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date: 07 July 2020

Early States and Complex Societies in East and Southern Africa

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Please check back later for the full article.

How, and in what ways, did socially complex societies emerge in Eastern and Southern Africa? Regional scholarship has shown that elite investment in long-distance trade, investment in extractive technologies, monopolization of wealth-creating resources, and warfare may have played key roles in the emergence of early states. The debate on the evolution of social complexity has focused on trade versus militarism as key sources of political power for African elites. To what extent were elite and non-elite engagement in local, regional, and trans-continental economic networks crucial to the development of social complexity in Eastern and Southern Africa? Extensive research on the Eastern Coast of Africa (Kenya and Tanzania) and Southern Africa (Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa) has yielded adequate data to enable a discussion on the trajectories of the evolution of social complexity and the state. So far, three crucial factors—trade, investment in extractive technologies, and elite monopolization of wealth-creating resources—stand out as having coalesced to propel the region towards greater interaction and complexity. Major transformations in the form of increases in household size, clear differences in wealth and status, and settlement hierarchies occurred toward the end of the first millennium. Regional scholarship posits that elite control of internal and external trade infrastructure, restricted access to arable land, accumulation of surplus land, manipulation of religious ideology, and exploitation of ecological crises were among the major factors that contributed to the rise of the state. Could these factors have also favored investment and the use of organized violence to gain and monopolize access to fertile grazing lands, water, and mineral resources, and to provide security along the trade routes, including the Zambezi, Savi, Limpopo, Rufiji, Tana, and Webe Shebelle? Scholarship in the 21st century favors the notion that opportunistic use of ideological and ritual power enabled a small elite initially composed of elders, ritual and technical specialists, to control the regional political economy and information flows. The timing of these transformations was continent-wide and dates to the last three centuries of the first millennium. By all measures, the evidence points to wealth accumulation through trade, tribute, investment in agrarianism and pastoralism, and mining.