Cracking the Mystery of State Formation

Surprisingly one of the biggest mysteries in history is still the formation of states. If we spent more than 90% of our human existence in egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands that have no formal leadership, how did people come to accept living in inegalitarian states with huge inequalities rather than running away from them? Why is it that so many people in history have hailed authoritarian leaders and dictators rather than toppling them?

When it comes to our attitudes towards power, political scientists make a distinction between four extremes that is more useful than the common left-right distinction:

We know that hunter-gatherers lived in egalitarian bands that may be described as an anarcho-communist. Hunter-gatherers therefore would have the opposite “instincts” of authoritarian-minded people (anti-authoritarian) and people with a social dominance orientation (SOD) (anti-egalitarian). Hunter-gatherers have a system of fission-fusion that makes them good at avoiding conflicts and hard times. When the band becomes too big, resources scarce and conflicts arise the most discontented members will split off the band and join a new one.

The mode of subsistence that is most closely associated with state-formation is agriculture. It is what we typically see in history and a long tradition of farming, especially rice-farming, is associated with what Michelle Gelfand calls “tight cultures”, i.e. cultures that stress obedience and conformity and that have all the characteristics of the authoritarian mindset. In contrast to hunter-gatherers, farmers couldn’t simply split off the group and give up all their possessions. Sticking with the group, collaborative work and defence was often the better option, but it came at the cost of often having to conform and assume a lower position in the hierarchy, something that would be unthinkable for egalitarian hunter-gatherers. These farmers would have evolved all the traits associated with the factor conscientiousness in the Big 5 inventory: industriousness, dutifulness, conformity, detail-orientedness, higher disgust response for avoiding pathogens.

However, these three political ideologies alone do not account for state formation. We see a wide spectrum among farmers in history, ranging from fairly egalitarian to extremely hierarchical. There is huge instability among the latter as the struggle for power will increase with group size and genetic distance. There is a cycling pattern we see in early history: growing states — imploding states — growing states — imploding states. What was needed for those incipient states was a stabilising power, and this may have come from two directions.

Where does our fourth political orientation, social dominance orientation, come from? This has been somewhat of a puzzle for me as the answer is pastoralists. Pastoralists are fairly egalitarian towards their in-group members even though they do have status distinctions, however, they typically do not treat out-group members in an egalitarian way. In fact, pastoralists typically raid from neighbouring tribes and the social dominance orientation is likely to have derived from this mutual raiding: being able to display social dominance provides some immunity from being attacked, while at the same time being able to easily attack inferior tribes. They do this by forming (shifting) alliances. It is therefore not surprising that pastoralists show the most “warrior-like” qualities of the three tribes discussed. Of course, pastoralists do not live in a constant state of war. Conflict can be avoided when it is clear who has got superiority, but it is often a delicate equilibrium. Pastoralist personality adaptations have strong correlations with the Big 5 factor of extraversion and its facets: assertiveness (dominance), activity, novelty-seeking, risk-taking and gregariousness. These traits served nomadic pastoralists just as well as the conscientiousness-associated traits served farmers.

In The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021) David Graeber and David Wengrow discuss the “heroic societies” that formed at the edge of bureaucratic societies:

[…] archaeologists have more recently discovered, there is a very real pattern of heroic burials, indicating in turn an emerging cultural emphasis on feasting, drinking, the beauty and fame of the individual male warrior.80 And it appears time and again around the fringes of urban life, often in strikingly similar forms, over the course of the Eurasian Bronze Age. All these cultures were aristocracies, without any centralized authority or principle of sovereignty (or, maybe, some largely symbolic, formal one). Instead of a single centre, we find numerous heroic figures competing fiercely with one another for retainers and slaves . […] We are witnessing the first known emergence of what Hector Munro Chadwick famously called ‘heroic societies’ and, moreover, these societies all seem to have emerged just where his analysis tells us to expect them: on the margins of bureaucratically ordered cities.

Who were those people in heroic societies, who disliked central authority and bureaucratic management? Well, it’s not hard to see that they were original pastoralists (aristocratic governance) who settled at the periphery of farmers (bureaucratic governance).

David Graeber and David Wengrow believe that state formation happened when these two types of governance came together:

Early Uruk, for example, does not appear to have been a ‘state’ in any meaningful sense of the word; what’s more, when top-down rule does emerge in the region of ancient Mesopotamia, it’s not in the ‘complex’ metropolises of the lowland river valleys, but among the small, ‘heroic’ societies of the surrounding foothills, which were averse to the very principle of administration and, as a result, don’t seem to qualify as ‘states’ either. If there is a good ethnographic parallel for these latter groups it might be the societies of the Northwest Coast, since there too political leadership lay in the hands of a boastful and vainglorious warrior aristocracy, competing in extravagant contests over titles, treasures, the allegiance of commoners and the ownership of slaves. Recall, here, that Haida, Tlingit and the rest not only lacked anything that could be called a state apparatus; they lacked any kind of formal governmental institutions. One might then argue that ‘states’ first emerged when the two forms of governance (bureaucratic and heroic) merged together .

We now have two forms of governance: aristocratic (herders) and bureaucratic (farmers). History has shown that these two types do not necessarily produce stable states. The Mongol (herder) empire may serve as an example. It was one of the biggest empires in history, but it was also one of the most short-lived ones. Pastoralists aren’t good at bureaucracy, nor do they like being dominated themselves, so herder empires (Vikings, Huns, etc.) tend to dissipate as quickly as they form. What we need is a third type of governance that serves as a catalyst, a unifying and pacifying power. We find this third form of power in democracy, hunter-gatherer egalitarianism brought to farmer-herder societies.

How did hunter-gatherers end up in farmer-herder societies? Some may have joined them when their habitat was shrinking and food was hard to find. However, most hunter-gatherers probably joined involuntarily and came in the form of slaves that herders in heroic societies made and often traded with farmers to provide them with labour for their fields (the origin of slave trade).

We arrive at three different forms of governance derived from three different modes of subsistence and survival: aristocratic (herders, offensive), bureaucratic (farmers, defensive) and democratic (foragers, fission-fusion).

I have split up democratic governance into competence-based and charismatic and assigned them to hunters and gatherers, respectively. What we get is basically the four temperaments known since antiquity. In complex hunter-gatherer societies gatherers (typically charismatic shamans) would be more likely to be leaders during times of peace whereas hunters would be more likely leaders in times of war. Hunter-gatherer types would have been valued as leaders in farmer-herder societies as they are less nepotistic cronyistic than farmers and herders. They, therefore, were typically unifiers and pacifiers, which allowed states to remain stable and grow. Of course, it’s also the hunter-gatherers who would be the wariest of state control and the first critics when signs of power abuse cropped up. The most charismatic leaders in history tended to be gatherer (NF) types: Martin Luther King, Adolf Hitler, Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela, Che Guevara and Gandi. Unfortunately, not all of them were really great leaders.

I have chosen the colours of the temperaments according to DSC colours. Governance and leadership are not only important in state formation but also in business (basically miniature states). DISC knows four types of leadership and temperaments, that almost perfectly correspond to the four evolutionary temperaments:

Check out my book for more:

Originally published at on January 22, 2022.



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