'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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Thanks for introducing the topic and its principal contemporary source for anthropologists, Abraham. How might we make progress in understanding inequality? Is it hoped that this discussion will have a broader readership? The content of what has been posted so far is rich, interesting and informative, but the thread has become a maze already and individual contributions tend to be long and thick (not all of them).

So inequality has become hierarchy, domestication, war, violence, cosmology, complexity, population size, centralization, western hegemony, cultural ignorance and much else. I would suggest three ways of making the discussion more coherent -- read the article before posting and refer to it, respect the guidelines offered by Abraham and discuss fewer reductionist lines for greater clarity. There is a tendency to stick to anthropological sources and not, for example, to address why inequality is a hot issue now and who is behind it or its place in the historical literary canon. But that would contradict the three points above, especially if it got out of hand.

W&G are trying to overturn the conventional model of human social evolution. The order of authors reflects their empirical dependence on archaeological  evidence. In particular they want to refute the idea that agriculture (production) replaced small, equal hunter gatherer societies with unequal versions (with pastoral nomads in between). Their grounds for doing so shift from economy (domestication and property) to politics (hierarchy). This emphasis is reinforced by the kind of permanent remains available. The polemic reinforces inversion whereas the competing theories may actually be complementary, with varying emphasis form place to place.

My reductionist offering is classical (Rousseau, Morgan/Engels), but subversive of the liberal mainstream. If hunter gathering was so great, why give it up? Here the three stages are hunter gatherers, agriculture and the industrial revolution, each stage replacing its predecessors, if unevenly. The key variable is labour intensity. H-Gs let nature do most of the work and their labour input is limited to locating, collecting and processing food. Labour productivity (output per unit of labour input) is therefore high (the original afluent society). Domesticaton involves substituting human labour for natural processes (supplying food and water, protecting animals and plants from predators etc). The result is that agriculture involves people doing more work for less -- intensifcation of labour -- so that by the 18th century the peasants of Western Europe and China supported the world's richest societies and were themsleves on the edge of starvation. The industrial revolution substituted inanimate energy sources converted by machines for human labour -- in the last two centuries population increased by 1.5% a year and energy production/consumption by 3%. The result is that many people work less, live longer and spend more now. But this developmet is extremely unequal. Americans consume 400 times more energy per capita than Ugandans.

So why abandon hunter gathering? The liberal theory abstracts from any social analysis: resources must have become scarce and domestication was the only way out. The counter-current (Rousseau etc) stresses the invention of private property and the exacerbation of class differences whose roots preexisted the state (not his invented primitive condition of man, but the Hobbesian war of stateless agriculture). Morgan/Engels saw the roots of inequality in kinship, in gender and generation relations --Bachhofen's world historic defeat of the female sex. In any case, the unequal distribution of wealth and power inaugurated by domestication had antecedents, but the logic of intensification had cumulative consequences leading to the progressive marginalization of H-Gs and the reduction of the bulk of humanity to servile labour and poverty. This was the precursor of Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st century which put inequality back on the map recently or you could say that David Graeber with Debt and Occupy Wall Street did that.

The point is that reductionism pays if you want an audience or, as Nietzsche said, intellectuals simplify. In the present case, I see some fertile possibilities coming out of the W&G contribution and Abraham's introduction to it, especially if we abandon a bipolar approach and are less inclined to leap to universal or parochial statements. We could ask what parts of the story do they illuminate and what not. I would say they offer important correctives to omissions in the liberal and anti-liberal stories. But equally what do they miss out and why? Enough already.

 

    Regarding Wengrow’s and Graeber’s article: 

 

    First, Huon is right; my first impression of the piece, based on a brief summary, was wrong.  The whole point of the article is to undo the thesis that hunter-forager groups were simple and egalitarian, which then evolved into complex hierarchical social organizations.  WG would replace that typology with a dynamic concept of hunter-forager groups alternating between egalitarian and hierarchical modes, based in large part on seasonal variation (large assemblages break up into small bands, then reform, depending on the environmental conditions they face).  Thanks again to Abraham for providing a copy of the full article. 

    WG’s argument is sophisticated, original, brilliant.  It is also, I think, strange and seriously deficient.   

    Let’s grant the good points; I’ll jump right into the “strange.” 

    Strange 1. 

    The article derives from the Henry Myers lecture, ostensibly about religion.  But right off we learn that “religion” is a passé notion: 

   The Henry Myers Lecture was endowed seventy years ago to promote new perspectives on the ‘the place of religious belief in human development’. Only recently, however, two leading anthropological theorists concluded that, to all intents and purposes, ‘religion’ does not exist – at least not in the sense of a discrete analytical category that we can expect to find and study across the whole range of human societies. We are referring here to Marshall Sahlins’s assertion that ‘the elementary forms of kinship, politics, and religion are all one’ (2008: 197), and to Maurice Bloch’s (2008) conclusion that what we now term ‘organized religion’ is a historical residue, left over from the collapse of Bronze Age states where sacred and political power were initially fused. 

    If they are right, then a Myers Lecture on human prehistory could in theory be about almost anything. . . 

    The “almost anything” turns out to be seasonal variation as a crucial (determining?) factor in political life and ideology.  So we won’t be reading anything more about religion or, more broadly, the role of ideational / symbolic constructs in society. 

Strange 2. 

    Archeologists can hardly avoid drawing on ethnographic cases to interpret the lifeless stones and bones they study.  That’s a valuable method, but it has its problems.  Consider: WG’s prehistoric subjects are Upper Paleolithic groups that were experiencing the first blossoming of a modern humanity.  Their lives were already pretty complicated.  Yet the ethnographic cases WG draw on are the most extreme examples of hunter-foragers: the Inuit and Nambikwara.  Living in harsh environments those groups adapted as best they could to seasonal variation – for WG essentially the determining factor in their social organization.  My hunch: other h-f groups, not so up against it, would not be in thrall to the elements. 

    On to the seriously deficient. 

    Once I grasped that WG were proposing that UP social organization did not conform to a type, but embraced highly diverse arrangements (egalitarian vs. hierarchical), I waited for the reference to the classical argument by Leach on the ideological shifts of the Kachin in going between gumsa and gumlao.  I also thought I might see a reference, which also appeared in Man years and years ago to Philip Salzman’s argument that the Middle Eastern societies he studied contained “social structures in reserve.”  They were “societies” only in a virtual sense.  I think these don’t make an appearance in WG’s article because they give too much importance to ideology, whereas WG seek to identify ideology as an outgrowth of seasonal variation.  Is this the old infra vs. supra thing? 

    Also, I think WG make at once too much and too little of Lévi-Strauss’ treatment of the Nambikwara.  The works they cite don’t include his first account of the group, in the Handbook of SA Indians, where he doesn’t assign momentous importance to seasonal variation as a determining factor of social organization – the N were just scratching out a living.  Nor do WG refer to LS’ account of the N in Tristes Tropiques, perhaps the most dismissive treatment any anthropologist has ever accorded his ethnographic subjects: 

    For my own part, I went to the ends of the earth in search of what Rousseau called the barely perceptible advances of the earliest times . Beneath and beyond the veil of the all-too-learned laws of the Bororo and the Caduveo I had gone in search of a state which, to quote once again from Rousseau, no longer exists, perhaps may never have existed, and probably will never exist . And yet, he goes on, without an accurate idea of that state we cannot judge properly of our present situation. Myself luckier than he, I thought that I had come upon that state in a society then nearing its end. It would have been pointless for me to wonder whether or not it was a vestigial version of what Rousseau had in mind; whether traditional or degenerate, it brought me into contact with one of the most indigent of all conceivable forms of social and political organization. I had no need to go into its past history to discover what had maintained it at its rudimentary level or what, as was more likely, had brought it thus far down. I had merely to focus my attention on the experiment in sociology which was being carried out under my nose. 

    But that experiment eluded me. I had been looking for a society reduced to its simplest expression. The society of the Nambikwara had been reduced to the point at which I found nothing but human beings.

Nothing but human beings.  Quel dommage. 

    The most serious shortcoming I find with the seasonal variation argument in the Upper Paleolithic is that WG completely disregard the most distinctive feature of those ancient groups: cave paintings. 

    None of these novel activities are exclusive to Upper Palaeolithic Europe and it is, indeed, unlikely that any of them originate there (see McBrearty & Brooks 2000). Nevertheless, it is across the southern and central parts of that continent that they are currently documented with the greatest frequency and intensity. The activities in question include the use of advanced toolkits for hunting and handicrafts, the transformation of diverse materials (e.g. bone, clay, fibre) into durable images and structures, new ways of clothing and decorating the body, the use of musical instruments, the exchange of raw materials over impressive distances, and also what are generally taken as the earliest proofs of social inequality, in the form of grand burials and – after the Last Glacial Maximum (c. 20 kya) – monumental dwellings as well. It is this apparent lack of synchrony between the ticking of our genetic and cultural clocks that Colin Renfrew (2007) provocatively calls the ‘sapient paradox’.

    In earlier posts here and elsewhere I’ve argued for the importance of cave paintings in fashioning a newly human perspective on the world – what I’ve called the shamanic theory (Lewis-Williams calls it the “shamanistic hyhpothesis”).  Whether we want to describe the visions of UP shamans, their individual drawings, and the grand tableaux of Lascaux and Altamira as “religion,” they are most certainly deeply spiritual – in the sense that they evidence the human mind’s grappling with the phenomena of creation and destruction as those shape a world of humans and animals.  What do WG suppose all that is about?  Cave man graffiti?  Hunting magic?  LW argues that the walls of deep caves were a membrane between the chthonic world of spirits and the terrestrial world of humans.  Much cave “art” is thus a rendering of animal spirits emerging into that terrestrial, social world.   

Certainly, the sensory deprivation afforded by the remote, silent and totally dark chambers, such as the Diverticule of the Felines in Lascaux and the Horse's Tail in Altamira, induces altered states of conscious­ness.17 In their various stages of altered states, questers sought, by sight and touch, in the folds and cracks of the rock face, visions of powerful animals. It is as if the rock were a living membrane between those who ventured in and one of the lowest levels of the tiered cosmos; behind the membrane lay a realm inhabited by spirit animals and spirits themselves, and the passages and cham­bers of the caves penetrated deep into that realm.

 

The Upper Palaeolithic subterranean passages and chambers were therefore places that afforded close contact with, even penetration of, a spiritual, nether tier of the cosmos. The images that people made there related to that chthonic (subterranean) realm. Images were not so much taken underground - pictures of the world above lodged in people's memories - and placed there; they were both obtained and fixed there. The hallucinatory, or spirit, world together with its painted and engraved imagery, was thus invested with materiality and pre­cisely situated cosmologically; it was not something that existed merely in people's thoughts and minds. The spiritual nether world was there, tangible and material - and some people could empirically verify it by entering the caves and seeing for themselves the 'fixed' visions of the spirit-animals that empowered the shamans of the community and also by experiencing visions, perhaps even in those underground spaces.

Moreover, image-making did not merely take place in the spirit world: it also shaped and incrementally created that world. Every image made hidden presences visible. There was thus a fecund interaction between the given topography of the caves, mercurial mental imagery, and image-fixing by indi­viduals and groups; through time, the images built up and modified the spiritual world both materially (in the caves) and conceptually (in people's minds). The spirit world, like the social world above, was to some degree mal­leable; people could engage with it and to a certain extent shape it.

 

Some six thousand years after Lascaux and hundreds of miles away in Turkey, WG comment on “grand buildings” that mark a hierarchic mode of hunter-forager life transitioning to the Neolithic.  Note their description of one such site: 

    Just a few of the enclosures known to exist at Gobekli Tepe have been excavated.  Each comprises pillars – some over 5 m high, and weighing up to a ton – that were hewn from the site’s limestone substratum, raised into sockets, and linked by walls of rough stone. Each pillar is a unique and remarkable work of sculpture, carved with images from the world of dangerous carnivores and poisonous reptiles, as well as game species, waterfowl, and small scavengers. Animal forms project from the rock in varying depths of relief, some hovering coyly on the surface, others emerging boldly into three dimensions. They follow divergent orientations, sometimes marching to the horizon, sometimes working their way down into the earth. And in certain cases the pillar itself becomes a sort of standing body, with human-like limbs and clothing.  

This description could have been lifted from LW’s account of UP caves, with constructed stone pillars taking the place of cave walls. 

    My point is that any explanation for the emergence of “intractable” hierarchy among humans must take into account the shamanic theory.  I’ll stop now.  

 

First, I think Lee is on to something. His mention of Leach's Political Systems of Highland Burma reminds me that seasonal oscillation isn't the only reason for shifting back and forth between more egalitarian and more hierarchical social systems. Once hierarchical systems form they tend to generate rivals/imitators on their peripheries. Sometimes the rivals/imitators conquer the original states. See, for example, the Yuan and Qing dynasties in China.

Second, I am not entirely persuaded by the shamanic theory. "Shamanism" is one of those portmanteau ideas that winds up meaning different things in different parts of the world. That said, the takeaway for me from Lee's suggestion is that seasonal oscillation isn't enough to explain things like cave art, megaliths, and other material evidence that people had more on their minds than sorting out their politics.

But that reminds me, another line unexplored in W-G is suggested by the observation that leaders become leaders by being the guys who get things done during the egalitarian phase of the oscillation. As someone who has been involved in politics, what instantly leaps into my mind is how do they sort out the pecking order when the small egalitarian bands come together in the other half of the cycle. Imagine what is going on here. A bunch of bands, each with its own leader come together. The leaders are all ambitious, can-do, mostly guys. Having to come up with rules that govern the processes by which candidates for big boss positions get selected could be where shamanism or, borrowing from Weber, routinized charisma come into play.

A serious question. How much better are our theories than the comic relief provided by the following take on the history of Japan?

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Mh5LY4Mz15o

The observation below is of particular interest. W&G are suggesting that it is the natural physical distinctiveness of certain human bodies that is a trigger for the treatment that we see as symbolising hierarchy. In other words hierarchy begins with the inability to fit something into the general, a strange feature. "In practice this meant that even in these least materialistic and competitive of societies, individual differences – whether of psychology and personality, or for that matter physical capacities and appearance – were treated with respect, and even valued in and of themselves. This ethos existed in tension with egalitarianism"

This is of course a political argument of its own which one would have to consider carefully--is there a kind of 'great man' theory of history or 'intellectual aristocracy' sentiment lurking here? It has a naturalistic ring to it and it is again in tune with, at least Graeber's arguments around the Shilluk kingship, that the power of the state begins with an utterly individual act of violence. Again, as Lee mentions, W&G focus on the Nambikwara but not on, say the Caduveo who combined modest material inequality with extremely complex symbolic inequality.

W&G: Similar tensions might account for one startling feature of those Upper Palaeolithic burials that have been interpreted as the earliest material expressions of hierarchy or ranking in human societies. In a remarkable number of cases the bodies of these individuals bear evidence of striking physical anomalies that could only have marked them out dramatically from their social surroundings (see Cowgill, Mednikova, Buzhilova & Trinkaus 2015, with further references; Formicola 2007). They include pronounced congenital deformities (the adolescent females of Sungir and Doln´ı Vestonice) and examples both of dwarfism (the Romito Cave of Calabria) and extreme ˇ height (Grimaldi Cave). This leaves one to wonder if the anatomically typical skeletons similarly treated may have been those of individuals with qualities – physical or otherwise – that just as readily differentiated them from their kin, but left no traces in their skeletal remains. We can know little of the day-to-day status of those buried with rich grave goods; but in such cases we can at least suggest that they would have been seen as the ultimate individuals, about as different as it was possible to be.

Question. My knowledge of South American ethnography is thin. I seem to recall,however, that many groups were decimated by disease, with the result that complex social classifications were being applied to much smaller populations than those in which they evolved. What is the chance that the Cadaveo, for example, are former aristocrats living in reduced circumstances?

Levi-Strauss hypothesised something like that. One question might be why would they continue with this elaborate symbolic hierarchising practice without the kind of material base we might expect to go with hierarchy?

John McCreery said:

Question. My knowledge of South American ethnography is thin. I seem to recall,however, that many groups were decimated by disease, with the result that complex social classifications were being applied to much smaller populations than those in which they evolved. What is the chance that the Cadaveo, for example, are former aristocrats living in reduced circumstances?

 

    Huon discusses a fascinating account in WG’s article which, incidentally, does nothing to support their argument that seasonal variation is a crucial / determining factor in the emergence of hierarchy: Elaborate U Pal burials, those with large quantities of grave goods, contain individuals who do not fit our contemporary ideas about prominent social status.  Rather than senior males, whom we might suppose to have been leaders, chieftains, etc., those individuals interred often have physical anomalies – dwarfism, gigantism, other congenital deformities.  WG make the plausible speculation that other apparently physically normal individuals who were given elaborate burials may have been highly peculiar in their psychology and social relations.  WG don’t explore this remarkable phenomenon.  What was going on way back then?  I find it difficult to approach this question without postulating that UP people had definite ideas about the meaning of life and death, and about the intrusion of the bizarre or monstrous in everyday life.  Definite ideas which were expressed through symbolic constructs and social roles, principally here the shaman – or whatever we want to call him / her – who could communicate directly with the spiritual realm.  In short, UP had what some avant anthros have decided doesn’t exist: religion. 

    Coming across WG’s discussion of the strangeness of UP elaborate burials touched a nerve with me, for I’ve thought, really puzzled, a lot about what may be the most elaborate UP burial of all:  Anzick Boy.  Some 12,600 years ago, when PaleoIndians were just establishing a human presence in North America, an infant boy, about 18 months old, died and was buried beside a rock shelter near Winsall, Montana (on what is now the Anzick ranch).  The group to which he belonged much have been a small band of hunter-foragers, with few material possessions.  Nevertheless, the infant’s burial contained some one hundred projectile points (painstakingly worked in the Clovis style) and fifteen or so bone artifacts.  Radiocarbon data determined that the bone artifacts were actually several hundred years older than the infant – they represented a major portion (nearly all?) of the band’s material heritage.  All the infant’s bones and the other grave goods were coated with the ritual substance, red ochre.  The archeological find is immensely important, before Anzick Boy no human remains had been found with Clovis artifacts, and those totaled only a couple of dozen.  The Anzick site is like a pharaoh’s tomb of the Upper Paleolithic.  Think of it.  Buried with this infant were precious implements and artifacts representing hundreds of hours of work by members of a hunter-forager band living hand to mouth.  What could the circumstances possibly have been that compelled them to abandon so much in that tiny grave?  And what immediate future awaited that band, poised as they were on the edge of mostly unknown and uninhabited continents?  It is a world-class mystery, doubtlessly one that will never be solved.  But as a mystery, and one infused with absolutely no materialist rationale, it signals that mystery itself, its hold on an emergent human mind and its crucial place in a nascent cultural system, is a basic feature of what we’ve come to call “humanity.”  That mystery certainly infuses the notion of “hierarchy” with some profound questions. 

    Here are a couple of refs to Anzick boy: 

 

Accessible:

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/02/140212-anzik-skelet...

which leads into the Nature article:

http://www.nature.com/articles/nature13025.epdf?referrer_access_tok...


Here is where lack of history hurts.  I mentioned impoverished aristocrats. History is full of these cases, e.g., the former Russian aristocrats eking out livings in Paris after the Bolshevik Revolution. One of the most important lessons in Tristes Tropiques is that when L-S goes looking for primitives in a state of primeval purity all he finds is remnants living in the margins of nation states. Everything is corrupted before the anthropologist arrives.


Huon Wardle said:

Levi-Strauss hypothesised something like that. One question might be why would they continue with this elaborate symbolic hierarchising practice without the kind of material base we might expect to go with hierarchy?

John McCreery said:

Question. My knowledge of South American ethnography is thin. I seem to recall,however, that many groups were decimated by disease, with the result that complex social classifications were being applied to much smaller populations than those in which they evolved. What is the chance that the Cadaveo, for example, are former aristocrats living in reduced circumstances?

The Anzick boy is, indeed, a fascinating case. But what does it demonstrate? To play the devil's advocate, I construct the sort of tale one finds in speculative fiction. A woman, she might be the last survivor of a band or, alternatively, an abused wife. She runs away with her baby and the band's "treasure" (the points and ochre). The baby dies. She buries it with the treasure, then continues her flight. She dies. Her remains are not discovered. 

This tale does not eliminate all puzzles. Why the red ochre? It may, indeed, have some religious significance. Shamans may or may not have been involved.Was the treasure a treasure or a trader's stock. We don't know.

John


Lee Drummond said:

 

    Huon discusses a fascinating account in WG’s article which, incidentally, does nothing to support their argument that seasonal variation is a crucial / determining factor in the emergence of hierarchy: Elaborate U Pal burials, those with large quantities of grave goods, contain individuals who do not fit our contemporary ideas about prominent social status.  Rather than senior males, whom we might suppose to have been leaders, chieftains, etc., those individuals interred often have physical anomalies – dwarfism, gigantism, other congenital deformities.  WG make the plausible speculation that other apparently physically normal individuals who were given elaborate burials may have been highly peculiar in their psychology and social relations.  WG don’t explore this remarkable phenomenon.  What was going on way back then?  I find it difficult to approach this question without postulating that UP people had definite ideas about the meaning of life and death, and about the intrusion of the bizarre or monstrous in everyday life.  Definite ideas which were expressed through symbolic constructs and social roles, principally here the shaman – or whatever we want to call him / her – who could communicate directly with the spiritual realm.  In short, UP had what some avant anthros have decided doesn’t exist: religion. 

    Coming across WG’s discussion of the strangeness of UP elaborate burials touched a nerve with me, for I’ve thought, really puzzled, a lot about what may be the most elaborate UP burial of all:  Anzick Boy.  Some 12,600 years ago, when PaleoIndians were just establishing a human presence in North America, an infant boy, about 18 months old, died and was buried beside a rock shelter near Winsall, Montana (on what is now the Anzick ranch).  The group to which he belonged much have been a small band of hunter-foragers, with few material possessions.  Nevertheless, the infant’s burial contained some one hundred projectile points (painstakingly worked in the Clovis style) and fifteen or so bone artifacts.  Radiocarbon data determined that the bone artifacts were actually several hundred years older than the infant – they represented a major portion (nearly all?) of the band’s material heritage.  All the infant’s bones and the other grave goods were coated with the ritual substance, red ochre.  The archeological find is immensely important, before Anzick Boy no human remains had been found with Clovis artifacts, and those totaled only a couple of dozen.  The Anzick site is like a pharaoh’s tomb of the Upper Paleolithic.  Think of it.  Buried with this infant were precious implements and artifacts representing hundreds of hours of work by members of a hunter-forager band living hand to mouth.  What could the circumstances possibly have been that compelled them to abandon so much in that tiny grave?  And what immediate future awaited that band, poised as they were on the edge of mostly unknown and uninhabited continents?  It is a world-class mystery, doubtlessly one that will never be solved.  But as a mystery, and one infused with absolutely no materialist rationale, it signals that mystery itself, its hold on an emergent human mind and its crucial place in a nascent cultural system, is a basic feature of what we’ve come to call “humanity.”  That mystery certainly infuses the notion of “hierarchy” with some profound questions. 

    Here are a couple of refs to Anzick boy: 

 

Accessible:

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/02/140212-anzik-skelet...

which leads into the Nature article:

http://www.nature.com/articles/nature13025.epdf?referrer_access_tok...

A couple of points. 

As Lee says, W&G's fascinating observation about elaborate Upper Pal. burials for what were perhaps considered to be strange/anomalous community members has no particularly efficient connection to the arguments about seasonality--agreed, it is curious, interesting and suggestive.

In turn, the discussion of seasonality and the suggestion that prehistoric peoples respected unusual individuals are intriguing but again not very conclusive when it comes to the claim that seasonal behaviour was/is a way of balancing hierarchy with equality. Balancing hierarchy and equality goes on in quite different settings for different ecological reasons. For example for the Kachin it is linked with slash and burn agriculture and matrilateral cross-cousin marriage. In the post-slave cultures of the West Indies, Wilson argues that people shift from pursuing 'respectability', going to church, marrying up etc. and also 'reputation', individualistic pursuit of getting a 'name' for oneself. Here there is a connection to ideas about race and social propriety and about ownership and use of land. Everywhere people are still connected to the surface of the land for a living -- and even in cities, Christmas etc -- seasonality has some effects on people's view of their social relationships. In Amerindian communities there are different kinds of leadership roles connected to going to fishing camps vis-a-vis living in the village. Some roles are marked out because of a distinctive capacity of the individual -- shaman, pathfinder, expert cook, basket maker, hunter etc.

Again as Lee points out it is hard to see how ideas about anomaly can exist without some kind of map of what counts as anomalous unless we fall back on our own naturalised ideas-- the 'natural' respect and awe we feel for someone with a deformity etc. Recent suggestions that palaeolithic artists drew highly accurate images of local volcanoes perhaps add support to a kind of baseline naturalism. On the other side the use of red ochre as body decoration (Anzick boy) is probably as old as human language (Blombos caves, South Africa-- 75,000BP). One of its most common uses is to cover the entire body. Covering your whole body this way has two effects--it keeps mosquitos off and it makes you look like more the other people in your group. The Elites of Andean pre-hispanic state societies painted themselves with bright red mercury oxide (cinnabar) to make themselves look distinctive as a class and as a group. What, then, is the proposed link between institutionalising hierarchy and the fascination with unusual individuals?

Clastres, who is an important reference in W&G's article argues that a central activity of 'societies against the state' is to radically downplay/erase individual differences. Hence amongst the Guayaki the skilled hunter must absolutely avoid making a claim on his own hunt, a man without a wife is disrespected because males have specific roles and cannot take on female ones (a male homosexual is respected so long as his behaviour fits within the logic of female activity), individual self-praise is minimalised etc. W&G suggest that Clastres missed the important seasonal variation aspect to hierarchy, but perhaps this is because in these societies, while there is space for special people like shamans, there is not overall a seasonally variant swing between individualism-hierarchy and egalitarianism-- there is instead an overall emphasis on autonomy, which requires different kinds of leadership and community formation in different situations. But then the Tupi Guarani were on the run from the Portuguese. Clastres argues that 'the state' originates with a cognitive shift whereby some individuals, having up to now been told by society 'you are worth no more than the others' are now told 'you are worth more than the others'. This is hierarchy. Even formulated this way, it is still highly elusive and not necessarily clarified by W&G's interesting speculative connection between seasonality and the fact that some people appear as 'different'.

This decorative surface in the Chauvet caves is now thought to be a naturalistic depiction of a volcanic eruption:

Apologies for leaving this discussion for a while and not having time right now to respond to everything full. Luckily Keith tried to get us back on track and I do hope to answer his challenge once I have found a good enough answer. In the meantime thank you everyone for having now actually read the article and touching finally on the question I specifically asked. As I will explain:

Huon said: "the discussion of seasonality and the suggestion that prehistoric peoples respected unusual individuals are intriguing but again not very conclusive when it comes to the claim that seasonal behaviour was/is a way of balancing hierarchy with equality. Balancing hierarchy and equality goes on in quite different settings for different ecological reasons"

Yes, my main interest however is in examples such as Gobekli Temple which are massive stone structures erected by people whose primary mode of production was hunting metafauna. Hence "Balancing hierarchy and equality goes on in quite different settings for different ecological reasons" that is precisely the question I raised at the beginning i.e. the ecological record of species during different time period around the times that W&G would seem to me to be a good starting point to test some of what they saying further i.e. the environmental dimension.

It so happens that the end of seasonal hierarchy is around the same time as the end of lots of mega-fauna in Europe and the Levant at least. My question was how to read that? As entrenched hierarchy resulting in loss of mega-fauna or loss of mega-fauna resulting in entrenched hierarchy? I don't know and that is a direct-causal way of reading history anyway which I don't like. 

So far Lee seems to have a good proposition in something to do with 'shamanism' - though I think human migration and cross-cultural meeting and ice-ages may also have something to do with it.

So from a tangent, if we think of Potlach as not having been understood properly and instead through a W&G lens to be a whole season whereby social structure changes or is performed differently, we see that the introduction of whites to north america and the destruction of bison and introduction of blankets amongst other things resulted in entrenching of hierarchy amongst local people and decimation of north american megafauna a second time.

This is interesting as its a possible lesson for africa's current mega-fauna loss.

Also I study hunters in the Med and they very explicitly invert social structure (more anti-structure than W&Gs seasonal carnivaleque) during annuallly and weekly seasonal events. Just a side point so you can see where I am coming from.

Abraham, we have a small empirical problem here. The Northwest Coast people's who practiced potlach lived off marine resources. The Great Plains where the bison lived were hundreds of miles away. The extermination of the bison wouldn't have had any direct effect on potlatch.

Speaking of potlatch and blankets. I once heard Marshall Sahlins give a fascinating talk on the Pacific Ocean triangle trade that connected Northwest Coast peoples with Hawaiians and Chinese. I forget the other details, but what stuck in my memory was the observation re the impact of culture on trade that the Northwest Coast customers wanted blankets of a standard size and quality that made it easy to score potlatches. In contrast, the Hawaiians wanted one-of-a-kind garments for making fashion statements.

This was a talk at Academia Sinica in Taipei, and also remains vivid for me because I got to reply to a young Chinese scholar who spoke in serious academic terms about Immanuel Wallerstein's world-system theory. I was still working in advertising and quipped, "Anyone who thinks that economic forces determine cultural outcomes has plainly never worked in an advertising agency."

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