Carniero's Circumscription Theory on the Origin of the State[1]

by Kathryn W. Kemp

The World Civilization survey courses that are a part of every college or university history curriculum begin at the academic fault line dividing archaeology from history. This line may be arbitrary, but instructors who wish to teach about the earliest civilizations must venture into the alien field beyond the fault line in order to provide some context for topics such as the city at Mohenjo-Daro, the career of Sargon, or the architecture of the Stepped Pyramid. Thus, every world civilization textbook begins with a chapter that includes a few dutiful pages on pre-history. Some authors take the student all the way back to Lucy and the ancestral hominids of Africa, but at the very least they explain that humankind in the Neolithic period experienced a “revolution” when the invention of sophisticated methods of agriculture enabled the human population to increase significantly in size.

At this point, many authors go on to focus on the supposedly liberating social effect of this agricultural revolution. They explain that agriculture freed people from the daily scramble for subsistence, allowing them time for intellectual and creative pursuits. These leisured folk then invented civilization with its several distinguishing features: urban centers, social classes, complex government, formal religion, writing, astronomy and mathematics. (We historians particularly prize writing because it leads directly to the formal practice of our profession.) In their accounts of the beginning of civilization some authors tell us that cities “appeared” and that complex social arrangements “developed” but they hurry on to describe the details of these results without giving much attention to the process of their creation.

Not so the archaeologists and their colleagues in anthropology. Perhaps because their discipline takes a more generalizing (they would say more scientific) approach to this body of information, they have sought to develop fundamental theories on the causes of a civilization’s birth--primary state formation, in their lingo. They have been working on this problem for a good while, and some of their earlier ideas appear, at least by implication, our world civ texts. We may see hints of Karl Wittfogel’s hydraulic theory, which developed from the observation that primary states frequently are found in river valleys[2]. In this view, irrigation projects necessary to large-scale agriculture could only be managed by a powerful central authority. Wittfogel called the resulting civilization an oriental despotism. As a general explanation of state formation, oriental despotism foundered on the rocks of fact: successful large-scale irrigation projects that are cooperative rather than coerced may be found both in the historical record and in the present. Furthermore, some ancient societies--for example, the Chinese--undertook their large irrigation works some time after the establishment of their undeniably “civilized” cultures.

The work of V. Gordon Childe seems to be the primary influence in many current texts[3]. Unlike Wittfogel and others, whose theories have been characterized as coercive, Childe preferred a voluntaristic model of state formation. People, freed of the burdens of seeking subsistence by the invention of agriculture, developed occupational specialties and from these specialties political relationships grew. Small communities merged to form complex state societies. Here too, current scholarship intrudes with troublesome facts. Civilization is not the inevitable result of the invention of agriculture. Many farmers stop working when they have a generously adequate supply of food and don’t choose to continue laboring in order to create those large, “liberating” surpluses necessary to Childe’s gently evolutionary theory of primary state formation. Furthermore, leisure may be available to persons living in very simple societies, where periods of deprivation may alternate with times of such abundance that a good part of life may go to the leisurely pursuit of story-telling and song, the adornment of the body, and the cultivation of personal relationships. In simple, there are too many exceptions to sustain this voluntaristic model for primary state formation.

Many theories have come and gone; the two summarized here represent only a superficial sample of the most widely recognized; the search for an over-arching explanation for the birth of civilization continues among the anthropologists and archaeologists. Unfortunately, the newest and in many ways most promising suggestion seems to go largely unnoticed in our history textbooks. It is called circumscription theory and is originally the work of Robert Carniero, who was curator of South American ethnology in the department of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York when he first put the idea forward, about 1970. By 1985, circumscription had aroused enough interest to be the subject of a symposium at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association.

Carniero’s theory rests on archaeological and anthropological evidence too extensive to recite here, but the circumscription theory in the abstract is as follows[4]:

First, he noted that primary state formation (that is, the birth of “civilization”) took place in geographically bounded or circumscribed areas. For example, Egypt arose in a reasonably abundant environment but was surrounded by deserts and seas that distinctly limited the opportunities for territorial expansion. A second key observation was the universally hierarchical social structure of primary states, where peasants labored while aristocrats ruled. Finally, Carniero factored in the tendency for human populations to increase in numbers.

The circumscription process of state formation begins when population growth puts pressure on the environmental resources of a given region. In uncirumscribed areas expanding populations can divide and relocate into new territories, continuing to enjoy the standard of living that they find satisfactory. Examples of this hiving-off pattern have been found in parts of the Amazon, where a group under pressure from its neighbors can pack up and move to another part of the rain forest. Carniero’s theory comes into play when a sharp boundary limits the available resources so that people facing shortages have nowhere to go. In this situation competition among growing population groups enables a stronger group to seize the desirable assets of its neighbors. The neighbors may be exterminated or subdued; the defeated group may form the seed of a class of hereditary peasants. The victors, who take over control of the assets of the vanquished, enjoy the approval of their fellows. They display symbols of their dominance and begin to avoid common labor, thus distinguishing themselves from the class of the defeated group, who must continue to work[5]. This begins a process that may be repeated over centuries; when undisturbed it produced the civilizations that live in Chapter One of our textbooks. Village over village, town over town, city over city, kingdoms and empires evolve. In cities, the heirs of the victorious generations rule; in their hinterlands, the losers toil.

Among anthropologists, circumscription theory has not been accepted without question[6]. The power of the scientific method, however, lies in this process of questioning; the scientific dialectic refines a good idea. As a result of such debate over circumscription theory some corollaries have emerged:

Circumscription need not be physical but can also be social. Indeed, the presence of a powerful neighbor state may press a smaller culture group into state formation as a matter of self-defense. One scholar offers this as a possible explanation for the emergence of the Israelite monarchy. The nomadic Israelites lived in simplicity until the neighboring Canaanite city-states came under pressure from the newly arrived Philistines. To meet the implicit challenge, the Israelites developed a state government to provide for self-defense[7].

Furthermore, the circumscribing effect may not require an absolute, sharp physical boundary such as a desert; a zone of significantly decreased abundance can do as well, when that zone is not adequate to continue to sustain a people in the manner they consider desirable. Nor do people wait until they have achieved maximum exploitation of their own assets before they move against weak neighbors; the possibility of shortfalls may be sufficient to trigger aggression. Finally, state formation takes time; some anthropologists point to cases in which a regional process of state formation may have been cut off by the intervention of a powerful modern nation-state during the era of colonization[8].

Today, some archaeologists reject the possibility of a single explanation for the rise of civilization[9]. They prefer a systems theory model, rather than insisting on one simple cause-and-effect rule for all cases. In other words, various factors may have differing significance in each case. All of the "causes" suggested in various theories may be in play at any given time, but not always in the same way. The "causes" that have been identified also may better be understood as effects--the need for a reliable water supply is the cause of an irrigation project; the need for sufficient subsistence is the cause of the process described by circumscription theory. In any case, the influence of abundant leisure time can be discarded--it really did not exist for any but the most powerful few, and they probably were very busy protecting their power.

In the anthropological community even those who have rejected circumscription theory as an ultimate explanation for the mechanism of state formation have found it at least partially useful; they tend to agree that warfare, in any case, plays a vital part in state creation.

The primary states of the Americas, because they were entirely isolated from contact with the old world, form a test case for state formation theory--historical and geographical accidents have created a kind of double-blind experiment. The development of pre-Columbian states in the Americas resembles to an astonishing degree those patterns seen in the earliest states of the old world. The Maya and Inca rose to dominate their neighbors by violent means; they became hierarchical societies of peasant laborers and aristocratic warriors; hereditary aristocrats ruled in urban centers, while religion became highly formalized with professional priesthoods established in elaborate temples; those priests developed systems of record keeping, and used mathematics, writing, and astronomical observations in support of their duties, which included the calculation of accurate calendars. Of course, the differences between Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica constitute more than mere matters of style, but the primary states of the old and new worlds nonetheless have a generous body of fundamental traits in common--enough to suggest that they are the result of similar processes of development. Furthermore, strong arguments are made that circumscription played a prominent part in the rise of the New World states.

For historians, Carniero’s circumscription theory may offer a certain coherent context for the violent political behavior of civilized humankind. Nor need its application be limited to the ancient world. The scramble for Africa, the demand for lebensraum, and the policies such as Indian removal, as “justified” by Manifest Destiny, obviously can be interpreted in terms of a people’s sense of being bounded in and having limited opportunities to thrive and their desire for abundant--not merely adequate--resources. Add to this sense of confinement the cheerful willingness to wrest resources from the grasp of their weaker neighbors and we see the state in action. Survey students have no difficulty grasping the fundamentals of circumscription theory, which offers a rational interpretive structure that they may apply as the course moves through time. Whether or not Carniero’s theory gains acceptance as the ultimate explanation for the birth of civilization, as a current idea, it deserves a place in the textbooks and classes that address world civilization.


[1] A Theory of the Origin of the State by Robert L. Carneiro

[2] Karl Wittfogel. Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957.

[3] V. Gordon Childe. Man makes Himself. New York: New American Library, 1951. This is one of many works by Childe; it is intended for the general reader.

[4] Robert Carniero August 21, 1970, “A Theory of the Origin of the State” (Science, 21 August 1970); the papers from the AAA meeting are published in the American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 33, No. 4 (March-April 1988.) This issue (cited below as ABS) and the Science article are the principal sources for my description of Carniero’s thesis.

[5] Readers of Thorsten Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class may find this familiar.

[6] For example, see Robert M. Schact, “Circumscription Theory, a Critical Review” in ABS, 438-448.

[7] Chris Hauer, Jr. “The Rise of the Israelite Monarchy, a Challenge to Circumscription Theory?” ABS 428-436.

[8] The items in this paragraph as well as a number of other complex and subtle ramifications of circumscription theory are found in Malcolm C. Webb, “The First States: How --or in What Sense--Did 'Circumscription' Circumscribe?” ABS, 449-458.

[9] The comments in the paragraph are based on my consultation with Richard A. Beavers, Director of the Archaeological and Cultural Research Program at the University of New Orleans, who has read a version of this paper.