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The Circumscription Model of the Egyptian State

In Evolution of the Egyptian State: the ‘Managerial Model’, I looked at one of the functionalist theories of the Egyptian state. The Managerial Model advanced by Fekri Hassan is actually not that different from the now discredited Hydraulic Model of Karl Wittfogel.

Both theories posit that the state arises because there is a need to manage something. Wittfogel’s theory, however, was rejected because there is overwhelming evidence that the central administrations in all known early states did not manage irrigation – it was invariably managed at the local level.

Hassan is not very clear about what precisely the central administration in Egypt managed, and he doesn’t provide empirical evidence for any public goods that the state produced. So the benefits of the state in Hassan’s theory are quite uncertain. At the same time we have abundant evidence of the downside of the centralized state for the common people. Lavish burials of kings and the elite clearly demonstrate that wealth inequality and power differentials between the ‘1 percent’ and the rest were huge.

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The paper by Bob Allen, which Joe Manning brought up in the comments (1997. Agriculture and the Origins of the State in Ancient Egypt, Explorations in Economic History 34: 135-154) levels a similar critique at the Managerial Model. As Allen writes, “it is difficult to discern any productive contribution that the Pharaoh, the priesthood, or the aristocracy made. The main function of the Pharaonic state was to transfer a considerable fraction of the income produced by Egypt’s farmers to an unproductive aristocracy.”

Allen proposes a different explanation for the Egyptian state. His is definitely a conflict model. Specifically, he focuses on class conflict.

One weakness of the classical class struggle theory is that many of the Earth’s regions had agriculture for thousands of years but never developed states – until they were conquered by one of the empires coming from elsewhere, sometimes thousands of kilometers away (during the European colonization period, for example).

Allen’s model addresses this potential problem by bringing in the ideas of the American anthropologist Robert Carneiro. The main concept is “circumscription.”

In a seminal 1970 article in Science, Carneiro proposed that in most areas populations could resist the exactions of the predatory elites by simply moving away. But where populations were ‘circumscribed’ – by seas, mountains, or deserts – people couldn’t simply move away from the incipient states. In Carneiro’s model warfare in circumscribed areas leads to the enslavement of the losers by the winners.

I should note that Carneiro’s thinking on the origins of centralized polities (chiefdoms and states) has evolved since his 1970 article, but let’s stay with this version, because it’s the one Allen bases his argument on.

It’s a very nice theory because it is stated very clearly and it makes sharp predictions. Unfortunately, it’s quite wrong. Empirically, states do not arise preferentially in circumscribed areas. In fact, islands surrounded by oceans, mountain valleys, and deep desert oases are less likely to develop states than areas wide open on all sides. We are still collecting data in SESHAT, but in about a year’s time I will be able to put some good numbers to this claim.


Meanwhile, let’s look at the Egyptian example. Contrary to what Allen says, around 3300 BCE southern Egypt (the area where such centers of early Egyptian statehood are located as Thebes, Hieraconpolis, and Abydos) was not surrounded by deserts, but by a savanna – grasslands supporting innumerable flocks of cattle and other livestock, as well as herding communities.



The climate went through several wet and dry cycles in the next two millennia, but it was only during the New Kingdom that the climate dried out for good (or bad) and became what we see today. Sahara expanded and the savanna-desert transitional zone (today known as Sahel) retreated far to the south into what is now central Sudan.

Allen also portrays Ancient Egypt as an unusually long-lived state, which lasted for more than two thousand years. This is incorrect. As all premodern states, Pharaonic Egypt went through cycles of centralization and decentralization. Some periods of decentralization (“intermediate periods”) were more than a century long.

What’s striking is that all cases of unification by dynasties native to Egypt originated in the South:

Unifications of Egypt by native dynasties.

Unification Dates, BCE* Unifying Pharaoh From
Early Dynastic c.3100–2700 Narmer or Menes (Dynasty 0) South (Hierakonpolis)
Old Kingdom 2700–2180 Khasekhemwy (end of Dynasty II) South (Hierakonpolis)
Middle Kingdom 2040–1790 Mentuhotep II (Dynasty XI) South  (Thebes)
New Kingdom 1570–1070 Ahmose I (Dynasty XVIII) South  (Thebes)

This is a striking macrohistorical pattern, which I brought up in my 2009 article in Journal of Global History.

In that article I made the argument that Egypt is actually not unique. In fact, it fits quite well the ‘mirror-empires’ model, which “proposes that antagonistic interactions between nomadic pastoralists and settled agriculturalists result in an autocatalytic process, which pressures both nomadic and farming polities to scale up polity size, and thus military power.”


Pharaonic Egypt, thus, provides a counter-example to the Circumscription Model. The Egyptian state arose repeatedly in an area that was not circumscribed by the desert. Instead, it arose on the Steppe Frontier. Once the Steppe Frontier moved far to the south into Sudan (which happened by 1,000 BC), and southern Egypt became indeed circumscribed, it in fact ceased being the source of Egyptian statehood. After that Egypt was unified by a series of invaders coming from the North – Near East and Mediterranean.


Join the discussion


  1. So, why was Egypt so comparatively quick at developing a state? And do the pattern of ancient Egyptian fortifications support the contested frontier pattern?

  2. Actually the Sahara was very dry by 3000 BCE. Dry enough to more than thoroughly circumscribe the Nile Valley. New Guinea isn’t a countercase because the circumscribed valleys are small, and have very difficult conditions for cultivation. Carneiro was talking about a contrast between large, fantastically fertile alluvial valleys and surrounding poor land–desert, mountain, etc. One does, however, have to add in trade, because fertile circumscribed valleys in remote areas, cul-de-sacs, continental fringes, and the like didn’t develop much; the early states and civilizations were at the crossroads of the great transcontinental trade routes. Thus, no civilization in California, the Colorado River Valley, or the La Plata area. One can pretty much predict the level of early culture by the degree of centrality of the valleys in question, e.g. Valley of Mexico vs Gila River and Rio Grande. I suspect a felt need to conquer along trade routes, to dominate the trade and set the terms of it, is what really led to the state. Any opinions on this out there?

    • Peter Turchin says:

      Gene, there is abundant archaeological evidence of Nubian herding groups on three sides of Southern Egypt – South, West, and East – into the New Kingdom period. The area around Southern Egypt was not suitable for agriculture, but it could and did sustain large population of Nubians. If you will, Egypt was socially circumscribed, but so is everything.

  3. spandrell says:

    Circumscription may not work for the subject of state formation but it does for the object of state formation. It helps if the oppressed peasants can’t go anywhere because there’s nowhere close to escape to. If you’re a Nile farmer and steppe riders invade from the south, you gotta obey. While farmers in wetter areas around the northern steppe had more options, hence no state formation.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      Oppressed peasants and huge differentials in wealth among the elites make for fragile states. States that treated their populations better lasted longer.

  4. Bruce says:

    “It’s a very nice theory because it is stated very clearly and it makes sharp predictions. Unfortunately, it’s quite wrong. Empirically, states do not arise preferentially in circumscribed areas. In fact, islands surrounded by oceans, mountain valleys, and deep desert oases are less likely to develop states than areas wide open on all sides.”

    That could be because they are also less likely to get invaded. No major attacks, no need for a state. Which is another way of saying what Gene Anderson said.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      I agree that the most important factor is external warfare, but that’s not what the circumscription theory is about. Bob Allen does not discuss the importance of the attack by external enemies – it is all about internal conflict (between classes).

  5. Sergey Sechiv says:

    “islands surrounded by oceans… are less likely to develop states than areas wide open on all sides”

    Atlantis, Crete, Malta, Stonehenge England, Japan ? 🙂

    • Richard says:

      The Mediterranean was more a highway than an ocean (and in fact, it isn’t an ocean).
      I wouldn’t call Stonehenge England a state.
      Japan did develop states much later than mainland East Asia (China).

      • Peter Turchin says:

        Atlantis! That counterexample just by itself completely demolishes my theory…

        • Sergey Sechiv says:

          I used “Atlantis” here semi-jokingly, as an archetypal symbol of an “island super-culture”, so well known to ALL ancients, as to become an ubiquitous myth.

      • Sergey Sechiv says:

        > The Mediterranean was more a highway than an ocean

        for a modern man, yes. But for the ancients there were no difference.

        > I wouldn’t call Stonehenge England a state.

        what else but states could force thousands of free people to invest in such monumental efforts for millennia?

        “According to a team of British researchers led by Mike Parker Pearson of the University of Sheffield, Stonehenge may have been built as a symbol of “peace and unity”, indicated in part by the fact that at the time of its construction, Britain’s Neolithic people were experiencing a period of cultural unification.”[23][28]
        link to

        • Richard says:

          Re Mediterranean: Huh? The Minoans were plying the Mediterranean 5000 years ago. How do you think people got to Crete?

          Re Stonehenge: Religion. We have no idea if Stonehenge was built by force or people of free-will.

          • Sergey Sechiv says:

            > Mediterranean: Huh?

            exactly, my point.

            > How do you think people got to Crete?

            Your question deserves a multiple choice answer:
            – ice-bridge
            – hot-air balloons
            – Zeus’ eagles

            > We have no idea if Stonehenge was built by force or people of free-will

            what a great argument!
            The same can be applied to any other GULAG in history

          • Richard says:

            >- ice-bridge
            >- hot-air balloons
            >- Zeus’ eagles

            Hint: it’s none of those.

  6. So, the question becomes not how long after the arrival of farming does one get states, but how long after the arrival of pastoralism next to farmers does one get states?

    • Peter Turchin says:

      That’s a good way of putting it.

      • EALTurner says:

        //how long after the arrival of pastoralism next to farmers does one get states?// …but are all pastoralists equivalent? why should we expect the nomadic horseback archer and the grounded cattle herder from Egypt to have the same effect on the same farming community? the latter group of pastoralists must have been far less fearsome, because they were less mobile. yet I thought the strongest argument why meta-ethnic frontiers were locations for state genesis was the danger posed by the pastoralists. do we have any evidence that pastoralists who do not have horses/camels etc. are particularly difficult for farmers to deal with?

  7. Peter Turchin says:

    The exchange between Sergey and Richard is a very good illustration why you have to test these theories systematically. It’s just not going to work to go through some examples. I’ve written in a blog some time ago how History is misused by everybody looking for examples that would prove their point. That’s what Cliodynamics is changing.

    • Sergey Sechiv says:

      The narrow special field of History isn’t immune against the rule of “one counter-example is enough”.
      The rule belongs to the much broader field of logic.
      And no blog can prohibit “everybody looking for examples that would prove their point”.

    • Given that so much of history is variation, the trick is to try and test for the underlying patterns while still being able to account for said variation. Gave a paper at Melbourne University earlier this year which attempted to do that for what makes a society “medieval”.

  8. SinoPlato says:

    What are your thoughts on the formation of city-states? The earliest ‘palace states’ in China, Greece and Mesopotamia were very small scale, weren’t they? The Minoan civilisation too. These places never had to deal with pastoralism until much later.

    Perhaps you’re trying to explain ‘imperiogenesis’ more than state formation per se? That’s whats in the title of the paper you cited anyway.

  9. M says:

    If the correlation is the reverse of his prediction, what about flipping Allen’s model to a reverse circumscription model?

    States arise to control people and restrict movement in regions where they can move away (where geography doesn’t do the work), and where that isn’t self defeating (e.g. constraining pastoralists to a particular area of land would be self defeating for a nascent state, because it undermines the basis of their subsistence).