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Reasons for Villages Giving up Their Autonomy to Form Chiefdoms

Through the course of history, there have been diverse forms of human societies, namely bands, tribes, autonomous villages, chiefdoms, and even states. All these setups vary in size and occupancy. The reason, however, as to why some communities would agree to sacrifice their autonomy for the sake of chiefdoms remains a question based on the importance of the former (Clark and Blake 16). Autonomy refers to the state of being independent or free. This condition, in other words, denotes the right of self-government. Chiefdom, on the contrary, refers to a form of hierarchical political organization usually based on kinship and in which legitimate senior members of chosen families monopolize formal leadership. These are the people who form ideological aristocracy on behalf of the majority. The political authority found in these areas, e.g. Western Africa or Polynesia, was inseparable from economic one, including the right to decide on taxation. Autonomous communities may have emerged as chiefdoms for various reasons most of which were seen to be of great benefit to the locals (Flannery 5). A vast majority of these chiefdoms are common in the African contemporary setups, where villages were once free and independent in its governance. This paper demonstrates that there are many factors, such as self-governance, the existence of powerful and influential personalities, and trade perceptions among other historical, technological, and environmental issues, which might be the possible reasons why some villages renounce their autonomy to form chiefdoms.


Most people believe that when there is an overall leader, then a community can best govern itself and stay stable in the occurrence of wars or disasters. This kind of belief led to the emergence of states and chiefdoms and necessity to govern them properly. These people thought that elite families and groups would offer better informed decisions and, therefore, they received a proposal as the founders of these setups. This kind of mentality also led people to vest their loyalty in the supreme leader or chief as the case in most of such political units. These positions accord them powers to make decisions affecting the larger community. This ideology mostly sprung from the ancient African villages, where they reached a decision to move from autonomy to chiefdoms that were believed to offer certainty in security in the times of danger and hard economic periods (Schortman & Rita 373). They provided good representation to the people and lessened governorship problems, thus, maintaining law and order. Another reason that may have led to this shift from autonomy to chiefdoms may have been caused by the existence of powerful and influential personalities who made the most important decisions in the community. Some people knew a way of corrupting the minds of individuals to make them believe in their ideas, so they ended up leading the chiefdoms. There may have also been the possibility of external influence – a community wanting to emulate the political structure of another community. In the ancient past, most communities became chiefdoms following the development of other more successful neighboring people.

The primary reason for this preference may have been the idea that chiefdoms would be a good recipe for trade and that these areas would flourish economically and socially. According to V. Gordon Childe (1936-1942), it’s believed that many theories suggest trade as one of the many reasons for the emergence of states from autonomous communities (Kipp and Schortman 370). Trade was an important variable in spawning some of the early established states in the world. Theories that support trade as the reason for the emergence of chiefdoms argue that it was a valuable resource. Thus, trade needed administrative overview and protection. There was a belief that once the chiefs or rulers had obtained administrative power over trade and they could control firearms that the community could further use to monopolize and control larger trade boundaries. This move, as they firmly believed, could not be achieved in autonomous rule. Even though people praised chiefdoms for the large amount of power they possessed, scholars disagree and reiterate that autonomous villages provided better avenues for peace and coexistence with each other. According to Blanton and Feinman (1984), trade brought with it numerous disadvantages in “preciosities.” They argued that such luxurious goods reproduced another system of rank and status (Kipp and Schortman 371). These predicted doom for quite optimistic chiefdoms – an occurrence that they would have avoided in autonomous villages.

Over the years and with the invention of machinery, the population grew, and the pressure on the limited resources became uncontrollable. There are states and/or chiefdoms that trace their origins from periods of high population growth and non-centralization of power. The increase in population changes the needs of people from simple to more complex ones. People began to appreciate resources like land and food, which caused struggles and confusion, so there was the need to form more formal political organizations (Keegan and Maclachan 621). In a way, these systems could make such laws that will be freely combined and that the people would obey. It was hard to manage the large population with emerging issues like security and distribution of resources. People, therefore, regarded chiefdoms as the solution to the ever-changing environment and so they adopted it.

As many chiefdoms brought with them glory and prestige for the communities in question, many scholars like Kipp and Schortman would agree that they also brought disadvantages (Keegan and Maclachan 622). For instance, they led to power struggles as different elites wanted to occupy leadership positions. There were also instances of warfare, since chiefdoms preferred competing with each other to control significant resources.

According to Timothy K. Earley’s perspective of the emergence of chiefdoms in archaeological times, the concept of chiefdoms is a diverse term that ranges from militaristic chiefdom, group oriented, individualizing, and theocratic to tropical forest field chiefdoms ((Earley 279). He further insisted that this system viewed chiefdoms as either simple or complex and also realized that there were four levels of stratification within Polynesia. This diversity appeared confusing yet quite reasonable according to many societies. Earley continued to categorize the characterization of chiefdoms based on several factors some of which include the centrality of decision making, stratification, and the scale of integration. His categorization highlighted the emergence of chiefdoms from autonomous villages as a rather diverse thing that did not follow the same formula, though similar factors would have informed these reasons. His generalization of chiefdoms as smaller compartments of a large stateless society outlines the need to stratify these areas owing to the large size and growing population.

However, John Clark and Michael Blake viewed the emergence from autonomous villages in an entirely different manner (Clark and Blake 17). Unlike Earley they disputed any reason for the formation of chiefdoms. According to them the idea to form these smaller compartments out of the stateless societies did not come as a result of the people who needed to solve a particular problem. It was neither a problem nor a solution; they termed it as a long-term consequence that was not expected by a group of individuals. These circumstances occurred under various special historical, technological, and environmental times. Their perspective on the reason for their emergence rested primarily on assumptions, for instance, their arguments cycled through culture, society, and the behavior of people. They argued that human societies are diverse and carry different beliefs. Due to this fact, they lacked reason, purpose, or even needs and were, therefore, not able to adapt. It is the people that form part of these societies that share these similar attributes and are, thus, able to adapt. Moreover, they disqualified the earlier postulated ideas for the emergence of chiefdoms and laid the ground for new possibilities.

The two theories attempt to explain the reasons for the emergence of chiefdoms from the originally existing autonomous villages. The first one, Keegan’s and Maclachan’s theory on the emergence of chiefdoms appeared, however, as the most compelling article. This claim remains, because it beats the usual thinking and broadly highlights what led to the change from autonomy. These two scholars categorically disagree with the idea of chiefdoms as arising out of the need to solve problems. They argued that even though societies are complex, one similarity can be the existence of ambitious personalities and trade perceptions that can be the engineers and “prime movers” of this transition.

In conclusion, therefore, autonomous villages could have been transformed to chiefdoms in the early years for various reasons. The grounds for such metamorphosis may have been those postulated by Earley or those ideologies of John Clark and Michael Blake stating that there was no reason except for diversity among communities. One can agree and disagree with both, but one thing remains true: autonomous villages arose as a result of an unknown unique factor that every particular community shares. These facilitators could have been issues connected with population pressure, need for central leadership, or perhaps the giant in the room – need to control trading merchandise. Since communities are diverse in all sectors of life, we cannot fail to disagree on these factors. Scholars may contradict one another, but archaeological shreds of evidence prove otherwise.