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Theory of Origin of State Essay

A Theory of the Origin of the State “Traditional theories of state origins are considered and rejected in favor of a new ecological hypothesis.” Robert L. Carneiro For the first 2 million years of his existence, man lived in bands or vil-lages which, as far as we can tell, were completely autonomous. Not until perhaps 5000 B.C. did villages begin to aggregate into larger political units. But, once this process of aggregation began, it continued at a progressively faster pace and led, around 4000 B.C., to the formation of the first state in history. (When I speak of a state I mean an autonomous political unit, encompassing many communities with-in its territory and having a centralized government with the power to collect taxes, draft men for work or war, and decree and enforce laws.) Although it was by all odds the most far-reaching political development in human history, the origin of the state is still very imperfectly understood. In-deed, not one of the current theories of the rise of the state is entirely satis-factory. At one point or another, all of them fail. There is one theory, though, which I believe does provide a con-vincing explanation of how states began. It is a theory which I proposed once before (1), and which I present here more fully.

Before doing so, however it seems desirable to discuss, if only briefly, a few of the traditional theories. Explicit theories of the origin of the state are relatively modern. Classical writers like Aristotle, unfamiliar with other forms of political organization, tended to think of the state as “nat-ural,” and therefore as not requiring an explanation. However, the age of exploration, by making Europeans aware that many peoples throughout the world lived, not in states, but in independent villages or tribes, made the state seem less natural, and thus more in need of explanation. Of the many modern theories of state origins that have been proposed, we can consider only a few. Those with a racial basis, for example, are now so thoroughly discredited that they need not be dealt with here. We can also reject the belief that the state is an expression of the “genius” of a people (2), or that it arose through a “historical accident.” Such notions make the state appear to be something metaphysical or adventitious, and thus place it beyond scientific understanding. In my opinion, the origin of the state was neither mysterious nor fortuitous. It was not the product of “genius” or the result of chance, but the outcome of a regular and determinate cultural process.

Moreover, it was not a unique event but a recurring phenomenon: states arose independently in different places and at different times. Where the appropriate conditions existed, the state emerged. Voluntaristic Theories Serious theories of state origins are of two general types: voluntaristic and coercive. Voluntaristic theories hold that, at some point in their history, certain peoples spontaneously, ration-ally, and voluntarily gave up their in-dividual sovereignties and united with other communities to form a larger political unit deserving to be called a state. Of such theories the best known is the old Social Contract theory, which was associated especially with the name of Rousseau. We now know that no such compact was ever subscribed to by human groups, and the Social Con-tract theory is today nothing more than a historical curiosity. The most widely accepted of moder voluntaristic theories is the one I call the “automatic” theory. According to this theory, the invention of agriculture automatically brought into being a sur-plus of food, enabling some individuals to divorce themselves from food pro-duction and to become potters, weav-ers, smiths, masons, and so on, thus creating an extensive division of labor.

Out of this occupational specialization there developed a political integration which united a number of previously independent communities into a state. This argument was set forth most fre-quently by the late British archeologist V. Gordon Childe (3). The principal difficulty with this Coercive Theories theory is that agriculture does not au-tomatically create a food surplus. We know this because many agricultural peoples of the world produce no such surplus. Virtually all Amazonian In-dians, for example, were agricultural, but in aboriginal times they did not produce a food surplus. That it was technically feasible for them to pro-duce such a surplus is shown by the ,fact that, under the stimulus of Euro-pean settlers’ desire for food, a number of tribes did raise manioc in amounts well above their own needs, for the purpose of trading (4). Thus the tech-nical means for generating a food sur-plus were there; it was the social mech-anisms needed to actualize it that were lacking. Another current voluntaristic theory of state origins is Karl Wittfogel’s “hy-draulic hypothesis.”

As I understand him, Wittfogel sees the state arising in the following way. In certain arid and semiarid areas of the world, where village farmers had to struggle to sup-port themselves by means of small-scale irrigation, a time arrived when they saw that it would be to the ad-vantage of all concerned to set aside their individual autonomies and merge their villages into a single large po-litical unit capable of carrying out irri-gation on a broad scale. The body of officials they created to devise and ad-minister such extensive irrigation works brought the state into being (5). This theory has recently run into difficulties. Archeological evidence now makes it appear that in at least three of the areas that Wittfogel cites as ex-emplifying his “hydraulic hypothesis”- Mesopotamia, China, and Mexico-full-fledged states developed well before large-scale irrigation (6). Thus, irriga-tion did not play the causal role in the rise of the state that Wittfogel appears to attribute to it (7).

This and all other voluntaristic the-ories of the rise of the state founder on the same rock: the demonstrated inability of autonomous political units to relinquish their sovereignty in the absence of overriding external con-straints. We see this inability mani-fested again and again by political units ranging from tiny villages to great em-pires. Indeed, one can scan the pages of history without finding a single genu-ine exception to this rule. Thus, in order to account for the origin of the state we must set aside voluntaristic theories and look elsewhere. 734 A-close examination of history indi-cates that only a coercive theory can account for the rise of the state. Force, and not enlightened self-interest, is the mechanism by which political evolution has led, step by step, from autonomous villages to the state. The view that war lies at the root of the state is by no means new. Twenty-five hundred years ago Heraclitus wrote that “war is the father of all things.” The first careful study of the role of warfare in the rise of the state, how-ever, was made less than a hundred years ago, by Herbert Spencer in his Principles of Sociology (8).

Perhaps better known than Spencer’s writings on war and the state are the conquest theories of continental writers such as Ludwig Gumplowicz (9), Gustav Rat-zenhofer (10), and Franz Oppenheim-er (11). Oppenheimer, for example, argued that the state emerged when the pro-ductive capacity of settled agriculturists was combined with the energy of pas-toral nomads through the conquest of the former by the latter (11, pp. 51- 55). This theory, however, has two serious defects. First, it fails to account for the rise of states in aboriginal America, where pastoral nomadism was unknown. Second, it is now well estab-lished that pastoral nomadism did not arise in the Old World until after the earliest states had emerged. Regardless of deficiencies in par-ticular coercive theories, however, there is little question that, in one way or another, war played a decisive role in the rise of the state. Historical or arche-ological evidence of war is found in the early stages of state formation in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China, Japan, Greece, Rome, northern Eu-rope, central Africa, Polynesia, Middle America, Peru, and Colombia, to name only the most prominent examples.

Thus, with the Germanic kingdoms of northern Europe especially in mind, Edward Jenks observed that, “histori-cally speaking, there is not the slightest difficulty in proving that all political communities of the modern type [that is, states] owe their existence to suc-cessful warfare” (12). And in reading Jan Vansina’s Kingdoms of the Sa-vanna (13), a book with no theoretical ax to grind, one finds that state after state in central Africa arose in the same manner. But is it really true that there is no exception to this rule? Might there not be, somewhere in the world, an ex-ample of a state which arose without the agency of war? Until a few years ago, anthropolo-gists generally believed that the Classic Maya provided such an instance. The archeological evidence then available gave no hint of warfare among the early Maya and led scholars to regard them as a peace-loving theocratic state which had arisen entirely without war (14). However, this view is no longer tenable.

Recent archeological discov-eries have placed the Classic Maya in a very different light. First came the discovery of the Bonampak murals, showing the early Maya at war and reveling in the torture of war captives. Then, excavations around Tikal re-vealed large earthworks partly sur-rounding that Classic Maya city, point-ing clearly to a military rivalry with the neighboring city of Uaxactuin (15). Summarizing present thinking on the subject, Michael D. Coe has observed that “the ancient Maya were just as warlike as the . . . bloodthirsty states of the Post-Classic” (16). Yet, though warfare is surely a prime mover in the origin of the state, it can-not be the only factor. After all, wars have been fought in many parts of the world where the state never emerged. Thus, while warfare may be a neces-sary condition for the rise of the state, it is not a sufficient one.

Or, to put it another way, while we can identify war as the mechanism of state forma-tion, we need also to specify the con-ditions under which it gave rise to the state. Environmental Circumscription How are we to determine these con-ditions? One promising approach is to look for those factors common to areas of the world in which states arose in-digenously-areas such as the Nile, Tigris-Euphrates, and Indus valleys in the Old World and the Valley of Mex-ico and the mountain and coastal val-leys of Peru in the New. These areas differ from one another in many ways -in altitude, temperature, rainfall, soil type, drainage pattern, and many other features. They do, however, have one thing in common: they are all areas of circumscribed agricultural land. Each of them is set off by mountains, seas, or deserts, and these environmental fea-tures sharply delimit the area that simple farming peoples could occupy and cul-tivate.

In this respect these areas are very different from, say, the Amazon basin or the eastern woodlands of North America, where extensive and unbroken forests provided almost un-limited agricultural land. But what is the significance of cir-cumscribed agricultural land for the origin of the state? Its significance can best be understood by comparing po-litical development in two regions of the world having contrasting ecologies -one a region with circumscribed ag-ricultural land -and the other a region where there was extensive and un-limited land. The two areas I have chosen to use in making this com-parison are the coastal valleys of Peru and the Amazon basin. Our examination begins at the stage where agricultural communities were already present but where each was still completely autonomous. Looking first at the Amazon basin, we see that agricultural villages there were nu-merous, but widely dispersed. Even in areas with relatively dense clustering, like the Upper Xingu basin, villages were at least 10 or 15 miles apart. Thus, the typical Amazonian com-munity, even though it practiced a simple form of shifting cultivation which required extensive amounts of land, still had around it all the forest land needed for its gardens (17).

For Amazonia as a whole, then, population density was low and subsistence pres-sure on the land was slight. Warfare was certainly frequent in Amazonia, but it was waged for rea-sons of revenge, the taking of women, the gaining of personal prestige, and motives of a similar sort. There being no shortage of land, there was, by and large, no warfare over land. The consequences of the type of war-fare that did occur in Amazonia were as follows. A defeated group was not, as a rule, driven from its land. Nor did the victor make any real effort to subject the vanquished, or to exact tribute from him. This would have been difficult to accomplish in any case, since there was no effective way to prevent the losers from fleeing to a distant part of the forest. Indeed, defeated villages often chose to do just this, not so much to avoid subjugation as to avoid further attack. With settlement so sparse in Amazonia, a new area of forest could be found and occupied with relative ease, and without trespassing on the territory of another village. Moreover, 21 AUGUST 1970 since virtually any area of forest is suitable for cultivation, subsistence ag-riculture could be carried on in the new habitat just about as well as in the old.

It was apparently by this process of fight and flight that horticultural tribes gradually spread out until they came to cover, thinly but extensively, almost the entire Amazon basin. Thus, under the conditions of unlimited agricultural land and low population density that prevailed in Amazonia, the effect of warfare was to disperse villages over a wide area, and to keep them autono-mous. With only a very few exceptions, noted below, there was no tendency in Amazonia for villages to be held in place and to combine into larger po-litical units. In marked contrast to the situation in Amazonia were the events that tran-spired in the narrow valleys of the Pe-ruvian coast. The reconstruction of these events that I present is admit-tedly inferential, but I think it is con-sistent with the archeological evidence. Here too our account begins at the stage of small, dispersed, and autono-mous farming communities. However, instead of being scattered over a vast expanse of rain forest as they were in Amazonia, villages here were confined to some 78 short and narrow valleys (18).

Each of these valleys, moreover, was backed by the mountains, fronted by the sea, and flanked on either side by desert as dry as any in the world. Nowhere else, perhaps, can one find agricultural valleys more sharply cir-cumscribed than these. As with neolithic communities gen-erally, villages of the Peruvian coastal valleys tended to grow in size. Since autonomous villages are likely to fis-sion as they grow, as long as land is available for the settlement of splinter communities, these villages undoubtedly split from time to time (19). Thus, vil-lages tended to increase in number faster than they grew in size. This increase in the number of villages oc-cupying a valley probably continued, without giving rise to significant changes in subsistence practices, until all the readily arable land in the valley was being farmed. At this point two changes in agri-cultural techniques began to occur: the tilling of land already under cultiva-tion was intensified, and new, previ-ously unusable land was brought under cultivation by means of terracing and irrigation (20).

Yet the rate at which new arable land was created failed to keep pace with the increasing demand for it. Even before the land shortage became so acute that irrigation began to be practiced systematically, villages were undoubtedly already fighting one an-other over land. Prior to this time, when agricultural villages were still few in number and well supplied with land, the warfare waged in the coastal valleys of Peru had probably been of much the same type as that described above for Amazonia. With increasing pressure of human population on the land, however, the major incentive for war changed from a desire for revenge to a need to acquire land. And, as the causes of war became predominantly economic, the frequency, intensity, and importance of war increased. Once this stage was reached, a Pe-ruvian village that lost a war faced con-sequences very different from those faced by a defeated village in Ama-zonia. There, as we have seen, the van-quished could flee to a new locale, sub-sisting there about as well as they had subsisted before, and retaining their independence.

In Peru, however, this alternative was no longer open to the inhabitants of defeated villages. The mountains, the desert, and the sea-to say nothing of neighboring villages-blocked escape in every direction. A village defeated in war thus faced only grim prospects. If it was allowed to remain on its own land, instead of being exterminated or expelled, this conces-sion came only at a price. And the price was political subordination to the victor. This subordination generally en-tailed at least the payment of a tribute or tax in kind, which the defeated vil-lage could provide only by producing more food than it had produced before. But subordination sometimes involved a further loss of autonomy on the part of the defeated village-namely, in-corporation into the political unit domi-nated by the victor. Through the recurrence of warfare of this type, we see arising in coastal Peru integrated territorial units tran-scending the village in size and in de-gree of organization.

Political evolution was attaining the level of the chiefdom. As land shortages continued and be-came even more acute, so did warfare. Now, however, the competing units were no longer small villages but, often, large chiefdoms. From this point on, through the conquest of chiefdom by chiefdom, the size of political units in-creased at a progressively faster rate. Naturally, as autonomous political units increased in size, they decreased in number, with the result that an entire valley was eventually unified under the banner of its strongest chiefdom. The political unit thus formed was un-doubtedly sufficiently centralized and complex to warrant being called a state. The political evolution I have de-scribed for one valley of Peru was also taking place in other valleys, in the highlands as well as on the coast (21). Once valley-wide kingdoms emerged, the next step was the formation of multivalley kingdoms through the con-quest of weaker valleys by stronger ones.

The culmination of this process was the conquest (22) of all of Peru by its most powerful state, and the for-mation of a single great empire. Al-though this step may have occurred once or twice before in Andean history, it was achieved most notably, and for the last time, by the Incas (23). Political Evolution While the aggregation of villages into chiefdoms, and of chiefdoms into king-doms, was occurring by external ac-quisition, the structure of these increas-ingly larger political units was being elaborated by internal evolution. These inner changes were, of course, closely related to outer events. The expansion of successful states brought within their borders conquered peoples and terri-tory which had to be administered. And it was the individuals who had distinguished themselves in war who were generally appointed to political office and assigned the task of carrying out this administration. Besides main-taining law and order and collecting taxes, the functions of this burgeoning class of administrators included mobi-lizing labor for building irrigation works, roads, fortresses, palaces, and temples.

Thus, their functions helped to weld an assorted collection of petty states into a single integrated and cen-tralized political unit. These same individuals, who owed their improved social position to their exploits in war, became, along with the ruler and his kinsmen, the nucleus of an upper class. A lower class in turn emerged from the prisoners taken in war and employed as servants and slaves by their captors. In this manner did war contribute to the rise of social classes. I noted earlier that peoples attempt to acquire their neighbors’ land before 736 they have made the fullest possible use of their own. This implies that every autonomous village has an un-tapped margin of food productivity, and that this margin is squeezed out only when the village is subjugated and compelled to pay taxes in kind.

The surplus food extracted from conquered villages through taxation, which in the aggregate attained very significant pro-portions, went largely to support the ruler, his warriors and retainers, offi-cials, priests, and other members of the rising upper class, who thus became completely divorced from food pro-duction. Finally, those made landless by war but not enslaved tended to gravitate to settlements which, because of their spe-cialized administrative, commercial, or religious functions, were growing into towns and cities. Here they were able to make a living as workers and arti-sans, exchanging their labor or their wares for part of the economic surplus exacted from village farmers by the ruling class and spent by members of that class to raise their standard of living. The process of political evolution which I have outlined for the coastal valleys of Peru was, in its essential features, by no means unique to this region.

Areas of circumscribed agri-cultural land elsewhere in the world, such as the Valley of Mexico, Meso-potamia, the Nile Valley, and the Indus Valley, saw the process occur in much the same way and for essentially the same reasons. In these areas, too, au-tonomous neolithic villages were suc-ceeded by chiefdoms, chiefdoms by kingdoms, and kingdoms by empires. The last stage of this development was, of course, the most impressive. The scale and magnificence attained by the early empires overshadowed everything that had gone before. But, in a sense, empires were merely the logical culmi-nation of the process. The really funda-mental step; the one that had triggered the entire train of events that led to empires, was the change from village autonomy to supravillage integration. This step was a change in kind; every-thing that followed was, in a way, only a change in degree. In addition to being pivotal, the step to supracommunity aggregation was difficult, for it took 2 million years to achieve. But, once it was achieved, once village autonomy was transcended, only two or three millennia were re-quired for the rise of great empires and the flourishing of complex civilizations.

Resource Concentration Theories are first formulated on the basis of a limited number of facts. Eventually, though, a theory must con-front all of the facts. And often new facts are stubborn and do not conform to the theory, or do not conform very well. What distinguishes a successful theory from an unsuccessful one is that it can be modified or elaborated to ac-commodate the entire range of facts. Let us see how well the “circumscrip-tion theory” holds up when it is brought face-to-face with certain facts that ap-pear to be exceptions. For the first test let us return to Amazonia. Early voyagers down the Amazon left written testimony of a culture along that river higher than the culture I have described for Ama-zonia generally. In the 1500’s, the native population living on the banks of the Amazon was relatively dense, villages were fairly large and close to-gether, and some degree of social strati-fication existed. Moreover, here and there a paramount chief held sway over many communities. The question immediately arises: With unbroken stretches of arable land extending back from the Amazon for hundreds of miles, why were there chiefdoms here? To answer this question we must look closely at the environmental con-ditions afforded by the Amazon.

Along the margins of the river itself, and on islands within it, there is a type of land called vdrzea. The river floods this land every year, covering it with a layer of fertile silt. Because of this annual replenishment, vdrzea is agri-cultural land of first quality which can be cultivated year after year without ever having to lie fallow. Thus, among native farmers it was highly prized and greatly coveted. The waters of the Amazon were also extraordinarily bountiful, providing fish, manatees, turtles and turtle eggs, caimans, and other riverine foods in inexhaustible amounts. By virtue of this concentra-tion of resources, the Amazon, as a habitat, was distinctly superior to its hinterlands. Concentration of resources along the Amazon amounted almost to a kind of circumscription. While there was no sharp cleavage between productive and unproductive land, as there was in Peru, there was at least a steep eco-logical gradient. So much more re-warding was the Amazon River than adjacent areas, and so desirable did it become as a habitat, that peoples were drawn to it from surrounding regions.

Eventually crowding occurred along many portions of the river, leading to warfare over sections of river front. And the losers in war, in order to re-tain access to the river, often had no choice but to submit to the victors. By this subordination of villages to a para-mount chief there arose along the Ama-zon chiefdoms representing a higher step in political evolution than had occurred elsewhere in the basin (24). The notion of resource concentra-tion also helps to explain the surpris-ing degree of political development ap-parently attained by peoples of the Peruvian coast while they were still depending primarily on fishing for sub-sistence, and only secondarily on agri-culture (18). Of this seeming anomaly Lanning has written: “To the best of my knowledge, this is the only case in which so many of the characteristics of civilization have been found without a basically agricultural economic foun-dation” (25). Armed with the concept of resource concentration, however, we can show that this development was not so anom-alous after all. The explanation, it seems to me, runs as follows.

Along the coast of Peru wild food sources occurred in considerable number and variety. However, they were restricted to a very narrow margin of land (26). Accordingly, while the abundance of food in this zone led to a sharp rise in population, the restrictedness of this food soon resulted in the almost com-plete occupation of exploitable areas. And when pressure on the available resources reached a critical level, com-petition over land ensued. The result of this competition was to set in mo-tion the sequence of events of political evolution that I have described. Thus, it seems that we can safely add resource concentration to environ-mental circumscription as a factor lead-ing to warfare over land, and thus to political integration beyond the village level. Social Circumscription But there is still another factor to be considered in accounting for the rise of the state.

In dealing with the theory of en-vironmental circumscription while dis-cussing the Yanomamo Indians of Venezuela, Napoleon A. Chagnon (27) has introduced the concept of “social 21 AUGUST 1970 circumscription.”B y this he means that a high density of population in an area can produce effects on peoples living near the center of the area that are similar to effects produced by environ-mental circumscription. This notion seems to me to be an important ad-dition to our theory. Let us see how, according to Chagnon, social circum-scription has operated among the Yanomamo. The Yanomamo5, who number some 10,000, live in an extensive region of noncircumscribed rain forest, away from any large river. One might ex-pect that Yanomam6 villages would thus be more or less evenly spaced. However, Chagnon notes that, at the center of Yanomamo territory, villages are closer together than they are at the periphery.

Because of this, they tend to impinge on one another more, with the result that warfare is more frequent and intense in the center than in peripheral areas. Moreover, it is more difficult for villages in the nuclear area to escape attack by moving away, since, unlike villages on the periphery, their ability to move is somewhat restricted. The net result is that villages in the central area of Yanomamo territory are. larger than villages in the other areas, since large village size is an advantage for both attack and defense. A further effect of more intense warfare in the nuclear area is that village headmen are stronger in that area. Yanomami headmen are also the war leaders, and their influence increases in proportion to their village’s participation in war. In addition, offensive and defensive al-liances between villages are more com-mon in the center of Yanomamo terri-tory than in outlying areas. Thus, while still at the autonomous village level of political organization, those Yanomamo subject to social circumscription have clearly moved a step or two in the di-rection of higher political development.

Although the Yanomamo manifest social circumscription only to a modest degree, this amount of it has been enough to make a difference in their level of political organization. What the effects of social circumscription would be in areas where it was more fully expressed should, therefore, be clear. First would come a reduction in the size of the territory of each village. Then, as population pressure became more severe, warfare over land would ensue. But because adjacent land for miles around was already the property of other villages, a defeated village would have nowhere to flee. From this point on, the consequences of warfare for that village, and for political evo-lution in general, would be essentially as I have described them for the situ-ation of environmental circumscription. To return to Amazonia, it is clear that, if social circumscription is opera-tive among the Yanomamo today, it was certainly operative among the tribes of the Amazon River 400 years ago.

And its effect would undoubtedly have been to give a further spur to political evolution in that region. We see then that, even in the ab-sence of sharp environmental circum-scription, the factors of resource con-centration and social circumscription may, by intensifying war and redirect-ing it toward the taking of land, give a strong impetus to political de-velopment. With these auxiliary hypotheses in-corporated into it, the circumscription theory is now better able to confront the entire range of test cases that can be brought before it. For example, it can now account for the rise of the state in the Hwang Valley of northern China, and even in the Peten region of the Maya lowlands, areas not charac-terized by strictly circumscribed agri-cultural land. In the case of the Hwang Valley, there is no question that re-source concentration and social cir-cumscription were present and active forces. In the lowland Maya area, re-source concentration seems not to have been a major factor, but social circum-scription may well have been.

Some archeologists may object that population density in the Peten during Formative times was too low to give rise to social circumscription. But, in assessing what constitutes a population dense enough to produce this effect, we must consider not so much the total land area occupied as the amount of land needed to support the existing population. And the size of this sup-porting area depends not only on the size of the population but also on the mode of subsistence. The shifting cul-tivation presumably practiced by the ancient Maya (28) required consider-ably more land, per capita, than did the permanent field cultivation of say, the Valley of Mexico or the coast of Peru (29).

Consequently, insofar as its effects are concerned, a relatively low population density in the Peten may have been equivalent to a much higher one in Mexico or Peru. We have already learned from the Yanomami example that social cir-cumscription may begin to operate while population is still relatively sparse. And we can be sure that the Peten was far more densely peopled in Formative times than Yanomam6 territory is today. Thus, population density among the lowland Maya, while giving a super-ficial appearance of sparseness, may actually have been high enough to pro-voke fighting over land, and thus pro-vide the initial impetus for the forma-tion of a state.

Conclusion In summary, then, the circumscrip-tion theory in its elaborated form goes far toward accounting for the origin of the state. It explains why states arose where they did, and why they failed to arise elsewhere. It shows the state to be a predictable response to certain specific cultural, demographic, and eco-logical conditions. Thus, it helps to elucidate what was undoubtedly the most important single step ever taken in the political evolution of mankind.


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