In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Early States and State Formation in Africa

  • Introduction
  • Theories of Social Complexity
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Historical and Ethnohistorical Sources
  • Oral Traditions

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African Studies Early States and State Formation in Africa
Graham Connah
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0047


Archaeologists, anthropologists, sociologists, historians, geographers, and other scholars have long been interested in the attainment of social complexity within human groups. More conservative and more popular authors have clung to the 19th-century Eurocentric idea of civilizations, in the process giving attention to only those past societies whose material remains are obvious evidence of such complexity. This has given rise to the ancient civilizations view of human history, which has led to a proliferation of publications often restricted to six case studies at the most. Typically, these consist of ancient Mesopotamia, ancient (Pharaonic) Egypt, the Indus valley, Shang China, the Aztecs, and the Incas. Until the middle of the 20th century, even the last two were often excluded from consideration. Such an approach has overlooked the large number of societies in Africa (other than Egypt) for which there is evidence of the existence of past social complexity in a variety of forms. Given the preliterate condition of many of these groups, much of the evidence consists of archaeological data, from both excavations and field surveys. It is these archaeological data that are the main emphasis of this article. Nevertheless, historical documentation does exist for some areas and periods, yet because of its uneven distribution in space and time, the usual separation of prehistory and history is inappropriate in the context of much of Africa. Ethnohistorical sources, consisting of accounts by visitors from outside the continent, and oral sources, consisting of the traditions of indigenous African societies, also contribute to an increasing understanding of this aspect of the African past.

Theories of Social Complexity

A large number of published studies have examined the subject of social complexity and the means by which it has been attained in the past. Many of these studies have considered the subject as a worldwide phenomenon, and in some cases their relevance to the African past is more implicit than explicit. To understand much of the literature on this subject, however, it is necessary to have some familiarity with the more outstanding and more recent theoretical writing. Most of this is anthropological or sociological in approach, and its subject matter is variously identified. In the early 21st century, “social complexity” is most often the focus of attention, but discussion often centers on the origins of “early states and state formation,” as in the title of this article. Such states are often contrasted with “chiefdoms,” which are considered to be at a lower level of complexity and perhaps on a path to becoming states. Yet, this dichotomy is no longer as acceptable as it was formerly, when the study of complexity was strongly influenced by 19th-century evolutionist ideas, which emphasized a linear progression from simple to complex. Furthermore, any inquiry into social complexity inevitably leads to a consideration of “urbanization,” with which it was so often associated in the past. Early African urbanization existed in a wide variety of forms, and some understanding of the character of “preindustrial cities” is essential if one is to avoid an approach influenced by more recent European or American models. In the African case, towns and cities were often characterized by hierarchical organization, but it has been argued that instances of heterarchy also existed. Newcomers to the subject will find that Sjoberg 1960, although based mostly on anthropological data and generalized, is useful for understanding the characteristics of early cities. McIntosh 1999 is a collection of papers that investigate the diversity of African states and urbanization, and Trigger 2003 is a conventional comparative work that provides a global basis for understanding early civilizations. In contrast, Yoffee 2005 argues for a new approach to the subject, and Pauketat 2007 stresses the importance of archaeological evidence rather than social-evolutionary theory. Fletcher 2007 is an analytical study seeking to explain the factors influencing urban growth, in the process offering a thoughtful investigation. Maisels 2010 emphasizes the role of power in the formation of states, and Smith 2012 is yet another collection of comparative studies of complex societies.

  • Fletcher, Roland. The Limits of Settlement Growth: A Theoretical Outline. New Studies in Archaeology. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    Originally published in 1995. Argues that the built environment becomes a constraint on the long-term development of a settlement and can restrict social and political change. Using this approach, the book reviews worldwide settlement growth over the last fifteen thousand years, concluding with agrarian urban and industrial cities. Contains some material relevant to Africa.

  • Maisels, Charles. The Archaeology of Politics and Power: Where, When, and Why the First States Formed. Oxford and Oakville, Canada: Oxbow, 2010.

    Looks at the examples of the Indus, the Levant and Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and the Andes. Advances an explanation of the state formation process, including internal differentiation within communities, the manipulation of religion, the acquisition of economic privilege, social stratification, the application of force, and the eventual formation of an elite.

  • McIntosh, Susan Keech, ed. Beyond Chiefdoms: Pathways to Complexity in Africa. New Directions in Archaeology. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    Although concerned with theory, this book is set firmly in an African context. It includes subject matter from the Inland Niger Delta, Cameroon, the Kalahari, Uganda, and Central Africa as well as discussions of the segmentary state, the evolutionary mapping of African societies, “invisible” African towns, and other topics.

  • Pauketat, Timothy R. Chiefdoms and Other Archaeological Delusions. Issues in Eastern Woodlands Archaeology. Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 2007.

    Debunks much of the recent social-evolutionary theorizing about human development, but in the context of American Mississippian culture. Nevertheless, relevant to Africa because the author challenges all students of prehistory and history to examine the actual archaeological evidence with an open mind.

  • Sjoberg, Gideon. The Preindustrial City: Past and Present. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1960.

    An old but classic study that examines a wide range of social, economic, political, religious, and communication aspects of preindustrial cities worldwide. Not specifically concerned with Africa, but contains much that is implicitly relevant to past African urban societies.

  • Smith, Michael E., ed. The Comparative Archaeology of Complex Societies. Papers presented at a conference held at the Amerind Foundation, Dragoon, Arizona, 3–7 March 2008. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    A number of authors draw on examples from an array of geographical settings, considering urbanization, settlement patterns, the political strategies of kings and chiefs, and the economic choices of individuals and households. A chapter by Roland Fletcher discusses low-density, agrarian-based urbanism, a subject of relevance to Africa.

  • Trigger, Bruce G. Understanding Early Civilizations: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    A good introduction to comparative studies of social complexity, not only focusing on well-known examples from China to the Americas, but also including one from Southwestern Nigeria: the Yoruba. Covers sociopolitical organization, economy, and cognitive and symbolic aspects. Presents problems of definition and usefully contrasts city-states with territorial states.

  • Yoffee, Norman. Myths of the Archaic State: Evolution of the Earliest Cities, States and Civilizations. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511489662

    Challenges prevailing ideas about the evolution of the earliest cities, states, and civilizations. Questions earliest states as large and despotic and suggests an evolutionary process centered on the concerns of everyday life. Draws on worldwide evidence, including from Egypt.

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