'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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mega-fauna seem to be important for your argument, but I am not sure of the connection to inequality in the cases. The NWcoasters dealt with one particularly large beast -- the whale which was indeed being wiped out by industrial-scale whale harpooning. Gobegli Tepe -- the only really substantial beast here is the auroch, but most of the bones are of gazelle. Anyone who has looked at cave paintings knows that large beasts made a great impression on palaeolithic people and totemically-symbolically this must have been part of how they understood 'the order of things' (hierarchy). On the other hand seasonality still affects how people organise their relationships -- n.b. Christmas the largest seasonal ritual in the world. And Bakhtin's ideas about the carnivalesque were written with regard to medieval calendrical celebrations.

In thinking about hierarchy we have been looking back to prehistory. What do we see if we look forward toward a digital future?  This talk by Frank Pasquale, the author of The Black Box Society is long (nearly an hour excluding the intro and Q&A) but well worth the effort. I note the pervasive presence of the issues toward which Lee has pointed in American Dream Time, Self/Other, Life/Technology, Nature/Culture, etc. New concepts include the "algorithmic self," the "modulated self," algorithms vs professions.



    You’ve posed an intriguing and difficult question:  What is the relation between the end-Pleistocene mass extinction of megafauna and emergent forms of social organization (egalitarian?, hierarchical?, something of both?, back and forth? no relation at all?)?  I’ve puzzled over the question since this Forum began, but don’t see much light at the end of the tunnel.  So let me make a general and, I think, important point.  The last thing we should do here is approach your question solely in terms of identifying the human-animal relation as “resource exploitation” or “mode of production.”   The several Homo lineages and species of large animals have co-evolved over millions of years, so that what we presently call “humanity” is a biocultural construct in which those species are an indissociable element.  I am the walrus; well, maybe the lion, antelope, mastodon, cave bear.  The evidence from Upper Paleolithic caves as well as contemporary indigenous myth attests to the fact that human and animal identities are interchangeable, and that both are rooted in essentially spiritual concepts of creation-destruction, of what I’ve called the phenomenon of generativity.  So, when the big critters started to disappear at an alarming rate – whether from overkill or climate change or, probably, both – that process shook an emergent human society to its roots.  The shock waves from that calamitous event, I would argue, still reverberate through our lives; if most of us do not interact with a variety of animals (confining our attention mostly to Siamese and Shih-Tzu), we continue to consume an endless stream of animal images through movies, TV, children’s storybooks, etc. 

    So, in short, what you’ve asked here requires us to contemplate a cultural-social apocalypse at the dawn of civilization. 


Lee, what you have written here is a fascinating, genuinely mind-boggling idea. Where would you go next if asked to develop it? To answer, for example, the question, "What is the medium through which the reverberations are transmitted?" Or "How do we get from mammoths, cave bears or jaguars to Siamese, Shih-Tzu and Hello Kitty when thinking about our animal contemporaries?"

Animals are good to think with... Northwest coast animal-human transformation masks from the 19th Century.

Yes, animals are good to think with. But are there limits to the diversity of thoughts they enable us to think? Consider the following cats: The jaguar in an Amazonian shaman's vision, a witch's familiar, Felix (silent films), Tom (of Tom and Jerry fame), the Pink Panther, Hello Kitty, Miles Davis, a much loved Chinchilla Persian who lived with us in the lap of feline luxury for twenty-two years . . . And, yes, who could forget McCavity the Mystery Cat, or the cats in Cats, the musical . . . .or Garfield . . . .
Great Lee, getting to the heart of answering WGs question from the perspective I asked! Right so the question remains how do we get beyong the chicken and the egg, or pin piint one i.e. did heterarchical hunters bring about extinction of mega-fauna (a note for everyone, this includes vast numbers of deer not just crazy large amimals) and then entrenched hierarchy ensue. Or did entrenched hierarchy bring about mass depeletion of fauna and then move morw toward agriculture. I kniw this is a false dichotomy but its effectively the one i want to get beyond.
I see ur point in terms of not reducing to mode of production (though I would simply expand it in Marx's true meaning of the term) to include human-animal social relations).

So in terms of the co-evolution you note, if I were to more that after mega-fauna extinctions or mass reduction smaller mammals in the archaeological record started to flourish. Studying hunting I note that hunting these animals with the technology available requires a very different approach to hunting I.e. trapping which is no longer a mode of acquisition like hunting but also a mode of production and very different social relations go with it. This is where the trapper in the epic of Gilgamesh is an interesting figure. Anyway these are points I have reiterated before but I wonder what ur thoughts.

Also how about this point. Where I work mega-fauna became extinct (in form of pygmy elephants and hippos) around time of an ice-age shift as well as arrival of humans. Game birds and small mamnals such as hare flourished extensively so there was no lack of meat, but until invention of gun in this region they require traps to be caught. Instead you see deer and wild sheep being introduced by humans and used for hunting instead of simply being utilitarian and trapping what was already there.
"Phenomenon of generativity" do you have more to read on this? Do you use it in the sense it is normally used in anthropology?

i.e. did heterarchical hunters bring about extinction of mega-fauna (a note for everyone, this includes vast numbers of deer not just crazy large amimals) and then entrenched hierarchy ensue. Or did entrenched hierarchy bring about mass depeletion of fauna and then move morw toward agriculture.

There would seem to be a lot of unknowables. Take Gobekli Tepe. The main meat eaten seems to have been gazelle which doesnt make it as megafauna. Aurochs and gazelle were not wiped out, but perhaps they were depleted. Despite the complicated architecture with its reliefs of various animals (mostly dangerous or predatory it would seem) we cannot say in what sense the temple describes a 'hierarchy' let alone a 'heterarchy'; though we can take for granted some kind of seasonal variation, the rest is speculation. 

The significance of the extinction or disappearance of large animals for human thinking--humans having lived with these beasts over many generations--is another question. For example, the hypothesis that the cyclops story is a result of people encountering ancient elephant skulls.

Quite interesting then that 'megafauna' seems to be defined at around or usually larger than the weight of a human being. The existence (and disappearance) of an animal larger than a human being is clearly noteworthy when it comes to measuring the significance of human beings in the environment. Is the key issue, then, this relative size of the animal to an adult human body? This must certainly have been a disturbing change -- from a situation where there were many such large animals, bigger than humans in the environment, to a new one where the great number of animals were smaller. Intriguing.

More fuel for the fires of thought. Where to morals come from?



    I think you’re right to assert that the egalitarian-hierarchical opposition is too simple to describe the complex reality of social forms emerging in the wake of the end-Pleistocene extinctions.  On close inspection, both come in very different flavors. 

    Consider the Plains Indian groups of the western U. S., whom WG discuss as an important example of the role of seasonal variation in shaping / determining (?) egalitarian vs. hierarchical social organization.  Briefly, following Lowie, they note that Crow, Sioux, Cheyenne had authoritarian leaders during the annual buffalo hunt and Sun Dance, when large numbers of people gathered.  In the winter, those large gatherings split into small, dispersed groups led by a senior kinsman.  The hunt and ritual were critical to the tribe’s functioning, and individuals’ activities were constrained to serve those ends. 

    I think there are two problems with this tidy account. 

    First, Lowie and other early ethnographers first encountered the Plains groups after two centuries or so of rapid social change.  Long before whites were present in any numbers, Indians acquired horses (mostly from feral herds) and, later guns.  The horse and gun transformed Plains societies.  While their residence pattern based on seasonal variation persisted, social and ceremonial relations became more hierarchical.  Without horse and gun, it was a difficult, very scary job for a couple dozen Indians to descend on a buffalo herd and kill a number of animals.  Not much material surplus there.  But with horse and gun buffalo kills became much easier and lots more numerous.  Buffalo hides became a medium of exchange, used to advance individuals in their quest for political and ceremonial status.  To obtain an important medicine bundle, for example, and thus become the host or sponsor of a major ceremony required beaucoup hides.  [Those guys would have been right at home in an American presidential campaign.]  My point here is that hierarchical arrangements were transformed while the pattern of seasonal variation remained pretty constant.  Hierarchy comes in different flavors.  What would WG say about this?

    Second, I find it odd that WG give pride of place to ritual in their “Childhood of Man” article, naming it before seasonality and the origin of inequality.  Yet what they have to say about ritual is mostly off-the-shelf Durkheim:  the fact that people congregate and perform rituals is a celebration or affirmation of their identity as a group.  WG’s main objection to that view is that seasonal variation is behind the group’s assembling.  But why do they assemble?  Well, for that all-important buffalo hunt and – wasn’t there another reason? – Oh yes, the Sun Dance.  What was that all about?  All that grotesque self-mutilation?  The urgent quest to find one’s guardian spirit, which usually assumed an animal form.  Hmm.  The incredible intensity and trauma of the Sun Dance was about forging a life-long association with an animal or animal-like being that inhabited the spirit world.  What in the world does seasonality have to do with that?  Take a close look at Georg Catlin’s text and drawings of O-kee-pa and tell me if seasonality is behind the ritual.  The Sioux, and we contemporary folks, nourish deep, deep ties with that Pleistocene past of thinking about, hunting, depending on animals. 


P. S.  You asked about my use of “generativity,” and whether that had the usual anthropological meaning.  Apart from generative phonology I don’t know what that usual meaning is.  My development of the idea of “cultural generativity” may be found in American Dreamtime, Chapter 3, “A Theory of Culture as Semiospace” at www.peripheralstudies.org .  Hint: it has a lot to do with the human-animal relation. 


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