A chiefdom is a form of hierarchical political organization in non-industrial societies usually based on kinship, and in which formal leadership is monopolized by the legitimate senior members of select families or 'houses'. These elites form a political-ideological aristocracy relative to the general group.
In anthropological theory, one model of human social development rooted in ideas of cultural evolution describes a chiefdom as a form of social organization more complex than a tribe or a band society, and less complex than a state or a civilization.
Within general theories of cultural evolution, chiefdoms are characterized by permanent and institutionalized forms of political leadership (the chief), centralized decision-making, economic interdependence, and social hierarchy.
Chiefdoms are described as intermediate between tribes and states in the progressive scheme of sociopolitical development formulated by Elman Service: band - tribe - chiefdom - state. A chief’s status is based on kinship, so it is inherited or ascribed, in contrast to the achieved status of Big Man leaders of tribes. Another feature of chiefdoms is therefore pervasive social inequality. They are ranked societies, according to the scheme of progressive sociopolitical development formulated by Morton Fried: egalitarian - ranked - stratified - state.
The most succinct definition of a chiefdom in anthropology is by Robert L. Carneiro: "An autonomous political unit comprising a number of villages or communities under the permanent control of a paramount chief" (Carneiro 1981: 45).
In archaeological theory, Service's definition of chiefdoms as “redistributional societies with a permanent central agency of coordination” (Service 1962: 144) has been most influential. Many archaeologists, however, dispute Service's reliance upon redistribution as central to chiefdom societies, and point to differences in the basis of finance (staple finance v. wealth finance). Service argued that chief rose to assume a managerial status to redistribute agricultural surplus to ecologically specialised communities within this territory (staple finance). Yet in re-studying the Hawaiian chiefdoms used as his case study, Timothy Earle observed that communities were rather self-sufficient. What the chief redistributed was not staple goods, but prestige goods to his followers that helped him to maintain his authority (wealth finance).
Some scholars contest the utility of the chiefdom model for archaeological inquiry. The most forceful critique comes from Timothy Pauketat, whose Chiefdom and Other Archaeological Delusions outlines how chiefdoms fail to account for the high variability of the archaeological evidence for middle-range societies. Pauketat argues that the evolutionary underpinnings of the chiefdom model are weighed down by racist and outdated theoretical baggage that can be traced back to Lewis Morgan's 19th century cultural evolution. From this perspective, pre-state societies are treated as underdeveloped, the savage and barbaric phases that preceded civilization. Pauketat argues that the chiefdom type is a limiting category that should be abandoned, and takes as his main case study Cahokia, a central place for the Mississippian culture of North America.
Pauketat's provocation, however, fails to offer a sound alternative to the chiefdom type. For while he claims that chiefdoms are a delusion, he describes Cahokia as a civilization. This upholds rather than challenges the evolutionary scheme he contests.
Chiefdoms are characterized by centralization of authority and pervasive inequality. At least two inherited social classes (elite and commoner) are present. (The ancient Hawaiian chiefdoms had as many as four social classes.) An individual might change social class during a lifetime by extraordinary behavior. A single lineage/family of the elite class becomes the ruling elite of the chiefdom, with the greatest influence, power, and prestige. Kinship is typically an organizing principle, while marriage, age, and sex can affect one's social status and role.
A single simple chiefdom is generally composed of a central community surrounded by or near a number of smaller subsidiary communities. All of the communities recognize the authority of a single kin group or individual with hereditary centralized power, dwelling in the primary community. Each community will have its own leaders, which are usually in a tributary and/or subservient relationship to the ruling elite of the primary community.
A complex chiefdom is a group of simple chiefdoms controlled by a single paramount center, and ruled by a paramount chief. Complex chiefdoms have two or even three tiers of political hierarchy. Nobles are clearly distinct from commoners and do not usually engage in any form of agricultural production. The higher members of society consume most of the goods that are passed up the hierarchy as a tribute.
Reciprocal obligations are fulfilled by the nobles carrying out ritual that only they can perform. They may also make token, symbolic redistributions of food and other goods. In two or three tiered chiefdoms, higher ranking chiefs have control over a number of lesser ranking individuals, each of whom controls specific territory or social units. Political control rests on the chief's ability to maintain access to a sufficiently large body of tribute, passed up the line by lesser chiefs. These lesser chiefs in turn collect from those below them, from communities close to their own center. At the apex of the status hierarchy sits the paramount.
Anthropologists and archaeologists have demonstrated through research that chiefdoms are a relatively unstable form of social organization. They are prone to cycles of collapse and renewal, in which tribal units band together, expand in power, fragment through some form of social stress, and band together again. An example of this kind of social organization were the Germanic Peoples who conquered the western Roman Empire in the 5th century CE. Although commonly referred to as tribes, anthropologists classified their society as chiefdoms. They had a complex social hierarchy consisting of kings, a warrior aristocracy, common freemen, serfs and slaves.
The American Indian tribes sometimes had ruling kings or satraps (governors) in some areas and regions. The Cherokee, for example, had an imperial-family ruling system over a long period of history. The early Spanish explorers in the Americas reported on the Indian kings and kept extensive notes during what is now called the conquest. Some of the native tribes in the Americas had princes, nobles, and various classes and castes. The "Great Sun" was somewhat like the Great Khans of Asia and eastern Europe. Much like an emperor, the Great Sun of North America is the best example of chiefdoms and imperial kings in North American Indian history. The Aztecs of Mexico had a similar culture.
The Arthashastra, a work on politics written some time between the 4th century BC and 2nd century AD by Indian author Kautilya, similarly describes the Rajamandala (or "Raja-mandala,") as circles of friendly and enemy states surrounding the state of a king (raja). Also see Suhas Chatterjee, Mizo Chiefs and the Chiefdom (1995).
Tusi (Chinese: 土司), also known as Headmen or Chieftains, were tribal leaders recognized as imperial officials by the Yuan, Ming, and Qing-era Chinese governments, principally in Yunnan. The arrangement is generally known as the Native Chieftain System (Chinese: 土司制度, p Tǔsī Zhìdù).
In prehistoric South-West Asia, alternatives to chiefdoms were the non-hierarchical systems of complex acephalous communities, with a pronounced autonomy of single-family households. These communities have been analyzed recently by Berezkin, who suggests the Apa Tanis as their ethnographic parallel (Berezkin 1995). Frantsouzoff (2000) finds a more developed example of such type of polities in ancient South Arabia in the Wadi Hadhramawt of the 1st millennium BCE.
In Southeast Asian history up to the early 19th century, the metaphysical view of the cosmos called the mandala (i.e., circle) is used to describe a Southeast Asian political model, which in turn describes the diffuse patterns of political power distributed among Mueang (principalities) where circles of influence were more important than central power. The concept counteracts modern tendencies to look for unified political power like that of the large European kingdoms and nation states, which were an inadvertent byproduct of 15th-century advances in map-making technologies.
Nikolay Kradin has demonstrated that an alternative to the state seems to be represented by the supercomplex chiefdoms created by some nomads of Eurasia. The number of structural levels within such chiefdoms appears to be equal, or even to exceed those within the average state, but they have a different type of political organization and political leadership. Such types of political entities do not appear to have been created by the agriculturists (e.g., Kradin 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004).
Source: 'Mapping the Sovereign State: Technology, Authority, and Systemic Change' by Jordan Branch, in International Organization, Volume 65, Issue 1, Winter 2011
Abstract: How did modern territorial states come to replace earlier forms of organization, defined by a wide variety of territorial and non-territorial forms of authority? Answering this question can help to explain both where our international political system came from and where it might be going....
The Beaverdam Creek Archaeological Site, (9 EB 85), is an archaeological site located on a floodplain of Beaverdam Creek in Elbert County, Georgia approximately 0.8 km from the creek's confluence with the Savannah River, and is currently inundated by the Richard B. Russell Lake. The site consisted of a platform mound and an associated village site. Beaverdam Creek is thought to have been the center of a Mississippian culture simple chiefdom with a small resident population. The primary period of mound construction and village occupation dated to the regional Savannah period of the Middle Mississippian period, specifically 1200–1300 CE, with the site's abandonment occurring sometime after 1300. The mound was 1.5 metres (4.9 ft) high, and its base measured 25 metres (82 ft) by 25 metres (82 ft). The village boundaries were delineated as 15,000 square meters.Bombali Shebora Chiefdom
Bombali Shebora is a chiefdom of Bombali District in the Northern Province of Sierra Leone. The principal town lies at Makeni.As of 2015 the chiefdom has a population of 36,407.Bumpe Chiefdom
The Bumpe Chiefdom is a Chiefdom of Sierra Leone located in Moyamba District, Southern Province, Sierra Leone. It is centred on Rotifunk. The chiefdom comprises 208 villages.Caborn-Welborn culture
Caborn-Welborn was a prehistoric North American culture defined by archaeologists as a Late Mississippian cultural manifestation that grew out of – or built upon the demise of – the Angel chiefdom located in the territory of southern present-day Indiana. Caborn-Welborn developed around 1400 and seems to have disappeared around 1700. The Caborn-Welborn culture was the last Native American occupation of southern Indiana before European contact. It remains unclear which historic-era native group, if any, are their descendants.Chiefdoms and sectors of the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Chiefdoms and sectors of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are the fourth-level administrative divisions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.Chiefdoms of Hispaniola
The chiefdoms of Hispaniola (cacicazgo in Spanish) were the primary political units employed by the Taíno inhabitants of Hispaniola (Taíno: Ayiti, Quisqueya, or Bohio) in the early historical era. At the time of European contact in 1492, the island was divided into five chiefdoms or cacicazgos, each headed by a cacique or paramount chief. Below him were lesser caciques presiding over villages or districts and nitaínos, an elite class in Taíno society.
The Taíno of Hispaniola were an Arawak people related to the inhabitants of the other islands in the Greater Antilles. At the time of European contact, they were suffering attacks from a rival indigenous group, the Island Caribs. In 1508, there were about 60,000 Taínos in the island of Hispaniola; by 1531 infectious disease epidemics and exploitation had resulted in a dramatic decline in population. An estimated 600.
The boundaries of each cacicazgo were precise. The first inhabitants of the island used geographic elements as references, such as major rivers, high mountains, notable valleys and plains. This enabled them to define each territory. Each was divided into cacique nitaínos, subdivisions headed by the cacique helpers. The entries below relate the territory of each former cacique to the modern-day departments of Haiti and the provinces of the Dominican Republic.Coosa chiefdom
The Coosa chiefdom was a powerful Native American paramount chiefdom in what are now Gordon and Murray counties in Georgia, in the United States. It was inhabited from about 1400 until about 1600, and dominated several smaller chiefdoms. The total population of Coosa's area of influence, reaching into present-day Tennessee and Alabama, has been estimated at 50,000.
Hernando de Soto and his conquistadors visited Coosa on their expedition through the Southeast United States in 1539–1541, as did participants in Tristán de Luna's expedition in 1560, and Juan Pardo's 1566–1568 expedition. The Europeans recorded descriptions and impressions of the various chiefdoms they visited, describing Coosa as a series of communities and fertile gardens containing much food, rather than a town or city.Coosa was also the name of one of the four mother towns of the Muscogee Creek confederacy.Gbendembu Ngowahun Chiefdom
Gbendembu Ngowahun is a chiefdom of Bombali District in the Northern Province of Sierra Leone. The principal towns are Gbendembu and Kalangba.As of 2004 the chiefdom has a population of 29,971.Gqunukhwebe
Ama Gqunukhwebe is a subdivision of the Xhosa nation that was created under the reign of King Tshiwo (1670–1702) of amaXhosa who was a grandfather to Gcaleka and Rharhabe. It consisted mostly of the Khoi chiefdoms (Gonaqua, Hoengeniqua, Inqua and others) that had been displaced by colonists and became incorporated into the Xhosa nation.
Khwane kaLungane, a counselor and warrior under King Tshiwo, was chosen to lead the new chiefdom. This marked the start of his Khwane dynasty, which would lead the chiefdom for decades.
The chiefdom spanned from the Buffalo River to Zwaartkops, but most of its territory was lost after the Xhosa Wars and was given to colony settlers (west of the Fish River) and the Fengu people (between the Fish and Keiskamma rivers) by the colonial government.The chiefdom gradually grew more homogeneous, until a divide occurred when two members of the leading family, Pato and Kama, split and settled different areas of the region. In addition, Kama converted to Christianity, which further alienated himself from the royal family. Later, Kama was recognized by the Cape Colony as the true leader of the chiefdom, possibly due to his religious conversion. This further eroded the influence of Pato and the ruling family of Gqunukhwebe.
Today, the chiefdom is effectively two entities led from two different centres, with one led by the Pato house and one led by the Kama house. Zolani ka-Ntlanganiso Phatho, a direct descendant of Pato, is currently next in line to be leader of the chiefdom.Koya Chiefdom
Koya Chiefdom is a chiefdom in Kenema District of Sierra Leone. Its capital is Baoma.Nayakas of Chitradurga
Nayakas of Chitradurga (1588–1779 CE) ruled parts of eastern Karnataka during the post-Vijayanagara period. During the rule of Hoysala Empire and Vijayanagara Empire, they served as a feudatory chiefdom. Later after the fall of the Vijayanagara empire, they ruled at times as an independent Chiefdom and at other times as a vassal of the Mysore Kingdom, Mughal Empire and Maratha Empire. Finally their territories merged into the province of Mysore under the British.Ndogboyosoi War
The Ndogboyosoi War, also known as the Bush Devil War, was an episode of political violence that occurred in 1982 between supporters of the All People's Congress (APC) and the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) in Sierra Leone. The violence was centered in Pujehun District, especially in the Soro-Gbema chiefdom. It was triggered by the ruling APC party's alleged electoral manipulation and the intervention of a special squad of customs police against supporters of the SLPP candidate.
There was no process of reconciliation following the violence. Children of those killed in the fighting or of those who died in detention were among the first to join the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a rebel group which began a civil war in eastern and southern Sierra Leone nine years later.Paki Massabong Chiefdom
Paki Massabong is a chiefdom of Bombali District in the Northern Province of Sierra Leone. The principal town lies at Mapaki.As of 2004 the chiefdom has a population of 17,320.Paramount chief
A paramount chief is the English-language designation for the highest-level political leader in a regional or local polity or country administered politically with a chief-based system. This term is used occasionally in anthropological and archaeological theory to refer to the rulers of multiple chiefdoms or the rulers of exceptionally powerful chiefdoms that have subordinated others. Paramount chiefs were identified by English-speakers as existing in Native American confederacies and regional chiefdoms, such as the Powhatan Confederacy and Piscataway Native Americans encountered by English colonists in the Chesapeake Bay area of North America.
More recently, Paramount Chief is a formal title created by British administrators during the 19th and 20th-century Colonial era and used in India, Africa and Asian colonies. They used it as a substitute for the word king to maintain that only the British monarch held that title. Since the title "chief" was already used in terms of district and town administrators, the addition of "paramount" was made so as to distinguish between the ruling monarch and the local aristocracy.Powhatan
The Powhatan () people (sometimes Powhatans; also spelled Powatan) may refer to any of the Indigenous Algonquian people that are traditionally from eastern Virginia. All of the Powhatan groups descend from the Powhatan Confederacy. In some instances, The Powhatan may refer to one of the leaders of the people. This is most commonly the case in historical writings by the English. The Powhatans have also been known as Virginia Algonquians, as the Powhatan language is an eastern-Algonquian language, also known as Virginia Algonquian. It is estimated that there were about 14,000–21,000 Powhatan people in eastern Virginia, when the English colonized Jamestown in 1607.In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, a mamanatowick (paramount chief) named Wahunsenacawh created a powerful organization by affiliating 30 tributary peoples, whose territory was much of eastern Virginia. They called this area Tsenacommacah ("densely inhabited Land"). Wahunsenacawh came to be known by the English as "The Powhatan (Chief)". Each of the tribes within this organization had its own weroance (leader, commander), but all paid tribute to The Powhatan (Chief).After Wahunsenacawh's death in 1618, hostilities with colonists escalated under the chiefdom of his brother, Opchanacanough, who sought in vain to drive off the encroaching English. His large-scale attacks in 1622 and 1644 met strong reprisals by the English, resulting in the near elimination of the tribe. By 1646, what is called the Powhatan Paramount Chiefdom by modern historians had been decimated. More important than the ongoing conflicts with the English settlements was the high rate of deaths the Powhatan suffered due to new infectious diseases carried to North America by Europeans, such as measles and smallpox. The Native Americans did not have any immunity to these, which had been endemic in Europe and Asia for centuries. The wholesale deaths greatly weakened and hollowed out the Native American societies.
By the mid-17th century, the leaders of the colony were desperate for labor to develop the land. Almost half of the English and European immigrants arrived as indentured servants. As settlement continued, the colonists imported growing numbers of enslaved Africans for labor. By 1700, the colonies had about 6,000 black slaves, one-twelfth of the population. It was common for black slaves to escape and join the surrounding Powhatan; some white servants were also noted to have joined the Natives. Africans and Europeans worked and lived together; some natives also intermarried with them. After Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, the colony enslaved Indians for control. In 1691, the House of Burgesses abolished native slavery; however, many Powhatan were held in servitude well into the 18th century.In the 21st century, eight Native tribes are officially recognized by Virginia, as having ancestral ties to the Powhatan confederation. The Pamunkey and Mattaponi are the only two peoples who have retained reservation lands from the 17th century. The competing cultures of the Powhatan and English settlers were united through unions and marriages of members, the most well known of which was that of Pocahontas and John Rolfe. Their son Thomas Rolfe was the ancestor of many Virginians; many of the First Families of Virginia have both English and Virginia Algonquian ancestry.Some survivors of the Powhatan confederacy have relocated elsewhere. Beginning in the late 19th century, individual people identifying collectively as the Powhatan Renape Nation settled a tiny subdivision known as Morrisville and Delair, in Pennsauken Township, New Jersey. Their ancestry is mostly from the Rappahannock tribe of Virginia and the related Nanticoke tribe of Delaware. They have been recognized as a tribe by the state of New Jersey.Tocobaga
Tocobaga (occasionally Tocopaca) was the name of a chiefdom, its chief, and its principal town during the 16th century. The chiefdom was centered around the northern end of Old Tampa Bay, the arm of Tampa Bay that extends between the present-day city of Tampa and northern Pinellas County. The exact location of the principal town is believed to be the archeological Safety Harbor Site, which gives its name to the Safety Harbor culture, of which the Tocobaga are the most well-known group.
The name "Tocobaga" is often applied to all of the native peoples of the immediate Tampa Bay area during the first Spanish colonial period (1513-1763). While they were culturally very similar, most of the villages on the eastern and southern shores of Tampa Bay were likely affiliated with other chiefdoms, such as the Pohoy, Uzita, and Mocoso. Study of archaeological artifacts has provided insight into the everyday life of the Safety Harbor culture. However, little is known about the political organization of the early peoples of the Tampa Bay area. The scant historical records come exclusively from the journals and other documents made by members of several Spanish expeditions that traversed the area in the 1500s.
The Tocobaga and their neighbors disappeared from the historical record by the early 1700s, as diseases brought by European explorers decimated the local population and survivors were displaced by the raids and incursions of other indigenous groups from the north. The Tampa Bay area was virtually uninhabited for over a century.Tribal chief
A tribal chief or chieftain is the leader of a tribal society or chiefdom.Tsenacommacah
Tsenacommacah (pronounced in English; "densely inhabited land"; also written Tscenocomoco, Tsenacomoco, Tenakomakah, Attanoughkomouck, and Attan-Akamik) is the name given by the Powhatan people to their native homeland, the area encompassing all of Tidewater Virginia and parts of the Eastern Shore. More precisely, its boundaries spanned 100 miles (160 km) by 100 miles (160 km) from near the south side of the mouth of the James River all the way north to the south end of the Potomac River and from the Eastern Shore west to about the Fall Line of the rivers.