roots of domination

An elite, believing itself in mortal danger or seized with celestial ambitions, would have little compunction in adopting survival strategies that risked killing the goose that laid the golden egg.
— James C. Scott

One of the key themes explored in this blog is the question of “what the heck happened” to get us into the mire we wallow in today. I have explained that I do not accept Quinn’s and Diamond’s hypothesis that agriculture is the culprit — although I agree with Scott that cultivated grains were political crops that made centralization and states possible. Those wishing to avail of my writings on that subject may click on the category of “origin of agriculture” to see all seven other posts on that theme, dealing with deep history, surplus, and the intensification of agriculture (and other aspects of the ancient food economies). In other series, I have explored the origin of equality and inequality (viz “roots of domination”).

Since the Small Farm Future blog and Chad over at Hipcrime Vocab are exploring the topic again, and so is James C. Scott in his (highly recommended) new book Against the Grain, I have finally made up my mind to finish the series so that I can move to other things. The pause in blogging has allowed me to settle into a mind pattern that I think works well. I don’t have access at present to all my notes, so some bits may need to be filled in later. Here is the outline.

Cultivation began in our deep past, in the Paleolithic, among hunter-gatherers. So did the rise of inequality. We have significant archeological remains testifying to the latter fact. During the Ice Age, in some sheltered places, rich in game, elites arose. Then the Ice Age grew colder, and they faded. They rose again before Younger Dryas, and faded once more during that inclement period. Then, with the massive moist warming of the Holocene, some areas on the face of our planet provided prodigious quantities of food for our forager ancestors — not only game and fish, but grass seeds, legumes, nuts and fruits, roots, tubers and berries. As Scott points out, these areas were often marshy at least part of the year (that explains why the Catal Huyukers built the first town ever so inexplicably amidst wetlands!). Ancient marshes not only abounded in ready-made human food, but also made possible early intensification of cultivation via periodic flooding. As he details so clearly, when foraging peoples spread wild seed on the soft moist ground fertilized by silt, cultivation was a child’s game, easy peasy.

With vast natural surpluses available, all human societies so blessed were faced with a dilemma. Do we share, or do we allow hoarding? The timeless tradition of “vigilant sharing” pointed in one direction… and I imagine most tribes kept on with it. But at the same time, in times of plenty vigilance tends to relax, people worry less about some individuals grabbing more, and certain types of personalities — the triple-As or aggrandizers (aggressive, ambitious, acquisitive people) begin to rise as they find ways to use the surplus for self-promotion and status games. Such individuals exist in all societies, and always have. Under egalitarian social structures, they are carefully watched, and if they get out of hand, they are knocked down a peg, or, if nothing else works, eliminated.

There is anthropological documentation that even among the Eskimos who have traditionally greatly feared such personalities, a sudden caribou windfall relaxes those worries, the sharing networks are suspended, and all can get as much food as they want. And so it happened in the Holocene. Many societies, like the Coastal Yurok, kept sharing (the Yurok would store surplus acorns in caches to which anyone had access, even travelers passing by). But a few relaxed their vigilance too far, and aggrandizers saw their opportunity to push the envelope. They were careful, in the beginning, to couch their hoarding schemes in the language of the good of the community, of course. The lavish feasts they organized meant a lot of work for them and their followers, and they were often left the poorest afterwards, having given all their wealth away. But they knew there was more coming their way, via debts and obligations, increasing competitiveness, and other strategies designed to keep people working more than they would ideally like to. I think of the aggrandizers as specialists in cranking out more work from otherwise work-averse humans who would rather live by the law of least effort, especially when Gaia provides so bounteously.

Step by tiny step, with much backsliding, the aggrandizers worked and schemed their way to more influence, more wealth, and eventually, more power. And since it was natural surplus that gave them the freedom to rise above their fellows, they put all their efforts into creating greater and greater surpluses. The New Guinea tribe of Enga is a perfect illustration of this very gradual slippery slope that leads to greater and greater elitism despite the tribe’s fairly egalitarian recent past. And so 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.”

Something of a big puzzle among anthropologists has been summed up by Chris Smaje thus: “How you make those inequalities stick in societies that generally are elaborately organised to build solidarity…?” My answer is by way of analogy. How do you begin with two modern human beings, a young couple who fall in love and marry, who have been raised as relative equals, both educated, with independent spirits, and end up some years down the line with a situation of profound domination and abuse by one partner of the other? The abuse does not come overnight, but begins via virtually imperceptible steps that eventually manipulate and intimidate the other into a position of cowering subservience and fear. And so it was with our ancestors. Small family obligations grew into heavy debts. Poverty appeared as some could not or would not keep up. Some nobler-than-thou families sprouted lineages linking them to guardian spirits or heroic ancestors. Religious societies were invented that promoted privilege for some. because, you know, their members were in special touch with the gods. The list of these “aggrandizer strategies” is practically endless.

Once the balance of power shifts in a profound way, whether in marriage or a band, it is very difficult to right it. And when the dominator has — in the former case — customs, cops, relatives and friends on his side, or in the latter case acquires the strongest hunters and warriors as his followers and well-rewarded goons, there is a moment that — however difficult to pinpoint precisely — transforms everything. A point of no return. A friend of mine gave it a name. Takeover.

Where does agriculture fit into this? As the now aggrandizer-run society keeps cranking out more and more work and more and more surpluses, its people get trapped in a hamster wheel, always trying to invent themselves out of their swelling overhead by getting more out of the environment. It does not matter what mix of hunting, fishing, gathering, and cultivation they follow — as long as they are driven to ratcheting intensification, their food-producing strategy will lead to ruin, sooner or later. Regardless of the official religion of the tribe, their real religion is the Cult of MORE. And here is where it gets even more pernicious.

Imagine thousands of societies living, as Daniel Quinn puts it, “in the hands of the gods” and sharing the bounty. But a few societies emerge that are run by aggrandizers and begin to crank out more work than their neighbors. More work, more food. More food, more people. More people, more tools, weapons, warriors, wombs. More raids won, slaves added to the workforce. Rinse and repeat. What we suddenly have is a short-term evolutionary advantage.

I say ‘short-term,’ because this runaway social system always ends with a crash; nevertheless, it’s lasted several thousand years now in some places, and has parlayed its evolutionary advantage into worldwide conquest. Escape routes have become few and far between. It has become known from recent anthropological accounts that some tribes have not been, as Quinn had thought, Leavers reaching back to the dawn of humankind, but rather Takers who escaped and became Leavers by choice. Rebels against takerism, apostates from the Cult of MORE.

I was once chastised that tracing the deep history of “what went wrong” cannot get us out of our predicament. And yet… awareness of what happened can turn into a butterfly effect. As Quinn’s B says: “vision is a river.” This river is carrying us to a waterfall. But rivers have been known to change their course in response to changes in the environment. Societies in decay reach a point when the aggrandizers begin inventing what David Graeber calls bullshit work. Building roads to nowhere, like the Chaco Canyoneers. Or canals running uphill, like the Peruvian Wari. Or pyramids and pyramid schemes, as our civilization has done. After all, the Cult of MORE must crank out more work, more food, more people lest the wheels fly off the chariot bearing its altar. Can we once again gather our wits, put the kibosh on the aggrandizers, stop the infernal treadmill, and let the living world live?



You give, I give, all must give.
— Enga proverb

This is a story about a unique tribe of people in Papua New Guinea. My information is based on the detailed book called Historical Vines, by American anthropologist Polly Wiessner and her Enga colleague, Akii Tomu. The reason Enga are of interest to the project of this blog are several. First, they are a large and successful tribe in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, woven together by culture and language. Second, they have made oral history an important part of their heritage passed down in the men’s houses from generation to generation. There are reliable data going back to about 1650. And last, they have — within memory — moved from mostly hunter/gatherers supplementing with swidden gardens to largely horticultural/agricultural subsistence and trading economy based on introduced sweet potatoes, and pigs. At the same time, they transitioned from what might be termed egalitarian transegalitarianism to pronounced status and wealth differences while maintaining egalitarian ethos. The accompanying changes are described in detail by the various elders interviewed, through direct witness or cross-checked rememberance.

Enga settled in the Highlands of New Guinea as the glacial cover retreated and the climate warmed, many centuries ago. They hunted marsupials and cassowaries, gathered the nuts and greens of the forest, and grew taro in slash and burn gardens. Land was plentiful, and they lived in widely spread-out settlements. There is pollen evidence that at one point they made the decision to concentrate and intensify their taro gardens in the bottom lands, and let the forests regenerate. About 300 years ago, sweet potato made its way slowly from the lowlands, where it was an indifferent crop, to the highlands, where it came to produce so plentifully that it changed the course of Enga history. Originally, men hunted, women gathered, and men and women worked the gardens together, men clearing and planting and women tending and harvesting.

Much changed with the gradual introduction of the sweet potato which turned out to produce prodigious amount of food in this mountainous climate, surpluses became ridiculously easy to come by, and the pig was turned into sweet potato “storage on the hoof.” The women became the primary food producers, while the men began to devote more time to traveling, trading and politics. Populations grew, tensions increased between the “hunters” and the “farmers,” and fights for fertile land became more frequent… Today, all the land is taken.

The population in the early days is estimated at 10,000 plus. Recently, 110 tribes divided into many clans and subclans were documented by the study conducted from 1985-95, and by then the population burgeoned to over 200,000. There are 9 mutually intelligible dialects. The clans are thought of as patrilineal associations of equals, while kinship on the female side plays an important cultural role in opening the society up to wider cultural influences, facilitating exchange with in-laws and beyond. Land is owned both individually and by the clan. A man can pass his land to his descendants, but it cannot pass to anyone outside the clan, unless they become permanent members. Clans and tribes have a common origin myth, sometimes referring to immortal sky people, other times to animals. Genealogies play a large role in establishing inheritance rights to land.

The Enga province is blessed with 7 salt springs, and this salt provided a prime item for wide area trading. It was exchanged for high quality stone axes, shells, cosmetic oils, bark twine, and foodstuffs. The trading paths would in time play an important role in the spread of various cults, as well as the extensive Tee exchange (a carefully organized sequence of trade-based festivals) network.

Westerners began to make modest inroads in the late 1930s. Enga suffered severe epidemics post contact, but unlike other tribes, their population continued to rise, possibly because the Enga had a tradition of stringent quarantine for people afflicted with contagious disease. There’s been an emphasis on large families: sons to assure future strength of the clan, and daughters as producers and links for exchange networks outside of the clan. Until the last few decades, the division between the sexes was strengthened by the existence of separate men’s and women’s houses. Incipient big men were always — as far back as memories reach — found at the focal points of influence over the flow of goods and valuables.



Even in the hunting-gathering days, some men did rise to modest prominence on account of their oratory, hunting prowess, and able mediation of conflicts. This trend intensified as the Enga society grew in complexity. But egalitarianism was deeply rooted, and remained so until modern times.

Each adult in Enga society is a potential equal within gender and within the clan. Exceptions are granted to leaders who share their wealth with the clan. These leaders go to great lengths to show that what they want is also to the benefit of the tribe, while veiling self-interest from the public eye.

People are very careful not to boast about the accomplishment of relatives or ancestors; individual names in history are often replaced with clan names, and while individuals are credited, they are never elevated to the status of heroes. To the contrary, egalitarian ethics structure oral traditions to the point that founding ancestors may even be ridiculed. In the tribal “hall of fame” are such characters as Lungupini who uses his own leg as a block against which to cut grass. His and other ancestors’ exploits showing stupidity, tricksterism, and foolishness have entertained generations.

Among Enga, escalating competition is not practiced, where one loses if one does not give more than one has received. Generous returns for gifts given are desirable, but not necessary; they are aimed at strengthening the bond, not winning in the “game” of giving and establishing temporary superiority. Neither individuals nor clans try to outdo each other by giving back more than they received. Competition is constrained within the clan in other areas as well. For example, people do not compete to “be right” in the matters of history, but rather compare and correct the stories. This is not so unusual. Competition was severely constrained in many pre-state societies. If competition is allowed to accelerate, how would the emerging inequalities be mediated?

Cultural artifacts — myths, magic formulas, traditions, poems, songs, stories and proverbs — were all used not only to anchor one’s identity and to impart certain values, but also specifically to bring about change, or to mediate its effects.

Formerly, cults that specifically focused on rebalancing male and female energies were practiced with the intent to make peace between the sexes. Women are not equal in status to men, but are well respected as producers, and as diplomats behind the scenes. If a woman or child sickens or dies, the man has to make payments to the in-laws for the loss.

Employing men from one’s own clan would signal exploitation and inequality and would lead to loss of support. The big men only employed servants from among nearby clans, distant relations or immigrants. If a big man broke this rule, he would fast lose influence, because Enga understand that employment creates inferior positions. “Because fellow clansmen were equals, servants were almost always men from other clans who could not set up households on their own land — for instance war refugees, or the handicapped from inside or outside the clan who could not stand on their own. Blatant exploitation of one’s own clansmen, who were by definition equals, would eventually lead to loss of support.”

Cult duties were not part of big man repertoire; it was the elders or traveling hereditary shamen who were the specialists regarding cult ceremony and magic. Sons of low status men could become big men.


Even in the early days, big men — kamongo — are remembered to have risen to leadership. Small feasts based on taro and the produce of the forests were held, and people visited long distances. The pig did not play much of a role then. The kamongo were humble men who worked for the good of the tribe.

Even though the authors stress how durable and difficult to dislodge was the egalitarianism of the Enga clans, it is clear from the accounts describing the exploits of the succeeding generation of powerful kamongo that power indeed corrupts. Where the great grandfather was a modest man seeking to forge friendly relations with everyone, his son was a powerful wheeler-dealer who had many servants, great wealth, and put much emphasis on ceremonial attire and theatrical performance. His speeches stressed his abilities to deliver what he promised. The generation after him was already given to loud and shameless boasting and the insulting of competitors, and after that the kamongo began to lose respect for infighting, intrigue, cheating,  heavy politicking, and political murder.

While egalitarian values were often stressed and catered to, nevertheless, greater and greater inequality crept in, tolerated because the kamongo divided much of his wealth among the people of his clan, or applied it to clan projects (wars, war reparations, cult purchases, increasingly ostentatious ceremonies). In addition to kamongo leaders, the Enga also had local clan elders, war leaders and hereditary ceremonial specialists.

Men had to campaign to be leaders. They campaigned by giving pigs or other things to those who needed them. They paid bridewealth for others. They became spokesmen for their clans during confrontations with other clans. They offered hospitality to strangers. Anything done to benefit or promote the clan would be regarded as part of their campaign for leadership. The people recognized men who did these things as big-men.

Here is a list of kamongo duties:
– mobilize work parties
– settle internal disputes
– distribute food at funerals
– provide group members with dress and ornaments for ceremonial occasions
– host traditional dances
– plan events
– conduct peace negotiations successfully
– orate elegantly in public
– know the skills of peacemaking oratory to restore balance by avoiding implications of superiority on either side
– help finance bridewealth and other obligations of clan members
– mobilize the clan to go out and get pigs for a Tee exchange
– manage and distribute wealth in the Tee exchange
– give special gifts to potential trouble makers in a reparation settlement

They preferentially offered or withheld finance, manipulated both the multiplicity of interpersonal relationships in any exchange situation and the ambiguities surrounding who the proper receivers would be, for his own and his group’s advantage. The kamongo is nothing if not a genius at devising intricate plans which seem to benefit everyone, including the persons who do not receive pigs, and then at convincing people to implement them.

Wars resulting from premeditated homicide, rape, or other aggressive and insulting acts were sometimes engineered by big-men as parts of strategies to attain their own political goals. Successful payback by the enemy tribe reestablished a balance of power, and enabled tribes to hold on to their territory.

Though Enga adults of the same sex are considered potentially equal, men can make names for themselves, become kamongo and wield considerable influence by displaying skills in mediation, in public oration, and in manipulating wealth, among other things. Competition for status and leadership in these arenas is intense. Tolerance for big-men’s having several wives, more wealth, and greater influence than others depends heavily on the benefits they provide to their fellow clan members; should they fail to deliver, their demise is rapid.


From the early generations onward, Enga was a society of long-distance travelers, traders, importers and exporters, innovators and experimenters venturing out on paths forged by marriage ties. New crops, cultivation techniques, goods, valuables, cults, and even styles of leadership were given and taken readily — but experimentally so. They were accepted into the current repertoire, placed side by side with existing heritage, and left to settle into their own niches over time.

Such openness also extended to the realm of ritual. New cults were readily purchased and added to the existing repertoire. For clans who had eight to twelve cults or healing rituals, the solution to competing possibilities was not to narrow the field by discarding some but to perform rites to determine which was appropriate for the problem at hand. The same held true for styles of leadership. The often flamboyant performers and orators who organized the Tee cycle and Great Wars did not replace the local clan leaders, though their roles overlapped. The value of both was recognized, the one to represent their clans in a larger political arena and the other to provide stability in internal affairs. And so the old continued to reproduce the cultural heritage of the past and provide continuity while the new kept abreast of change.

Cults for the ancestors were the anchors of society. In their performances, the ideal relationship between various tribal segments were acted out and central norms reaffirmed, particularly the equality of male tribal members and households and the obligation of group members to share and cooperate. Boundaries were opened and relatives from other clans and tribes came as invited guests to celebrate, bringing specialties from their areas to help provision the feasts. Cults were also exchanged widely among Enga and with neighboring linguistic groups; in this context they became important forums in which leaders could set new directions. As integrative events, ancestral cults grew hand in hand with economic developments and must be counted among the greatest systems of ceremonial exchange.

The authors mention how the recent disappearance of the cults due to missionary activity — while retaining and enlarging economic exchange — left the society unmoored, unable to maintain an equilibrium and harmony through the balance of ritual and exchange. Some of the cults were maintained by ritual experts, others by tribal elders and big men, to establish cooperation with the spirit world and its mysteries, harmony between the sexes, effective response to crises, and mediation of change. Ritual innovation and the purchase of cults created an eclectic and evolving mix of ritual, magic, initiation of young people, and cosmology.

Following Enga logic that “name” and prosperity stem from distribution rather than from retention, cults or elements of them were exchanged widely. Both importers and exporters stood to benefit by enhanced connections made possible by shared traditions. They believed that with proper ritual, the spirit world and human world need not work at cross purposes but could cooperate to bring about prosperity. Ritual celebrations also brought about moratoria on warfare. At the more egalitarian, unity-building ritual celebrations, food was provided free for all. Some of the surplus was simply channeled into communing with the ancestors, and curtailed competition.

The cults were manipulated to set new goals and values, regulate relations between generations and genders, and standardize beliefs to make wide area exchange and marriage alliances. Bachelor cults helped young men mature, develop their individual abilities, and overcome the inequalities of birth and background. In particular, they were led to develop an aura about them — posture, movement, speech, and assurance — signaling physical health, inner worth, and social effectiveness. Such a man would then be able to gain the cooperation and generosity of others. Eventually, wealth management was added to these virtues by the leaders bent on extending the networks of exchange ever further. Bachelor cults and initiation ceremonies strengthened the bonds of brotherhood and the chance of future consensus. It also gave the older generation more power to steer the younger one.

The cults provided a counterpoint of opposing ideals — ones of equality, sharing and cooperation within and across boundaries that limited or structured the growing competition. They rewove the fabric of society when it was torn by competition, in order to reestablish continuity and balance in relation to the past, for the present, and to lead into the future.

Each cult was different. To give you the flavor of it, one of the cults — the Kepele cult — focused on building the structure — the house — around which the ceremonies would take place. Several clans collaborated, each having part of the building process as their task. The ritual would include processions as well as specific magical procedures meant to bring to fertility to the tribe, promote cooperation and good relations, and reaffirm the values the tribe depended on. Every household was expected to bring one pig, and the food was free to all.

Ceremonial Wars and the Tee

The Enga engaged in real (destructive) wars, usually over territory after population had grown. But they also staged so-called “ceremonial wars.” Young warriors were hosted by certain clans, strategic skirmishes went on by day, and feasting, dancing and courting followed at night. Spectators came from far and wide. Casualties were few, and after the war had ended, war reparations for the 2 – 4 men slain among allied clans would be undertaken. These reparations were not for lives lost, but rather for the contribution the dead man would have made. As such, they went on for years. In later times, reparations to enemies became common as well, because enemies no longer could just move on to empty territory — you were still neighbors and had to get along in the future. Reparations also prevented destructive feuds. Some elders believe that the Great Wars provided an outlet for aggression and that in total fewer lives were lost overall. The Ceremonial Wars were a brilliant invention that induced people to produce huge surpluses that grew the economy. It also provided new opportunities for creating new trading and marriage connections. They were, in effect, tournaments, carefully arranged and fought to display military strength, form alliances, and cultivate exchange.

The common cause, danger, and spectacle drew unprecedented crowds. Owing to the sheer number of participants brought together by the ever better drama and ritual, the Ceremonial Wars were instrumental in constructing vast exchange networks fueled by intensified home production within a broad segment of the population. The glamour, excitement, group spirit, and ceremony of these great tournaments lent much greater social and symbolic value to pigs, mobilizing each and every household to step up production for the exchanges. Basically, the Enga used the cults, the ceremonial wars, and later the famous Tee exchanges all to crank out surpluses and pass the new wealth around.

Tee exchanges were held for the principal reason of paying back creditors. They were also public distributions of wealth for specific events: marriages, funerals, and war reparations. When a project needed financing, a Tee would be organized. Those who wanted to join would arrange marriages to those along the routes, and began sending wealth into the system; eventually they would receive returns from it.

In order to join the Tee, families had to step up production. Early on, only a few families chose to do so. Many people had only a few pigs, and were not interested in the labor-intensive task of raising more. Only later, as the Tee came to be flooded with wealth from the ceremonial wars and then new wealth introduced by the Europeans and became more visible, did many more families join.

In the end, though, the Tee began to fall apart: partly, the kamongo became corrupt, endless conflicts tore the organization apart, and women objected to yet another step up in production.

The Tee comprised of the chains of finance that tapped into the wealth of non-kin; greater access to wealth was compelling to the neighbors who heard about it and then sought to join, while big men sought new sources of influence and finance to control the trade. Altered values and intergroup competition were needed to develop the system further.

It was constructed by a few individuals along major trade routes who discreetly concatenated preexisting trade and exchange relationships into chains of finance. The early Tee allowed big men to assemble more wealth without greatly augmenting production or arousing the attention of fellow clansmen. Competition to control the flow of wealth was there, but merely as a current that ran under the surface.

And now?

One of the last great kamongo gave up the pigs and converted to Seventh Day Adventism, as did many others. Nowadays, it’s Islam that draws the young. And the tribal traditions are fading away.

Enga who had experienced precontact years as adults described them as a time when people sought ever new ways to keep abreast of change, maintaining equilibrium and harmony through exchange and ritual. Balance was tenuous, however, for ever-accelerating production for exchange depended on a generous environment. Should exchange or ritual fail, warfare was by no means muted but alive and well-practiced as an alternative solution. And the environment could not be infinitely generous. In the face of growing pig and human populations, a time would come when resources would be insufficient for all. Choices then would be more severely constrained by the natural environment. As it happened, Australian patrols marched into Enga in 1939 to set off an entirely different trajectory of development… But one is tempted to ask, had the patrols not marched into Enga, what then?

Could the inventive Enga have come up with a solution that has evaded humans elsewhere?

Enga in ceremonial dress

Over on Hipcrime Vocab, a new awesome summary of the trip from egalitarian tribes to civ.

I have a few comments. We need a better understanding than Harris offered regarding the move from a society committed to leveling, and the rise of the Big Men. As escapefromWisconsin puts it, “in such societies, aggrandizing members … encourage the production of surpluses by which they throw lavish feasts to enhance their prestige and status.” Yes, but a society based on the values of ‘vigilant sharing’ would not allow striving for prestige and status in the first place.

I disagree that slavery emerged because the agrarian lifestyle is backbreaking. There is plenty of evidence that foragers/horticulturists lived very well; they had some surplus, they still had the leisure. Slavery turned into a necessity only after top-heavy elites made mincemeat out of the economic patterns linked to sharing. It’s the overhead, stupid! 🙂

And finally, the progression from egalitarian band to despotism already happened within the egalitarian bands themselves. There is a creepy account of a Greenland Inuit group that fell prey to a despotic shaman who murdered people and stole women. The band became so terrified they were unable, at the time this early account was written, to strike back. We don’t know if they finally managed to assassinate him, or whether they all snuck off in the middle of the night. In other words, it is possible to hoard power and become a despot without first taking the entrepreneurial path of Big Men.

Welcome, commenters!

Once aggrandizers are given an inch of leeway under favorable resource conditions, they quickly stretch that inch into a mile and keep on going.
— Brian Hayden

Once upon a time, there lived the ancestral apes that gave rise to humans, chimpanzees and bonobos.
Figure 1
In all likelihood, they lived in bands dominated by the strongest, most aggressive individuals — the male alphas. This tends to produce a rather disagreeable state of affairs where anyone can be humiliated or brutalized at any moment, and the best food and most mates go to just a few. Even baboons would rather opt out when the opportunity arises! In addition, our growing brains demanded the fats found only in scarce meat which the alphas commandeered.

Evolution snaked forward. The chimps pretty much put up with the true and tried. Bonobos evolved out of this unpleasant arrangement into an alliance of females, cemented by mutual sexual pleasuring. Humans likewise evolved out and into an alliance of betas, cemented by unprecedented, increasingly more subtle communication abilities, eventually including laughter and speech.

In conjunction with weapons-at-a-distance that equalized brawn and brains, power came to be shared, and so was the meat. The resulting egalitarian bands, a durable and satisfying arrangement, saw humans through the harshness of repeated ice ages and other natural calamities. During this time, humans became survivors par excellence on the planetary stage. The egalitarian strategy of “vigilant sharing” had proven itself a winner.

When did our first egalitarian revolution occur? Nobody knows, as yet. Some experts posit it could be as far back as when we came down from the trees, others place it into our sapiens timeline. The oldest known wooden, fire-hardened spears come from about 300-400,000 years ago.

This agreeable social arrangement began to slightly unravel in areas of plenty in the late European Paleolithic, and gradually wound down among the so-called “complex hunter-gatherers” after 15,000 years ago. Complex or transegalitarian foragers were people who forged new pathways into competition, accumulation, increasingly violent conflict, and ratcheting economic growth. Individuals known in the literature as Big Men or aggrandizers led this “elitist revolution,” becoming quite the experts on getting people to crank out work and surpluses, by hook or by crook.

In the beginning, these hardworking, enterprising, and generous leaders couched their projects in the language of altruism and community. But being “triple-A” (aggressive, acquisitive, ambitious) personalities, they were also surreptitiously looking out for number one. As more and more wealth of the tribe flowed through their hands, they learned to skim a little, then a bit more, for themselves. They finessed a plethora of strategies that created social imbalances among the people of the tribe. At first, only a few families were left behind, and most did well in the aftermath of Big Men’s projects. But in time, poverty spread apace with increasing social stratification. And after a few millennia of these increasingly manipulative and coercive tactics, the very individuals who early on worked the hardest and kept the least became those who worked the least and kept the most.

As the ratchet picked up speed, wealth and power inequalities grew to such an extent that a genetic bottleneck shows up around 8,000 years ago [reports just off the press, here and here] in various communities of the mid to late Neolithic. Just like in the days of our apish ancestors, the most aggressive alphas grabbed the best food and most of the mates. H. sapiens went baboon.

More work meant more food meant more people. Aggressive, accumulative, highly competitive societies gained a short-term advantage and were pushing out those who stayed with the old relaxed, egalitarian lifestyle. The needs of power came to trump the needs of life on the “Parable of the Tribes” planet. Elite-run societies are very good at producing goods; they nevertheless have a variety of disadvantages. The key one being this: aggrandizers have a problem with brakes. In the long run, they drive their societies off a cliff.

And here we are. Time, once again, for a crash. Except, this time, it’s global. Except, this time, it’s affecting the entire web of life our own lives depend on. The planetary ecosystems are devastated; some are dying. Our fellow creatures are disappearing forever. The soils that feed us are blowing away and turning into desert. There are invisible poisons everywhere, in the air we breathe, in the food we eat, in mothers’ milk. Clean water has become a rare commodity. Oceans are chock-full of garbage. Pathetically enough, the aggrandizers are losing their touch: jobs are vanishing at a time when people depend on them for their entire livelihoods. A stain of misery seeps across the anguished blue planet.

Our leading aggrandizers, of course, are not paying attention. It is one of elite privileges, not having to listen to the peons. Not having to listen to bad news. Not having to face feedback that is simply inconvenient to their plans and schemes, inconvenient to getting even richer and more powerful. One of the cherished perks of being rich and powerful is ignoring anyone who isn’t. Why not continue to live in a bubble and pretend that the bubble that’s lasted so long is permanently impervious to reality?

The Earth is running out — out of minerals, out of peoples and places to exploit, out of space for waste, out of patience. And the teetering tower of complexity, having reached the point of diminishing returns, stirs deep memories of quite another lifeway. Our species knows how to handle hardship and austerity — this knowledge is part of our genetic endowment. When resource conditions worsen to the point that aggrandizing behaviors again pose a threat to community and survival, humans set down tight limits on greed and narrow self-interest. I reckon we are about there. Time for the second egalitarian revolution, don’t you think?


Originally, I planned two major posts summing up in detail the history of our species. Unfortunately, it turned into a big slog. I left the project a few years back, unfinished, and it would require several months of dogged research now. My life is too unsettled at the moment to allow that. But at the same time, it is impossible to sally forth into deeper explorations of early agriculture and social complexities without at least sketching an outline of our “true history” — true, in this case, meaning a clear focus on the full span of our time as the species H. sapiens, not more, and not less.

Somebody ought to write a beautiful coffee table book, showing vividly the utter awesomeness of the Paleolithic world where megafauna roamed free, humans were just one species among many, and elephants were the “lords of creation” and doing an excellent job of it! An eye-opening and radicalizing bit of time travel it has been for me. So, here is a quickie, to share what I’ve discovered. Caveat: this is my own synthesis; others may disagree with some of the details; there is little in deep history that is not contested…

  • Curtain opens at about 200,000 years ago, as the world is heading into another ice age. Sapiens in lower Africa; Neanderthals in Europe and northern Asia, and several other descendants of erectus in southeast Asia. Humans talk, use fire, hunt, cook, make rafts, fire-hardened spears and simple stone tools.
  • Sapiens love to inhabit caves near rivers or the ocean; a number of them have been excavated and described in southern parts of Africa. Humans thrive in small egalitarian bands of 20 to 40 people; very local trade exists between bands.
  • Ice age comes to an end around 130,000 years ago, and for a while it’s quite hot. The vast majority of human artifacts from this interglacial come from the Neanderthals. Artifacts get more interesting. Humans love ochre and other pretty rocks. They invent fancy glue, make composite tools (wood and bone), fish hooks, and bury their dead.
  • The climate cools again toward another ice age. The massive Toba eruption (c. 71,000 ya) causes a 6 year winter and sapiens barely escape extinction.
  • Temperature_Interglacials
  • About 60,000 years ago, descendants of erectus float or sail to Australia. And sapiens humans start moving out of Africa.
  • 50,000 years ago… many more tools, much improved; something is happening to sapiens brain, enabling a cultural shift into greater complexity of both language and artifacts. Art becomes common. Flutes. Sewn clothing. Conscience emerges.
  • Sapiens are coexisting and occasionally mating with Neanderthals in Europe, until 25,000 years ago. Pockets of humans survive the ice age at higher latitudes in refugia where megafauna is particularly plentiful. In these spots, culture flowers, tools are finessed, cave walls are painted and rituals performed. First child-dog bond in evidence some 33,000 years ago. America discovered and begins to be settled.
  • R.I.P. our Neanderthal cousinsneander
  • Ice age maximum reached at 20,000 years ago. The cold drought kills perhaps 90% of humans in Australia. Abrupt warming fosters flourishing sapiens cultures in Europe and the near East; horses and reindeer actively cared for and seeds sown. Pigs domesticated by Anatolian foragers around 13,000 ya. Inequalities begin to emerge in some bands. Resurgence of ice during the Younger Dryas period (13,300 ya to 11,800 ya). The construction of monumental Göbekli Tepe begins soon after Younger Dryas ends.
  • 10,000 years ago, a warm moist world of plenty; in a few areas, humans settle down and build more permanent shelters and walls; gathering and cultivation of plants and animals intensifies, populations grow. Some human groups transition from egalitarian to Big Man (transegalitarian) social structures. First towns (and regional civilizations) emerge in the Near East; people flock there voluntarily; peace and relative equality reigns. First truly agricultural villages appear around 7,000 years ago, and regional environmental collapses resulting from human activity are in evidence toward the end of the Neolithic.
  • 6,000 years ago, first transitions to advanced metallurgy, bronze weapons, city-states, and war. The very first incarnation of “this civilization” emerges in Sumer. Women are actively marginalized, social stratification increases, and health and longevity deteriorate for those lower on the pecking order. Non-civilized tribes begin to be pushed out. Wholesale slaughter of regional megafauna emerges as a status sport. Amazing art and devious cruelty advance apace.
  • First brutal empires (Akkadia, Babylonia and Assyria) emerge about 4,000 years ago. War and standing armies assume a menacing presence in a few places. But most areas of the globe continue to be settled by egalitarian or transegalitarian tribes. Sahara forms (without human help). Peaceful and relatively egalitarian civilizations emerge in Peru and Amazonia. Terra preta invented.
  • By 2,000 years ago, many societies continue to complexify; “great religions” emerge and manage to modify somewhat the brutality of the age of empires. Civilized humans preen as rational beings and lords of creation and begin to take over everything they can reach. Writing spreads. So do plagues. Mathematics, science and frequent technological breakthroughs start to make a difference in the human condition. Oceania settled by intrepid explorers in outrigger canoes.
  • 400 years ago, about a third of the planet is still out of the control of states and empires; semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, slash-and-burn farmers, and horticulturalists continue to thrive. “Civilized” agriculture grows more productive.
  • 250 years ago, industrial civilization’s “Satanic mills” move into “mow down the living planet” mode, encourage out of control human reproduction, and filthify everything. Last autonomous tribes on the way out. Planet increasingly devastated. At the same time, many humans reap unprecedented benefits — including longer life-spans — from advancing understandings of science, medicine and technology. Ideology of progress and sharing the pie quells unrest. Then, within the space of a few decades, this civilization begins to show serious cracks. Elites keep their heads firmly wedged, er, in sand. Humans are, overall, increasingly well-connected, educated, stumped by often self-inflicted crises, and suffering from multiple addictions. Will they survive?


A properly socialized individual had a powerful sense that the wild world was feeding him, and he ought to be as grateful and as anxious to act decently as he would to any human who fed him out of sheer kindness.
– E.N. Anderson, Ecologies of the heart

People intuitively view agriculture as the root of domination because intensifying food economies made possible large surpluses which could then support elites and their servants. As indeed they did. But the link with agriculture is conditional.

Certain well-endowed economies (whether foraging, horti, field agriculture, or grazing) make large surpluses possible. But they do not make them inevitable. Food harvests– of any kind — do not lead to surplus unless the people in question decide to produce it. Given the fact that humans generally have better things to do with themselves than toil, they tend to work as little as necessary to cover their food needs and a little extra for the winter or an upcoming celebration. If they planted a field of rye, and it produced twice as much as they expected, they’d be likely to plant half next year, and spare themselves the extra work. If salmon or anchovies are particularly plentiful this year, why not kick back and enjoy the easy life?

And indeed, there is a great deal of evidence that “agriculture does not automatically create a food surplus. We know this because many agricultural people of the world produce no such surplus. Virtually all Amazonian Indians, for example, were agricultural, but in aboriginal times they did not produce a food surplus. That it was technically feasible for them to produce such a surplus is shown by the fact that, under the stimulus or European settlers’ desire for food, a number of tribes did raise manioc in amounts well above their own needs, for the purpose of trading.” These tribespeople went back to underproduction when their trading needs were satisfied.

Even the simplest foragers often produced some subsistence surplus. They were, however, not exercised much by planning ahead, and often blew through the entire cache at a midwinter feast, going hungry shortly thereafter, trusting that the world would provide. Many anthropologists noted that strictures against taking “more than you need” were extant in these societies.

Boreal Algonquians expected intermittent periods of hunger during the winter, and these fasts—and even the possible threat of death—were preferable to the planning and labor entailed by food storage. The definition of the resource situation was one in which animals were ordinarily available and hunger a predictable, endurable, and usually transient aspect of the winter round. It is precisely in this arbitrary weighting of risk aversion and optimism that the operation of the cultural logic of Cree labor is specifiable. The costs of the labor, always potentially superfluous, entailed in storage was reckoned disproportionate to the reliability ensured by the surplus. Before approximately 1900, boreal forest Algonquians often fasted and sometimes perished for lack of food. These tragedies would have occurred less frequently if more intensive food storage had been practiced. Experiencing long-term game shortages as though they were new instances of transient scarcity, the Algonquians continued, with some concessions, “to let tomorrow provide for itself.” The decision to store less and starve more (or, among Chipewyans, to store more and starve less) was not objectively determined by the Canadian Shield ecosystem, the limits of the technology, or caloric efficiency. The paradox of the starving Montagnais consuming all their preserved eels in autumn feasts is a particularly forceful example of the meaningful construction of utility, efficiency, and the entire structure of foraging labor and consumption. This skepticism toward advanced planning and reliability is not limited exclusively to foragers. Audrey Richards’s (1932) classic monograph on the Bemba is a detailed exposition of an agricultural society whose members preferred transient hunger to what they deemed excessive labor.

To broaden the areal focus, comparable practices existed even in a “delayed return” foraging society like the Alaskan Koyukons who occupied sedentary winter villages provisioned by preserved fish and caribou meat. According to Sullivan (1942), the Koyukons sometimes disposed of their stored foods during lavish feasts in late summer, midwinter, and early spring. The midwinter feasts, in particular, sometimes occasioned hardship if hunting was unsuccessful, but they continued into the present century. The Koyukon feasts pose the same paradox as the Montagnais: the surplus was accumulated and preserved but then consumed, precluding its use to level fluctuations in the long term. Murphy (1970:153) described among the Brazilian Munduruçu “the hunter’s glut, an abundance of meat that had to be consumed before it spoiled, and the men stayed at home because further hunting would have been a crime against the game and because they had to apply themselves steadily to the serious business of eating.”

These subsistence surpluses hedge the bets of survival a little; much of the time, though, simple (or “immediate return”) foragers only get enough to eat for the next several days. Surplus that goes beyond subsistence is a luxury good. Since it is above what the community needs, it can be traded, or given away, and no one is the worse off. It is not the little extra a community needs to weather a winter or to set aside seed for spring planting. That “little extra” is needed for survival and cannot be derailed toward optional undertakings. Luxury surplus is the kind that can support elites.

The extant records, like the ones quoted above, show that even the most basic subsistence surpluses were the result of choice. Only more so, then, can luxury surpluses be said to result from a choice (within either forager, horticultural, or agricultural economies). They cannot be the automatic result of the agricultural way of life. There will be no surplus, no matter how abundant the land, unless the people in question decide to override their culture’s disapproval, begin taking more than they need, and devote much more effort to storage techniques. And it appears that the first people who chose to produce luxury surpluses were very ancient complex (or “delayed-return“) foragers. Brian Hayden has this to say:

From all the indications that prehistorians have gathered, it appears that humans have existed for well over 2 million years in a state of relative equality. It is possible to perceive the glimmerings of some changes toward socioeconomic inequality around 50,000 years ago. These changes became more pronounced in some areas about 30,000 years ago, and then became especially dramatic and widespread after about 15,000 years ago.

The shift toward socioeconomic inequality is not tied to food production, but occurred well before agriculture emerged. At the end of the Pleistocene, these changes occurred independently in a number of different areas of the globe. Thus the emergence of significant inequality followed a pattern that is strikingly similar to the emergence of food production, but preceded it by many millennia. (Richman, Poorman, Beggarman, Chief, 2007)

There we have it. The root of domination lies in the Paleolithic, deep in forager world.

gravetian man

A Gravetian Big Man

Our human forebears everywhere did not just passively gather food and basketry materials but actively tended the plant and animal populations on which they relied. There was no clear-cut distinctions between hunter-gatherers and the more “advanced” agricultural peoples of the ancient world. Moreover, California Indians had likely completed the initial steps in the long process of domesticating wild species…
— Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild

In Agriculture: villain or boon companion, I argued that we sapiens have been cultivators since time immemorial, that a combination of foraging and cultivation is a sensible, durable way of life that has served us well, and that the “origin of agriculture” really is the intensification of cultivation that becomes visible in the archeological record.

I have since been stymied in my quest for clearer understanding by the ongoing insistence of some folks to paint agricultural cultivation into a corner as a disastrous turn for humans and the root of our present troubles. They point to foraging and horticulture as modes of food production that avoid the damage agriculture has brought about. I wanted to test this claim.

It became quickly apparent to me that one does not need agriculture to intensify and produce an increasing surplus. For example, the rich salmon-and-candlefish-based economy of the Kwakiutl provided plenty of surplus to support elites and even to motivate slavery. Foragers are said to live in harmony with their environment, to keep their populations low and their hierarchies flat (if any). Unfortunately, it ain’t necessarily so. There are compelling data showing that the Australian aborigines wreaked continent-wide devastation with their use of fire on a highly vulnerable landscape, degrading the vegetation, causing massive runoff and loss of soil during monsoons, and eventually precipitating a change in climate for the worse. While in North America the native tribes may have had but little to do with megafauna extinction, not so in Australia. The human-precipitated change of vegetation deprived the largest and most specialized browsers of adequate food, and they began to disappear not long after the arrival of humans, some 45,000 years ago, along with their marsupial predators. That should hardly be surprising, as the same story repeated many millennia later with the colonization of Far Oceania. For example, in New Zealand. the South Island Maori, former horticulturists who returned to foraging as more suited to that environment, slaughtered the moas and other vulnerable creatures in an orgy of gluttony, only to turn on each other when protein ran low. The populations of both aborigines and Maori fluctuated according to food availability. Some of the tribes lived in hierarchical societies.

It has also been claimed that horticulturists for the most part remain egalitarian and lack despots, armies, and centralized control hierarchies, and have built-in constraints against large populations and the hoarding of surplus. Nothing could be further from the truth. There have been, indeed, some horticulturists who remained egalitarian, chose to limit their population when it was getting out of hand, and whose gardens and edible forests leave the soil and ecosystem in a good shape. The small island of Tikopia comes to mind. But they seem no more common than those horticulturists (such as Easter Islanders and many others) who pillaged their new island home, wiping out much of the native flora and fauna, permanently degrading the living environment. The horticulturists who settled Far Oceania were generally rigidly ranked peoples whose chiefs extracted a goodly portion of the harvest, waged wars on neighbors, built fancy tombs and megaliths, and occasionally came close to a state formation. The puzzle of intensification cannot be sidestepped by a reference to a golden age of horticulture.

Still, it bears stressing that many — perhaps most? — ancient forager/cultivator societies coexisted very well with their landbase. For example, the Moriori, cousins of the Maori, also switched to settled foraging on Chatham Islands, and were such careful stewards of their environment that seal colonies flourished within a stone’s throw from their villages. They lived notably egalitarian lives and carefully controlled their population. Until they were wiped out by the Maori, they were an impressive example of cool temperate region people living in close symbiosis with their ecosystem.

The illuminating and well-researched book Tending the Wild documents various Indian tribes who were also, by and large, careful stewards of their coastal California homelands. “They were able to harvest the foods and basketry and construction materials they needed each year while conserving — and sometimes increasing — the plant populations from which these came. The rich knowledge of how nature works and how to judiciously harvest and steward its plants and animals without destroying them was hard-earned; it was the product of keen observation, patience, experimentation, and long-term relationships with plants and animals.” Living among a similarly abundant natural environment as the Kwakiutl further north, they did not succumb to ongoing intensification, and continued to share any accumulated seasonal surpluses. Why did Kwakiutl intensify, while their close neighbors to the south, the Coastal Yurok, did not?

I conclude that neither the foraging nor horticultural modes of food production are by themselves a guarantee against ongoing intensification and the eventual damage it brings. There is a streak of persistent idealization of the forager and simple horticulturist among primitivists and other uncivilization-minded people. Slavery might be reframed as “captivity,” environmental damage rationalized, potlatches celebrated as evidence for gift-economies rather than economic warfare, and discussion shut off. Surely it’s not necessary to ostracize people who point out the facts on the ground, and a need for a rethink? After all, egalitarian forager/cultivators do show us that this particular mode of existence — so successful and durable during most of our species’ history — functioned mostly within the ‘Law of limits’ that allows ecosystems to thrive.

Below is an artist’s portrait of the California flightless diving ducks. They were finally driven extinct by the Indians who could reach Catalina Island by boat. But… it took them 8,000 years to do it.

flightless duck

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

[Fourth part of a series: 1, 2, 3]

This was the tremendous strength of the tribal way, that its success did not depend on people being better. It worked for people the way they are – unimproved, unenlightened, troublesome, disruptive, selfish, mean, cruel, greedy and violent.
— Daniel Quinn

Is domination in our genes? It seems very likely. After all, the bands of our closest primate relatives are “run” by alpha leaders: among chimpanzees, the strongest males dominate the troop; among gorillas, a big male presides over a harem, and among the bonobos, both alpha females and related males wield power in the band. It is therefore highly probable that domineering alpha individuals led the bands of the early hominids. Domination conferred advantages: those who could snatch the most resources and mate with the most females “won” by surviving and passing on their genes. But at a certain point along our evolution our ancestors became radically egalitarian, sharing power and economic resources among all members. They lived as near-equals, had direct access to food and basic necessities, enjoyed modest affluence along with freedom and leisure, and refused to tolerate grabs for power, wealth, and prestige. This successful and durable adaptation is documented not only by archeological evidence but also by ample ancient and recent ethnographic accounts of “primitive” societies. [A sampler of links: on human reciprocity and its evolution, on the Batek people, and on tribal egalitarian ways.]

How did this transformation come about? Here is the argument. Our distant ancestors, just like chimps have been observed to do, chafed under the rule of the alphas. Nobody likes to be bullied on a regular basis. Nobody likes to have their food stolen by the bigger fellows just because they can. While rank and file chimps put the kibosh on their alphas only occasionally, stone age hominids figured out how to do it so regularly and thoroughly that a new social system was born. This is such an important and surprising development that we may speak of an egalitarian revolution.

Humans are unique among animals in cooperating in large groups of unrelated individuals, with a high degree of resource sharing. These features challenge traditional evolutionary theories built on kin selection or reciprocity. A recent theoretical model … takes a fresh look at the ‘egalitarian revolution’ that separates humans from our closest relatives, the great apes. The model suggests that information from within-group conflicts leads to the emergence of cooperative alliances and social networks.
Understanding the “Egalitarian Revolution” in human social evolution

The conjecture has it that it happened when our ancestors became communicative enough to form discreet coalitions, well enough armed to easily threaten or kill an upstart, and motivated to fairly share the meat needed for their growing brains. Nobody knows how long ago this may have been. Computer models have shown that the change may have occurred quite fast, within a few generations. We do know that big game spears date back at least to 400,000 years ago, that the later erectus had a large brain, and that hunting is probably far older than had been thought. Some anthropologists put the egalitarian revolution at perhaps 100,000 years ago, but allow that it may well have happened much earlier. Others go back as far as 2 million years to the beginning of the Paleolithic. I am taking here the liberty of assuming, not unreasonably, that we sapiens entered our speciation in the egalitarian mold.

Before 12,000 years ago, humans basically were egalitarian. They lived in what might be called societies of equals, with minimal political centralization and no social classes. Everyone participated in group decisions, and outside the family there were no dominators. Rather often the egalitarianism of hunter-gatherers pertains more to males than females, but the women enjoy far more political potency than did the women of Athens, and these mobile foragers kept no slaves. Their highly equalized version of political life goes far back into prehistory…
Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest

For thousands of generations since the egalitarian revolution, we lived in small bands where the many set limits over the few for the benefit of all. The betas put an effective check on the alphas by wit, wisdom and alliance. Aggrandizing individuals who got out of hand were brought down a peg or eliminated. And so the evolutionary advantage went to the cooperators. In the former alpha-led system the advantage was to the strong, and the weak suffered. In the new system the advantage was to the weak(er), and most did well as a result. This state of affairs required continued vigilance, and an ongoing culture of egalitarian traditions of checks and balances. Our ancestors formed a new status quo that suited evolving human awareness, well-being and conscience better than domination. They came upon a strategy of effectively resisting power abuse by advantaging cooperative, sharing, pro-social behaviors.

This remarkable pattern of “vigilant sharing” saw humans through severe ice ages, intense global warmings and volcanic winters. It saw them through all the hardships our species has suffered in the 200,000 years of its existence, and that’s no small thing. A social system where vigilance against Hyde-ish behaviors is coupled with sharing most of the Earth’s bounty confers an evolutionary advantage. During difficult times, tribes that look after each other survive. Those that allow self-aggrandizing alphas’ rise into dominance and resource hoarding will be at a survival disadvantage. After all, those human bands where some gorged on meat while others starved would have, other things being equal, done poorly in ice age competition with other groups whose members were all relatively well fed, or in coping with the hardships of a frozen, arid world.

There were always failures. Despotic or greedy individuals managed to snatch power for a while and disturbed the equilibrium. But this only reinforced overall the traditions and customs mediating these weaknesses. Our ancestors did not try to convert the human nature to something else. They shrewdly acted on what the human nature really was, and cultural evolution did the rest. Displaying the same sharp wit as certain astute American Founders of 200+ years ago, they understood that human society must acknowledge and be shaped around human weaknesses, vices and foibles. They built in checks and balances that curbed the — certain to occur — misuse of power and incipient greed. Their leadership patterns can be described as ad hoc egalitarian meritocracy: people rose into leadership on the basis of helpful qualities, were carefully watched, and unseated if power went to their heads.

Human beings, after all, are not created equal in ability. It is the responsibility of the community to make sure that ambitious or aggressive individuals don’t overstep the boundaries leading to power abuse, while at the same time giving these naturally advantaged people enough leeway that they may benefit the community through their talents and leadership. It’s a balancing act that requires constant care… like driving a car. All goes well most of the time, because continual vigilance is practiced, and small adjustments are easily and continuously made. If the driver stops paying attention, however, trying to right the situation will probably be hard and painful once the tree approacheth ready to smack the vehicle. And so also, once a dominant individual or a clique muscles their way into power, the cost of dealing with them can be quite high. Egalitarians understand well that power goes to people’s heads with tedious regularity, that it devolves on the rest of the community to be alert to it, and that it is the responsibility of the weak to curb the strong.

Let’s go back to the time when the ice began to let up, some 17,000 years ago. There had been occasional societies in the European Paleolithic where a measure of economic and political inequality took hold for a time. Nevertheless, the predominant pattern is remarkable. Here we are, egalitarian to the bone. We are sharers, our possessions are few, we are on the lookout for upstarts and hoarders, standing up for the weaker members of the band. We murder each other with unsettling frequency, mostly men killing other men while competing for women. We skirmish against other bands and tribes, but casualties are limited. Occasionally, a despotic individual arises, wreaks damage, and is eliminated. We live within modest abundance, and famines, as well as great many later diseases, are largely unknown. We are still both nice and nasty inside, but over the last several hundred thousand years have become remarkably nicer in our behavior within the tribe. The underdogs unite to keep the bullies in check for the benefit of all.

Vigilant sharing of power and resources has been the preferred mode of our species’ existence for most of its time on Earth. Did these cultures halt human evil? No; they circumscribed Hyde. And if they could do it, why not us? Finding a way to reconnect with our egalitarian past in the near future seems more and more like the sweetest dream worth pursuing.

Longbottom, at the end of this lesson we will feed a few drops of this potion to your toad and see what happens. Perhaps that will encourage you to do it properly.
— Severus Snape

But wait a minute, you might be saying. [For the first two parts of the series, see here and here.] If our nature is dark and light, then we may as well throw in the towel. If this malfunctioning human system called civilization is simply an outgrowth of who we are, then any other system we create will also be fatally flawed, right? A valid concern; does either theory or history bear it out?

Our shadow side, our dappled human psyche explains much. It particularly explains the everyday evils stemming from our mistaken or malign intentions and misguided actions. But does it explain enough? Human nature did not abruptly change 6,000 years ago. Yet as history shows, there was a distinct cultural and behavioral break with what went before. Human existence — first in Mesopotamia, then elsewhere — suffered a profound, alarming, and sudden setback, as city-states and then empires rose, wars were institutionalized, human cruelty reached horrifying heights, economies turned to steady plunder, and stratification, slavery and perpetual indebtedness pushed large numbers of human beings into inhuman misery. This civilization, with its dark heart of conquest and domination, was born.

Our species is at least 200,000 years old. A mere 6,000 years ago, unprecedented, massively destructive social systems began to rise. How could this possibly be explained by recourse to human nature? Consider an alternative hypothesis. Let us begin by noting that there are two depths of social evil. There is the moderately greater poverty of some within a community. And then there is obscene destitution in the shadow of a palace. There are raiding parties of a couple dozen warriors clashing. And then there is war. There is the painful and often lethal gauntlet that war captives had to run among some Indian tribes. And then there is the destruction of a city where all men are tortured and slaughtered, all women and children sold into slavery and the fields are salted so nothing can ever grow there again (e.g. the Roman sack of Carthage). There is the petty despot of a chief. And then there is the king or modern dictator. There is the raid against a nearby settlement to steal their goods. And then there is the breach of a dam unleashed against another town to destroy all that live there, as the “civilized” people of Sumer liked to do to their neighbors. It is one thing to capture the children of one’s enemies. Quite another to see to it that “their children were beheaded, flayed alive or roasted over a slow fire,” courtesy of the Assyrians. It is one thing to have imperfect human societies where some levels of antisocial harm are expected. And yet quite another to build social systems that glory in violence, cruelty and plunder.

Suppose we agree that we are neither “basically good,” nor depraved and rotten to the core. Our mixed character challenges our evolving conscience, but each left to our own devices, the harm we do is mostly commonplace. Often, we blunder badly. Sometimes, our motives are frankly malevolent in small insidious ways. But the extreme evils listed above cannot be inflicted at personal or small group level. They require a socio-economic system that amplifies Hyde.

Societies that ignore Hyde and leave him at large suffer profound detrimental consequences. After all, the Hyde/Jekyll problem is not symmetrical: the damage done by antisocials wounds us all and is often impossible to right. The people killed in wars cannot be brought back, a ruined landbase may not be able to heal within a timeframe meaningful to mortals. And our Jekylls are always busy cleaning up after the Hydes. All in all, it adds up to Hyde coming out ahead. It can get worse, of course; a culture can amplify Hyde and disadvantage Jekyll to such an extent it ends up with a social system run by psychopaths off a cliff. But there is a third option: putting limits on Hyde, Jekyll can spend his energies in pro-social undertakings.

The unfortunate Dr. Jekyll is trapped in a paradigm that gives Hyde an advantage, mirroring the way this whole civilization is structured. But it’s not hard to imagine a possible happier ending to the Jekyll/Hyde tale. How about this? The good doctor does not work in secret, looking for fame as a lone genius, but is part of a team of colleagues. These people come to spot him as he drinks the potion, aware that the results might be — shall we say — iffy. When Hyde makes his appearance, they are ready. Safely constraining the dangerous shapeshifter, they contact other allies to issue a warning and urge the development of an effective antidote. When Jekyll reappears, they persuade him to remain under watch just in case a flashback occurs, and keep monitoring the drug’s residual effects over time. And the brew? Lock it up in a safe and leave room for a sequel?

In the original novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, Jekyll gets badly addicted to the heady rush of “being Hyde.” Let a chill pass down the spine as we contemplate our own horror of being strung out on seductive daily doses of vile molochov cocktails… In life, there are no guarantees; Hyde lives in us. He too deserves his due. Would Jekyll’s friends be up to considering Hyde’s needs along with Jekyll’s? Facing him with awareness, wisdom and kindness may tip the balance for society at large.

This alternative telling, it seems to me, illustrates the behavior of a levelheaded society as well. A sane culture bent on long-term survival embodies the understanding that we are all better off if we look out for one another, and that the fruits of human intelligence are just another part of the commons, developed and shared collaboratively. It remembers with particular urgency to acknowledge and set limits on Hyde in tandem with Jekyll’s growing powers. A commonsensical precaution, not requiring extra high levels of intelligence or advanced training, wouldn’t you say? And this is exactly what our Paleolithic forebears proceeded to do.

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