The semantics of early statebuilding: why the Eurasian Steppe has been overlooked
How is it that man is born the same, but everywhere he is different? Humankind has a biological unity, but its social and political organization demonstrates huge differentiation. For nineteenth-century anthropologists, the political differences, which will be my broad theme in this chapter, was a key puzzle. They tried to solve it by placing different modes of organization along a time axis, and then argue that the differences were due to mutations. The observable variations here and now were really sequential, and they were only temporary. This evolutionary answer has fallen into disrepute, but it has, and is still, framing the anthropological debates about early states. It is still the answer to beat today. We have a problem, however. With the hunters and gatherers all but gone from the face of the earth and the pastoral nomadic way of life disappearing fast (Khazanov 2001: 6), soon we will no longer be able to collect data on them by means of observation. So, due to expedience and also since a science needs the fullest possible universe of cases, the anthropologist will have to turn to the study of history. The aim of this chapter is to survey the debates on early complex states as well as the debates on early political organization in the Eurasian steppe with a view to theorizing one sequence of early state formation, namely that of the Rus'. The Rus' were Vikings who moved south along the riverways and established what, in an evolutionary perspective, is the first stirring of a Russian state, called the Rus' khaganate. The key underlying theme is that external relations should be given their due in the study of early complex polities. The chapter falls into three sections. In section one, I précis the anthropological account of the early state. Given that the state has been defined as a political form of sedentary populations, steppe polities have not really been given that much attention within this tradition. Section two of the chapter therefore sketches some key themes from the literature of steppe empires that we need in order to proceed to section three, which gives a broad outline of the case. In conclusion, I argue that we must bring nomads into our studies of early polities, and treat the issue of state formation as a relational one.