques of ruling became more and more divisive re traditional social ties & forms, the price was to be an increasingly difficult/impossible task of regeneration following collapse...in direct contrast to earlier states, who “often and repeatedly” collapsed, only to v.rapidly regenerate, legitimated by slightly modified ruling ideologies. Eventually, of course, such critical regeneration tasks would lead to radical questioning of the traditional bases of legitimation, in what Karl Jaspers labelled the “Axial Age”...which gave birth to the basic worldviews we still largely hold to today:


“[These ideologies strive] to present a comprehensive view of the world, not merely of any particular group, and argue that the main task is to remake present reality, corrupt and imperfect as it is, in accordance with the dictates of a higher moral order. Socially, Axial Age civilizations come to be pervaded by new kinds of groups, labelled by Eisenstadt ‘autonomous elites,’ because their existence, recruitment, and legitimacy do not depend finally on the political establishment, nor on traditional kinship ties, but on individual qualifications, especially intellectual ability. It is the raison d’etre of these groups, in turn, to create, promulgate, and refine the new ideologies.”
(Peter Machinist, quoted in Yoffee, p.140)

Norman Yoffee’s Myths of the Archaic State is, to date, the key book in a crucially important area where there is v.little sophisticated writing for non-specialists, which is why I am willing to recommend a work that frequently bows before the dictates of bad writing mandated in the social sciences. Still, as should also be evident by now, Yoffee’s native style is actually a genuinely engaging one, and it continually breaks through in the book, cutting short verbose analyses w/insouciant charm in a way which does make this the best-written work in the area...as well as the most insightful.

For Yoffee’s title is all too accurate, indeed...as the received “wisdom” re the birth and early history of the first states is clearly both theoretically naive, and seriously undermined by the bulk of the hard evidence that we have. Living, as most of us do, in long-established cities and states, we have difficulty in understanding the sheer scale of the ideological task that had to be undertaken before such could seem “natural”...and, so, we tend to underestimate that, and overestimate the role of material factors which seem to us much more evident. But, as heirs to this momentous transition, we will never really comprehend our world unless we seriously attempt to put aside our blinkers, and understand the world of the first urban revolutions. And in this task, Norman Yoffee is our best guide...


“Humanists have always been suspicious of elegant theories that leave people out of history, [and] although I have traced broad evolutionary schemes in this book, produced social-science-like generalizations and even one ‘law,’ and have asserted that calculating numbers of people and size of settlements are indispensable goals in social research (even if the numbers are often little more than educated guesses), and have sometimes even written (I fear) in social scientese, I have tried to resist the reductionist and dehumanizing tendencies inherent in much social evolutionary research...and my ‘new rules of social evolutionary thinking’ are not meant as substitutes for creative thinking about how people understood their lives. I do not apologise for all this distressing openendedness. Indeed, unburdening archaeological research from some of its central myths (which are masquerades of systematically organized knowledge), including some that may have been created by this book, can lead to what archaeologists do best: tenaciously discovering, precisely dissecting, and pleasurably confronting the living, surprising past.”
(Yoffee, pp.231-2)


John Henry Calvinist