Urbanization and State Formation in African Civilizations

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Denielle Barcelona
ANTHRO 102A
December 10, 2010

Urbanization and State Formation in African Civilizations:

When it comes to talking about the ancient African civilizations, both Africans and those who spent their lives studying Africa are aware of how complex and diverse the African precolonial societies really were. However, some still surmise that complex societies failed to develop there, and if there are some that did, they were merely secondary states.1 In the book African Civilizations: An Archaeological Perspective, author Graham Connah endeavors to disprove them and asserts that the tropical Africans established (non-secondary) complex states on their own and not because of external factors, that “neither urbanization nor the idea of state was grafted onto Africa from modern Europe, as some might think.”2

Connah aims to address the question of how and why cities and states emerged in Africa. In his case studies of the Ethiopian highlands, Zimbabwe, etc., he concludes that urbanization did not originate as a result of the conventional tell-tale factors such as external trade, immigration, foreign occupation, etc. Instead, he turns to his “productive land hypothesis” and to extensive internal trade as originators, rather than merely as intensifiers, of state formation and urbanization in the African civilizations. The

1

Wenke, Robert. Patterns in Prehistory. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1984. pg. 343.

2

Connah, Graham. African Civilizations: An Archaeological Perspective. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987. pg. 5.
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productive land hypothesis states that “elite power was first acquired by the control of land, not of any land but of land with an unusually high production potential.”3 This theory, he says, cannot stand on its own as its meant to be complementary to the internal trade hypothesis. Moreover, Connah asserts that this gave rise to social complexity in Africa. He seems to base these two hypotheses on Jonathan Haas who claims that “it is control of resources that gives rulers their power.”4 Control of significant resources meant also control of overseas and external trade, which leads to prestige and wealth. But instead of looking at external trade as an originator, Connah sees this as an intensifier, and instead attributes external trade to land and resource control. Furthermore, based on archaeological evidence suggests that some African states already developed social complexity even before external trade was introduced.5 The problem with this hypothesis is that it seems to completely disregard the ideology of the Africans, and is mainly focused on archaeological evidence. Although this is important, he should also not dismiss the idea that existing religious and cultural ideology was what gave rise to social complexity and led to land monopoly. By saying that “elite power was first acquired by the control of land,” he is assuming that normal Africans took hold of the most productive land, and then once acquired, they therefore received elite status. But he contradicts himself a little bit in saying that such elites already existed and “they could indeed have claimed control of the best land of of the

3

Connah, Graham. African Civilizations: An Archaeological Perspective. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987. pg. 294
4

Connah, Graham. African Civilizations: An Archaeological Perspective. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987. pg. 293
5

Connah, Graham. African Civilizations: An Archaeological Perspective. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987. pg. 293
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internal exchange systems.”6 Thus it does not seem clear as to what really came first to Connah. Did he mean productive land gave rise to elite power, or did he mean existing elite power took hold of the productive land?

In any case, he seems to have been effective in using this productive land theory in analyzing state formation in the West African savanna and the Ethiopian highlands. Because of the isolated...
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