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READ: First States

Countries, also known as states, are everywhere. How and why they formed is a fundamental topic in world history. But does that necessarily make them fundamental to humanity?
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What is a state, according to this author?
  2. How do some anthropologists define a state?
  3. What is Yuval Harari’s argument about the state, according to this article?
  4. What are some characteristics of most urban states, according to this article?
  5. What are two theories put forth in this article about why people form states?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. Based on all the evidence you have so far, do you agree more with the “coercion” or “voluntary” theory of state formation?
  2. There are lots of different definitions of what makes a state. This article has at least four different definitions. Which do you find most convincing?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

First States

A photograph of a line of statues. The statues are guard-like, mostly identical, and are holding spears.
By Trevor Getz
Countries, also known as states, are everywhere. How and why they formed is a fundamental topic in world history. But does that necessarily make them fundamental to humanity?


Historians talk an awful lot about states and the people who live in them. It's a broad term, since states may be kingdoms or sultanates, republics or confederations, tiny city-states or massive empires. Their people may be citizens with many rights, or subjects with few rights at all. But they all live in states. Of course, this may give us a distorted view of history. Lots of people in the past didn't lived in states—they just lived wherever they were, escaping the notice of most historians. With the territory of today's world almost entirely divided into states, and almost every human a citizen of one, our view of the world's many communities is largely framed by states.
So it's useful to look at the emergence of the world's very first states. Individual examples with plenty of detail will come later in the course. For now, let's explore some descriptions of what a state is, as well as theories about how the first states came into being.

What is a state?

State is the formal term we use to describe a country. The state is usually defined as an organized community living under a unified political system. So states are about government – an organization of people who make decisions, organize society, and enforce rules. And of course there's the land. States usually claim to control a certain territory, with boundaries or borders, although there are some examples in history of mobile states that can move around. The people running a state also claim authority over a group of people. The state makes laws and dispenses justice often using some sort of military or police force. States also collect resources and re-distribute them, often unequally.
A photo of a wall or panel inscribed with symbols.
It may not look exciting here, but this image is so significant there’s probably a historian out there with a tattoo of it. Why? It’s part of the Code of Hammurabi, some of the earliest recorded laws that we know about, and comes from the Babylonian state. Public domain.
All of these things have to do with governing a society. Of course, people who don't have states still have ways of making decisions. Usually, though, the ways they make decisions are less formal and the decisions themselves less permanent. In fact, some scholars argue that a state is defined by having a formal and complex system of government. Some anthropologists, for example, suggest that we can only call something a state if it has at least four levels of government: 1) the people who run the whole country, 2) people running cities beneath them, 3) people running neighborhoods and towns beneath them, and, 4) people running small villages or extended families beneath them.
The historian Yuval Harari is among the scholars who argue that this definition is not enough to describe a state. States are the first communities too big for everyone to know each other. For that reason, Harari says, the people within them need a way to believe in their community's connectedness in the abstract, to imagine it even when they can't see it all at once. Historical groups of people have come to accept that they all belong in or to a single political body. They agree to cooperate together. They believe it when the King or Pharaoh claims a god-like right to rule, or that they share an identity and culture, or that the President and Congress have a right to issue money and to collect taxes. So for Harari, the state is not just laws, soldiers, and tax-collectors. It is also the way that people think of themselves as belonging together.

Characteristics of early states

Today, most of us think of states as the reason we have rights as citizens to elect and shape our government. Early in human history, however, people imagined themselves belonging to a state where the government had authority over them. Few people believed they had the right to actually participate in government or to select it. Early states were probably quite different. Historians and other scholars have suggested a list of characteristics that most early states shared. They use these to help define when states emerged first in one region or another.
Here are six characteristics frequently included in these lists:
  • Urban – Most early states had cities. However, some historians argue that there are exceptions, where states were built by nomadic or rural people, especially in Central Asia.
  • Agricultural – Almost all states seem to have been built on farming societies. However, there are examples of states where pastoralists1 played a key role, for example in the mountainous areas of East Africa.
  • Occupational specialization – States seem to arise where there are some people in a society who are not farmers, but still need to eat. Some historians even argue that the state emerged largely to make sure food got to people who did important work that wasn't about food. These were artisans like leather-workers, metal- workers, and cloth-makers. (Notice the photo below of a work area from the ancient state of Harappa.)
  • Complex economy – States largely seem to be created when a community's economy becomes large and complicated. They need a way to govern how goods are produced and distributed.
  • Social stratification – Most states, even the early ones, are not egalitarian. Some people rule. Others are ruled. Some are rich. Others are poor by comparison. In fact, some scholars speculate that the state may exist to help a few wealthy, powerful people to govern a larger, poorer group.
  • State authority – In states, the government claims to have the authority, or right, to enforce laws. (Notice the photo above showing the earliest written laws we know about.)
A stone bust of Ptolemy I. The face is lifelike and he is wearing an ornate headdress.
Rare is the human whose image is recreated in stone, preserved for two millennia and put on display at the British Museum. But this guy, Ptolemy I, was a Pharaoh, and the many people under his rule believed in his authority as part of believing in their Egyptian state. By Stella, CC BY-SA 4.0.
At times, historians and political scientists have proposed other characteristics of states as well. Most states have big buildings and walls, or armies. Most states have written records. They collect taxes. They try to control belief systems and religion. But in world history, there are lots of examples of places that look like states but don't have any of these things. So there is no real agreement that a society must have these characteristics to count as a state.
Photo shows circular arrangements of bricks surrounding a round patch of ground. Grass is growing outside of the brick arrangements.
A work area in Harappa, an early state in South Asia. Archaeologists and historians have identified occupational specialization in Harrapan society, but disagree about the level of social stratification. By Amir Islam, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Why did humans create states?

States are important now, but as far as we can tell modern humans existed without them for about 245,000 years. So, why did humans, in various places and at various times, create states? In general, there are two broad explanations for the rise of states. Now here's where it gets tricky. These explanations – which are theories that can be applied in both general and specific ways – contradict each other even though they may both be right.
The first explanation is called the "coercive theory". Historians like James C. Scott and Ibn Khaldun, argue that states arise because a group of people want to control others and force them to do certain things. In some versions of the coercive theory, a small group wants more wealth, or less work. They create laws and recruit an army to force others around them to do all the farming and any other work. The coercers become the government. Coercive theory also argues that, on a larger scale, different communities compete for resources. In this version, one community conquers the others in order to gain control of those resources.
The second explanation, put forward by philosopher Karl Wittfogel and anthropologist Elman Service, among others, suggests that people come together voluntarily to create states. Volunteering is pretty much the opposite of being coerced. This explanation, often called "voluntary theory", also has several versions. One version suggests that humans found they needed to do work that required lots of cooperation, like building huge irrigation projects to grow crops. So they devised the state to get people to work together. Another variant suggests that communities found they needed rules. To make sure trading was done fairly, reduce violence, or enforce agreements, people wanted the kind of law and order only a state could provide.
In order to test these theories, historians look at specific examples of states, especially the earliest states in a region, and try to apply the evidence to see whether the models fit. These early states include ones we know well, and some that are less familiar.
StateRegionEra - approximately
UrukMesopotamia4000-3000 BCE
Sumerian statesMesopotamia4000-3000 BCE
EgyptNorthern Africa3500 BCE
HarrapaSouth Asia’s Indus River Valley2600 BCE
ErlitouCentral China1800-1600 BCE
Monte AlbánSouthern Mexico300 BCE
TiwanakuSouth America300-500 CE
NriWest Africa’s forests900 CE
HawaiiPacific Ocean1000 CE
KitaraEast African highlands1200-1400 CE
Table 1 Early states, regions, and eras
The state is as important to human history as oxygen is to life, so of course we focus on it. But, just as there are some important organisms that can live without oxygen, not everyone in history lived in states. As historians we have to wonder whether concentrating on the state makes us miss out on the important experiences and contributions of people who did not live in them. Also, are we crediting states as engines of human development without considering the problems that states have caused? Are states even a step forward, or would we have been better off without them?
Despite these questions, the state was undoubtedly a key element of human history, and remains so today. Therefore, it is useful to study patterns and differences in how people in various areas created states in the past.
Author bio
Trevor Getz is Professor of African and world History at San Francisco State University. He has written or edited eleven books, including the award-winning graphic history Abina and the Important Men, and co-produced several prize-winning documentaries. He is also the author of A Primer for Teaching African History, which explores questions about how we should teach the history of Africa in high school and university classes.

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