On Chiefs and Chiefdoms

Author: Claessen, Henri J. M.
Journal: Social Evolution & History. Volume 10, Number 1 / March 2011


The type of political leader, commonly referred to as ‘chief’, emerged some ten thousand years ago, since the time that larger congregations of people had become possible when the changes in climate made agriculture and settled life possible (Cook 2005: 24–28). And, though the term ‘chief’ was used over and again in anthropological, archaeological, and even historical literature, the contents of the concept was never fully agreed upon. Most anthropologists would include any, or most, of the following aspects in his or her definition: an ascribed/inherited top position in the local (regional) social structure, a central position in a redistributive economy, sacred capacities (the most important of which were alleged positive effects on human, animal and plant fertility), the erection of great works in the public sphere, and an inclination to warfare. I shall discuss each of these features with their ramifications below.