The rise of pristine states would appear to be best understood as a consequence of the intensification of agricultural production. Any increase in the quantity of soil, water, minerals, or plants put into a particular production process per unit of time constitutes intensification.
— Marvin Harris

A great and absorbing book. Very much recommended. I figure it must be one of the essential sources used by Daniel Quinn when he wrote Ishmael.

Marvin Harris was a well-known anthropologist and author who nearly cracked the puzzle I have been writing about: what is the root of domination, and with it, the root of our dysfunctional civilization? He writes (it’s so clear and good, I quote at length):

In most band and village societies before the evolution of the state [er, this civ], the average human being enjoyed economic and political freedoms which only a privileged minority enjoys today. Men decided for themselves how long they would work on a particular day, what they would work at — or if they would work at all. Women, too, generally set up their own daily schedules and paced themselves on an individual basis. There were few routines. People did what they had to do, but the where and when of it was not laid out by someone else. No executives, foremen or bosses stood apart, measuring and counting.

No one said how many deer or rabbits you had to catch or how many wild yams you had to dig up. A man might decide it was a good day to string his bow, pile on thatch, look for feathers, or lounge about the camp. A woman might decide to look for grubs, collect firewood, plait a basket, or visit her mother. If the cultures of modern band and village peoples can be relied upon to reveal the past, work got done this way for tens of thousands of years. Moreover, wood for the bow, leaves for the thatch, birds for the feathers, logs for the grubs, fiber for the basket — all were there for everyone to take. Earth, water, plants, and game were communally owned. Every man and woman held title to an equal share of nature. Neither rent, taxes, nor tribute kept people from doing what they wanted to do.

With the rise of the state all of this was swept away. For the past five or six millennia, nine-tenths of all the people who ever lived did so as peasants or as members of some other servile caste or class. With the rise of the state, ordinary men seeking to use nature’s bounty had to get someone else’s permission and had to pay for it with taxes, tribute, or extra labor. The weapons and techniques of war and organized aggression were taken away from them and turned over to specialist-soldiers and policemen controlled by military, religious, and civil bureaucrats. For the first time there appeared on earth kings, dictators, high priests, emperors, prime ministers, presidents, governors, mayors, generals, admirals, police chiefs, judges, lawyers, and jailers, along with dungeons, jails, penitentiaries, and concentration camps. Under the tutelage of the state, human beings learned for the first time how to bow, grovel, kneel, and kowtow. In many ways the rise of the state was the descent of the world from freedom to slavery.

How did this happen?

How the heck indeed. Here is Harris’ logic.

  1. Forager peoples were unable to effectively limit their population growth.
  2. Population pressure forced them into intensification of food production.
  3. Intensification of production led to domestication of plants and animals and other aspects of what we see in the historical record as “agriculture”, and sooner or later, sedentary settlement.
  4. Farmers tend to encourage intensification by conspicuously rewarding those who work harder than others (and by creating institutions that do so).
  5. These early rewarded production-intensifiers are known in anthropology as the Big Men (or lately as aggrandizers). They specialize in getting people to work harder, and in redistributing the resulting bounty via feasts and ritual celebrations. They accumulate followers and renown, rather than wealth. Production-intensifiers are the new cultural heroes, the community benefactors and “great providers”; they are the people to whom power flows and who are readily given leadership roles.
  6. The Big Men build exclusive club houses for their male followers, where they reward them with prostitutes and copious amounts of delicacies. It is not much of a step to begin diverting some of the wealth to equipping and training these men as warriors, and leading them into war parties where booty provides further rewards.
  7. Under certain conditions, amidst growing imbalance of power between ordinary producers and redistributors, these Big Men gradually set themselves up above their fellows, skim off more and more of the surplus that flows through them for self-aggrandizement, image-building, and solidifying their monopoly over coercion, and become the original nucleus of the ruling classes of the first states. And so, as Harris notes, we end up with a system where “those who worked hardest and kept the least became those who worked the least and kept the most.”

Makes a lot of sense to me. Marvin Harris’s writings ought to be widely read. He touches on many other topics including the subordination of women, the origin or war, shifting patterns of human and animal sacrifice, and the origin of vegetarian diets. I was particularly intrigued by his claim that domestication was “the greatest conservation movement of all times,” whereby certain tasty animals were saved from extinction that surely would have followed from their ongoing overhunting. What a shame they didn’t start with the mini-mammoths!

My disagreement with him is primarily with the starting point of his sequence. The argument regarding forager population control does not hold water. He wrote in the days when “population pressure” was widely regarded as the engine that drove the origin of agriculture so it is not surprising that he thought this way. His argument goes as follows: Forager women’s fertility adds to about 4 children per woman, taking into account their lean body mass, “contraceptive on the hip” effect, and disease. That’s twice the replacement level. Therefore, foragers had to engage in life-threatening abortions and particularly in infanticide. Nobody likes to kill their own babies. Therefore people would rather work harder and intensify. (In addition, he argues rather ingeniously that it was female infanticide balanced by the killing of young men in warfare that kept the population in check. What about death in childbirth? What about early childhood mortality?)

I have studied two cultures that were successful in limiting their populations, and while infanticide played a role in one (Tikopia), it did not play a role in the other (Moriori). And more to the point, the whole culture was shaped as to limit population. Even in Tikopia abortion or infanticide was more of a last resort. Exhortation by the chiefs, peer pressure to remain unmarried and childless, coitus interruptus, marriage customs (only first sons were allowed to reproduce), dangerous heroic sea voyages, and no doubt many other supporting customs combined to keep population maintaining at a steady state. The Moriori, about whom less is known, are said to have used castration of a certain percentage of the boys as their primary population limiting measure, and since they regarded killing other humans with horror, infanticide (or warfare) was not in their repertoire. (There must be much more to the story because obviously, even one man can impregnate all the fertile women in a small society.) The picture I see is cultures that have woven population limits deep into their cultural fabric. When they were motivated, they did have the tools to be successful. And these were sedentary tribes! This is why I do not accept Harris’ thesis that it was population pressure that started the whole cycle… along with archeological reports that do not support the population pressure hypothesis.

I continue to side with Daniel Quinn and others who maintain that more food leads to more people (other things being equal), and not the other way around. It all starts with the intensification of food production. Population pressure is the result, not the cause. Population growth is a function of the food supply. Once intensification of food production got under way, once either foragers and cultivators got onto the “more food, more people” treadmill that Quinn describes so ably in his Story of B (B’s lecture on population), the “food race” became a vicious circle, a positive feedback loop.

Finishing the chapter in Cannibals and Kings that describes his formidable logic in detail (viz chapter 7, The Origin of Pristine States), Harris says poignantly:

The consolidation of governmental power would have taken place as a series of natural, beneficial and only slightly extra-legal responses to current conditions, with each new acquisition of power representing only a small departure from contemporary practice. By the time the remnants of the old councils sank into impotence before the rising power of the king, no one would remember the time when the king had been only a glorified Big Man whose exalted status rested on the charity of his friends and relatives.

Then, let us remember. Let us make it part of the Great Remembering.

big man