War and State Creation

Topics: Mesoamerica

From skeletal remains showing pierced bones by weapons to rock art depicting warfare, there is not doubt that man has engaged in war for thousands of years. Man has also organized into political states for thousands of years. Warfare and state formation are connected, however, there is debate about the relationship between the two. Anthropologists and archeologists have studied both the origins of war and the state and some argue that warfare is necessary for the formation of states, while others argue that war is a result of state formation.

War is generally understood to be a planned and organized armed combat between political communities. (Otterbein, 1970, p. 3). A political state is an autonomous political unit, encompassing many communities within its territory and and has a centralized government (Carneiro, 1970, p. 733). Political units have certain characteristics, such as a centralized governing body and a military. To consider the question of whether war was the cause of state formation or if it was a result, we need to examine archaic societies and look at how and when war and warfare began.

The root of the argument that war creates the state lies in view that groups engage in conflicts over territory and resources eventually lead to the formation of a state or political unit. Carneiro’s (1970) contends that war plays a decisive role in the rise of the state and which conditions were necessary for it’s rise. (p. 734). His theory argued that rose in areas where useable land was confined by geography, resources were limited, and the population was not able to move after conflict.

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This led to state formation.

One example of the theory of war leading to state formation lies in the development of the Nile River Valley. The Nile River Valley is surrounded by desert, so ancient agriculturalists had limited areas where they were able to grow food and nomads had a limited area to gather resources. As the population grew, the groups began to have conflicts, but due to the limited territory, neither could leave, so eventually, they conquered or cooperated with each other. Eventually this gave rise to a state.

A similar path to the emergence of the state can be found in Peru. There was a limited amount of land to farm due to the mountains on one side and the sea on other. The population was growing fast and there was not enough land could not be cultivated. This led to conflicts between the villages, but when one village was conquered, they could not leave the area. So they became part of a larger village, eventually a chiefdom. As the population grew, so did the size of the chiefdoms, which became centralized and complex, otherwise known as a state. This is known as environmental conscription (Carnerio, 1970).

Another example of lies with the Zapotec state in the Valley of Oaxaca, which located in Mesoamerica. The capital of Monte Alban featured temples, palaces, and monuments, as well as irrigation and water control. The city had massive walls, which helped it the defense of the city. It was surrounded by settlements of different sizes. Small villages in the area were raided, conquered and became part of the expanding capital of Monte Alban. Warfare played a critical role in the creation and expansion of this early state (Spencer, 2003).

While there are examples of war leading to state creation, there is also evidence that calls into question the notion that war is central to state formation, and is in fact, a consequence of state creation. This opposing theory argues that when groups form political units, warfare is a result, either as mechanism to defend or expand the state. Cohen (1984) noted that the military is embedded in the formal organization of the polity. As the state develops, continuous dependence on military capacity ultimately produces differentiated armed force linked to the ruling regime as arm of government (p. 344).

Recently, Stanish and Levine (2011) studied activity in Titicaca basin of southern Peru (500B.C. to 400 A.D.) and argue that organized raiding and warfare between competing political states was a major factor in state formation in that area. In the city of Taraco, artifacts excavated point to complex political units with centralized areas along with villages and hamlets in the surrounding area. Through the analysis of a widespread burn area in the city, the data strongly suggests that the burning was deliberate by warriors from Pukara, a neighboring city. Pukara then emerged as the largest political state in the area. One can conclude that the large scale burn raiding in Taraco led to the formation of the political state of Pukara. Similar raiding and war in Mesoamerica, specifically in the Valley of Oaxaca show that the destruction of one smaller political centers in the region led to the establishment of Monte Alban as a powerful political state (Sabloff, 2016). Wall art, sculptures and structures tell the story of a society which dominated a region through it’s warfare. Strong evidence points to war as the cause of state formation.

A research project could be designed to demonstrate that if in an archaic society, evidence of war and destruction was subsequently followed by the rise of a neighboring state, then one may conclude that war gave rise to the state. Indicators of war are the existence of weapons, depictions of warfare, mass burials and skeletal remains demonstrating conflict. Evidence of existence of a state can many times be found in features, or non-moveable structures, such as buildings or depictions. If the indicators of war (weapons, mass burials, skeletal remains) are shown to predate features indicating the presence of a state, that would provide evidence toward the argument that war gave rise to the state.

In order to gather evidence, a specific site where a record of activity has taken place. Mass burial mounds or burial sites often provide an abundance of artifacts and are places where battles have taken place. The site of Taraco in the northern Titicaca basin offers evidence of burials. There is also evidence that Taracao was the subject of raids, demonstrated by stone work, textiles and pottery. The town was destroyed by fire and subsequently, neighboring Pukara rose as a large population center. An additional surface survey may be undertaken in both the areas of Taraco to locate any additional artifacts on the surface, such as metal, glass or ceramics or features. By dating artifacts and features, it may be established that what happened in Taraco was not an isolated event, but rather part of the rise of a political state in Pukara, thus providing evidence that that the raiding and burning was part of war-like behavior that led to the rise of a political state at Pukara. Since there is burn evidence that suggests that Taraco was destroyed and then the rise of Puraka was subsequent, it may be helpful to locate and excavate other burial sites neighboring Pukara to see if the same raiding and conflict behavior was present. Weapons of war, such as spears or swords, along with skeletal remains provide evidence of damage caused by weapons, then that damage may reveal the manner of death. Holes, cuts or piercings and damage to the skull and skeleton may indicate what weapons were used. Radiocarbon dating of artifacts in a lab can pinpoint a date range. Features, such as buildings and walls can be dated by looking at method of construction, materials available and also comparing against features from similar sites. Also, if any depictions of daily life social customs pr warfare are present, that can help to date the site.

After dating of both the artifacts and the features is completed, the dates of each item should be charted and analyzed. Can the features (walls, buildings, depictions, writings) be dated or do the subjects indicate a date range by the depictions? Do those features provide any evidence as to the presence of a political unit? If so, can a date range be established? As for the artifacts, particularly skeletal remains, is there evidence of mass burials due to war? If so, are there indications that the people died by some kind of weapon? Were any weapons discovered? What does the lab dating of these artifacts say that may indicate the presence of war? If the presence of weapons or skeletal damage from weapons pre-dates the evidence of a political state found in the features, that may lead to the conclusion that war gave rise to the state.


  1. Carneiro, R. (1970). A theory of the origin of the state. Science 169:733–38
  2. Cohen, R. (1984). Warfare and state formation: wars make states and states make wars. Warfare, culture, and environment, 329, 358.
  3. Otterbein, K. F. (1970). The evolution of war; a cross-cultural study. Human Relations Area Files Press, 1970.
  4. Sabloff, J. A. (2008). Archaeology matters. Action archaeology in the modern world, Walnut Creek, CA.
  5. Spencer, C. S. (2003). War and early state formation in Oaxaca, Mexico. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100(20), 11185-11187.

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War and State Creation. (2022, Apr 28). Retrieved from https://paperap.com/war-and-state-creation/

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