'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.

Views: 1369


Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

My point here is that hierarchical arrangements were transformed while the pattern of seasonal variation remained pretty constant. Hierarchy comes in different flavors.


I don't know what WG would say, but this is a very important point. Consider, for another example, the McCartney mission to China [https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macartney_Embassy], which failed, among other reasons, because Lord McCartney refused to kowtow to the Chinese emperor.

Note that there is a big difference in claiming that hunter-gatherers did not often engage in warfare and claiming that they were non-violent.  The former claim is verifiable and upheld by the archaeological and ethnographic evidence - the latter is NOT made on the basis of actual fieldwork: in fact violence occurs periodically and has been observed in most (if not all) hunter-gatherer groups.  

Murder is not warfare.  I had a case of murder about which I was able to get quite a number of interviews in my own fieldwork among Kua in the SE Kalahari. A young man apparently killed his wife. After some ruckus after he fled the area, his own father and brothers went after him, and executed him. This incident took place some forty years before I came to the area, but was still widely known. I had a first hand account of it from an elderly man who was one of the murderer’s brothers. He was still emotionally distraught discussing it.  I might note that the decision to end the man’s life was made, apparently, after detailed discussion of other alarming behaviour - not just incidents of violence but also meanness, selfishness, and dishonesty - all of which indicated that there was a dangerous pattern. His brother said it would happen again, and apparently (accounts varied) it nearly did before the murderer was caught. 

Huon Wardle said:

Here is the table Fry and Soderberg are using with information about murders and warlike homicides; it digests information from the Murdock human relations files. The truth is that these figures don't help that much because we don't have enough context to understand the fact that the Tiwi are way up the chart and the Hadza seem much more homicidal than the Kung. 

As John says, the agrarian / sedentarisation hypothesis is a solid one in general terms; once a large group of people are tied to a particular place, in particular by growing crops, then a limited group of others can invent the practice of marauding and bring it to perfection using horses etc. As Ernest Gellner put it, the three components of this kind of society are ultimately 'Plough, Sword and Book':- the plough (most people are tied to the land), the sword (a military caste which grows out of smaller scale protection rackets), and finally there is the book (a singular religious ideology that explains why this whole set up is necessary in the first place and a caste of priests to go with it).

Otzi lived well within the period of modern European agriculture hence warfare. Kennewick man clearly hurt himself in various ways, but we don't know if this was the result of aggression or not. In his article Horgan refers to the fact that in a survey of 2900 skeletons from the period prior to the development of agriculture (10000 BP+) only a tiny handful showed evidence of violent trauma. In other words, one swallow doth not a summer make. In addition, it is well observed that comparing contemporary gathering-hunting groups with what went on in pre-history is risky at best.

Is the term hierarchy the correct one in this case?   The term is synonymous with “pecking order” and has often been used to describe the way dominance of one animal over another in a ranked system is related to access to food and solace.   It conjures up a flow of authority and even coercion from the individual at the “top” which controls the movement and opportunities of individuals further down. 

Brian Hayden has even suggested that “aggrandizer” personalities make use of these emerging hierarchies during periods of aggregation to seize power over others, partly by persuasion and partly by Machiavellian manipulation of others.[i] 

Hayden suggests that these self-promoting persons may have some overlap with the sociopathic traits seen on Hare’s checklist. In other words, when people live in more settled aggregations, they become vulnerable to the self-serving aspirations of a narcissistic and psychopathic minority, who make themselves “big Men” and assume power over others.  In other words, the emergence of the bully gang explains the way hierarchical political power evolved in humans.[ii]
One of the difficulties with this interpretation is that it does not situate the cultural behavior (or the ruthless individual) in terms of the consequences within that particular environment[iii].  The most striking aspect is, of course, the way both the New Guinea and the NW coastal systems of leadership tend to exhort their communities to produce surpluses.   There is an obligation to contribute to a communal store of fish or other food and even material goods, a store managed by a trusted – or haranguing - senior leader.  This results in higher overall productivity than is called for by the simple calculus of dependency ratios.  

This communal store is risk insurance. Food and other assistance can be secured for families who meet with illness or injury. I would suggest that is why leadership in a band or tribal system is a function of trust and respect; if leaders merely hoarded or extorted tribute for personal gain, they would not last long.

Such surpluses also the fuel a certain level of recurrent ceremonial socializing.  Feasts can be planned for, which assemble people from many surrounding communities.  Thus, while a display of generosity towards those in hardship within a community can demonstrate the character of the leader, any display of generosity where a village hosts many of its neighbors during a festival goes well beyond this.  It demonstrates the quality of the people of the hosting community.  The net effect is that the people in each community are given additional motivation to work harder.

Why is this important?  I suggest that such regional festivals also redistribute food across regions where not all harvests of are likely to be equal.  Each local community is thus less exposed to risks of famine. The community who had the most surplus food trades this food for higher prestige and simultaneously reduces the chances that hungry neighbors will come to raid.

34 In “Pathways to power: Principles for creating socioeconomic inequalities” in Foundation of Social Inequality edited by T. D. Price and G. Feinman. 1995.     https://books.google.ca/books?id=ZGth6qbXg6oC&dq=“Pathways+to+p...


35    Brian Hayden  Big Man, Big Heart? The Political Role of Aggrandizers in Egalitarian and Transegalitarian Societies




Anthropological theories of elites (leaders) in traditional societies tend to focus on how elites can be viewed as helping the community at large. The origin of elites is cast in functionalist or communitarian terms (viewing societies as adaptive systems). A minority opinion argues that elites were not established by communities for the community benefit, but emerged as a result of manipulative strategies used by ambitious, exploitative individuals (aggrandizers). While the communitarian perspective may be appropriate for understanding simple hunter/gatherer communities, I argue that elites in complex hunter/gatherer communities and horticultural communities operate much more in accordance with aggrandizer principles, and that it is their pursuit of aggrandizer self-interests that really explains the initial emergence of elites. This occurs preferentially under conditions of resource abundance and involves a variety of strategies used to manipulate community opinions, values, surplus production, and surplus use. http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-0-230-11626-9_7


[iii] Although Hare does suggest that psychopaths might be more successful within aggressively competitive systems, their comparative rarity even after some five thousand years of hierarchical civilization tends to weaken arguments that such systems are functionally dependent upon the success of a type of personality.  It seems more likely to me that the development of stratified societies may have occasionally increased the chances of highborn psychopaths not being spotted and eliminated.



The data on human inter-group behavior worldwide indicates that alliances and friendships are at least as common as hostility and enmity.   That many hunter-gatherer ethnographic reports indicate alliances and friendships between different regional and even between different language groups should not be taken to indicate a bias towards pacifism, however.  Rather, this  indicates that humans have an evolved capacity for regulating intergroup behaviors for mutual benefit, meaning that there is no obligatory “out-group” antagonism… and no obligatory “territorial” defensive response.

Are egalitarian bias, opportunistic networking, and relaxed territoriality in humans as innate (thus an adaptation) as the aggressive territoriality and dominance hierarchies of Pan troglodytes?  Is it as innate as the disarming of aggression, both territorial and hierarchical, through mutual sexual stimulation in Pan paniscus?   Whatever it is, it is a great deal more permissive of information exchange among neighboring populations; in fact, it privileges spread of innovation and retention of skills and knowledge, while preserving the integrity of local cultural ecologies and their associated cognitive niches, creating a mosaic of ethnicity in a sea of culture.   That mosaic appears to be as beneficial to long term human survival as is the exchange of genetic variation.   Human nature evolved, by this model, as much due to the requirements of long term cultural survival as it is to long term genome survival.    

Human cooperative sociability is conducive to seasonal shifts in the distribution of personnel over the landscape, no matter what the economy.   Whether we assemble for ceremonies, for conferences, for sharing of food windfalls, or vacations on a nice stretch of beach on the Riviera, we assemble, communicate, disperse…  And, whether we come together to share the last permanent water sources during a dry season, or to share our latest research,  it is the same pattern.  All of these are occasions for communicating information and innovation, for reinforcing sharing networks and creating new ones, and occasionally, for transfers of personnel.

All of these models strengthen the relevance of data from hunter-gatherers.  Far from being unrepresentative of the economies and population dynamics during most of the Pleistocene, contemporary foragers reinforce the implications of the palaeo-anthropological and genetic data gathered in the last twenty years.  Certainly some hunter-gathers today live in areas considered marginal for farming or even pastoralism, but this does not mean that these areas are marginal refuge zones for foragers.  Indeed, if the evidence of palaeoclimatic data is any indication, places like the Australian outback, the Kalahari, and the Central African rainforests are all within the range of environments within which foraging was often a slam-dunk.   And if we humans really evolved this anti-fragile system during times of enormous environmental flux, then “richer” local environments permitting occasional more sedentary populations such as we saw along the North West Coast of North America, were not  common before the onset of the Holocene, but did not necessarily lead to a power/wealth based hierarchy.  

Chris Knight "Blood Relations"

These are all excellent questions, and return the discussion to the fundamental problem posed by Abraham in his original post.  Clearly the pacific/aggressive dichotomy is too simple to encompass everything at issue here.


Reply to Discussion



OAC Press



© 2019   Created by Keith Hart.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service