Early civilizations throughout the world often had a complex social hierarchy. Opposing interests and a fight for supremacy or power among the elite groups caused tension and usually war. By examining the complex social structures of Meso-America, the Western African Kingdom of Ghana, and the Mongols and Turks from Asia, we can begin to see that traditional hierarchies were often unstable, as many different interests were at stake. Those who held power ranged from high priests to an emerging merchant class of entrepreneurs, those of noble lineage, and military acclaim, making it very hard to determine which group was on top at any given time. By comparison of these three very different societies, this essay seeks to determine what factors, if any, these civilizations had in common when it came to determining who was among the elite and most respected in society.
It is believed that after 13,000 B.C.E., large numbers of people began entering Mesoamerica, migrating south from Siberia and over the Bering land bridge; these migrants worked their way down the west coast of the Americas before settling in the central region of modern-day Mexico to Honduras and El Salvador . Early settlers lived by hunting and gathering, which became problematic with global warning and disappearance of large animals that made up their diet . Once these populations had no choice but to turn to a more formal system of agriculture, ranking in society began to take shape as the lowest groups in society were laborers who tended to the field .
The Mayan civilization is perhaps best known in this region. Mayans were heirs of an earlier group of people known as the Olmecs—the first group to cultivate the land for crop growing . Cities began to take form during the third century B.C. that were based on their original purpose as religious centers, the most famous probably being Teotihuacan in the fourth century . The popularity of religious centers grew during 300 to 900 C.E. as dense populations began forming along with political organizations of small city-kingdoms. As Andrea Overfield explains, “ Between roughly 800 and 925, Mayan civilization witnessed glory, tragic decline, and triumph as some areas of the Mayan World suffered profound political, social, and demographic dislocation. ” It is during this time that the elite class apparently began to take shape and cause turmoil. According to Bentley and Ziegler, “apart from the kings and ruling families, Maya society included a large class of priests who maintained an elaborate calendar and transmitted knowledge of writing, astronomy, and mathematics .” As we can see, it is hard to determine exactly who their elite class actually consisted of during this area of unrest and rapid change, and numerous circumstances could lead one into wealth and privilege or down the ranks of society into slavery.
Growing classes of merchants and expansions of marketplaces were a source of unlikely political power and elitism for the Mesoamerica group known as the Incas. Here commerce and religion collided in city centers. In many ways the merchant class can be seen as entrepreneurs and social climbers as their growing wealth in the marketplace strengthened their social standing : “ We have seen many men of low birth and low blood rise to a state which has permitted them to marry daughters of dukes, counts, and marquises and to form rich family estates, mixing the humble blood with that of the highest Spain” upon conquest . In an account provided by Fray Diego Duran, he describes, “in this land in pagan times the ancient kings and princes took very special care and caution in rewarding and honoring the upright, the virtuous, and the brave .” Despite the Spanish conquest of ancient Mesoamerican societies, many native groups maintained their traditions and blended them with that of their Western conquerors. Going further back in history, though, the tradition held that as Indian merchants gained wealth in the marketplaces, they obtained slaves to sacrifice to pagan gods . Merchants became an elite group of noblemen, celebrating along with the warriors with pomp and ceremony.
One of the most important trading empires to emerge south of the Sahara in West Africa was the Kingdom of Ghana. A group of people known as Berbers came southwest across the desert to raid and trade but ended up playing a much more significant role in establishing a Soninke kingdom, which would later lead to the formation of the kingdom of Ghana. As Overfield explains, “During the eighth and ninth centuries, Arab merchants inhabiting the coastal cities of North Africa began to enter the lucrative trans-Saharan trading system, thereby gaining direct access to the region they called the land of gold—a land then dominated by the well-established state of Ghana .” The introduction of Islam, which was eventually adopted by the ruling elite, brought about significant changes for the kingdom. After ongoing wars over religion, the precedence of trans-Saharan trade persisted and in turn created a class of merchants involved in trade from this establish hub or port. Nehmia Levtzion describes changes in the region in the following way:
The development of agriculture, the introduction of iron and cavalry all contributed to social, economic, and political differentiation by the beginning of the Christian era. Some forms of more elaborate political organization, perhaps small chiefdoms, emerged. About the middle of the first millennium AD, the increasing pressure of the Saharan nomads and the growth of trans-Saharan trade acted as stimuli for political reorganization on a larger scale in order to present a unified force against the nomads, and to achieve a wider and more effective control over trade.
Levtzion recognized that nomad versus settler conflict and control over trans-Saharan was the key dynamic for power in the region . McIntosh explains that Levtzion’s timeline was dependent on “political reorganization in the Sahel, stimulated by the trans-Saharan trade in gold, ” which went back centuries before the Arab invasion of the region. According to McIntosh, “With copper as the durable marker of exchange networks that were operating by the fifth century CE, we can postulate a set of inter-linked networks that moved comestibles (such as dried fish, grains, and stock on the hoof) among environmental zones, and raw materials (stone, iron ore or blooms, copper) and salt from source areas. Once again it seems that trade and commerce that have the strongest effect on the determination of the so-called elites, here defined as those who enjoyed wealth, security, and respect from the lower orders of society.
Central Asia is an extremely large region, expanding from the western Caspian Sea to Manchuria and the southern part of Siberia to the east . The Turks and Mongols were not the first to inhabit this region, but their dominance had a significant impact on large parts of Central Asia as they became ruled by four regional empires . The dominance of the Mongols and Turks in this region is not simply a figure of speech. The post-classical era brought upon change for the settled people of the time and region as nomadic Turks and Mongols overran establish societies with the establishment of their trans-regional empires, spanning this utterly huge territory . As Bentley and Ziegler explain, “by building empires that transcended the boundaries of postclassical states, however, nomadic Turks and Mongols laid a political foundation for sharply increased trade and communication of peoples of different societies and cultural regions.” Whenever there is mention of a political foundation, we can’t help but think of power and thus of whom the ruling elites were.
It is not as easy as citing Genghis Khan as the elite ruler of the Mongol empire, as the political and social hierarchy that dictates the elite social classes were much more complicated than simply who led battles and conquered kingdoms. According to Qingzhi, “The Mongol Empire of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was the largest contiguous land empire in human history. In its heyday, it stretched from Korea to Hungary, including most of Asia, as well as a large part of Eastern Europe. It lasted for well over a century, and parts of it survived for very much longer. For this reason, the study of the Mongol Empire is relatively difficult.” We know that the success of the Mongol expansion was of course largely in part to the legacy of Genghis Khan, but more importantly, were the intricate trade routes that enabled travel of his armies who controlled commerce. In this way, it can be assumed the elites of this empire were not just the warriors, as was true in the Mesoamerican and Western African societies, but also the merchants. Current research suggests the religious clash between the peoples conquered by the Turks and Mongols was indeed violent and horrific, but Mongolian and Turkish culture nonetheless remained ingrained in the cultures after the receding of their conquerors: “The binaries on which the qualities of the accursed Mongols and the monolithic Muslim community were framed ignored the fact that a large number of Sultanate elites and monarchs were of Turkish/Mongol ethnicity or had a history of prior service in their armed contingents.” The Mongols and Turks, for all their harsh brutality, had a strong impact on trade and communication across cultures that are still felt in that region of the world through language, heritage, and custom.
Defining the elite groups among various world civilizations is no easy feat and research provides no, one single answer for how to determine this. Certainly, the respective societies had their rulers, their warriors, and their respected religious people, but what has emerged from the comparison of Mesoamerica, Western Africa, and Central Asia is that conquering trade routes and/or holding the power of commerce through various markets created what we might consider the world’s first entrepreneurs. Those who gained wealth through trade and the establishment of the markets were consistently among the elite class in all three of the compared societies. While certainly there were other so-called elites, it seems much of what determined status had to do with one’s connection to trade in the region as the economy and political structure followed suit.
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Levtzion, Nehemia. Conversion to Islam. New York: Holmes and Mier, 1978. Print.
McIntosh, Susan Keech. “Reconceptualizing Early Ghana.” Canadian Journal of African Studies. 42.2 (2008): 347-373. Web. 17 November 2013.
Overfield, Andrea. The human record: sources of global history. 7th ed. ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2009. Print.
Qingzhi, George. Asian Thought and Culture, Volume 60: Marriage as Political Strategy and Cultural Expression: Mongolian Royal Marriages from World Empire to Yuan Dynasty.
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