law codes, monumental architecture (such as pyramids), and so on. While features such as these are not important—indeed, they all mark major milestones in human cultural development—my point here is that these features are better seen as thingsthat states do, once they are in existence, rather than as developments that caused states to appear in the first place.Let me illustrate thus proposition with two examples. I think we can all agree that writing systems are important to the functioning of states. But that’s different from saying that systems of writing needed to be developed before the first states could emerge. On the contrary, it’s likely that states—the early states—came first, and then specialists came to develop systems of writing, to facilitate record-keeping
and other bureaucratic state activities. Further, early writing systems, such as hieroglyphics and cuneiform (associated with early Mesopotamia) were all idiographic systems. These systems, which employed symbols to represent ideas, required a tremendous investment of time to learn them, and they were never more than the domain of relatively few specialists. And some early states got by without writing systems altogether—government officials in the African state of Dahomey, for example, kept records by storing variable numbers of small pebbles in many-compartmented box, and their counterparts in Peru kept track of information by employing lengths of rope with knots tied in them. The easier-to-master alphabetic writing systems, in contrast, which employ symbols to represent sounds, are a more recent cultural development. Turning to the example of bronze metallurgy, one might be tempted to speculate that the discovery of metal-making was a necessary condition for the development of states. But while bronze (an alloy of copper and tin) is indeed quite ancient, it is too soft a metal to be used in agricultural production, and it was used in early states only to make weapons and elite goods. Iron, sometimes called the “poor man’s metal” and the basis for improved agricultural plows, only came into general use in the Middle East about 1500 bce—long after the earliest states had developed there. So, again, my point is that we should be careful not to confuse things that states do or invent with the circumstances that caused states to appear.So, what did cause states to appear? For many anthropologists, the key development was an organizational change that required the great mass of food-producers to intensify production in order to produce an agriculture surplus. This surplus was then collected by elites or their agents and became the basis for a re-distributional economic system whereby various non-food producing specialists were employed to form a military, construct monuments and public works, and so forth. In short, state authorities used the proceeds of such early systems of taxation to undertake all the various activities that states engage in, from aggrandizing its leaders to promoting the common good. I realize this is quite a mouthful, but I believe that I can clarify the main issue here with two examples.