Lecture on Chiefdoms


by Dennis O’Neil, Palomar College, 2006


Chiefdoms are similar to bands and tribes in being mostly classless societies.  However, chiefdoms differ in having a more or less permanent, fulltime leader with real authority to make major decisions for their societies.  These leaders are usually referred to by anthropologists as chiefs.  Sometimes there is an advisory council as well, but there is no bureaucracy of professional administrators.  The government is essentially just the chief.  Some of the more advanced chiefdoms in Africa are an exception in that they have a paramount chief and lesser chiefs who perform administrative functions.  The Baganda  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced and Bunyoro  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced of Uganda are examples of this.  The chiefdoms of ancient Hawaii and elsewhere in Polynesia were similar in having several levels of chiefs.  Chiefdoms also are known historically from Europe, Asia, the southeastern United States, the Caribbean islands, Panama, Colombia, and the Amazon Basin of Brazil.

Seniority in kin groups is usually the primary basis for individual status within chiefdoms.  The chief is at the top of the kinship hierarchy.  Other people are commonly ranked in terms of their genealogical distance from the chief.  Subsequently, there is a keen interest in maintaining records of descent from important family ancestors.

Chiefs and their families generally have a higher standard of living than ordinary people.  What makes this possible is that chiefs usually perform a society-wide economic redistribution function that, in some cases, is cloaked in the guise of ritual gift giving.  This essentially siphons off surplus agricultural products from farmers and then redistributes them throughout the society.  In the process, a small amount is held back in order to support the chief’s more lavish lifestyle.  The ritualized redistribution of surplus food and other commodities in chiefdoms is, in a sense, the rudimentary beginnings of a taxation system.  It is probably tolerated by people because of the economic advantages that it can provide in addition to social stability.  The larger territorial size of chiefdoms often encompasses diverse environmental zones with somewhat different products.  The redistribution of surpluses can serve as a method of providing security in times of crop failures as well as greater food variety for the populace as a whole.  For instance, a farmer may give up some of his crop but get different kinds of food in return along with enhanced status.

The larger populations of chiefdoms generally means that the people have less in common than do those in the smaller societies of bands and tribes.  Disputes inevitably arise that cannot be settled by informal means based on kinship and friendship.  A chief usually functions as an arbitrator and judge in these cases.  In some of the kingdoms of West Africa, the paramount chiefs still today “license” official truth testers to deal with contradictory testimony in legal cases.  They often use an ordeal to determine the truth.  In the hot knife ordeal, only someone telling the truth is thought to not be burned when a red hot knife blade is stroked across his leg.

An important advantage that chiefdoms have over band and tribal level societies when conflicts arise between them is that chiefdoms are usually more effective in warfare.  This is due to the fact that chiefdoms have two important advantages.  They have larger populations so they can assemble larger military forces.  In addition, the chief can provide centralized direction which potentially allows more decisive action.  Some chiefdoms in Western South America had in excess of 100,000 people.  The Chibcha  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced of Colombia was one of them.  They became a militarily powerful force in the mountain regions that made up their homeland.

Once functioning, the position of the chief usually becomes essential to the functioning of society.  Chiefdoms cannot go back to a tribal level unless their population drops significantly.

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