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  The Ishmael Community: Questions and Answers

The Question (ID Number 612)...

    What do you think of Robert Carniero's theory of environmental circumscription? This seems to be the most widely accepted theory on why tribal societies become state societies. He does, of course, speak from a background influenced by Mother Culture, and seems to think that population automatically expands and food production must be expanded to accommodate it, but would you say that his theory holds true if the societies he studied were already in the food race? He studied South American societies but applied his theory to the Western one as well. He begins with agricultural tribes and doesn't address hunter-gatherers or semi-agricultural peoples. Would you agree that circumscription was a catalyst for abandoning tribalism in the cases Carniero studied, but that he simply hasn't gone back far enough in their history to pinpoint the adoption of totalitarian agriculture as the real reason? What do you believe IS the reason that people abandoned tribalism? It begins with complete dependance agriculture, doesn't it?

    ...and the response:

    What is clear is that becoming agriculturalists does not automatically mean "abandoning tribalism." Most remaining tribal peoples are in fact agriculturalists. Even living in farming villages doesn't involve abandoning tribalism. In other words, adopting agriculture doesn't always result in the formation of a nontribal "state." When a state does evolve (for whatever reason--the reason given by Carniero or any other), tribal identity is necessarily lost in the larger whole. Thus "complete dependence on agriculture" is not the issue. You can depend completely on agriculture and still be a tribe. It's entering a larger, nontribal "state" that costs you the tribe. My own theory about the origin of the state deals only with the bare beginnings: when food surpluses become substantial enough to need guardians, these guardians of the food eventually become controllers of the food and hence a ruling class.

    (Mark Meritt's masters, linked on this site in a few places already, provides a fairly comprehensive critique of Carneiro's circumscription theory in the context of critiquing the ecological dynamics of Taker culture as a whole. It can be read at -- and Mark has posted an update to some of his thinking here:

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