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

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

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

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

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

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What strikes me about W&G's intervention is that archaeology, even more than ethnographically-focused anthropology, has a necessarily 'allegorical' character. To greater and lesser, more and less sophisticated, degrees, writing about the past archaeologically involves creating an allegory connected to present concerns. W&G's allegory is posited both against one kind of standard story that says that fixed hierarchy, war etc. are necessary and innate; it tells that this is not true and it posits another picture of how society works -- hierarchy and equality are malleable qualities that can shift seasonally across a topos, in the organisation of activities, etc. This is in tune with Graeber's OAC intervention on economic relations (http://openanthcoop.net/press/2010/11/17/on-the-moral-grounds-of-ec...). Whether we think violence will inevitably out itself in human societies, or that hierarchy will inevitably become fixed, depends on the story we are telling and what evidence we choose to index.

In response to John, I would say that fighting over who gets what is very definitely a learnt behaviour (in my experience including experience as a parent): -- at best we might say that frustration-aggression is a basic dyadic potential in human behaviour.

 

    As most of you know, I’m keenly interested in any subject suffused with “allegory” (which we might call by another name, “myth”).  Here, though, on the subject of the nature and extent of intergroup violence among hunter-foragers, I have to go all Sergeant Friday on y’all and ask for “just the facts ma’am.”  As with most important subjects, though, we need to begin by acknowledging that those “facts” are overlaid with a mass of conflicting interpretations, disparate allegories. 

    One master allegory (not a bad way of characterizing it) is that hunter-forager groups were and (in those few places where they persist) are basically egalitarian and peaceful.  The noble savage, or, at least, the non-violent savage.  That allegory dominates the classic 1972 essay by Sahlins, “The Original Affluent Society”:  Hunter-foragers were “affluent” because they didn’t need much and didn’t have to work very hard to get what they needed.  It’s very important to consider the social context of this argument: the late 1960s and early 1970s.  The Viet Nam war was raging, antiwar protest had boiled over, culminating in the police riot in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic Convention.  A few months earlier, following the King assassination, much of Chicago was a war zone (National Guardsmen with machine guns, helicopter gunships – a little taste of the treats we were serving up to the Vietnamese).  And in the midst of this turmoil, here was Sahlins, reassuring his anthropological audience that things hadn’t always been so violent, that way back when, in the era of hunter-foragers, humans were grouped in what seemed for all the world like hippie communes.  Decades later, along come Wengrow and Graeber, seemingly echoing Sahlins’ argument (according to Abraham’s summary of their article that remains behind a pay wall): 

The article outlines how current academic models hold that Homo sapiens were simple egalitarian hunter-gatherers for tens of thousands of years, and then developed into complex, hierarchical and unequal societies alongside the emergence of agriculture and domestication.

    That is one master allegory.  A starkly contrary master allegory entered anthropology through Richard Ardrey (African Genesis) and Napoleon Chagnon (Yanomamo: The Fierce People).  Human aggression and intergroup violence have been with us for a long, long time.  Decades later, Sahlins and Chagnon are still dukeing it out.  To move things along, I suggested we take a close loot at Azar Gat’s two-part article, “The Human Motivational Complex. . .”  Gat directly contradicts the view that seems to form the basis for Wengrow’s and Graeber’s argument.  And if there is a problem with their happy vision of human prehistory, what are we to say of their speculation regarding transhumance as a process that kept hierarchical formations in check? 

    Anyone have any facts ready to hand? 

    As an aside, although at an anecdotal level, I think it’s significant that the two best-known human skeletons from prehistory – Otzi the Iceman (circa 5000 years BP) and Kennewick Man (circa 9000 years BP) – contained projectile points sunk into the bone.  Not altogether hippie-happy times. 

 

    As with my previous post, because this topic bears directly on Ryan’s forum on “Violence,” I’m posting it there as well.  

Starting with master allegories is not a bad approach. The downside is that both of those suggested above assume an all or nothing view of humanity, and if there is one thing anthropology knows it is that human infants are unfinished at birth and adult behavior is astonishingly diverse. The hypothesis I offered, that organized violence appears where there are geographically fixed, immovable scarce resources at stake at least has the virtue of explaining why some hunters-and-gatherers (Australian and Northwest coast) engage in warfare while others (Ituri Pygmies) don't. It also has a nice temporal extension, explaining why the scale and intensity of organized violence increase with the inventions of agriculture and cities.

Looking further back, I wonder about its implications for Mesolithic vs Paleolithic hunters and gathers. I am speculating the the Mesolithic was relatively peaceful because things hunted and gathered were more dispersed than previously, allowing smaller, less organized groups to survive and avoid conflict. I can see an argument that Paleolithic large-mammal hunters would need to be more organized; but what that might imply for inter group violence I don't have a handle on.

Help?
Lee: the article is attached in original post.
Question to everyone: why has violence as a topic becoming everyone's way of approaching this conversation? Is it because entrenched hierarchy is all about violence or am I missing something?

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

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

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

" In addition, it is well observed that comparing contemporary gathering-hunting groups with what went on in pre-history is risky at best."

Yes, but what does the risk cost us? Other sciences are perfectly happy with hypotheses that fit available data and may have to change if new data or better theories appear. What does it mean when theorists in any field equate "risky" with taboo? I'd call that field dead or dying.

LEE: Decades later, along come Wengrow and Graeber, seemingly echoing Sahlins’ argument...:

LEE/ABRAHAM: The article outlines how current academic models hold that Homo sapiens were simple egalitarian hunter-gatherers for tens of thousands of years, and then developed into complex, hierarchical and unequal societies alongside the emergence of agriculture and domestication.

I think there may be some misunderstanding here, because W&G don't agree with these models -- they are part of what they are critiquing. Indeed, they say that the persistence of this mistaken projection of contemporary hunter-gatherer cultures into the far past is part of the problem. They nonetheless use models of seasonal societies like the Eskimo to look at how hierarchy and equality might have existed in a dynamic  manner in prehistory.

 

Abraham,

    Apologies.  I didn’t notice the file of the WG article attached to your original post.  Apparently they critique “current academic models” that attribute egalitarian social organization to hunter-foragers.  I’ll now check out the article. 

    You ask an important question:  Why has violence as a topic becoming everyone's way of approaching this conversation? Is it because entrenched hierarchy is all about violence or am I missing something?  

    While it’s true I’ve gone on – in response to Huon – about the nature and extent of intergroup violence among hunter-foragers, recall my earlier post in which I suggested, following David Lewis-Williams that the first individuals to exercise social control over sizable groups of people were shamans returned from vision quests – very possibly associated with entheogen-use – in the chthonic recesses of deep caves.  Their association with the spiritual forces of life and death (The Force Awakens!) endowed them with a quality new to group life: authority that extended beyond immediate kin.  This trippy argument is consistent with the fact that priests, temples, deities appear on the scene in the first complex social formations. 

    If we want to identify the origin or basis of human inequality, I think our options are limited, perhaps only three in number (always with the possibility of combinations).  There’s the shamanic theory I just outlined, then a Hobbesian view which emphasizes the sort of intergroup violence discussed here, and finally a sort-of Durkheimian argument that people are so thrilled at living in social groups that they install the concept of Society as their principal value / deity.  That third option would take the form of an organic solidarity maintained by some version of a “council of elders” – wise men who knew the ins and outs of living in society (the world’s first lawyers?).  I suppose this third option also smacks of Weber: people as rational beings engineering their society (if only Weber could have been around for the 2016 Presidential campaigns!). 

 

Huon,

   I’ll have to study up on those prehistoric skeletons you cite; it’s a very different picture from that drawn by the authorities in Gat’s article. 

   But I do think you’re too easy on the folks Kennewick Man ran into: Kennewick man clearly hurt himself in various ways, but we don't know if this was the result of aggression or not.

Hey, KM had a partly healed wound from a projectile point embedded in his pelvic bone.  In the lingo of the L.A. streets, somebody popped a cap in his ass. 

 

John,

    One aspect of the “motivational complex” Gat discusses is what you mention: some real estate (river mouths in the Northwest coast; alluvial land on river banks) is more valuable than other real estate, and hence its use is contested, often violently.  But Gat also discusses another important aspect of the complex that promotes violence: women.  Chagnon made competition over women the centerpiece of his account of Yanomamo ferocity, arguing that was more important than control over hunting grounds.  According to one of his Yanomamo acquaintances, “we like meat, but we like women a lot more.” 

    Gat’s point is that these and other facets of life promote competition and fuel aggression; taken together they make up the “human motivational complex.”  Land, food, women, dwellings, clothing, ritual objects – there’s always a “better” and a “worse.”  It’s the old cowboy prayer:  faster horses, older whiskey, younger women. 

Inequality – the bedrock of culture?  Or . . . feel the Bern! 

 

Inequality – the bedrock of culture?  Or . . . feel the Bern! 

Why not both? Here is something I just wrote on Facebook in response to a friend who worries that if Bernie is elected he won't be able to get anything through Congress.

Jerry, I wonder if, like other smart and practical political thinkers you aren't being short-sighted. I, for one, can agree that the likelihood of Bernie's getting his program through Congress approaches zero and still support him for President. Why? I take him seriously. His candidacy is not about electing Bernie Sanders. It is about creating a political movement. Bernie in the White House using the bully pulpit to promote his ideas will keep the movement alive and save us from another four to eight years of Democratic hierarchs who think first of their buddies at Davos whatever the issue is. Sure, if Hillary wins the nomination I will vote for her. The alternatives are much worse. But for now, what the hell. At my age I can afford to follow my heart.

But reverting to the subject at hand. Yes, women are frequently the focus of conflicts between men (and vice-versa as well). That said, how often do conflicts over women rise to the level of organized, intergroup violence. I am having trouble thinking of cases except for some in which already established hierarchies make some women more valuable than others and the ultimate goal is control of real estate. Medieval history, I seem to recall,  includes a lot of battles over heiresses but securing control of the woman was tantamount to securing control of her inheritance. 

Or, coming at this from a different angle. Since I recently spent some time in Amazonia, on a tour of Ecuador, I found myself reading Phillip Descola's the spears of twilight: life and death in the Amazon jungle. There is a lot of exotic stuff going on in Descola's ethnography, the sort of stuff to which Viveiros de Castro alludes in describing what he calls "Amerindian perspectivism." At the level of daily life, however, the Achuar men he describes seem a whole lot like Appalachian or Rocky Mountain West good old boys. They live way out in the country, like to go hunting and fishing and depend on gardens managed by their womenfolk for a good deal of what they eat. The women seem to endure the usual fate and express the usual frustrations of females forced to live in polygamous households dominated by male chauvinist pigs. Jealous men murder each other and steal each other's wives, but the level to which organized violence rises seems confined to getting together a few of your relatives/buddies to go after the guy who has done you wrong. Revenge? Yes. Continuing vendettas?  Not so much. 

Thoughts?

Troy. 

Good one! But let's look a bit closer. Homeric myth says it was all about Paris stealing Helen. What did Heinrich Schiemann's and later archeology reveal? Does anyone know?

Sophie Schliemann decked out by her husband the archaeologist in 'Helen of Troy's' golden jewellery -- except it turned out to date from an entirely different time-frame to the Homeric episode, by which point Schliemann, 'an adventurer and conman' (according to National Geographic) had dynamited his way through most of the archaeological strata on the site of what most people do nonetheless agree is ancient Troy. Now there's an allegory...

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