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Evolution of the Egyptian State: the ‘Managerial Model’

The previous blog set the framework for a discussion of the evolution of the state in Egypt, and promised that I would next consider some of the theories proposed by Egyptologists. First, though, let’s put this theoretical discussion in a broader context.

At a very broad level, most theories of the evolution of the state belong to one of two categories. The conflict theories emphasize conflict between societies (warfare) and/or conflict within societies (class struggle). Functionalist theories (called so because they assume that complex societies arose to fulfill some important function) explain evolution of the state as a solution to organizational and redistributive problems. For example, in an influential book, The Evolution of Human Societies: from Foraging Group to Agrarian State, Allen Johnson and Tim Earle argue that complex societies arise (1) to reduce production risks, (2) to manage resource competition, (3) to allocate resources efficiently and to make capital investments, and (4) to conduct interregional trade. Conflict enters their theory as a relatively unimportant factor, under (2) resource competition.

It’s important to note that the Cultural MultiLevel Selection theory that I favor in my own research integrates these two perspectives: cooperation within societies (the functional aspect) evolves as a result of competition between societies (the conflict aspect).

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The theories underlying (explicitly or implicitly) the discussions of the Egyptian state by Egyptologists that I have read so far (such as David Wengrow, Kathryn Bard, and Fekri Hassan) are resolutely functionalist. For example, Wengrow never uses the word ‘warfare’ in his book even once, as far as I could determine. It’s not in the index. Neither is ‘conflict’ or ‘class.’

I am going to base my discussion on an article by Fekri Hassan, “The Predynastic of Egypt,” published in 1988 in Journal of World Prehistory, because Hassan makes very explicit the conceptual underpinnings of his model. For the non-scientist readers of this blog it might be worth adding that my critique of his argument doesn’t mean that I think he is a bad person – my attack is directed at hypotheses, rather than people behind them. In fact, Hassan is to be commended for the clarity of his model, as well as for his engagement with the broader theoretical frameworks discussed by social scientists (in this he differs from the majority of Egyptologists – perhaps because his first degree was in geoarchaeology).

Here’s what Hassan says:

the process leading to the state was set in motion by factors inherent in the socioecology of agricultural production. Attempts to dampen the effects of agricultural fluctuations by pooling the resources of neighboring communities led ultimately to the emergence of the chiefs. Further enlargement of the economic unit led to a hierarchy of chiefs and the emergence of regional political units. Legitimation of power led to an emphasis on funerary offerings and status goods. This political technology stimulated trade. Skirmishes with “Libyan” and “Asiatic” raiders provided a raison d’etre for “military” power and added to the image of chiefs as keepers of world order.

Note that warfare (“skirmishes with raiders”) plays decisively secondary, if not tertiary role in the process of state formation.

There are two problems with the Hassan hypothesis. The first one is that it goes against everything we know about people living in small-scale egalitarian societies (here I follow Chris Boehm, e.g. his Hierarchy in the Forest). Hassan says

In its initial stages, the people were able to see the material benefits of representatives and cooperation. The chiefs also had to work harder than others to maintain their position.

And a couple of pages later:

The representative may have thus acquired by group consent and support a political power—the ability to act upon the actions of others. … The increase in the power of chiefs probably resulted from the continued benefits to the community resulting from their managerial activities. The extension of the group interaction over larger territories is likely to have led to the rise of a hierarchy of chiefs.


The problem with functionalist explanations like this one is that it proposes an end point of an evolutionary process in which a new structure arises that fulfills a certain function—in this case, dampening the effects of agricultural fluctuations by integrating many villages within a large-scale society with managerial elites that can take surpluses from one area and direct them to where shortages are. But this explanation does not propose a plausible mechanism of how we get to this end point.

In fact, egalitarian societies are very resistant to the idea of creating permanent chiefs and endowing them with structural power to order everybody else around. Furthermore, the chiefs themselves would be less than eager to submit to the power of a paramount chief above them. Even today, and in dire straits, people coming from egalitarian societies find it extremely difficult to constitute and uphold hierarchies.

Just think of eastern (Ghilzai) Pashtuns, who, unlike their more hierarchical Durrani cousins, have historically lived in egalitarian tribes. In an article in Cliodynamics, Thomas Barfield wrote

an eighteenth century Muslim pir … proclaimed that the Ghilzais would live under Durrani control for seven generations, “Badshahi da Durrani, tura da Ghilzai” [Kingship to the Durrani, but to the Ghilzai the sword].”

The leaders of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) government [which came to power as a result of the Saur Revolution in 1978], who were eastern Pashtuns, almost completely purged the old Durrani elite from power. However, they proved unable to consolidate their authority among their own people and had a disturbing tendency to murder one another. In the war that followed the Pashtun military leaders on both the PDPA and the mujahideen sides were overwhelmingly eastern Pashtuns and few Durrani military leaders emerged on either side. … The Taliban leader Mullah Omar (of eastern Pashtun tribal origin) attempted to break the old model of power by declaring a clerical regime, but his Islamic amirate collapsed in the face of the American invasion of 2001. … The easy reestablishment of a Durrani ruler [Hamid Karzai] once again demonstrated the fractiousness of the eastern Pashtuns and their inability to coalesce politically.


So why should we expect that ancient Egyptians would willingly give up autonomy and submit to the rule of chiefs? This is not just a theoretical argument. By Naqada IIIC (Dynasty I) the rulers of Egypt practiced massive human sacrifices. That’s what happens when you submit to chiefs and kings. It’s almost better to starve during a periodic famine than become a powerless peasant in a despotic archaic state.

To be continued


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  1. It takes a long time for agrarian societies to evolve states. There seems an inherent “chicken and egg” problem–you need a surplus to “finance” control, but you need control to create and use the surplus. After all, merely having farming is not going to create a surplus–the extra food mainly goes into extra babies plus some increased specialisation. Nor does it automatically, or even naturally, create hierarchy. Let alone the intensity/scale of hierarchy required.

    What it does do is create a stationary target of extractable food (since food has to be stored across seasons): see the link in my comment on the previous post. But that at is back to having the resources to extract the resources.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      What’s remarkable about Egypt is that Upper Egypt evolved state in a record time – perhaps half a millennium between the adoption of agriculture and the appearance of state-level structures; certainly less than a millennium.

      A chicken-egg is not quite right. I think of this process as a nonlinear feedback loop in which surplus production and rise of hierarchy feed on each other in a circular fashion.

      • Mayshar, Moav & Neeman make the point that production in the Nile is very “transparent” to observers. So, once you get over the hierarchy-surplus hump, it is comparatively easy to have an extensive and effective autocracy. They also make the point that, given the geography, it is also much less susceptible to disruption by non-farmers (which adds to the transparency) so, it makes sense that the “spiral up” hierarchy-surplus process be unusually quick. Even so, taking a “mere” half a millennium or so suggests that the process is either still incredibly slow (if it is a cumulative process) or takes key threshold-points, that (for the aforementioned reasons) happened quicker in Upper Egypt.

  2. That should be “but that is back to”.

  3. Antonio says:

    What role did human sacrifice?

  4. cliodinamica says:

    Yes, there seems to be a verb missing. I’m sorry. Why did Egyptians practiced human sacrifices?

    • Burial of servants in the tombs of autocrats (which, as I understand it, was the early dynasty pattern) is a recurring pattern across ancient societies. “So they could have servants in the after life” is the usual formal explanation. That it meant the new ruler did not have to have servants tied to the previous one might have provided extra motivation.

      One suspects it depends somewhat on how important continuing skills were. (I.e. the more important such skills, the more “wasteful” such compulsory internment was.) The Egyptians switched to interring representations of servants, which was less wasteful of human resources.

      Ritualised human sacrifices where the bodies were actually eaten (e.g. Mesoamerica)–so replicating with human sacrifices the normal pattern for animal sacrifices–might have higher value if there was a limited amount of competing protein sources.

  5. Antonio says:

    I understand, thank you.

  6. Joe Brewer says:

    Thanks for writing this post, Peter. I just happened onto it after reading another article that supports your position:

    link to

    The general arc of the argument made in this other article is that early agrarian villages in the Lavant region failed to grow into large city states because egalitarian belief systems were very persistent (as indicated in their architectural designs and archeological finds). Said another way, the presence of an egalitarian ethos constituting the social norms of the society kept them from growing in the same ways that an imperial, conquest-driven society would do that is built on social stratification and structural inequality.

    Fascinating to contemplate as the “Creation Story for Inequality”…