Idealism, Materialism, and Biology in the Analysis of Cultural Evolution

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Heterarchy and Hierarchy among
the ancient Mongolian nomads

Nikolay N. Kradin

Institute of History, Archaeology and Ethnology,
Far Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences,
Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok


In this paper the social hierarchy of several ancient Mongolian polities from the 3rd – 2nd centuries BC to the 3rd century AD is described in terms of heterarchy, hierarchy, and chiefdom. These polities are characterized by the similar ecological environment, common cultural space, and common frontier with the Chinese civilization in the south and nomadic Xiongnu empire in the west. However, these ancient Mongols' polities differed in social complexity level. In this paper it is discussed how and why this happened.


Traditionally, the prehistoric nomads were considered as tribes and chiefdoms. The term tribe is discredited in the contemporary anthropology of nomadism as a product of colonialism (Sneath 2007).

The theory of chiefdom is also subjected to criticism as an outdated and incorrect one (Yoffee 2005; Pauketat 2007). It is necessary to agree with some part of criticism. Actually, the term tribe is often associated with the words ‘wild’ and ‘outdated’. By no means, all complex pre-state polities were chiefdoms. The direct analogies between the ethno-historical cultures and pre-historic societies are often erroneous. However, the negation of the previous theories without suggesting some new theoretical ideas is not a good alternative.

In this article I will try to show by the example of the pre-historic Mongolian nomads of the Inner Asia that the classical terminology has a heuristic utility. The ancient Mongolian nomads – the Wuhuan and Xianbei – migrated in the last centuries BC – first centuries AD mainly in the territory of Inner Mongolia as well as, partially, in the neighboring geographic areas.

The Xianbei, after the collapse of the Xiongnu empire, had extended their influence to the whole territory of the present-day Mongolia.
In the 2nd century AD, they created the great steppe empire.

The main sources on the Wuhuan and Xianbei history are information from Chinese chronicle Hou Han shu (History of the Later Han Dynasty) by Fan Ye, chapter 90, and Sangokuzhi (Records of Three Kingdoms), Wei-shu (History of Wei Dynasty), chapter 30 by Chen Shou. These data have been translated into Russian (Bichurin 1950 [1851]; Taskin 1984), German (Schreiber 1947), and French (Mullie 1969). In China the thorough studies of these peoples were published considering as narrative sources (Ma Chanshou 1962; Lin Gan 1989; Liu Xueyao 1994; Mi Wenpin 2000, etc.). The Xianbei archeological sites were unknown for a long time. Only quite recently in China and in the Eastern Baikal area there was discovered the archaeological cemetery of the Xianbei culture (Su Bai 1977; Gan Chzigeng and Sun Suzeng 1982; Mi Wenpin 1994; Yu Suhua 2002, 2006; Yaremchuk 2005; Kovychev 2009, etc.). For this reason, I will generally use the written sources concerning the Wuhuan and Xianbei.


The theory of chiefdom is among the fundamental achievements of the cultural anthropology. The maximum contribution to its development was made be the Second-Wave neo-evolutionists – Elman Service (1962, 1971), Marshall Sahlins (1968, 1972) and Robert Carneiro (1981). Later the subsequent progress could be related to the fundamental articles and books by Timothy Earle (1987, 1991, 1997, 2002). The chiefdom is considered as the first form of the social hierarchy that precedes the state origin. There are several popular definitions of the chiefdom. Service has defined the chiefdom as an intermediate form of socio-political organization with the centralized administration and inherited clan hierarchy of theocratic chiefs and elite where the social and property inequality exists but there is no formal and legal repressive machinery (Service 1975: 15). Carneiro (1981: 45) believes that the simple chiefdom is a group of communal settlements united under the permanent control of the supreme ruler. Earle believes that the chiefdom is a polity with population of, at least, several thousand people in which there are political centralization and regional hierarchy of settlements, social hierarchy and forming institutionalized financial system (Earle 1997: 121).

There is a number of papers where the basic statements of the chiefdom theory are described in detail (Service 1962, 1971; Carneiro 1981, 2002; Drennan and Uribe 1987; Earle 1987, 1991, 1997, 2002; Kradin 1995; Redmond 1998; McIntosh 1999; Skalník 2004, etc.).

If summarize different points of views on the chiefdom essence, the following major attributes can be identified:

(1) Hierarchical organization of power which is expressed in the settlements' size according to archaeological sources.

(2) Social stratification and restricted access to important resources. The tendencies of separation of endogamic elite from ordinary masses into the closed estate. In accordance with archaeological data, it is reflected in the funeral rites.

(3) In many chiefdoms there is a redistribution of the surplus product and gifts. The chief's power is based on the prestige economy.

(4) The chiefdom is characterized by a common ideological system and/or common cults and rituals. Some researchers believe that the supreme power in the chiefdom is of a sacralized, theocratic nature.

Depending on the complexity level, the chiefdoms are generally subdivided into simple, complex and supercomplex ones. simple chiefdoms are characterized by single-level hierarchy. It is a group of communal settlements subordinate hierarchically to the chief residence. The complex chiefdoms consist of several simple chiefdoms. Their population already numbered dozens thousand people. In such polities, elite did not work like ordinary people. Sometimes, such chiefdoms consisted of different ethnic groups (Carneiro 1981; Earle 1991). In some cases the complex chiefdoms could unite into the supercomplex chiefdoms. In general, the supercomplex chiefdoms with four-five levels of hierarchy were characteristic of the pastoral nomads. In the agricultural societies the state usually appeared having obtained such number of the hierarchical levels (Carneiro 2000; Kradin 2000; Turchin and Gavrilets 2009).

In the 1970s – 1980s, the term chiefdom was used in all works on archaeology and anthropology of the complex societies. However, in due course the term chiefdom shared the fate of all the other terms. Every researcher interpreted this term in his own way. Some scholars go on proposing the absolutely different meaning. Long before the appearance of the term chiefdom, Lewis Morgan had introduced a concept of military democracy. He considered this term as a pre-state society. Following Engels, this term was widely extended in the Marxist anthropology and archaeology. There also have arisen many different interpretations. In accordance with one of them, the military democracy was already regarded as an early state (see Herrman 1982; Treide, D. and Treide, B. 1984; Guhr 1985; Kovalevsky 1986). The same also characterized other important terms in anthropology and history – feudalism and tribe. It is

an inevitable course of events. But it does not mean that the old terms should be rejected.

Since the early 1990s the theory of chiefdom has been subjected to criticism (Yoffee 1993, 2005; Pauketat 2007; Sneath 2007). The critics use a similar method. They take old works (even books by Morgan) and create an image of a Crow Man. Then, they begin to criticize with enthusiasm the scarecrow of neo-evo-lutionism. The criticism seems convincing. The criticism of the medieval travelers' records on the people with heads of dogs and other animals would be also convincing. However, in fact, the theories in anthropology of neo-evolutionism and processual archaeology are not so bad as they are thought to be.

The critics' major serious counter-evidences reduce to the following: 1) a chiefdom does not evolve into the territorial state (Yoffee believes the city-state to be the first phase); 2) the political complexity has no dynamics; 3) ethnographic analogues and parallels are erroneous; 4) it is wrong to consider the ancient states as adaptive and functionally balanced systems.

I agree fully with the last item. The first item goes beyond the scope of the paper. The second one seems strange. Thus, every academic term during my teaching course I show my students a map which consists of four parts. The first one demonstrates the civilizations which had appeared before the birth of Christ. The second – the states in 500 AD. The third map shows the states in 1000 AD, and on the last one there are presented states of the colonial period. Looking at this map, it is difficult to disregard the dynamics of political complexity and also the global transformation or evolution! It is also impossible to agree with the complete negation of analogies with the ethnic cultures of the colonialism period. No doubt, that the natural prehistory and primitive cultures of the colonial epoch are quite different. However, none of critics witnessed himself the natural prehistory and knows what differs it from the later times. Why do they take the right to assume that the things happened in that particularly way?

Yoffee proposes the American archaeologists to refuse anthropology for benefit of history. Such a tradition exists, for example, in Russia. There, the archeologists are trained at history departments. I can see both approaches and compare them. The Russian tradition has its advantages and disadvantages (see Klejn 1993). The anthropological knowledge of my countrymen is quite insufficient. Therefore, it is better to strive for a synthesis of all useful ideas rather than to reject something good.

The critics of the chiefdom conception confuse the cause and the effect. If the difficulties in interpretation exist, they are not connected with the fact that the chiefdom term has become obsolete. The only problem is the complexity of the archaeological interpretations. The data acquired by archaeologists as a result of excavations is very fragmentary. The number of artifacts increases permanently. The larger is the number of artifacts, the larger is the range of different interpretations. However, the reading of the critical essays arouses sadness for other reason. I do not observe any new ideas and concepts following a biting criticism. As it was quite explicitly pointed by David Webster in his review of Yoffee's book, his conclusions of the state origin are very close to the position of the persons he subjects to criticism. ‘Not much here that anyone would have disagreed with 30 or 40 years ago’ (Webster 2005: 263).

While interest in the chiefdom is cooling down, the opinion of the alternatives to the chiefdom – heterarchy – has appeared in anthropology and archaeology. The term heterarchy means a pattern of the interrelations between elements in the complex system when they are not ranked hierarchically or connected by the network of complex relations (Crumley 2001: 24). Most probably, Colin Renfrew was the first to arrive at this idea (1974). However, he wrote about two variants of chiefdoms (individualizing and group-oriented). Quite a few researchers became immediately aware of the importance of this idea. Only later on it became clear that it was an important approach which was developed in fact simultaneously but with the use of different historical data and different terms developed by Yuri Berezkin (Middle East), Dmitri Bondarenko (pre-colonial Benin), Andrey Korotayev (highlander), Carol Crumley (Western Europe), Kristian Kristiansen (Scandinavia), Gary Fienman, and Stephen Kowalewski (Mesoamerica), etc. (Berezkin 1995; Crumley 1995, 2001; Korotayev 1995; Blanton et al. 1996; Bondarenko and Korotayev 2000; Berent 2000; Kowalewski 2000; Wason and Baldia 2000; Feinman 2001; Bondarenko 2006; Grinin 2007; Kristiansen 2007, etc.).

What is the essence of this approach? The researchers identify two strategies which can be found in different cultures. The first (hierarchical or network) strategy is based on the power vertical and centralization. Here, one can find a concentration of elite's wealth through the presence of the dependence and patronage networks, a reflection of the social differentiation in the funeral rites, the elite's control over prestige goods trade, a development of handicraft for the top circles needs, the cults of chiefs and their ancestors, the reflection of statuses and hierarchy in the ideological system and architecture. The second (heterarchical or corporative) strategy is characterized by the distribution of the wealth and power, moderate accumulation, segmental social organization, society's economical efforts for the achievement of joint goals (food production, construction of fortifications, temples etc.), universalized cosmology, religious cults and rites. The architecture emphasizes the standardized mode of life.

It is significant to point that, when using this approach one should try to avoid some mistakes. The heterarchical strategy should not be considered as a more egalitarian and earlier one in comparison with the hierarchy. The heterarchy is not less complex than the hierarchy. As an example we can mention the Greek city-poleis and later medieval market town-states which were not simpler than the contemporaneous territorial kingdoms and empires of the West and East Asia.

The heterarchy – hierarchy strategies are not different lines of the political transformation. It is a dichotomy which can occur at different levels of complexity (Kowalewski 2000: 180). In the pre-state societies it is a dichotomy between complex communities and chiefdoms (Wason and Baldia 2000; Bondarenko 2007). Some researchers believe that the hierarchy – heterarchy dichotomy can be found in chiefdoms. Robin Beck, Jr., identifies the ephemeral constituent hierarchies in chiefdoms and authoritarian apical hierarchies (2003). Later on, it is a dichotomy between city-polities and territorial states (Berezkin 1995, 2000; Korotayev 1995), between early and mature states and their analogues (Grinin 2007, 2009).

To what extent are these ideas valuable for the study of the pastoral nomads? The cattle breeders and early pastoral nomads of the Eurasian Bronze Age created different forms of polities. Acephalous or headless segmental formations can be described through the heterarchy while the simple and complex chiefdoms through the hierarchy (Koryakova 1996; Hanks and Linduff 2009; Houle 2010, etc.).

The latter pastoral nomads in the Iron Age had more complex scale of political organization. At the lowest level, the families and clans of nomads could be combined into an acephalous heterarchical tribe or chieftainship, or hierarchical chiefdom (about the differences between the chiefdom and chieftainship see Redmond 1998).

A group of heterarchical tribes could be combined into an acephalous polity or a weak chiefdom. In their turn, the chiefdoms can be structured into a complex chiefdom or heterarchical confederation of chiefdoms. As an example of the last the confederation of the Khitah ‘eight polities’ in the 1st millennium AD can serve. All these structures were unstable like a steppe ‘tumble-weed’ and could change both in the number of levels and in strength of internal ties. The heterarchy – hierarchy dichotomy often depended on different objective and random factors including individual properties of leaders. In the time of a successful and charismatic chief, for example, the hierarchy of complex chiefdom could be created.
After his death it could be transformed into the heterarchical confederation of chiefdoms. Below I will illustrate this by the example of the ancient Mongolian nomads.


The Donghu is an archaeological culture of the slab burials of the 2nd – 1st millennium BC. This culture's sites are located in the East Mongolia and East Baikal area (Tsybiktarov 1998). The Donghu had a great polity which was nearly the same in power as Xiongnu. The Donghu were defeated by the chief of Xiongnu Maotun at the turn of the 3rd – 2nd centuries BC. Thereafter, the nomadic empire of Xiongnu was established.

The Chinese chronicles inform that Xianbei and the Wuhuan were the descendants of the Donghu. They lived to the east of Xiongnu territory. The analysis of the sources suggests that the Wuhuan had a multilevel social organization. One can quite surely identify its three main taxonomic levels.

1) The lowest levels: family (most likely, nuclear or restricted family) and kinship groups related by real blood relationship, livestock ownership and common economic interests. The Chinese chroniclers used the term luo (household) to describe this level of the nomads' social organization.

The Chinese historians describe the Wuhuan as typical pastoral nomads. ‘They are skilful in riding and archery, graze cattle searching the places with [good] water and grass, have no permanent residence and, as a house, the domelike hovel the exit from faces eastwards, sunrise serves for them. They hunt wild birds and animals, eat meat, drink sour milk and make clothes of coarse wool and fingering’ (HHS 90.1a–2a; SZ 30.2a; Taskin 1984: 63–64, 326). Among them, the gender division of labor existed. ‘The women are able to embroider on a leather, to do figured embroideries, to weave the woolen cloths; men can make bows, arrows, saddles and bridles, forge arms from metals and iron’ (HHS 90.1b; Taskin 1984: 64).

2) Medium levels: lineages and clans (Chinese yiluo). These levels were based on remote real as well as fictitious kinship, periodic economic relations, cultural, political, and ideological networks. These groups could do such common causes as well-sinking, shearing of animals, organization of festivals (wedding, initiations), funerals, common cults and rites, feud. The Wuhuan clans were headed by the leaders (xiaoshuayi). In the chronicles they are called ‘small leaders’. ‘They had no continuous family names, but the personal names of their most valiant chieftains were used as family names’ (HHS 90.1b–2a; SZ 30.2a; Taskin 1984: 63, 327).

Edward Evans-Pritchard (1940) explains such a custom by the absence in the acephalous societies of the institutions of administration. The leading lineage (or clan) exercises the function of the organism skeleton. Other lineages and clans join it by means of cognate or fictitious kindred, adoption, etc. The dominating lineage symbolizes ideologically the structural unity and substitutes the personal leader.

The Chinese historian described definitely the Wuhuan exogamy and feud. They ‘in a rage, kill fathers and older brothers but never do harm to the mother because the mother has relatives and consequently the fathers and older brothers avoid the mutual revenge believing that they are the family foundation… A killing of the father or older brother is not considered to be a crime’ (Taskin 1984: 327–328). This is an overestimation of the Confucian chronicler with respect to the steppe barbarians. The barbarians do not follow the main Confucius's commandments among which the respect of parents and elders is considered as one of the main properties.

In reality any anthropologist knows that kinship, parents and elders have a very important meaning for a nomad.

Even in the first part of the 20th century Evans-Pritchard (1940) showed that the scales of the feud origin and its settlement depend in many respects on the extent of structural closeness of the conflicting groups. If these groups belong to different lineages, clans and larger groups then opposition appears between the formations. On the contrary, the close social relations exclude a traditional animosity. In case of the conflict within close groups, the relatives try to reconcile it as soon as possible. They have common economic interests and conflict can decrease the economic efficiency.

3) The highest levels: bu (group of nomadic households according to Chinese historians), the ‘tribe’ in anthropological terms. The nomadic tribes were mainly based on political, economic, cultural, ideological and other non-economic relations and were veiled in the form of fictitious genealogical kinship.

According to the chronicles, ‘several hundred or thousand tents form bu’. Their numbers were from 5 to 10 thousand tents (Taskin 1984: 63, 68, 84, 327). The use of the term tribe in anthropology is subject to many discussions (Service 1962; Sahlins 1968; Adams 1975; Cribb 1991; Creamer and Haas 1985; Sneath 2007, etc.). After Morton Fried's book (1975), the term tribe was excluded from the series of mandatory forms of cultural integration (band – community – chiefdom – early state – national state). Actually, tribes only appeared as a response to external influences from more developed societies. However, to interpret the social organization of the pastoral nomads, the notions of community and chiefdom are useless. It would hold for both ancient Xianbei and later medieval Mongols. Uruq, irgen, oboq are something more than community but can not be interpreted as chiefdoms (on this term see Kradin and Skrynnikova 2006, 2009). For this reason, I think that to describe the Xianbei community (it would hold for all nomads) it is expedient to use the notion of tribe as structurally opposed to that of chiefdom. A tribe is an aggregate of the second level segments, a sum of yiluo. It is a heterarchy. Chiefdom could also be a sum of yiluo. However, while a tribe has no hierarchical organization of power, a chiefdom is a stratified community with a political hierarchy. In other words, the relationship between the notions of tribe and chiefdom as applied to pastoral nomads is similar to that between the communal-nomadic and military-nomadic aggregative situations of nomadic societies in terms of Markov (1976, 1978; König 1981). It is also necessary to recognize the tribe as an acephalic structure that has no fixed boundaries and general tribal government, as stated for the Nuer by Evans-Pritchard. It was the heterarchical organization.

Each segmental tribe of the Wuhuan was headed by the elective chieftain (dazhen). The chieftains had only personal authority.
The Chinese historians write that ‘they always elected the bravest and the sturdiest of chieftains and those who could best decide between litigants, trespassers, and disputants’ (HHS 90.1b; Taskin 1984: 327). ‘If there were mutual murders the tribes were told
to avenge themselves and if vengeance went on indefinitely, they would apply to the head chief to arrange matters’ (Taskin 1984: 328).

The Wuhuan dazhens were real heterarchical chieftains. Their statuses were not passed. They had no dependent groups. ‘From the chieftain to down, each man had his own flocks and herds and managed his own property: no man served another’ (HHS 90.1b; Taskin 1984: 63, 327). The chieftains had some powers. ‘Whenever the head chieftain had any orders, a piece of carved wood served as evidence of authority, although there was no writing system to convey messages from place to place’. Persons violating the chieftains' orders were sentenced to death. By the way, the inveterate horse rustlers were also subject to death. One more punishment was to banish criminals. ‘The mutineers who are landed by the elders were not adopted by clans [yiluo] and clans try to banish them to the savage districts… They are banished in order to experience

a bad situation’ (Ibid.: 1984: 327–328). Generally speaking, this was equivalent to death.

The Wuhuan tribes did not form a common polity. They consisted of many acephalous segments. It was the acephalous heterarchy. In the period of the Xiongnu empire flourishing, the Wuhuan rendered tribute (Lidai 1961: 103; Taskin 1984: 297–298, 328). The local leaders were responsible for levy of tribute and this contributed to the accretion of their power. As a result, the inner stratification had developed. On the eve of the first Xiongnu civil war (60–36 BC), the social organization of the Wuhuan did not differ in the complexity from those of the tribes and chiefdoms joining the Xiongnu imperial confederation. It is confirmed by the fact that, in 73 BC, when the Chinese troops perfidiously attacked the Wuhuan, they killed about 6 thousand nomads and, among them, three elite representatives labeled in the chronicles by the Chinese term wang (Lidai 1961: 205). It is remarkable that the Chinese historian used the term wang (king) rather than the term dazhen (chief). This suggests an essentially different status of these persons. With establishing of the Xianbei imperial confederation, a considerable part of the Wuhuan joined it. The last information concerning

the Wuhuan goes back to the early 3rd century AD.

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