Early Complex Societies & Early Organized Religions

Historians have long known that the shelf life of complex societies throughout human history has been rather limited. Archaeologists are aware of this also. But how to explain it?

In a recent (open access) paper, “Cycling in the Complexity of Early Societies,” Sergey Gavrilets and colleagues mathematically modeled early complex societies using a number of variables that could affect the rise, fall, and duration of such societies. They predicted relatively rapid and “continuous stochastic cycling,” which is a polite way of saying there was much tumultuous (and bloody) change as early complex societies warred with one another for dominance. The model confirmed their predictions and identified two variables that were especially important: (1) the wealth/power of a given society, and (2) the chief’s expected time in power. From this, the authors concluded:

Our results demonstrate that the stability of large and complex polities is strongly promoted if the outcomes of the conflicts are mostly determined by the polities’ wealth/power, if there exist well-defined and accepted means of succession, and if control mechanisms are internally specialized.

The importance of succession and internal control mechanisms are of special interest because religion can be used to legitimate both succession and control. In fact, this is precisely what happened in early complex societies and was perhaps the raison d’etre for the earliest forms of organized religions. Before the rise of complex societies (i.e., before the Neolithic Revolution or agricultural transition), the primary form of supernaturalism was shamanic — individualized, fluid, and largely without rite or doctrine. As such, shamanic forms of supernaturalism do not lend themselves to the maintenance of power by elites. To justify stratification and dominance, something more systematic was needed.

The earliest forms of organized religion provided these justifications. Rulers and their kin were associated with deities or were themselves deities. The emergence of complex societies was accompanied by the emergence of a priestly class, usually comprised of the rulers and their kin or closely allied with them. Social complexity and religious complexity were tightly linked, one being essential for the other.

We know for a fact that the earliest complex societies  or city-states in Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica developed in precisely this way. The newly emerged elite claimed supernatural sanction, and monopolized supernaturalism by developing the earliest organized religions. These were, of course, state religions that attempted to manage the critical issues of ruler succession and internal control. As Gavrilets and colleagues observe in their paper:

Creating and maintaining complex polities thus requires effective mechanisms to deal with both internal and external threats. In both cases, leaders (paramount chiefs) must solve collective action problems to overcome challenges.

What better way to solve collective action problems than to develop, organize, and promote a religion that serves the leaders’ and elites’ interests? The chief either has exclusive access to the gods or is a god; as such, the chief is the provider and protector. The chief’s children are successors and similar: their divine access or status supposedly guarantees future provisioning and protection.

It is a tidy arrangement for so long as it lasts. The problem apparently is that rarely lasts very long — it seems that lots of people and competing polities had the same ideas!


Gavrilets, Sergey, Anderson, David G., & Turchin, Peter (2010). Cycling in the Complexity of Early Societies Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History, 1 (1), 59-80 : http://escholarship.org/uc/item/5536t55r


Did you like this? Share it:

4 thoughts on “Early Complex Societies & Early Organized Religions

  1. Tom Rees

    Looks like an interesting paper. But here’s the problem with trying to fit religion in as a stabilising force – there’s no particular reason that a supernatural entity has to support the current rulers. They could just as easily support the revolutionaries – and of course there have been countless examples of just that.

    So religion can support a stable society, but only if that’s what the members want. People have to buy into the myth, because they see it as preferable to the alternative (chaos, war, whatever). The desire for a strong leader has to come first, and then religion can be harnessed to establish it as a social norm.

  2. admin Post author

    Hi Tom — that is indeed a problem, and one that I think eventually led to the formulation of universalizing types of religions. After several thousands of years having societies come and go, and state deities along with them, it became apparent to some thinkers (or “sages”) that the supernatural claims of ruling elites were a bunch of bunk. I contend that what Karl Jaspers calls the “Axial Age” was largely the result of several such sages attempting to overcome the obvious deficiencies of previous religions linked to polities — they were all unstable, and all eventually fell for one reason or another. This uncoupling of organized religion from the ruling elites of city-states did not last of course, because all the “universal” religions were simply co-opted by later states and empires. I guess my main point is that chiefs, rulers, and elites have always attempted to use religion to legitimate their power/domination. Whether it works or not is a separate issue.

  3. Anonomyous

    I am a high school student, and love this article. I may not be as well read as some, but is it possible that the elite class ruled, because they created these rules. Shouldn’t the one who made the rules know them the best, and if you can’t reach the one who made the rules, then the guy who enforces the rules is the next best. What I am trying to say, is that because the elite created the gods and the gods supposedly created the rules and one of the rules is that the person in power is either a god himself or related to the gods; doesn’t that mean that A) there is no power to begin with and it is just an illusion of power created through socio-economic standing and B) the right to rule is created by the one who can create it for himself. Understand your argument, but I think the underlying message is that whatever deity you believed in supported the one in power or gaining power, because that was a rational and logical thought process. To simplify, the kid in class with the gold star earned it from a higher power, but the teacher created that power of the gold star by teaching the kids it meant something.

  4. Cris Post author

    I’m glad you enjoyed the article. It is true that elites usually make the rules and alter them. But I don’t think that elites created the gods; these usually develop over exceptionally long periods of time and everyone believes in them, from commoners to elites. And while I think that socioeconomic standing has a great deal to do with religion in post-Neolithic or agricultural societies, it is not the only factor which accounts for religion.

Leave a Reply