'why did Homo sapiens allow permanent and intractable systems of inequality to first take root?'

At the end of Wengrow and Graeber's article “Farewell to the ‘childhood of man’: ritual, seasonality, and the origins of inequality” they ask “why, after millennia of constructing and disassembling forms of hierarchy, Homo sapiens – supposedly the wisest of apes – allowed permanent and intractable systems of inequality to first take root?”

The article outlines how current academic models hold that Homo sapiens were simple egalitarian hunter-gatherers for tens of thousands of years, and then developed into complex, hierarchical and unequal societies alongside the emergence of agriculture and domestication. On the who hand this has the ideological implication that complex society necessarily mean an unequal and hierarchical society. On the other the archaeological data doesn't actually fit this model.

Wengrow and Graeber are primarily concerned with looking at the actual archaeological data from these time periods, and seeing what model best emerges from the data itself. What they find is that prior to a shift to “permanent and intractable systems of inequality” Homo sapiens were not just egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Instead complex large scale societies existed that seasonally and consciously shifted between hierarchical and egalitarian, dispersed and concentrated forms. So their question is why did the plastic seasonal political pluralists of the Paleolithic, become static political hegemons?

PLEASE SHARE ANYTHING TOWARD SOME ANSWERS YOU MAY HAVE.Also Ihave a few rough propositions toward answering this question I would like to get some shared perspective on.

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Part 1 of my answer: Wengrow and Graeber have demonstrated that agriculture and domestication were not crucial to having complex, large scale, concentrated societies, but that around the time that agriculture and domestication became predominant, there was the move from heterarchy to entrenched hierarchy. Therefore agriculture and domestication becoming predominant was entangled with hierarchy becoming predominant and entrenched, and hunter-gathering was entangled with heterarchy. So if we are asking why there was a shift from heterarchy to entrenched hierarchy, then finding an answer to the parallel entangled shift from hunter-gathering to agriculture and domestication should provide some answers.

If we look at the archaeological evidence surrounding the examples Wengrow and Graeber refer too, they are predominantly hunter-gatherers. The archaeological remains they leave us incorporate many signs of hunting, especially of large animals. However toward the end of the Palaeolithic the Pleistocene mass extinction of mega-fauna took place. The extinction of many of the animals that these heterarchies seasonally subsisted on must have severely challenged these societies. It would be a false dichotomy to get stuck in reducing ourselves to asking whether the shift in social form caused these extinctions of vice-versa.

Instead we can start by noting that mega-fauna did materially underpin the Palaeolithic heterarchies Wengrow and Graeber describe, so with no mega-fauna the social form they describe could no longer exist. However if we take the ethnographic, on top of the archaeological, examples Wengrow and Graeber present, we find that seasonal political pluralists have thrived in certain regions until more recently. Critical to note here is that this was also alongside particular mega-fauna that had also thrived seasonally in specific regions e.g. Bison, Cetaceans. In these cases it could be argued that at first certain mega-fauna were hunted to extinction under heterarchies, while others were sustainably stewarded or simply were not heavily entangled with humans. Once hierarchical colonial disruption set in we see these remaining mega-fauna also come close to extinction.

So the question is what else happens when mega-fauna are not or no longer present, as this might also give us some further clues as to why static hegemonic politics was able to eventually monopolise social form.

Following the Pleistocene extinction of mega-fauna there was a boom in smaller animals, as a consequence of habitat being freed up with loss of megafauna, and human animal stewardship such as faunal introductions to new areas and multiple other sylvan relationships. However the hunting, trapping, butchering and consumption involved with different animals, particular when the size is so radically different, involves the emergence of different types of technique, technology and social form. This is can be seen in the different intimate synergies setup between human predator, tool and animal prey, by hunters of different animals today. As well as the different organisations and social forms that go with them. I am not saying that animal prey dictated social form, but that the inherent individuality and agency of certain animals does require certain ways to hunt them. The particular hunting that emerges will be defined by the prey's behaviour, population densities, size and so forth. This then influences how many people need to be involved, and how dispersed they need to be, and thus what form of coordination, communication and organisation happened, if any. If a complex society relied on prey as a primary form of subsistence, then it follows that radically different prey would not determine different social forms, but would have radically necessitated them.

With this in mind we can look to the historical record and see people diversify in a different direction. Instead of people relying on modes of acquisition for their social forms, modes of production emerge; Pastoralists, agriculturalists, trappers, and multiple other modes of production. Trappers being a critical example as it is both a mode of acquisition and production.

An educated guess might be that where there are plentiful resources, such as large edible beasts, the pressure to create a hierarchy in this domain of resource allocation is low. We know that these people were mobile, but we don't know much about other features their way of life.

Hierarchy is as much a way of thinking as of organising resources and their way of thinking is not available to us now. In another discussion we had here, Lee Drummond drew attention to the importance of cosmology or cosmological elaboration in creating a hierarchic universe. Hierarchy at the level of thinking may be a logical necessity since thinking in categories means making distinctions -- left versus right, yesterday versus tomorrow, fire versus water women versus men, and placing those distinctions in some kind of order. Levi-Strauss in particular emphasised this -- thinking also means elaborating on conceptual hierarchies--gods and people, life and death, sibling and cross-cousin, tabooed and free from taboo etc. Pleistocene cave paintings perhaps suggest both equalitarian gestures such as the adding of many similar hand outlines on the wall to form a grand pattern (it is now argued that many of these hand prints are by women); but also complexification and hierarchisation -- for example progressive elaboration / structuring of symbols as we enter more deeply into the caves and encounter deeper mysteries. Of course we tend to interpret these kinds of evidence in the light of our particular contemporary concerns and how we think/cognise/order evidence like this systematically.

For example a great deal of news has been generated around archaeological evidence of an ancient massacre 10,000 years ago in what is now Kenya; the general trend being to see this as a sign that human beings have always been 'naturally' violent. As this item by John Horgan points out, this is very much a matter of interpretation on several levels, and the interpretation depends to a good degree on what we expect from contemporary society and how we 'naturalise' what we see. Horgan takes an opposed view:

The Nature report does not bolster the case for what I call the deep-roots theory of war. Far from it. But it does reveal how eager some scientists and journalists are to accept the theory in spite of a lack of evidence.

The report describes a site containing the remains of 27 individuals--including a pregnant woman and six children—who were apparently massacred near a lagoon. Ten of the skeletons show clear-cut signs of violence, including crushed skulls and broken limbs and embedded obsidian spear points.


*A study by anthropologists Douglas Fry and Patrik Soderberg found scant evidence of warfare among 21 modern-era hunter-gatherer societies on five continents. As I reported in 2013, three of the societies had no observed killings of any kind, and 10 had no killings carried out by more than one perpetrator. In only six societies did ethnographers record killings that involved two or more perpetrators and two or more victims. A single society, the Tiwi of Australia, accounted for almost all of these group killings. Their findings, Fry and Soderberg concluded, "contradict recent assertions that [mobile foragers] regularly engage in coalitionary war against other groups.”

*Finally, there is little evidence that inter-group violence amongchimpanzees is innate. As I reported in 2014, researchers tracking 18 chimp communities for an average total of 23 years per community have observed only 15 inter-group killings of adults and adolescents. That comes to one inter-group killing every 28 years in a typical community. Even Wrangham has acknowledged that such killings are “certainly rare.” Moreover, researchers have not observed a single deadly attack by the chimp species Pan paniscus, or bonobos, who are as closely related to humans as the more common species, Pan troglodytes.  

The debate over the deep-roots theory matters. As a New York Timeseditorial on the Kenyan dig points out, President Barack Obama seems to favor the notion that war has “deep biological roots.” During his 2009 Nobel Prize speech, Obama stated that war “appeared with the first man” and that “we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.” This sort of fatalism could undermine efforts to achieve permanent peace.

The evidence is overwhelming that war, far from being an innate behavior that evolved millions of years ago, was a cultural innovation—an “invention,” as Margaret Mead put it--that emerged relatively recently in our prehistory, toward the end of the Paleolithic era. We should take responsibility for our wars instead of blaming them on our genes.

Here is another angle on hierarchy which puts a new turn on a classic issue in social anthropology -- kinship and, in particular, endogamy or in-marriage. DNA research indicates that around 1500 years ago in India, the principle that society should be organised as a hierarchy of in-marrying groups was institutionalised; first by the ruling group, then gradually by the social layers below this ruling group (full article here and here for the original text):

Over 1,500 years ago, the Gupta emperors ruled large parts of India. They helped consolidate the nation, but they also popularized India's caste system, making it socially unacceptable for people to marry outside their castes. Now, a new analysis of genetic variation among contemporary Indians has revealed that this social shift left a distinctive genetic signature behind.


Using a common system for extrapolating generations from genetic recombination, the researchers estimated "all upper-caste populations, except [one] from Northeast India, started to practice endogamy about 70 generations ago... This time estimate belongs to the latter half of the period when the Gupta emperors ruled large tracts of India (Gupta Empire, 319–550 CE)." This genetic shift was most marked among the upper castes who spoke Indo-European languages. Other groups appeared to have stopped intermarrying much later.

By identifying five ancestral populations among contemporary Indians, the researchers have revealed that Indians today are more genetically diverse than we've realized. But they have also shown that social shifts can dramatically affect a nation's genomes. The caste system has consequences that affect people all the way down to their DNA.

While Graeber and Wengrow talk about the egalitarian Nambikwara in their text, they don't mention another of Levi-Strauss famous case studies, the Caduveo, who had elaborated something akin to a caste system out of their practices of endogamous cousin-marriage. Anthropologists have made many many attempts to show that kinship practices are implicated in the creation of hierarchy; but these ideas tend to fall on deaf ears because Euro-American readers find it horribly difficult to understand what the anthropologist is talking about, while non-westerners probably find it laughably obvious. 


    What is the basis of human inequality?  Probably the most important question for social thought.  And it certainly has a distinguished pedigree, stretching in recent centuries from Hobbes and Rousseau to their present (minor) incarnations in our own field of anthropology: Chagnon and Sahlins.  If future intellectual historians care enough about the long-extinct craft of anthropology, they may remark on how long the debate persisted and to so little avail.  Just look at how those wheezing old war horses, Chagnon and Sahlins, still go at it.  At once comical and pathetic. 

    I haven’t read Wengrow’s and Graeber’s “Childhood of Man” but will try to take a look at it.  In the meantime, a couple of thoughts. 

    First, although it’s dated and a bit narrow in perspective, I think a very good treatment of the subject is Azar Gat’s 2000 article,  “The Human Motivational Complex: Evolutionary Theory and the Causes of Hunter-Gatherer Fighting.” Part I. Primary Somatic and Reproductive Causes; Part II. Proximate, Subordinate, and Derivative Causes (Jan, Apr., 2000), Published by: The George Washington University Institute for Ethnographic Research.  Author(s): Azar Gat. Source: Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 73.  Here’s the abstract:

This study addresses the causes of fighting among hunter-gatherers, whose way of life represents 99.5 percent of human history. Focusing on somatic and reproductive causes in Part I and on such diverse causes as dominance, revenge, the "security dilemma," and "pugnacity" in Part II, the study seeks to show how all these motives, rather than being separate, come together in an integrated motivational complex, shaped by the logic of evolution and natural selection. [hunter-gatherers, causes of war, primitive warfare, evolutionary theory, interpretative approaches]

Rather than take sides in the long-running debate over the “fierceness” of the Yanomamo, Gat provides a measured account of the several factors that enter into intergroup aggression.  On balance, he concludes, organized fighting is unavoidable.  If you can’t access his two-part article (I think it’s behind a jstor paywall), let me know and I’ll email a copy. 

    Second, the disappearance of mega-fauna is not a factor in a number of cases of transition from hunter-forager to horticulturalist.  Mexico, Central America, South America, the Greater Antilles early on saw the appearance of sedentary farming villages, which continued to develop into complex societies.  The tropical forest of South America, home to the much-studied and much-debated Yanomamo, is an especially poor habitat for large animals. 

    Third, Huon refers to some remarks I’ve made here to the effect that cosmology – specifically, shamanic vision and practice – is at the heart of the emergence in the upper Paleolithic of social differentiation and control.  Those remarks were based on the fascinating book by David Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave.  To distill LW’s argument to its essence: people hold in awe the phenomena of creation and destruction; they observe life arising from the earth and at death returning to it; the deep caves of southwestern Europe were regarded as conduits between the chthonic world of spirits and the social world of humans; visionaries / shamans made perilous journeys into the innermost recesses of caves and returned with knowledge and power; they applied their supernaturally-sanctioned status to organizing the growing populations of the area.  Hence the delightfully counter-intuitive (for us rational moderns) proposal that the use of powerful hallucinogens accounts for the emergence of social differentiation, of social control, of inequality.  The world’s first hippies were political operators.  Note in passing that LSD was first put to use in recent times by the CIA.  Turn on, tune in, take over.  Anyway, this makes a nice break from the heavy-handed accounts we keep seeing of The Emergence of the State.  

Graeber and Wengrow are working with a somewhat speculative model which holds that power is held in balance in these kinds of societies by seasonal shifts in social practice and other kinds of deliberate checks and balances. They draw on Mauss and Beuchat's Seasonal Variations of the Eskimo arguing that though status or leadership claims can build up in certain circumstances, over the annual cycle power remains fluid and power/inequality does not become concentrated-- many societies managed something like this balance over thousands of years, they argue. Their general point, that the standard narrative, a social evolutionary trajectory toward fixed social hierarchy, does not fit the archaeological facts, is well-taken. 

The fine grain is important, though. Going back to the evidence from Horgan's article, there are three societies in that selection for which no killings have been recorded at all. This is rather remarkable when we think about it; if competition for resources must trigger lethal violence, then one should find it in every case. Which does support Mead's apparently preposterous claim that war (and perhaps fixed systems of inequality too) are an 'invention' -- but an invention, like Indian caste, that, once it is instituted, becomes extremely difficult to change because of its cyclical reproductive effects.

Huon: "This is rather remarkable when we think about it; if competition for resources must trigger lethal violence" I guess from this comment you read my comment as suggesting that it was lack of resources due to mega-fauna extinction that induced more competitive violence and thus entrenched hierarchy?

I was not saying that though that is an interesting speculation.

You say: "The fine grain is important," Precisely which is why I would like to see the main eye-opening part of this paper added to. One dimension being the environmental data from that time being one one to traingulate.

"Their general point, that the standard narrative, a social evolutionary trajectory toward fixed social hierarchy, does not fit the archaeological facts, is well-taken."

I am sorry but its not just a simple point. The implications if they are right are quite massive for how stuck people today are and feel. This upsets a primary narrative. Not just that social evolution isn't a fixed trajectory which we already knew. But that complex societies have existed which weren't simply hierarchical AND that social form doesn't have to be about what is the one best way - which is a totally dominating philosophy.

These are interesting thanks:

"Second, the disappearance of mega-fauna is not a factor in a number of cases of transition from hunter-forager to horticulturalist.  Mexico, Central America, South America, the Greater Antilles early on saw the appearance of sedentary farming villages, which continued to develop into complex societies.  The tropical forest of South America, home to the much-studied and much-debated Yanomamo, is an especially poor habitat for large animals."

Do you have specific examples as I think this is precisely what Wengrow is pointing out is a bad reading of the data

"Third, Huon refers to some remarks I’ve made here to the effect that cosmology – specifically, shamanic vision and practice – is at the heart of the emergence in the upper Paleolithic of social differentiation and control."

However it is not a question of social differentiation per se. Its a question of one sort of differentiation becoming fixed, but I still take the point.

The later part of my original comment hasn't been mentioned, but where I have developed it - but yet to clearly write up - is that different social forms and forms of power go hand in hand with different human-animal relations, and as Lee notes cosmologies. In very broadbrush terms

e.g. foucaults pastoral power , pastoralism, monotheism, semi-domesticated

e.g. chamayous version of cynegetic power, factory level domestication, whiteman cosmology

Then when you have royalties they spend most of their time hunting, whilst any common person is strictly forbidden, you could argue even so far as to give rise to plant foragers being called witches. Also multiple european revolutions involved in their first demand for the common person to be able to hunt and trap.

Anyway maybe you see where I am going with this. 

Also look ate the role of the trapper in the Epic of Gilgamesh. I would like to see Lee apply his understanding of cosmology to that and see what comes out?


    In examining the nature and extent of intergroup violence among hunter-foragers and simple horticulturalists, we have identified very different literatures, which cite extensive ethnographic literature to back them up.  This is a big problem for carrying on with our analysis; we need to have some grasp of the facts if we’re to fit them into interpretive schema. 

    The issue at hand is whether intergroup violence is / was prevalent among hunter-foragers.  Huon cites John Horgan’s review of Fry’s and Soderberg’s article in Science, which disputes the prevalent notion that humans are “naturally” violent.  They claim to have found very few instances of intergroup violence.  Regrettably, their article is behind a Trump-style wall, so I’ve been unable to read it.  The conclusions of that article are diametrically opposed to the Azar Gat article I cited earlier, “The Human Motivational Complex . . .”  Gat provides copious references to document extensive intergroup violence in small-scale societies.  Since you may not have access to his piece, I quote passages here: 


For example, as Meggitt recorded (1962: 42), between the Walbiri and Waringari hunter-gatherers of the mid-Australian Desert, whose population density was as low as one person per 35 square miles, relatively large-scale fighting, to the order of "pitched battles" with a "score or more dead," took place, among other reasons, in order to "occupy" and monopolize wells. In well-watered environments food often became the chief cause of resource competition and conflict, especially at times of stress, but also in expectation of and preparation for stress. As Lourandos, for example, has written with respect to the Australian Aborigines (1997: 33):

In southwestern Victoria, competition between groups involved a wider range of natural resources, including territory. ... [C]ompetition between groups is expressed in the elaborate material culture of weaponry (shields, clubs and the like) used for display and combat.  (pages 23 – 24) 


In resource rich areas such as northern and southern Australia or the American Northwest, areas of prime concentrations of fish, birds, and other wildlife, such as river mouths, were far superior to ordinary stretches of beach or river shore, let alone inland territories (D. Harris 1987; Kimber 1990). Violent clashes brought about by hunting forays and population movements were commonplace, undoubtedly becoming more intense when hunger and starvation loomed during seasonal and other natural food supply shortages and stresses.


Warfare is archaeologically recorded there [the Northwest coast of North America] for no less than four thousand years. 

[ See Ferguson 1984b: 271, 272-274, 278, 285, 298, 312, relying on MacDonald1 979 and other unpublished research by the latter. The thousands-year-old antiquity of warfare in southern Alaska and other areas of the Northwest Coast is similarly pointed out by Yesner 1994: 161-162; Hayden 1994: 237; Burch and Correll 1972: 24; Burch 1974: 1.]


Warfare regularly involved stealing of women, who were then subjected to multiple rape, or taken for marriage, or both. According to Meggitt (1962: 38), if the Walbiri "were able to surprise the enemy camps and kill or drive off the men, they carried away any women they found." Wheeler (1910: 118, 139) specified the following motives for the frequent inter- and intra-group Aboriginal fight-ing: "women, murder (most often supposed to be done by magic), and territorial trespass." Warner wrote in his classic study, conducted in Arnhem Land in the 1920s (1937: 155): "Warfare is one of the most important social activities of the Murngin people and surrounding tribes." His list of causes for fighting, including "the stealing of women," was not very different from Wheeler's. The natives of the American Northwest Coast and arctic are our other vast model of hunter-gatherer peoples. According to Franz Boas (1966: 108-110), successful Indian raids in the Northwest Coast typically ended as follows: 

When the men were killed, their heads were cut off with their  war axes. They burned the village.  Women who pleased the warriors, and children, were taken as slaves.   


The explanation for their wars that Meggitt (1977: 182-183) recorded from the Mae Enga horticulturalists of Highlands New Guinea wonderfully ties all these elements together:

A clan that lacks sufficient land cannot produce enough of the crops and the pigs needed to obtain the wives who are to bear future warriors to guard its domains and daughters whose brideprice will secure mates for their brothers. 


    So, which is it?  We need to come to some understanding of the phenomenon before proceeding to unpack Abraham’s question. 

     Incidentally, I think the question of the history and prevalence of intergroup violence is separate from that of the origin of warfare.  It’s pretty meaningless to apply the concept of “war” to groups of a few dozen or hundred hunter-foragers or simple horticulturalists.  So it does nothing to claim that “warfare” doesn’t / didn’t exist among those small groups. 



    I’ll have to think about the epic of Gilgamesh. 


NOTE:  This discussion dovetails with that in the Forum on “Violence” begun by Ryan.  

Yes, we need evidence, and I, alas, have none to offer. Given other commitments, the odds of my searching the literature are near zero. That said, I offer in a frankly speculative mode the following thought. We are digging deeper into cases, and that is a good thing. We may also want to step back a bit and consider the problem abstractly.

Australian aborigines and aboriginal peoples of the Northwest Coast of North America have been cited as examples of hunters and gatherers who are seriously into warfare. What do they have in common? Competition for geographically localized, immovable resources, wells in Australia, fishing grounds in Northwest North America. In both cases what we see is motivation for conflict from which it is impossible to walk away.

Consider, by way of contrast, the Ituri Pygmies described by Colin Turnbull in The Forest People. The resources they exploit are scattered throughout the forest and individuals are free to move from one loosely structured band to another. When quarrels occur, individuals mostly walk away. There is no organized warfare.

Now note that if conflict over geographically localized, immovable resources is the primary driver of organized violence, a.k.a., warfare, this also explains the intensification of warfare starting in the Neolithic and continuing through the first city states down to the present day. What do agriculture and city building both do? They create geographically localized, immovable resources from which individuals are reluctant to walk away when conflicts arise. Create more such resources and more wars occur.

Elaborating the previous post. 

Anyone who has ever raised a child knows from first-hand experience that fighting over who gets what is a basic human behavior. This leads to a number of interesting questions.

  1. When does the fighting become violent (causing injury), lethal, and, then, organized?
  2. What steps can be taken to prevent escalation? Agreeing on rules about who gets what is a common example.
  3. Under what circumstances do rules become hierarchical, allocating more to some and less to others?
  4. Under what circumstances is are violence, lethal violence, and organized lethal violence seen as justified?

The answers to all of these questions vary by time and place. What can we say about their distribution?

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