WERE NEOLITHIC LINEAGES SEEDBEDS OF EXPLOITATION?

I am writing a book on the history of political domination and one of my main points is that when a storable-stealable-surplus came about in the early Neolithic kin groups formed that had more structural solidarity than Paleolithic bands of hunter-gatherers i.e., members were more rule-bound and formal cross-generation leaders emerged e.g., the office of lineage elder that was passed on through the generations.  I claim that all human populations have a small percentage of individuals who are go-getters or aggrandizers.  They want more power, prestige and property than the average kinsman in these early kin groups, but the material base was so low that the property aspect was kept low at that stage and they competed for primarily for power and prestige.  They often received a slightly better portion of the animals sacrificed on the shrines they controlled, but as income this was minimal.  But when opportunities for greater storage of valuable property (primarily foodstuffs – trade goods would come later) came to be, they also competed for stored foodstuffs and the control of people who could produce food.  They developed more and more rules to give them control of food and people (labor) and often did so in light of the fact that the group needed such leaders to coordinate defenses against marauders – the have-nots who throughout history have plagued settlements with a stored-stealable-surplus.  Another base of leadership was the sodality e.g., cults and secret societies.  These were means by which aggrandizers could attain extra-kin power, prestige and property, the later often being oracles and shrines that purportedly gave them greater access to supernatural power.  To a certain extent, in many historical cases, aggrandizing leaders built political power structures on fabricated notions that they possessed unique access to deity. 

 

Among the Sisala, the people in Northern Ghana about whom I have written, the lineage elder controls the central granary (or did – modernity is changing this today).  No doubt, such control of access to the food supply had survival value for the group, but it also gave the lineage elder a power base, one which could be expanded upon later when production increased.  This did not evolve naturally there.  Native production methods barely produce enough upon which to survive.  Thus, hereditary chiefs did not develop.  Those that exist were imposed by the British Colonial Authorities.  I contend that in the Neolithic chiefships developed out of such powerful men who controlled shrines, medicines, oracles and other means that connected them to the supernatural.  Yet the only big money-making shrines in Sisalaland today are the newly-acquired medicine shrines, many of them coming from Southern Ghana.  Also, the central granary shrine has lost much of its power as more modern forms of farming have come along giving both young men and women access to food that formerly was controlled by the elder and his supernatural control of the central granary.  As the historical-material conditions changed (the coming of the white man’s chiefs (1906) and modern farming techniques – beginning in the 1970s) the power of such ancestor shrines seems to have fallen; while the rise of medicine shrines has risen (given the poor health facilities in Northern Ghana). 

 

In the Neolithic the historical-material conditions also changed but in the direction of giving lineage elders and their shrines even more access to power, prestige and property and chiefships emerged over and above kin structures and sodalities.  Of course, with time, chiefships developed into kingships and eventually empires and states as office-holders (chiefs, kings and emperors) used their agency to build even greater structural edifices of power and political domination.   

 

The key stimulus to change in both the Sisala case and in history seems to be changes in the historical-material base.  When it changes new forms of access to power, prestige and property are formulated by the group’s go-getters.  Today in Sisalaland there are roughly four foci that provided aggrandizers this access: (1) chiefship, (2) national government, (3) entrepreneurship & commerce in the modern economy and (4) money-making medicine shrines.  Traditional offices such a lineage elder are becoming more and more honorific and give only limited power (young men and women now have the means to produce their own food or wealth) and very little access to property (they still only get the prime cut of any sacrificed animal and fewer and fewer people participate in such activities (a fact exacerbated by the rise of Islam and Christianity in the area, though largely the former).  Lineage officers only have slightly more prestige than other elders.  The changes in the historical-material conditions in Sisalaland have lessened the power of the lineage officers; whereas in the early Neolithic they strengthened their access to all three – power, prestige and property.

 

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