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  • Print publication year: 1992
  • Online publication date: June 2012

6 - Chiefdoms and states: the emergence of complex societies


As we saw in Chapter 3, the evidence for Paleo-Indian social organization, meager though it is, is consistent with the assumption that they formed egalitarian bands, comparable to those of recent hunter-gatherers. In these societies, there are no significant differences in individuals' wealth or power, and leadership roles are transitory. An individual may be temporarily vested with authority in order to coordinate the group's activities; for example, a “rabbit boss” directed the rabbit drives of the Shoshoni. However, such authority does not extend beyond the particular task. Certain individuals, particularly eloquent older men, may be more influential than other band members in the discussions that result in consensual decisions; but they do not exercise coercive power.

However, we have also seen that positions of authority were more rigidly defined among the contact period foragers of the Northwest Coast and California. Chiefs were responsible for organizing both subsistence activities and ceremonial events, and for managing relations with neighboring groups. Their positions were inherited, and they enjoyed special privileges, including greater wealth in shell beads and other valued items. The traditional hunter-gatherer ethic of sharing was maintained, so that chiefs were expected to be conspicuously generous, providing their followers with gifts of food and other goods. This aspect of the chiefly role is exemplified by the potlatches of the Northwest Coast. Clearly, the emergence of “redistributor” chiefs in these foraging societies was related to the presence of permanent villages, occupied by groups numbering in the hundreds (as opposed to the 25 to 50 people reported for most bands), and to the economic emphasis on abundant and storable foods (dried fish and fish oil on the Northwest Coast, acorns in California).