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UNIT 6: Order and Early Societies



As peoples around the world began to practice agriculture and move into cities, societies became increasingly larger and more complex. With complexity came an increasingly unequal distribution of resources and power. This pattern intensified as agricultural villages became cities, city-states, kingdoms, and even empires.

Another feature of large, complex, agricultural societies was the growth of military forces, which arose to protect food stores and to defend territory. Eventually, however, military forces functioned to expand power and control over land and people. The people who could field and control military forces also frequently began to take a leadership role and worked to centralize their own power.

Religious ideas and practices that had inspired and guided community life in earlier times were then adapted to provide sanction for new rulers and new forms of political organization, which often created new social hierarchies and economic relationships. Although not all societies followed this path, it was common in many different parts of the world from the mid-first millennium BCE to the end of the first millennium CE.

This unit explores the many ways people ordered their worlds in complex societies. In the past, scholars have assumed that inequality was an inevitable product of increasing social complexity; some societies, however, exhibited other ways of ordering the world. Many scholars are now becoming aware that, at the very least, we should view the relationship between increasing social complexity and inequality as a complicated one.

Moreover, it now seems clear that the formation of the centralized state was a common — but not inevitable — outcome of increasing social complexity. Historians have tried to account for the differences in the ways people ordered their worlds by looking at the influence of physical environments, economies, religious and cultural traditions, changing technologies, and contacts with other peoples and cultures. A variety of sources — archaeology, myth, oral traditions, and written texts — from a variety of places can be used to give us clues to, and different perspectives on, "ordering the world" in the past.


Time Period: Foundations, esp. first millennium BCE to 1000 CE.

All complex societies sought to create systems of order. In the 2000 years between 1000 BCE and 1000 CE, such systems varied widely across time and space. Some are better known than others, such as the Greek city-states that developed in the Mediterranean in the fifth century BCE, the Mauryan dynasty that formed in South Asia in the fourth century BCE, or the Han dynasty of China that lasted from 206 BCE until 9 CE. All, however, had to devise methods to protect themselves from outside threats and to encourage political and economic integration. Generally, these efforts resulted in social inequalities and social stratification, but not always: In some cases, such as with the Igbo-Ukwu in Nigeria, social stratification did not result from social complexity.

AP Themes:

  • Examines technology, demography, and environment through a focus on the ways that population growth and agriculture resulted in a need for systems of order.
  • Explores systems of social structure by looking at the ways various societies approached the problems of complexity through state-building.
  • Discusses changing functions of states because systems of social order evolved as a result of changes in population densities, economic activities, and the need for protection.


  • Question 1: Why did social complexity often lead to the centralization of power?
  • Question 2: What is the relationship between social complexity and inequality?
  • Question 3: What were some of the different ways societies created order around the world before 1000 CE?
  • Question 4: How and why do some types of political and social organizations evolve into large-scale polities such as empires, while others persist as small, decentralized polities?


How is this topic related to Increasing Integration?

As states became more centralized under strong rulers, populations within those states became more integrated.

How is this topic related to Proliferating Difference?

As state authority grew, the distribution of resources became more unequal. Whether due to religious ideas or to control technologies, this unequal distribution was expressed in increasing social, political, economic, and gender hierarchies.

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