Theory of Primary State Formation

A ‘primary state’ or ‘pristine state’ is a first-generation state that evolves without contact with any preexisting states. The evolution of secondary states is strongly influenced by existing states. In particular, nonstate societies are always at risk of being conquered by neighboring states; they can emulate established states; and they can borrow techniques and know-how from preexisting states. All secondary state formation thus takes place in the context of preexisting states. In order to understand how states emerged in the first place, it is therefore important to restrict attention to primary states. We are only certain about six cases of primary state formation: Hierakonpolis in Upper Egypt, Uruk in Mesopotamia, Mohenjodaro in the Indus Valley, the Erlitou state in the Yiluo Basin in China, the Zapotec state in Mesoamerica, and the Moche state in the Andes. The earliest ones—in Mesopotamia and Egypt—emerged in the fourth millennium BCE. But before we examine primary state formation, we have to briefly review what came before.

Locations where primary state formation took place.

Fifty thousand years ago, behaviorally modern humans burst forth from Africa into Eurasia. By the end of the Pleistocene, they had eliminated archaic humans who had hitherto occupied the Eurasian landmass; and populated Northern Europe, Siberia, Australia and the Western Hemisphere—regions that had hitherto been devoid of people.[1] At this stage in human social evolution, societies were remarkably similar across the globe. Everywhere, people lived together in small, mobile bands—with no more than a few dozen individuals—of unspecialized hunter-gatherers. All practiced shamanism—abstract religious beliefs would have to wait until the Axial Age. There was no political authority to speak of. Leadership was not inherited but acquired. ‘Big men’ sometimes exercised coercion and leadership—but there was no ‘office’ of the chief that would have to be filled if the big man died or fell out of favor with the community. Not only were there no rulers, there was no class structure. For tens of thousands of years, human society was thoroughly egalitarian. Conflict between neighboring bands took the form of raids; there were no wars of conquest and subjugation.

The Neolithic Revolution witnessed the advent of permanent settlements, farming and animal husbandry. With agrarian wealth came social stratification. Social rank became hereditary. Big men increasingly hailed from the ranks of the elite. However, village communities retained their autonomy for a long time. The decisive breakthrough came with supravillage integration—the establishment of chiefdoms.

A chiefdom is defined as a centralized regional polity where authority is permanently centralized in the ‘office’ of the chief, which exists apart from the man who occupies it and is passed down from one generation to the next. Chiefdoms usually have populations in the thousands. There is a lot of variation among chiefdoms. Simple chiefdoms have just two levels of hierarchy (a small number of villages controlled by a center). Complex chiefdoms have three levels (villages clustered around towns controlled by a city.) A paramount chiefdom in an exceptionally powerful chiefdom that has subordinated others.

A paramount chiefdom is an exceptionally powerful chiefdom that has subordinated others.

While both chiefdoms and states feature centralized coercive authority, chiefly authority is non-bureaucratic—all authority rests in the office of the chief. In contrast, states possess internally specialized administrative organization—authority is partially delegated to administrators, tax collectors, police, judges, military commanders and so on.

While all primary states emerged from chiefdoms, it is wrong to think of the chiefdom as a political form that would naturally evolve into the state if left to its own devices. Indeed, only a few ever made the phase transition; the vast majority of chiefdoms did not.

The central question of primary state formation then is: Why, and under what conditions, did some chiefdoms make the transition to statehood?

The reason that the distinction between chiefdoms and states is important is because chiefdoms cannot be scaled up whereas states can and often did. Why can’t chiefdoms be scaled up? Wright (1977) argued that because authority in a chiefdom is not differentiated, any delegation of authority approaches total delegation; a situation ripe with potential for insubordination, insurrection, or fission. It is in the chief’s vital interest to avoid delegating authority, which means that he has to rule his entire domain from the center. As a consequence, there is an effective spatial limit to the territorial expansion of a chiefdom determined by the distance the chief, or the chief’s representative, could go from the center to the periphery of the domain and back on the same day.

The ruler of a state on the other hand, can dispatch subordinates—whose authority has been defined narrowly enough—to locations far from the capital to manage local affairs with little risk of insurrection. The delegation of partial authority thus allows the state to expand its territory well beyond the spatial limits associated with chiefdoms. Moreover, the optimal strategy for a state ruler is to divide and segment authority as much as possible and delegate wholeheartedly so as to minimize the likelihood of insurrection by subordinates.

The question of primary state formation then boils down to this: Given that it was in the vital interest of the chiefs to avoid delegating authority, why were some compelled to do so anyway and under what conditions did they succeed?

Spencer (1987) suggested that if a chief seeks to implement a new strategy of internal administrative specialization, the chances of success will be enhanced if the shift is made quickly and extensively. Spencer (2010) proposed a ‘territorial-expansion model’ whose basic idea is that territorial expansion is an essential, integral part of the process of primary state formation: Without territorial expansion beyond the spatial limit of a chiefdom there is no incentive for the chief to delegate partial authority and expansion beyond the spatial limit of a chiefdom is impossible without such delegation.

[Simultaneous internal specialization and expansion] will help ensure that the new parcels of authority are defined narrowly enough so that no dispatched administrative assistant in the new order enjoys sufficiently broad authority to foment a successful insurrection. From this perspective, we would expect an evolutionary transition from chiefdom to state to be marked by a qualitative shift in administrative principles and associated optimal regulatory strategies, representing a profoundly transformational process of change.

When we apply the territorial-expansion model to the empirical record of primary state formation, we should expect to find a close correspondence in time between the appearance of state institutions and a dramatic expansion of political-economic territory. This expectation, it should be noted, runs counter to the conventional idea that the territorial expansion of state control is a phenomenon that typically occurs well after the initial formation of the state, during what is sometimes called an “imperial” phase of development.

Spencer (2010) marshals impressive archaeological evidence to show that in all six known cases of primary state formation, the emergence of the primary state was concurrent with territorial expansion beyond the home region.

This is a very promising theory. But it raises important questions: Why did most chiefdoms fail to make this phase transition? Why did primary state formation take place in only densely populated regions? The short answer is that fear is a more important driver of primary state formation than greed. It was the struggle for survival with rival chiefdoms that compelled some chiefs to split the atom of chiefly power.

Redmond and Spencer (2012) argue that high levels of inter-polity competition provided the impetuous to rulers of paramount chiefdoms to develop the internally specialized administration of the state. They examine two paramount chiefdoms on the threshold of state formation of comparable size and complexity. The two chiefdoms differed markedly in one critical aspect of their inception: One was relatively isolated while the other was surrounded by rival chiefdoms.

…inter-polity competition was the key factor accounting for Monte Albán’s successful transition from complex chiefdom to [the Zapotec] state, as opposed to Cahokia’s short-lived attempt to cross that threshold. In Oaxaca, the presence of powerful rivals, less than a day’s travel to the south and east, placed a premium on effective administration and military prowess. Monte Albán was able to vanquish some of its rivals in short order, though others managed to resist Monte Albán’s expansionist designs for a considerable time before they too capitulated. To prevail in such a competitive context, Monte Albán had to develop a powerful military as well as an internally specialized administration that was capable of delegating partial authority to subordinate officials who implemented the strategies and policies of the central leadership. The leadership of Cahokia, by contrast, did not have to contend with such daunting rivals. As a consequence, there was relatively less pressure to experiment with the kinds of military and administrative innovations that might have led to the successful transition to statehood in the American Bottom.

Charles Tilly’s dictum regarding the formation of European national states—war made the state and the state made war—is equally valid for pristine states. The Wright-Spencer-Redmond theory of primary state formation explains precisely how war made the state.


[1] Characteristic of modern behavior was figurative art such as cave paintings; ornamentation using pigment and jewelry; the practice of burial; fishing; composite tools such as bows and arrows, darts, harpoons and axes; the use of bone, antler and hide; the invention of rope, fish hook and the eyed-needle; and, of course, blades manufactured from flint. This Great Leap Forward in human culture was likely the result of a single genetic mutation that conferred an innate capacity for complex language and abstract thought.


Wright, Henry T. “Recent Research on the Origin of the State.” Annual Review of Anthropology 6 (1977): 379-397.

Spencer, Charles S. “A mathematical model of primary state formation.” Cultural Dynamics 10.1 (1998): 5-20.

Spencer, Charles S. “Territorial expansion and primary state formation.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107.16 (2010): 7119-7126.

Redmond, Elsa M., and Charles S. Spencer. “Chiefdoms at the threshold: The competitive origins of the primary state.” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 31.1 (2012): 22-37.


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