Carneiro's circumscription theory

Carneiro's Circumscription Theory is a theory of the role of warfare in state formation in political anthropology, created by anthropologist Robert Carneiro (1927- ). The theory has been summarized in one sentence by Schacht: “In areas of circumscribed agricultural land, population pressure led to warfare that resulted in the evolution of the state”.[1][2] The more circumscribed is an agricultural area, Carneiro argues, the sooner it politically unifies.

Outline of the theory

The theory begins with some assumptions. Warfare usually disperses people rather than uniting them. Environmental circumscription occurs when an area of productive agricultural land is surrounded by a less productive area such as the mountains, desert, or sea. Application of extensive agriculture would bring severely diminishing returns.

If there is no environmental circumscription, then losers in a war can migrate out from the region and settle somewhere else. If there is environmental circumscription, then losers in warfare are forced to submit to their conquerors, because migration is not an option and the populations of the conquered and conqueror are united. The new state organization strives to alleviate the population pressure by increasing the productive capacity of agricultural land through, for instance, more intensive cultivation using irrigation.

Primary and secondary state development

Primary state development occurred in the six original states of the Nile Valley, Peru, Mesoamerican, Yellow River Valley China, Indus River Valley, and Mesopotamia. Secondary state development occurred in states that developed from contact with already existing states. Primary state development occurred in areas with environmental circumscription.

The presumption, under the Carneiro Hypothesis, is that agricultural intensification, and the social coordination and coercion necessary to achieve this end was a result of warfare in which vanquished populations could not disperse; the coercive coordination necessary for increased production of surplus is, under Carneiro's hypothesis, a causal factor in the origins of the State. For example, the mountainous river valleys of Peru which descend to the Pacific coast were severely environmentally circumscribed. Amazonian populations could always disperse and maintain sparse contact with other, potentially hostile, neighbors, whereas Andean coastal populations could not.

Later development

Later, Robert Carneiro linked the theory of circumscription with his other theory of the political unification of the world.[3] Since the modern world system, being global, is completely circumscribed, the factor of circumscription is supposed to bring about the political unification of the world as it had done on regional scales on numerous occasions in the past. His interview on this subject is available on YouTube,[4] containing his answer on the intriguing question, "Are we circumscribed now?"


Carneiro's theory has been criticized by the Dutch "early state school" emerging in the 1970s around cultural anthropologist Henri J.M. Claessen, on the ground that considerable contrary evidence can be found to Carneiro's theory. There are also cases of circumscribed environments and violent cultures which have failed to develop states, for example in the narrow highland valleys of interior Papua New Guinea, or the north west Pacific coastlines of North America. Also for example, the formation of some early states in East Africa, Sri Lanka, and Polynesia do not easily fit with Carneiro's model. Hence Claessen's school developed a "complex interaction model" to explain early state formation, in which factors such as ecology, social and demographic structures, economic conditions, conflicts, and ideology become aligned in ways which favour state organisation.


The discrepancy between the circumscription theory and the facts stated by Henri J. M. Classen was addressed by Historian Max Ostrovsky.[5] Weak agricultural foundation of tropical regions explains why the Guinean, Polynesian, Sri-Lankan, and East African regions avoided the impact of circumscription. North American tribes of the Pacific did not develop sufficient agricultural tools and methods. The factor of circumscription was enacted first in the great river valleys and since the Axial Age in the rainy temperate zones, where agriculture had reached a sufficiently firm level. Thus, was formed the imperial belt stretching between the Mediterranean and the Yellow Seas. There the factor of circumscription was enacted since the dawn of history and never ceased to work. The circumscription theory explains why the circumscribed China preserved its ancient unity until today while the uncircumscribed ever-expanding Europe lost its ancient unity never to repeat.[6] In the "Foreword" to the book,[7] Robert Carneiro acknowledges that he unjustly "abandoned" the circumscription theory in the Bronze Age.


  1. Schacht, Robert M., “Circumscription Theory: A Critical Review,” American Behavioral Scientist, vol. 31, no. 4, pp. 439, March/April 1988.
  2. Graber, Robert B., and Paul Roscoe, “Introduction: Circumscription and the Evolution of Society,” American Behavioral Scientist, vol. 31, no. 4, pp. 406, March/April 1988.
  3. One of leading experts on world-system theory, Christopher Chase-Dunn, noted in 1990 that the circumscription theory is applicable for the global system. "World State Formation: Historical Processes and Emergent Necessity," California: Institute for research on World System, working paper 1, 1990, The thesis was further developed by Max Ostrovsky in Y = Arctg X: The Hyperbola of the World Order, (Lanham: University Press of America, 2007).
  5. Y = Arctg X: The Hyperbola of the World Order, (Lanham: University Press of America, 2007).
  6. Y = Arctg X: The Hyperbola of the World Order, (Lanham: University Press of America, 2007).
  7. Robert Carneiro, "Foreword," Y = Arctg X: The Hyperbola of the World Order, (Lanham: University Press of America, 2007).

External links

This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 12/1/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.