Social Movements and Collective Behavior in Premodern polities*

Pomo Bole Maru Big Head Dance, Indigenous Northern California

Christopher Chase-Dunn

An earlier version was presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Seattle, Washington, August 22, 2016 Regular Session on Social Movements

Institute for Research on World-Systems

University of California-Riverside

Draft v. 9-21-16; 8245 words

This is IROWS Working Paper #110 available at

This is a draft of Chapter 2 of Paul Almeida and C. Chase-Dunn, Global Change and Social Movements forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press.

*Thanks to E.N. Anderson and Bob Edwards for helpful suggestions.

Abstract:  This paper contends that collective behavior and social movements have been important drivers of social change since the emergence of human language. Migrations to new locations were usually motivated by population density and competition for resources, but departure events and many other group decisions were  legitimated in terms of ideological formulations and disagreements. The emergence of larger-scale leadership, hierarchical kinship and class formation were often legitimated in terms of discourses about authority, connections with ancestors and disputes about origin myths or the correct performance of rituals. Evidence of collective behavior and social movements among hunter-gatherers is described, and premodern movements known from historical accounts are recounted. The similarities and differences between social movements in small scale systems and in larger state-based systems are delineated.

                Social movements have long been studied as instances of what sociologists have called collective behavior (Blumer 1951; Smelser 1962). Collective behavior is understood to consist of non-institutionalized and somewhat spontaneous actions by human individuals and groups, such as crowds, riots, revolts, revolutions, fads and etc.   Most social scientists who study social movements think of them as a modern phenomenon, but some historical ethnographers (e.g. Spier 1935; Wallace 1956; Laurence 1964)  have noted that premodern small-scale polities[1] also reveal instances of collective behavior that seem rather similar in many ways to the processes and patterns exhibited by modern social movements. Neil Smelser’s (1962) general theoretical approach contends that collective behavior and social movements emerge when existing social institutions are doing a poor job of meeting peoples’ needs and expectations and that social movements are important agents of social change.  This approach is easily extended to premodern polities, and suggests that collective behavior and social movements have been important causes of the evolution of social institutions since the Stone Age.[2]

Most sociological theories see religions as mainstays of social structure and stability. Institutionalized moral orders, assumptions about what exists and what is right, are pillars that produce stable expectations and that reinforce other institutions. Emile Durkheim (1915) described religions as projections of social structure on the sky (see also Swanson 1960).  Egalitarian polities projected beings who had powers, but also quirks and faults, while many hierarchical polities project and worship a single omniscient and omnipotent god of the universe.

 But religious ideas have also been recurrent matters of contestation. Religions, even animistic belief systems, are discourses about authority that are often in dispute. Disagreements about creation myths or the correct performances of rituals have often been the ideological forms used to mobilize collective action in both modern and  premodern human polities. Projections on the sky may be used to defend older social structures or to propose and justify new ones. And indeed, despite the emergence of secular humanism, religious identities and doctrines continue to be the basis of much hegemonic and counter-hegemonic contestation and mobilization in the contemporary world. Some social movement theorists have tended to ignore “primitive” social movements that are motivated by religious ideologies or that do not utilize modern repertoires of contention in order to focus only on “modern” secular movements. These latter are more likely to   employ frames based on secular humanism and legitimation of authority from below (popular sovereignty).  But this approach obliterates prehension of the role that social movements have played in sociocultural evolution and occludes the analysis of those contemporary social movements that still employ religious ideologies and not so civil modes of contention.

            Globalization remains a contested concept in both popular discourse and in social science. We propose to distinguish between: 1.  globalization as the spatial expansion and deepening of human interaction networks and, 2.  the “globalization project” that has emerged since the 1970s as a hegemonic discourse about deregulation, privatization and austerity (Chase-Dunn 2006).  Globalization understood as the expansion and intensification of spatial interaction networks has been going on since modern humans migrated out of Africa to occupy the other continents (Modelski, Devezas and Thompson 2008;  Chase-Dunn and Lerro 2014; Jennings 2010 ).  This paper discusses the roles that social movements have played in social change in hunter-gatherer bands, world-systems of sedentary foragers and in the processes of class formation and state formation that occurred in several different world regions. We propose that the social movements have been an important aspect of the processes that have driven the expansion and intensification of human interaction networks since the Stone Age.

            David Snow and Sarah Soule’s (2010:6-7) primer on social movements defines them as “collectivities[3]  acting with some degree of organization and continuity, partly outside institutional or organizational channels, for the purpose of challenging extant systems of authority, or resisting  change in such systems, in the organization, polity, culture, or world system in which they are embedded.” This definition is sufficiently flexible to allow for its application to premodern settings in which authority structures were less hierarchical and organizational forms were less bureaucratic. All human polities have had some kinds of authority and some kinds of organization.  But, though authority in small-scale polities is less centralized and has less power, contentious disagreements and disputes still occurred and people mobilized one another to address these. Emigration by groups (hiving off) was an important outcome of disagreements as well as a response to population pressure. Decisions to leave were often framed in terms disagreements about the moral order or appropriate ritualized behavior. Formal authority structures that are centralized provide a clear and convenient target for protests. So social movements in hierarchical polities are more easily focused on the symbols and structures of power once these are institutionally defined. As formal organizational forms emerged, social movements were able to utilize these as both targets of protest and as instruments for coordinating participants, increasing the scale and effectiveness of the movements. And new and better technologies of communication and transportation were also used by movements.  These changes in scale and effectiveness are why most social movement theorists define movements as a modern phenomenon, but the less organized, more spontaneous, forms of collective behavior that were frequent events in premodern polities also had important effects on regime change and the development of new techniques of power.

            Social movement theorists have also usually assumed that movements come from below and target those above. Consideration of how movements might have operated in egalitarian polities makes this assumption problematic, but we contend that it is an assumption that should be more generally questioned.  Social movement research has long confirmed that leaders of the masses are more likely to have origins and resources that allow them the opportunities to mobilize. The poorest and most down-trodden rarely have the resources that are needed. So leaders of movements tend to be at least from the middle classes. But it is also important to note that elites often sponsor and lead social movements.  The literature on state collapse notes that revolutions tend to happen when elites are in contention with one another. Elites are undoubtedly more likely to utilize institutionalized forms of power because they have greater access to these.  And this is one reason why social movement theorists tend to assume that movements come from below. But the activities of some elites seeking to mobilize public opinion and to influence the course of history often take forms that are very similar to social movements from below.  They may seek only to mobilize other elites or they may mobilize the masses.  Either way, these efforts often take on aspects of collective behavior and need to be included in order for us to analyze how movements have caused social change.

Collective Behavior in Small-scale Polities

            The sources of evidence about collective behavior processes and premodern social movements in small scale [4] polities is mostly indirect. We know that humans began burying their dead about 100,000 years ago. Beads appeared in Southern Africa about 70,000 years ago (Klein and Edgar 2002) and  dramatic cave paintings in Europe are about 50,000 years old. Despite that humans only arrived in the Americas about 15,000 years ago there is conclusive evidence that nomadic hunter-gatherers were gathering together to build monumental mounds in the Mississippi drainage as early as 5500 BCE (Watson Brake) (Saunders et al 2005) with elaborate and rather large scale mound complexes appearing between 1650 and 700 BCE at Poverty Point (Sassaman 2005).

Louisiana - Poverty Point - Karte (English version).png

 Nomadic and sedentary hunter-gatherers are known ethnographically and the cave paintings of some of these are associated with ritual activities. The Chumash were sedentary foragers who lived along the Southern California coast in what is now Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties. They built and used a distinctive plank canoe (tomol) that allowed them to fish offshore and to develop a trade network that linked those living on the Northern Channel Islands with the villages on the mainland (Arnold 2004).  The large coastal villages were also connected by trade in food items with smaller inland villages in the mountains and valleys adjacent to the coast (Gamble 2008). The dramatic cave paintings in the territory of the ethnographically known Chumash are thought to have been associated with the  antap cult, a secret organization of elites who taught esoteric astronomical knowledge and utilized mind-altering toloache (jimson weed) to gain access to the spirit world (Johnson nd; Romani 1981; Hudson 1981). Chumash polities were in transition from the more typical egalitarian social structure of other California village-living hunter-gatherers toward class formation. The ‘antap cult was a manifestation of this transition in which the emergent elites from autonomous polities demonstrated their superiority over non-elites by carrying out exclusive ritual performances behind visual outdoor barriers or in isolated remote locations such as Painted Cave, so that commoners could not see them (Hudson 1981).


Painted Cave near Santa Barbara

            Ethnographers studying Northern California indigenous polities also observed cults (White Deer among the Hupa, Hesi, Kuksu and Waisaltu among the Patwin, as well as the Bole-Maru and Bole-Hesi)  in which songs and dances were spread from group to group by moral entrepreneurs and messingers (Halpern 1988). The most closely studied instance of this phenomenon is the 1870 Ghost Dance.  The 1870 Ghost Dance was an earlier version of the more famous 1890 Ghost Dance studied by James Mooney 1965 [1896] and many others (e.g. Wallace 1956;Thornton 1981; Smoak 2006).  The 1890 ghost dance supposedly originated when god spoke to Wovoka (Jack Wilson) while he was alone in the woods near the Walker River cutting logs. Wovoka became the Paiute messiah who spread the word from Nevada to many other tribes in the West. But it was Jack Wilson’s uncle who had spread a very similar doctrine 20 years earlier. Wovoka’s word spread east, exciting the Lakota and other tribes to don ghost shirts that were supposed to repel bullets. The ensuing rebellion led to the tragic massacre at Wounded Knee (Mooney 1965; Fenelon 1998: Chapter 5).

The 1870 Ghost Dance was studied by Cora DuBois 2007 [1939]. She  interviewed surviving participants and observers of this movement as it spread from the Nevada Paiutes near Walker Lake across Northern and Central California and Southern Oregon (see also Spier 1927 and Gayton 1930). The most prevalent formulation of the Ghost Dance doctrine was that all the dead Indians were going to return to Earth and the whites would die. DuBois was told that the Ghost Dance doctrine predicted that all the dead Indians since the beginning of time were returning, coming up from the south, and they would wreak a grim vengeance on the whites.[5] Half-breeds would turn into rocks. Non-believers would turn into rotten logs. And the future would be a happy world of abundance and restored nature in which sickness and death did not occur. [6]

Arapahoe ghost shirt

            Moral entrepreneurs carried the “hurry up word” that the Indians should come together with certain costumes and songs and dances in order to facilitate the return of their dead loved ones.

Arapahoe Ghost Shirt

DuBois tracked the spread and morphological changes of the 1870 Ghost Dance and analyzed why some groups embraced the new cult while others rejected it. The messengers were “dream doctors” who used horses and wagons to travel to the homelands of other tribes in order to teach the dances and songs and spread the word. Most of the indigenes still did not know how to read or write and so the dream doctors were reliant on oral communication to spread the ideas of the ghost dance.[7]  The acceptors were those groups that had been most disrupted by the arrival of the Euroamericans. The rejecters were less disrupted and the authority of the traditional shamans [8] was more intact. The traditional shamans regions that were more remote, and so less disrupted, were able to convince their co-villagers to reject the ghost dance.  The local entrepreneurs mixed ideas from the Paiute ghost dance with older cults such as the Kuksu to produce new hybrids such as the Bole Maru (Big Head) dance. And so the form of the rituals became modified as they traveled.

The Ghost Dance ideology involved elements that were quite distinct

Arapahoe Ghost Shirt

from earlier ritual practices and ideas, and some of these may have been due to the influence of non-indigenous and practices. Women and children were usually not allowed to participate in the older “dangerous” invocations of spiritual power, whereas they were allowed and encouraged to attend the ghost dances. The previous  indigenous beliefs of most California Indians included a fear of the spirits of the dead and careful efforts to insure their journey to a distant and separate realm. The idea that the dead would come back was blasphemy to many of the traditional shamans. Some of the dream doctors who took the word on the road were also economic entrepreneurs who instructed dancers to bring their valuables to the ceremonies to contribute to the cause, and who sold ritual paraphernalia such as chicken-feather capes and charged admission to the performances. In some cases the ideas of the ghost dance were remixed with the older cult ideas, producing local variations. And the ghost dance ideas were appropriated and further transmitted by local enthusiasts.[9]

One problem with the study of movements that are ethnographically known is that they usually occurred in a context in which indigenous life was being radically altered and threatened by the processes of colonial integration into the expanding modern world-system and so it is difficult to know which elements of the movements were characteristics of precontact polities and which were borrowed from the invading culture.  The millenarian aspect of the Ghost Dance, which was a “hurry up word” in which the old world was coming to an end and a new world was coming in to being, is often thought to have been such a borrowing from eschatological Christianity.  Norman Cohn (1970, 1993) contends that millenarianism did not exist before its emergence with Zoroastrianism and then it spread to Judaism and Christianity.  But it is entirely possible that most human polities contain the cultural tropes of a stable cosmos versus an immanent  radical transformation. The five suns of Mesoamerican religion and related ideas known among village-living hunter-gatherers of indigenous California suggest that the notion radical cosmological transition was not uniquely invented by Zoroaster.  Millenarianism is a powerful trope for mobilizing collective action, that continues to play an important role in 21st century social movements (Lindholm and Zuquete 2010). It may be far older and more widespread than Cohn contends. Many human cultures probably contain both notions of eternal order and of imminent transformation.

            AFC Wallace’s (1956) depiction of the1890 Ghost Dance and cargo cults[10] as “revitalization movements” focusses on the ways in which these nativist movements were adaptive responses to the colonial disruption of indigenous cultures that mixed older institutional forms with new elements inspired by contact with the expanding Europe-centered world-system. Cora Dubois’s (2007:116) take on this is less functionalist, but more interesting. Discussing the effects of Christian ideas on the ideology of the dream doctors she says “… it mirrors the accumulating despair of the Indians and their realization that there was no room for them in the new social order. Christian beliefs, which were an outgrowth of a not dissimilar cultural situation, offered a ready-made escape into supernaturalism from realities that had become intolerable because they offered nothing but defeat.” In other words, there was a useful congruence between the ideology of salvation that emerged from an Iron Age Roman colony in Palestine and the situation of indigenous peoples of the Americas.[11] Wallace also surmises that James Mooney’s sympathy with the American indigenes was partly due to his support for Irish national independence from British colonialism (Wallace 1965:vi).

            There is evidence that the 1870 and 1890 Ghost Dances were a later reincarnation of an earlier Prophet Dance that had emerged among the plateau and coastal groups in British Columbia and Washington (Spier 1935).[12]  Spier demonstrated many similarities between the prophet dance complex that emerged in the early decades of the 19th century with the Ghost Dance doctrines and practices that emerged in the 1870s and the 1890s. He contended that the prophet dance complex was not caused by the disruption of indigenous societies by the arrival of the Europeans. Suttles (1987) agrees and proposes that the prophet dance, in which dream doctors proselytized[13] across a wide area based on dances and songs they had learned by visiting the land of the dead, was a response to the need of indigenous polities for larger scale political leadership. This is an importance instance in which a millenarian social movement is connected with the emergence of new and larger scale forms of authority.

            Cargo cults were Melanesian millenarian movements encompassing a diverse range of practices and that occurred in the wake of contact with the commercial networks of colonizing European polities. The name derives from the belief that various ritualistic acts will lead to a bestowing of material wealth ("cargo").  Worsley (1968) saw the millenarianism of the cargo cults as having been borrowed from Christian missionaries, whereas Lawrence (1964) contended that millenarianism was part of the precontact Melanesian culture.

            Chiefdoms experienced a rise and fall pattern that was somewhat similar in form to that of larger states and empires (Anderson 1994). Some of the rises were the result of conquest by semiperipheral marcher chiefdoms, but others may have been the outcome of a demographic process somewhat similar to the ”secular cycles” described for state-based systems by Jack Goldstone (1991) and Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov (2009). Turchin and Nefedov formalized Jack Goldstone’s (1991) model of the secular cycle, an approximately 200 year long demographic cycle, in which population grows and then decreases. Population pressures emerge because the number of mouths to be fed and the size of the group of elites get too large for the resource base, causing conflict and the disruption of the polity. Turchin and Nefedov test their model on a number of agrarian empires, confirming the principle that population growth and elite overproduction leads to sociopolitical instability within states. However, we think that somewhat similar processes may have been operating within chiefdom polities.

            The main differences between social movements in small-scale polities and those that occur in larger and more complex polities is the social structural context itself. As mentioned above, small-scale human polities were fiercely egalitarian. They suppressed aggrandizing behavior by alpha males, minimized the inheritance of wealth by burying or burning personal possessions at death and redistributed use rights to natural resources based on need (Flannery and Marcus 2012; Turchin 2016: Chapter 5). Decisions were made by consensus in discussions that included all adults. The social movement literature tends to assume that hierarchy exists and that social movements challenge hierarchical authorities. When there is little or no hierarchy, how is collective action mobilized?. The example of the 1870 Ghost Dance provides the answer. Charismatic bearers of new songs and dances and visions of transformation (dream doctors) challenged the ideas and ritual practices of older authorities (sucking doctors) and mobilized action around the new ideas. Even in small-scale egalitarian polities there were some authorities and there were taken-for-granted practices and ideas that could be challenged. In the case of the revitalization movements these were adaptive changes to the larger colonial situation. It is likely that other reorganizations were similarly implemented by religious social movements.

Theocratic Early State Formation

          The emergence of socially constructed hierarchy had to overcome great resistance. There is considerable evidence that hierarchies emerged during periods of warfare and internal strife in which people were motivated to accept the claims of superiority of a chiefly class or a charismatic leader who was able to promise (and deliver) better security.  Fatigue from insecurity plus circumscription (the lack of feasible emigration destinations) (Carneiro 1970, 1978) lowered the resistance of the people to claims of superiority on the part of emergent elites.  These new elites usually legitimated their actions in terms of reformulated religious ideologies and they used these to mobilize collective labor toward both monumental and productive projects. As interaction networks and polities got larger and more complex, collective behavior and social movements took forms that were  more recognizable by students of modern collective behavior.  

Most studies of the emergence of early states depict a situation in which religion played an important role in the establishment of a layer of authority over the top of existing kinship structures. Stephen Lekson (1999) contends that the rise of a relatively large polity with monumental architecture at Chaco Canyon ( in what is now Northwestern New Mexico) was organized by a religious elite using astronomical ideas (indicated by the ritual roads centered on the biggest edifice (Pueblo Bonito) in the canyon). The settlement at Chaco Canyon was largely abandoned in the twelfth century CE and most archaeologists ascribe this to climate change (reduced rainfall and catastrophic floods that lowered the water table by washing out a deep arroyo (e.g. Fagan 1991).  Lekson contends that the Chaco priests led a large group to establish another central place directly north of Chaco (Aztec Ruin near the Animas River) and then, after another flooding episode that destroyed an irrigation system,  led a third migration to establish Paquimé (Casas Grandes) directly south of both Chaco Canyon and the Aztec Ruin settlement. If Lekson is correct Chaco elites were employing an astronomical ideology to mobilize their populations to adapt to ecological and climatic conditions by relocating and developing more resilient forms of irrigation.

The Chaco Meridian Pauketat (2009) presents a thorough overview of the archaeological evidence that has accrued regarding the rise of Cahokia and the Mississippian culture complex of which it was an important center (see also Mann 2005). Pauketat  contends that the construction of this large settlement in the American Bottom (now East St. Louis) was organized by religious entrepreneurs who created a dramaturgical set of monuments organized around a religious ideology that attracted large numbers of immigrants and legitimated the mobilization of a huge investment of human labor time in the building of the dramatic monuments. Some archaeologists prefer to consider Cahokia to have been a complex chiefdom rather than an early state. But the archaeological evidence of large-scale human sacrifice favors the idea that this was indeed a state.[14] Mound 72 contained the remains of fifty-three decapitated young women, apparently appropriated from poorer families in outlying villages, who seem to have been honored to join a recently deceased king in the afterworld (Pauketat 2009:133-4).

Cahokia (East St. Louis)


In the Uruk or Late Chalcolithic period (4000-3100 BCE) the first true city (Uruk) grew up on the floodplain of lower Mesopotamia, and other cities of similar large size soon emerged in adjacent locations. This was the original birth of “civilization” understood as the combination of irrigated agriculture, writing, cities and states. The main architectural feature of these new Sumerian cities was the temple and this structure has long been considered the primary institution of a theocratically organized political economy.  Later evidence about Sumerian civilization shows that each city was represented by a god in the Sumerian pantheon and the priests and populace were defined as the slaves of the city god – this justifying the accumulation of surplus product and the mobilization of human labor for building monumental architecture (Postgate 1992).  The Sumerian cities erected their states –specialized institutions of regional control – over the tops of kin-based normative institutions (Zagarell 1986). Assemblies of lineage heads long continued to play an important role in the politics of Mesopotamia (Van de Mieroop 1999). One interesting difference between the emergences of archaic states in Mesopotamia from other instances of pristine state formation is the apparent absence of ritual human sacrifice.  A powerful way to dramatize the power of a king is to bury a lot of other people with him when he dies. Except for the Third Dynasty of Ur period (the royal cemetery at Ur), there is little evidence of ritual human sacrifice in Mesopotamia.  The temple economy required contributions of goods and labor time, including animal sacrifices that were consumed in religious feasts.  But the sacrifice of humans in Mesopotamia, as with modern states, was mainly confined to killing in battle.

Mesopotamian Ziggurat  (temple)


Revolutions in the Ancient World

            Jack A. Goldstone (2014: Chapter 4) devoted a chapter of his Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction to “Revolutions in the Ancient World.” We have much better evidence regarding social movements once polities had developed the ability to record events in writing.  The rise of primary or pristine states occurred in at least five largely unconnected world regions: Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus River Valley,  the Yellow River Valley,  the Andes and Mesoamerica. This is a dramatic case of parallel sociocultural evolution in which somewhat similar conditions led to the emergence of large settlements and large polities. In all these cases food production techniques, mainly irrigation, domestication of animals, and the application of the plow, had developed to make possible the feeding of large numbers of people living close together in large cities. The cases of Cahokia and Mesopotamia discussed above are instances of this kind.

Research on scale changes in the population sizes of cities and territorial sizes of polities shows that around half of the cases of upward sweeps in these size indicators were the result of conquests by non-core marcher states (Inoue, et al 2016). This confirms our hypothesis that core/periphery relations and uneven development are important for explaining the emergence of complexity and hierarchy in world-systems, but it also shows that a significant portion of upsweeps were not associated with the actions of non-core marcher states. We are developing a multilevel model (Chase-Dunn and Inoue 2017) that combines interpolity dynamics with the “secular cycle” model developed by Turchin and Nefadov (2009). This model will include social movement mobilization and revolutions along with demographic and economic variables. Goldstone’s chapter is useful because it suggests that his demographic model of state collapse (formalized by Turchin and Nefadov 2009 as a “secular cycle”) can be applied to chiefdoms and early states as well as classical and modern ones. Goldstone’s earliest case of revolution is during and after the reign of Pepy II, the last pharaoh of Old Kingdom Egypt whose reign ended during the 22nd century BCE. The power of the central government was being challenged by regional nomes who were building large funerary monuments to themselves in what Van der Mieroop (2001:xxx) describes as the “democratization of the afterlife” because the local leaders were presuming to join the pharaoh in the glorious next world. Social order was breaking down. The poor displayed little regard for those of rank.

Goldstone also describes the social movements and revolutions known from the classical Greek and Roman worlds. Here there is much more documentary and literary evidence describing the processes of social movements and revolutions. Goldstone recounts the unsuccessful struggles of the Gracchus brothers in Republican Rome to protect the interests of farmers against the acquisition of large plantations by slave-owning latifundistas (Brunt 1971). Peasants revolts, slave revolts, urban food riots, attacks by pastoral nomads, bandits, pirates, internecine struggles among elites occurred repeatedly in the context of the rise and fall of regimes and of empires in the ancient and classical world-systems. Turchin (2003: Chapter 9) notes the relevance of Ibn Khaldun’s cyclical model of the rise and fall of regimes and the importance of changing levels of asabiyah  (loyalty, solidarity and group feeling) as old regimes became decadent and new challengers emerged from the desert to form new regimes (see also Amin 1980; Chase-Dunn and Anderson 2005). 

The rise of the world religions[15] during and after the axial age display the  interaction between social movements and forms of governance. World religions in our sense separate the moral order from kinship, allowing for and encouraging the inclusion of non-kin into the circle of protection. This is the expansion of human rights beyond the bounds of kinship  and the expansion of what Peter Turchin (2016) calls “Ultrasociety” – altruistic behavior among non-kin.  Marvin Harris (1977) pointed to the frequency of ritual cannibalism practiced on enemies in systems of small scale polities. In small systems non-kin are not really humans. They are enemy others that are not due any positive reciprocity (Sahlins 1972).  The question of who are humans and who are not the humans is important in all cultures. In small-scale polities the distinction between “the people” and the non-people is usually a mixture of kinship relations and familiarity with a language. The moral order applies to the circle of the people and heavy othering sees the non-people as animals or enemies. When world-systems expanded important debates occurred as to whether newly encountered peoples had souls, or not. The rise of what we currently call humanity was a long slow, back and forth and uneven process that continues in the current struggle over citizenship. 

World religions locate great agency in the individual person even if it is only the right to declare obedience.  To become a member of the moral order a convert must herself confess and proclaim belief in the godhead. This is the act of an individual person. One’s own action is required. Non-world religions usually tie membership to one’s birth parents. Salvation is also a further democratization of the afterlife.  Now the masses too may go to heaven or become enlightened.

Harris contends that the rise of world religions was functional for expanding empires because they  included the conquered populations within the moral order of the conquerors. This proscribed cannibalism and reduced the amount of resistance mounted by prospective conquerees. The king makes you pay tribute and taxes but he will not eat you. Most world religions began as social movements from the semiperiphery or the periphery (Bactria, Palestine) that were eventually adopted by the emperors. Prophets and charismatic leaders mobilized cadres who spread the word orally and with written documents. Sects and communities of believers were organized, eventually producing formally structure churches. Older institutions resisted, often repressing the new movements, but they continue to spread, in some cases becoming conquering armies, and in other cases becoming adopted by kings and emperors.  Some of the world religions were monotheistic, but others had no godhead at all except the path to enlightenment.

There is a well-developed and convincing literature on early Christianity as a social movement (Blasi 1988; Mitchell, Young and Bowie 2006). The interesting thing already mentioned is world-systemic context of the origin of the movement. Christ and his followers emerged in a context of a powerful Roman colonialism in which the colonized peoples were faced with overwhelming force. The ideology of individual salvation and rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s with concentration on the rewards of life after death was powerful medicine for those who faced a mighty Roman imperialism. Paul’s mission to other colonized peoples and the delinking of salvation from ethnic origin was a recipe that allowed the movement to spread back to the poor peoples of the core. And eventually it was adopted by the Roman emperors themselves as a universalistic ideology that could serve as legitimation for a multi-ethnic empire. The prince of peace and salvation ironically proved to be a fine motivator for later imperial projects such as the reconquest of Spain from the Moors and the conquest of Mesoamerica and the Andes (Padden 1970).  And as Cora Dubois (2007:116) has said, it also worked for the conquered as a way for them to survive psychologically and to adapt to a world in which their indigenous lifeways were coming to an end. Recall the discussion of “revitalization movements” above.[16]

Hinduism and Confucianism are not very proselytizing but they both spread successfully because they provided a new justification for hierarchy and state-formation.  The spread of Hinduism to mainland and island Southeast Asia occurred because its notion of the god-king (deva-raja) provided a useful ideology for the centralization of state power in a context of smaller contending polities (Wheatley 1975). Confucianism provided a different justification for state power based on the notion of the mandate of heaven and it spread from its original heartland to the rest of China and Korea.

 So what were the similarities and differences between social movements in small scale polities and those that occurred in larger-scale chiefdoms and states? As we have already said, the biggest differences were in the social structural contexts.  In egalitarian polities authority was more diffuse. But it still existed and movements could define themselves as revised versions of authority such as occurred in the contest between the traditional shamans and the dream doctors. The diffusion of new ideas was constrained by modes of transportation and by simple technologies of communication in systems of small scale polities. The new words, songs, dances had to be carried on foot. This was a limitation on how far and fast the ideas could spread. In multilingual situations the signal to noise ratio was low as the original ideas were lost in translation. This could be seen in the mixing of the ghost dance ideas with other, earlier, cult forms. Down-the-line transmission of information also adds noise. Sign languages were also in use in indigenous North America (Davis 2010), but these were not good media for transmitting the subtleties of new cult ideas (Mooney 1965: 19). Obviously the invention of writing and literacy increased the signal to noise ratio and allowed ideas to spread much faster and farther, not to mention the telegraph the radio and the internet. New “religions of the book” transformed rituals of the spoken word into worship of the text.

 Boat and caravan transportation facilitated the more rapid and distant spread of ideas. Institutions such as money and the law emerged in part as efforts to control social movements from below, but they could also be used by social movements. The same goes for economic and military organization. Bureaucracies and formal organizations were usually created to reproduce social orders, but social movements could also appropriate these inventions and use them to mobilize social change.

In the modern world-system there has been a spiral of interaction between world revolutions and the evolution of global governance that we will discuss in the next chapter. World revolutions are periods in world history in which a large number of rebellions break out across the world- system, often unconnected with one another, but known, and responded to, by imperial authorities. Since the protestant reformation such constellations of social movements have played an important role in the evolution of global governance because the powers that can best handle collective behavior challenges are the ones who succeed in competition with competing elites. It is possible that similar phenomena existed in premodern world-systems. Oscillations in the expansion of trade networks, the rise and fall of chiefdoms, states and empires, and increasing synchronization of trade and political cycles may have been connected with waves of social movements. This is a hypothesis that we have only begun to think.



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[1] We use the term “polity” to generally denote a spatially-bounded realm of sovereign authority such as a band, tribe, chiefdom, state or empire.  Small scale polities are bands, tribes and chiefdoms.

[2] Use of the word “evolution” still requires explanation. We mean long-term patterned change in social structures, especially the development of complex divisions of labor and hierarchy. We do not mean biological evolution, which is a very different topic, and neither do we mean “progress.” Defining what has happened with regard to social structures since the Stone Age as improvement (or decadence) is not a necessary exercise for the scientific description and explanation of these changes.


[3] Robert Schaffer (2014) points out that single individuals often start social movements. And John W. Meyer has said that all human behavior is collective because even hermits have society in their heads.

[4] Small-scale polities are bands or tribelets in which autonomous authority does not extend very far in space and does not include very large populations.  Systems based on these kinds of polities are usually peopled by nomadic or sedentary hunter-gatherers or by horticulturalists who live in relatively small settlements (camps, hamlets or villages).

[5] AFC Wallace (1965:viii) says that both the 1870 and the 1890 versions of the Ghost Dance doctrine held that “the dead were soon to return and that the white people and their culture were at the same time to be destroyed by a natural cataclysm.”

[6] James Fenelon (1998) contended that the Ghost Dance doctrine did not predict the disappearance or death of the Europeans, but that this was attributed to the movement by whites who were nervous of about the intentions of the restless natives and intent on “culturicide.” This is plausible and the different reports that are relevant are rather vague about exactly what was said or predicted to be the fate of the whites in Ghost Dance doctrine.  Mooney (1965:19) notes that there were differences among groups with regard to this element of the doctrine and that Wovoka and many other adherents preached peaceful relations with the whites.  But most of the ethnologists who studied the Ghost Dance at the time or later were rather sympathetic to the plight of the indigenes. They also were told that the doctrine included bad ends for non-believers and for metis (half-breeds). Mooney (1965:227) includes an Arapahoe song about the “yellow hides” that tends to support the idea that the future utopia without sickness or death did not include a place for the Europeans. See also Ruby and Brown (1989).

[7] Indeed one of DuBois’s informants said “A white man looks at paper and talks to it and laughs.” (2007:50).


[8] Traditional shamans were called “sucking doctors” by Cora DuBois because they cured patients by removing foreign objects (bad spirits) from their bodies.

[9] Chief Alexander (Sunusa)  of the  Upper Sacramento Wintu sent Bogus Tom to Oregon to spread the word.


[10] Cargo cults were Melanesian millenarian movements encompassing a diverse range of practices and that occurred in the wake of contact with the commercial networks of colonizing European polities. The name derives from the belief that various ritualistic acts will lead to a bestowing of material wealth ("cargo").


[11] This reminds us of Karl Marx’s (1844) poignant remark that religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.


[12] Spier (1935:10) also notes that the Modocs of Northern California are known to have engaged in a version of the prophet dance well before the emergence of the Ghost Dance in Western Nevada in 1870.  He also contends that the 1870 Ghost Dance had little or nothing to do with the war that broke out in 1872 between the Modocs and the U.S. Army, though that seems difficult to believe.

[13] Spier (1935: 12) contends that the proselytizing aspect of the prophet dance was probably not due to exposure to Christianity.

[14] Ritual blood sacrifices and human sacrifices have been found in many Amerindian societies as well as in other complex chiefdoms and early states. This is an element of congruence between indigenous religions and the story of Jesus on the cross.

[15] The term “world religions” in everyday discourse simply means organized religions with large numbers of adherents in the contemporary world. Here we use it in a narrower sense to mean religions that combine universalistic claims with a proselyting mission that is expansive across kinship and language groups.

[16] While reading about human sacrifice in Mayan religions I arrived at a village in the mountains above Guatemala City to witness an Easter Parade in which the local indigenes were dressed up as Roman soldiers to escort Jesus on his way to the cross.