AskDefine | Define chiefdom

User Contributed Dictionary





  1. An area or region governed by a chief.
  2. A society larger than a tribe but smaller or simpler than a state.

Extensive Definition

A chiefdom is a type of complex society of varying degrees of centralization that is led by an individual known as a chief.
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. The most succinct (but still working) definition of a chiefdom in anthropology belongs to 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).
Chiefdoms are characterized by pervasive inequality of people and centralization of authority. At least two inherited social classes (elite and commoner) are present (Ancient hawaiian chiefdoms had as many as four social classes), although social class can often be changed by extraordinary behavior during an individual's life. A single lineage/family of the elite class will be the ruling elite of the chiefdom, with the greatest influence, power, and prestige. Kinship is typically an organizing principle, while marriage, age, and gender 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 these 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 with 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
Chiefdoms have been shown by anthropologists and archaeologists to be 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 would be the Germanic Peoples who conquered the western Roman Empire in the 5th century A.D. Although commonly referred to as tribes, the Germanic Peoples were by anthropological definition not tribes, but chiefdoms. They had a complex social hierarchy consisting of kings, a warrior aristocracy, common freemen, serfs and slaves.
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 the structural levels within such chiefdoms appear to be equal, or even to exceed those within the average state, but they have an entirely different type of political organization and political leadership; such type of political entities do not appear to have been ever created by the agriculturists (e.g., Kradin 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004).

See also


  • Carneiro, R. L. 1981. The Chiefdom: Precursor of the State. The Transition to Statehood in the New World / Ed. by G. D. Jones and R. R. Kautz, pp. 37–79. Cambridge, UK – New York, NY: Cam-bridge University Press.
  • Carneiro, R. L. 1991. The Nature of the Chiefdom as Revealed by Evidence from the Cauca Valley of Colombia. Profiles in Cultural Evolution / Ed. by A.T. Rambo and K. Gillogly, pp. 167–90. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
  • Earle, T. K. 1997. How Chiefs Came to Power: The Political Economy of Prehistory. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Kradin, Nikolay N. 2000. Nomadic Empires in Evolutionary Perspective. In Alternatives of Social Evolution. Ed. by N.N. Kradin, A.V. Korotayev, Dmitri Bondarenko, V. de Munck, and P.K. Wason (p. 274-288). Vladivostok: Far Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences; reprinted in: The Early State, its Alternatives and Analogues. Ed. by Leonid Grinin et al. (р. 501-524). Volgograd: Uchitel', 2004.
  • Kradin, Nikolay N. 2002. Nomadism, Evolution, and World-Systems: Pastoral Societies in Theories of Historical Development. Journal of World-System Research 8: 368-388.
  • Kradin, Nikolay N. 2003. Nomadic Empires: Origins, Rise, Decline. In Nomadic Pathways in Social Evolution. Ed. by N.N. Kradin, Dmitri Bondarenko, and T. Barfield (p. 73-87). Moscow: Center for Civilizational Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences.
chiefdom in Bulgarian: Вождество
chiefdom in German: Häuptlingstum
chiefdom in Esperanto: Tribestrolando
chiefdom in Italian: Chiefdom
chiefdom in Hebrew: משטר צ'יף
chiefdom in Russian: Вождество
chiefdom in Finnish: Päällikkökunta
chiefdom in Swedish: Hövdingadöme
chiefdom in Ukrainian: Вождівство
chiefdom in Spanish: Jefatura
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