The Long Paleolithic


The Long Paleolithic was an enormous expanse of time.  Roughly speaking, we can take the Paleolithic to be about two and a half million years in length, starting with the development of the first stone tools in Africa.  It is all of human existence prior to the development of agriculture and herding (domestication).  This occurred in what anthropologists call the Neolithic Revolution or the Agricultural Revolution.  I will come back to this revolution because it holds the key to the development of institutions of domination.

As an analogy, we can visualize the Paleolithic being twenty-three hours and fifty-nine minutes on a twenty-four hour clock.  This is important because the communalistic ethos that dominated human thinking and behavior before the Neolithic Revolution would be radically changed by the rise of selfism and factionalism on the part of a newly formed managerial élite.

The Paleolithic involved thousands of centuries.  During this time, humans lived in relative peace and without institutions of domination.  I say “relative” because there had to have been sporadic conflicts between different groups of people; but large scale warfare was not possible because weaponry was limited to stone knives, wooden spears (some tipped with stone) and clubs.  Paleoarcheology has shown that skulls were struck, bones fractured; but warfare as we have known it from the Early Neolithic onwards did not exist.

In the late Paleolithic humans had more sophisticated weapons e.g., bows, arrows, better spears and knives, as well as poison,[1] which could be applied to arrowheads and spear points.  Still, these were anything but weapons of mass destruction.  Most conflict was domestic, internal to the band of individuals living as a unit.  If the Ju/’hoansi hunter-gatherers of Africa are any indication of how conflicts were handled in the Paleolithic, disputes were informally resolved.  The Ju/’hoansi studied by Richard Lee (1979) lacked formal dispute settlement procedures and when conflict occurred Professor Lee says he observed those involved “voting with their feet.”  In other words, they walked away from conflict rather than get involved in a fight.  Nonetheless, there were occasional Ju/’hoansi fights, even murders; but no open warfare.  It is likely that for most of the Paleolithic this was also the pattern.


The general outline of Paleolithic life is as follows, Paleolithic people:


* Had a very simple technology including tools, skills and social organization of production


* Had a subsistence system capable of producing only relatively low levels of caloric energy


* Had a diet in which plants contributed more calories than animals


* Placed little emphasis on accumulation or ownership


* Had a cultural emphasis on mobility to avail themselves of dispersed foodstuffs in the natural larder


* Had low population density determined by the wild foods collected during the season of minimum availability


* Were organized in bands of fifty persons or less, in most cases


* Relied on loosely organized and fluid kinship as the basic principle of social organization (people could change groups more or less at will)[2]


* Shared almost everything with others based on what Leacock (1982) calls a system of “total sharing”


* Had ownership limited to a few personal items


* Lacked full time specialists beyond the sexual division of labor


* Lacked ascribed statuses and roles


* Engaged only in limited raids and feuding, not true warfare


* Lacked authoritative chiefs or a managerial élite


These were foragers, with hunting bringing in desirable variation from the more stable vegetable diet.  Eleanor Leacock (1982) notes that for modern day hunter-gatherers, land is their larder and they accumulate little beyond what they can carry, with an emphasis on mobility and adaptability to the natural landscape rather than on accumulation. 

This is a very important point.  Little was stored and little was accumulated beyond what one could carry from campsite to campsite.  Most food, clothing, weaponry, foraging tools and housing could be made in each camp anew from nature’s larder.  Since all were free and no goods could be controlled by anyone, there was no competition over material goods.

I am not so much concerned with inter-group conflict as I am with what went on within a given group, which is called a band.  Within bands there were no hereditary chiefs or institutions of domination.  There were only situational leaders who had dynamic personalities or qualities that made them such; but they used their skills for the good of their group, not to set themselves up over others, either politically or economically.  That is not to say that some were not selfish, as there surely were self-seeking individuals; but in a small group there was a great deal of social pressure to place sharing above hoarding.  In the long-run, no doubt, most aggressive persons curtailed their aggrandizement to acceptable pursuits e.g., being a good provider for the group, being a shaman/healer etc.  Aggressive deviants were shunned or expelled from the band.

There are aggrandizers in all human groups as well as more passive persons.  Self-seekers tend to want more prestige, power and property than average people.  Aggrandizers can be referred to as:




* Reputation-builders


*Aggressive men


* Self-seeking men


* Acquisitive men




*Ambitious men




*Success-oriented men


* Power-seekers 


*Alpha males 


* Doers


Additionally, men with triple-A personality types (aggrandizers) tend to aspire to the following roles in society:


* Managers


* Leaders


* Organizers


* Caretakers


* Commanders


* Guardians


* Big men, chiefs, kings, emperors, presidents/prime ministers


* Priests and other courtiers near political power


* Provincial governors


* Any role that gives them privileged access to more prestige, power and property


Perhaps the best term of all for an aggrandizer is “opportunist.”  I'm going to guess that about ten percent of all men are born opportunists.  The famed anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1944) saw man as appetitive, as potentially aggressive – perhaps thinking of the Latin aphorism, lupus est homo homini, which can be interpreted to mean that man preys upon man.  While “man as wolf” might be too strong, Kant (1999 [1781]) did point out that man has a strong tendency to individualize himself.  S. F. Nadel (1969:52-55) also noted the manipulative nature of humans, even when playing social roles.  And, of course, Freud’s perspective was that, at the base, the human being is animalistically driven by libidinous impulses, tending toward aggression without the socialized constraints of the superego (1938).

Whatever we call such forceful personality types, today these are (wo)men[3] who want more power and wealth and go after it, often at the expense of others and the social good.  It is in their nature to do so.

Yet I want to be clear on one point – I am not taking the road traveled by Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) who saw domination as “natural” i.e., those on top become “adept” at command and control; while those on the bottom lack “an inherited fitness for command,” being more inclined toward obedience (1909:302, 309).  For Spencer, since life is inherently competitive and personality traits and social skills are inherited, inequality is to be expected in society.  As with the animal world, he saw life as a struggle with the fittest surviving as leaders.

If Spencer saw self-seeking leaders as the “fittest” for the job, I see them as opportunists who throughout history used a variety of schemes and techniques to grasp power and rule.  They may or may not have been the “fittest” for the job of leadership; but rather their penchant for opportunism led them to seize power when power could bring them material rewards as well as prestige.  In the Paleolithic world that lacked an economic surplus, such persons were limited to competing for prestigious positions unconnected with rule e.g., best hunter or one gifted at storytelling.  With the Agricultural Revolution this changed, as some aggrandizers became successful at generating ongoing institutions of power.  This building process, creating in the first instance corporate group structures then chiefdoms, was accomplished by men who had the desire to rule and who may have been skilled or may have merely been fortunate.  In such examples I provide in this book –for instance: Case 1.5., Case 4.10., & Case 8.1 – it is clear that those who rose to power we from families who happened into areas where prime land was available for the taking.  Being first to get hold of such land they acquired economic dominance and members of such families went on to rule others who came later and had to be content with less fertile land, or in the case of the coastal fishing communities, less productive fishing grounds.  These and other cases in this work show that rulers were successful based on a combination of aggression and opportunism.  Yet, I am less interested in focusing on the motivation of aspiring leaders than on the effects of domination in society.

As I mentioned, super-achievers were born in the Paleolithic too; but they were not able to act on their desire to be better than others as represented by having more property or power than others.  They lacked the capacity to produce institutional inequality, though in the limits of their lifetimes, they could achieve situational inequality e.g., being a better hunter than other men or excelling at dance, song or crafts etc.  In other words, of power, prestige and property only prestige was achievable in Paleolithic societies and prestige could only be had by being an exemplary paragon of cooperative values.

That is not to say that Paleolithic bands were entirely egalitarian.  All societies have had some inequalities and, as Jane Collier (1988:1) has noted, “Kin-based, nonstratified societies have socially organized inequalities that merit analysis.”  When anthropologists have done such analyses they generally have found that aggressive humans engage in strategic behavior in seeking subjective ends.  Furthermore, such behavior leads to the build-up of structures of domination (Bourdieu 1977).  Yet in the Paleolithic, among bands that did not have a storable-stealable-surplus (i.e., were non-storers), it is likely that only strategic behavior that did not lead to the formation of ongoing structures of inequality.  This was due to the lack of any surplus value that could be accumulated and used as a tool of domination. 

In these early bands, as in contemporary hunter-gatherers, all persons were “free from any further obligations or allegiance” beyond sharing with others (Meillassoux 1972:99).  In some band societies studied by anthropologists, such as the Comanche (Hoebel 1940:119), a returning hunter was obliged to share his meat with anyone who came to him, although he would save the best part for his wife to take to her father.  Such limited obligations did not, however, lead to institutions of domination because of a lack of storable material wealth.  Such rules as prompted a Comanche hunter to provide a prime cut of meat for his wife’s father was simply a way of spreading the meat and honoring the man who gave him a wife.  It was unconnected with any institutionalized inequalities of significance. 

Like the non-storing societies of the Paleolithic, the Comanche Amerindians lived in a world where food was largely consumed on the spot or distributed to others who consumed it more or less immediately.  Yet, when there were opportunities to store up small quantities of food – they did.  Wallace & Hoebel (1952:76) report that among the Comanche “seldom were efforts put forth to make provision for the future other than preserving meat or wild fruits and nuts by drying such quantities as could be carried when the camp moved.”  These were non-sedentary peoples who did not store much because of the need to move often in search of food.  Nonetheless, this was not an acquisitive society in the sense of accumulating a great deal of stored food.  Go-getters had to be content on pursuing prestige through exhibiting excellence in hunting or demonstrating skills e.g., in shamanism, not by amassing wealth.

Go-getters, those I call aggrandizers, have always existed and will always exist.  Today they run corporations and countries.  But during the Paleolithic they were handcuffed by the lack of a technological/material base and the absence of a storable-stealable-surplus.  They were also limited by the minimal weaponry of the Paleolithic.  Since the Agricultural Revolution men have dominated others using weapons, which have become more and more sophisticated and deadly through time.  In the Neolithic weaponry escalated from stone and wood to metal weapons.

Such weapons did not exist in the Paleolithic.  There was no way for one band to have better weapons than another band.  Conversely, in the Neolithic aggressive men could acquire exclusive access to metal ore and they could control skilled artisans who could make better weapons than others could manufacture.  Such weapons would gain them more wealth and control over the labor of captives, a feedback loop that would elevate them in society.

In the Paleolithic all people had very rudimentary weapons, as I mentioned above.  And they had them equally.  This is an important point.  Any ten-year old child could make the most sophisticated weapon of the day – a bow with poison-tipped arrows, and these rather sophisticated weapons did not show up until approximately 15 thousand B.P. (Fagan 1995:157).  Before that weapons would have been even easier to manufacture.

So even if there were men who would have liked to dominate others with weapons, it was not possible.  No doubt there were aggressive men who killed others; but they could not dominate a group using weaponry.  The others in any band had the same level of weaponry, so conflicts were limited to small skirmishes and raids and death due to raids must have been minimal.  For a visual example of such skirmishes, see Robert Gardner’s ethnographic film Dead Birds, which was shot in New Guinea.  The only death these bow-and-arrow wielding combatants could pull off was that of a small boy ambushed at a waterhole.  All other injuries resulting from direct skirmishes, in this film, were superficial flesh wounds.  Domination based on war was not possible in the New Guinea Highlands or in the Paleolithic because, in both cases, the combatants had very limited weaponry.

The other limitation to domination was the readily available food supply, which again was equally available to all.  The ten-year old child with a bow and arrow could bag a large animal just like a thirty-year old.  Furthermore, anthropologists know that most of the food consumed was not animal meat; but was roots, fruits and other natural foods gathered mainly by women.

This sexual division of labor has been part of the human approach to getting and processing food from the beginning of humanity on the planet.  Ethnographers who have studied modern-day hunter-gatherers have found it so; archaeologists studying the economic activities of early inhabitants of the Guilá Naquitz Cave in the Oaxaca Valley of Mexico found that men hunted and women processed the foods (Flannery et. al.  1986); and I and many other ethnographers have found it to be ubiquitous in the study of tribal societies.

While women in the Paleolithic probably worked longer hours than men gathering and processing foodstuffs, in general the workday was short compared to work in agricultural societies, as the food could be collected in a couple of hours each day and processing would have been minimal .  When men went on extended hunts, they ate off the land.  Anyone could simply pick their food, which also applied to clothes, houses, weapons’ materials and bits and pieces for prestige items (e.g., crafts) – all were free in nature and anybody could easily transform such natural products into what was needed to survive.  No one person or class of persons could have a monopoly on anything.

Another way of saying this is that there was no storable-stealable-surplus in the Paleolithic.  A Paleolithic aggrandizer could not store up nature’s food or other materials for himself.  He could; but it would give him no advantage.  It would be a waste of his time and people would have thought him daft.  That’s the key.  When an anthropologist asked a man living in a band society in modern day Africa why he didn’t collect foodstuffs from the forest and store then in their camp, the man looked at the Westerner as if he was crazy.  “Why would I do that?  They are already stored for me in the forest!”  It would be a waste of energy to store them.

Furthermore, it would be a waste of time to steal food, clothes or any goods because they could be made easily with no chance of social retribution.  No band had any goods that other bands did not have.  Why risk a counter-attack by stealing food or goods from another group when they can be had more easily and more safely by gleaning them from nature.

All this is to say that there was no surplus that could be rationally hoarded to the advantage of any individual, class or group.  Nature held the surplus for all on an equal basis.

However life was not a free-for-all.  Paleolithic people had culture, that is, they communicated with one another and developed concepts about how one should behave.  These codes, rule-sets that anthropologists call an ethos, were passed on orally from one generation to another.  That is, children were socialized to societal norms.  The codes of the Paleolithic were communalistic i.e., they stressed the good of the group over and against the good of any given individual, go-getter or not.  Opportunists had to be content to be “better” in ways that benefited the group, to exercise their aggressiveness to bring in more food or protect the band from wild animals or raiders, etc.  Paleolithic super-achievers could also pursue non-threatening avenues of self-expression e.g., dancing, craft production, art (somebody painted all those rocks and cave walls) and shamanism.  These activities garnered Paleolithic women and men prestige; but not property or power over others.

The codes that emerged during the Paleolithic tended to stress social responsibility.  When men, women or children broke the rules, they were punished by being shunned or verbally condemned by other band members, either directly or through gossip.  In rare cases, very deviant individuals were physically punished, as we shall see in the following case:




Case 1.1.  Ju/’hoansi Murder.


Richard Lee reports a case where a Ju/’hoansi[4] forager committed murder and was himself shot by several men, his lifeless body lying in the middle of the camp riddled with arrows.  Then each member of the band, including women, passed by and took turns firing more arrows into the body until each member of the social group had symbolically participated in the execution of the deviant.  The imagery is clear: the entire band killed the deviant; no one individual killed him.




It would appear that Paleolithic humans, as with the Ju/’hoansi cited above, understood that their individual fates were dependent on group unity and that individuals should act in ways that supported group customs and their joint survival.  Additionally, it must be stated that human groups were not isolated from one another, nor were they inherently hostile to others.  Alliance and exchange between groups was a universal fact among hominids and humans (Bender 1985).  This fact would have mitigated against open, long-term hostility between groups.




Case 1.2.  Andaman Islander Cooperation.


The Andaman Islanders present a good case for presuming that the Paleolithic was a time of egalitarian practices that was more peaceful than that which developed after the Neolithic Revolution.  The Andaman Islanders provide good data on this because it was a relatively uncontaminated foraging society when A. R. Radcliffe- Brown studied the islanders between 1906 and 1908.

Living in natural abundance, the Andaman foragers shared food while land was a free good.  Portable property was private; but freely shared for the asking.  Their custom of giving presents was a further leveling mechanism; plus, a giver would expect to receive a counter-gift at a later date and derived prestige by giving.  This was a form of institutionalized redistribution.  C. Daryll Forde noted that in such egalitarian societies a person stood to gain more by giving than by hoarding.  The giver gained prestige and also security by his or her generosity, since the receiver of the gift must give a counter gift or lose face (1960:337). 

In such a society a strong ethos of sharing and equality built up in response to an abundance of food and the impossibility of amassing a surplus in order to dominate or outdo others.  Radcliffe-Brown (1922) found that among the Andamanders competition was limited to an attempt to outdo others at generosity.  There was abundance or a natural surplus; but it was non-storable, or rather the storing of any natural food would be a ludicrous endeavor. 

Radcliffe-Brown noted that three kinds of people were accorded honor and respect in Andaman society: (1) older persons; (2) persons endowed with supernatural powers; and (3) individuals with certain skills that benefited society e.g., hunting or expertise in battle, as well as persons who are relatively free of ill temper and who are very generous and kind.  This “inequality” was limited to the lifetime of the individuals being so honored by the group.  The accord afforded these special persons was not institutionalized, nor could it be passed on to anyone else.  




The Andaman people lived in a relatively egalitarian society; but anthropologists have not found any society that is completely egalitarian or free from aggrandizement by some members of the society.  Even those very simple bands that have been ethnographically investigated show that some male dominance is exhibited in social interaction between the sexes and there are occasional efforts by aggrandizers to counter the general ethos of egalitarianism.  That would indicate that for the very long Paleolithic, society must have struggled mightily to prevent opportunists from rising up, stressing communitarian values over individual bluster.

It would seem that such tendencies toward males trying to exert themselves in a dominant position over females and the efforts of aggrandizers, both male and female, to demonstrate their individualism are naturally embedded in biology and mental structures.  These tendencies show up in every society anthropologists have studied and presumably they existed in the Paleolithic.  But having said that, some societies are much more egalitarian than others.  There are societies today that exhibit near equality, when compared to the majority of modern ones and many more existed in the two and half million years of the Paleolithic.

We have ethnographies that illustrate societies that come close to pure egalitarianism.  In them, some privilege is usually accorded to those of advanced age, based on the assumption that they have acquired wisdom and knowledge through the years, yet if an older person lacks these qualities, he or she will routinely be ignored or only accorded nominal respect (Lenski 1984:110-111).  In addition to age, gender is a divisive fact of life in all societies, though again, there is much variation in how sexual differences play out.

I agree with Marvin Harris that, contrary to those who would wish otherwise, we have no empirical evidence to indicate that any society is, or has ever been, entirely free of some form of discrimination (1993:59).  For instance, in the politico-jural domain men always have a slight edge, taking the lead in political and military affairs.  Elsie Begler (1978), writing from the point of view of a female anthropologist, claims to have discovered in her cross-cultural analysis of various ethnographies on hunting and gathering societies that there are some where males seem to dominate, as in some Australian Aborigine groups and in Eskimo societies.  She has termed these types of groups as “semi-egalitarian” while other groups, such as the Ju/’hoansi and the Mbuti, she says display equal status among males and females and these groups are termed: “pure egalitarian” societies. 

The ethnographic facts from the Ju/’hoansi and Mbuti do not support her assertions.  Certainly, they are “relatively” egalitarian; but males still hold a slight edge in social affairs in both societies.   Among the Ju/’hoansi, men more often hold positions of influence, as spokesmen and healers.  This fact was expressed to ethnographers by both Ju/’hoansi women and men (Shostak 1981:237).  There are differences in initiation rites as well: men’s are held in private, while those of women are public affairs.  Perhaps the greatest indication that there is a significant difference between men and women is seen in the fact that if a menstruating Ju/’hoansi woman touches a man’s arrows they are thought to be polluted and will not find their target.  On the other hand, men cannot pollute anything they touch.  With such differences in Ju/’hoansi society we cannot consider male and females to be equals.  Furthermore, of the bare-handed, non-lethal attacks recorded by Lee (1979:453) 97 percent were men beating women and only one recorded case of a woman attacking a man.  These were bare-fisted affairs; but men also hold all the weapons and have a coercive psychological edge in gender relations.  Shostak (1981:307) writes that when a conflict appears to be getting out of hand between men and women, the men are known to say: “I’m a man.  I've got my arrows.  I am not afraid to die.”  Lee found that of known murders among the Ju/’hoansi, all were perpetrated by men and some of the victims were women. 

For the Mbuti hunter-gatherers, Colin Turnbull (1961:127) indicated that men and women were not entirely equal.  In public affairs, men took precedence.  Men were associated with, hunting, power and influence, while women were allied with nurturing roles.  This dichotomy came out violently in male-female relations, since Mbuti men said that a certain amount of wife beating was good (1961:127).  These data do not indicate a peaceful and fully egalitarian society.

These ethnographic facts are important for our interest in how domination was fabricated in history.  If there is, as I have tried to show, a natural tendency for men to dominate women and for opportunists to try to assert themselves and attempt to control other people; then the fact that such tendencies were held down for most of the two and a half million years of the Paleolithic Era is an astonishing fact.

 In Paleolithic bands, and in most of the living foragers today, self-aggrandizement was kept at a minimum and was channeled into socially acceptable activities e.g., hunting, foraging, shamanism and being one who could entertain others around the campfire.  In all those societies no major institutions of domination emerged, in spite of the biological and personality-based propensities toward aggression and self-aggrandizement found in all human groups.

This raises the question: what is different about those few forager societies where institutions of domination emerged and the vast majority of foraging societies where institutions of inequality did not?  The answer is to be found in the material conditions of each society.  In short, when ecological conditions provided aggrandizers opportunities to use their assertiveness to amass and store wealth, go-getters began to formulate ideas and rules that provided them and their families an edge over others in the political realm based on their advantage in economics.  This did not happen in non-storing Paleolithic foraging societies because their survival depended on cooperating as a tight-knit unit in which aggressiveness and competition were kept to a bare minimum.  Thus, these societies remained comparatively peaceful.

In the Enlightenment, Thomas Hobbes put forth a view that men were naturally aggressive and war was an inevitable consequence of humans living in social groups (1997 [1651]).  Wherever humans gather there will also be the potential, even the probability of war in his view.  To Hobbes, this state of “war of all against war” necessitated government to guarantee peace.  Since Hobbes’ groundbreaking work on the subject, thinkers have tried to understand why men are aggressive and why war is so widespread, in spite of Hobbes’ early belief that the application of Reason by government officials would curtail war.

Sanderson (nd: 38) notes that “social hierarchies have to be explained by all three modes of Darwinian conflict explanation, i.e., bio-, eco-, and poli-materialistically.  Social hierarchies are biologically rooted but elaborated by a range of social and cultural conditions, especially those relating to economic and political organization.”  In other words, hierarchies don’t emerge unless certain conditions external to the biology of humans stimulate them.

Still, some humans yearn for recognition.  Jerome Barkow (1989) says that there is a natural human hunger for prestige that dominates much human behavior.  Joseph Lopreato (1984) notes that humans have an innate desire for creature comforts.  This is linked to primates as well where researchers have seen the virtual universality of hierarchy, especially in terrestrial primates, the ancestors of whom humans are, descended (van den Berghe 1978).

Hence, we see that biological anthropologists and sociobiologists are linking primate and human behavior, indicating that the desire for status, esteem and prestige are natural to both ourselves and our primate cousins.  Because of this genetically lodged desire it is very difficult for societies with a surplus to maintain the egalitarianism that the non-storers of the Paleolithic struggled to maintain.  Indeed, in both the egalitarian societies of the past and in the relatively egalitarian societies still in existence, equality is constantly challenged by those who want to rise above others (Woodburn 1982; Cashdan 1980). 

In this sociobiological view, equality seems to be constantly challenged because the human brain has evolved to seek higher status and the material and positional indicators of success, all of which have a positive impact on reproductive success.  That is, throughout the history of hominid evolution those individuals who exhibited such indicators left more progeny than those who did not.  Since such aggrandizement is innate, it had to exist in some individuals in the Paleolithic and therefore society had to work to hold in check the assertiveness of such aggrandizers.

Stephen Sanderson (nd: 27-28), in wondering about Marvin Harris’ analysis of the emergence of social class, says:


…Harris never does explain why ruling classes form in the first place, except to point to certain infrastructural conditions necessary for them to exist, and thus he begs the very question he is trying to answer.  It is true that certain minimal infrastructural conditions are required for their existence; but this does not adequately explain why they [ruling classes] always arise when those conditions are present.  Surely there must be something about the organism and the way it interacts with those conditions that call forth ruling classes.  In stressing the economically and politically egalitarian nature of band and tribal societies, Harris also fails to point out that these societies are filled with prestige- and power-seekers whose ambitions must be curtailed by the rest of the society, lest they get out of control.  There seems to be more than a desire for love and approval that is motivating leaders in such societies; it is simply that they have to be satisfied with those outcomes because they will not be permitted anything more [my insert].


Sanderson apparently is in line with my way of thinking on aggrandizement.  I see self-seeking as a natural tendency that is hyperactive in more or less ten percent of any human population regardless of their social formations, cultural values or material conditions.  However, this tendency toward achievement can be curtailed or stimulated by variation in any number of these factors.  One of the most stimulating causes of the release of aggrandizement by go-getters is the change from a non-storing to storing economy, a change that was set in motion by transformations in the physicality or material circumstances in which the society operated. 

But self-aggrandizement can be unleashed in a society that already values capitalistic aggrandizement, for example, the case of Robert Mugabe and his band of thieves in Zimbabwe.  Southern Rhodesia was a capitalist society par excellence and even though Mugabe and many of the freedom fighters that overthrew the capitalist regime of Ian Smith espoused socialist ideas, when they took over the reins of power they seized the opportunity to enrich themselves at the expense of the Zimbabwe people.  This was a case where the material environment did not change; but a change in political power did, unleashing the pent up self-aggrandizement in Mugabe and his cronies. 

Sanderson feels that Marvin Harris’ theoretical point of view – cultural materialism – is a good one; but it is inadequate because of Harris’ failure to embrace sociobiology as another form of materialist explanation.  He says “we need to push cultural materialism in a sociobiological direction and show how the two perspectives can be synthesized into a more comprehensive perspective whose explanations will be more adequate.”

I agree that biology, environment and social forms interact, with causation primarily going from material to social to mental constructs.  Sanderson (nd: 33-35) nicely lays this out in some detail in what he calls “Principles Concerning the Deep Wellsprings of Human Action.”  The eight principles are:


(1.)  Like all other species, humans are organisms that have been built by millions of years of biological evolution, both in their anatomy and physiology and in their behavioral predispositions.  This means that theories of social life must take into consideration the basic features of human nature that are the products of human evolution.


(2.)   The resources that humans struggle for, which allow them to survive and reproduce, are in short supply.  This means that humans are caught up in a struggle for survival and reproduction with their fellow humans.  This struggle is inevitable and unceasing.


(3.)  In the struggle for survival and reproduction, humans give overwhelming priority to their self-interests and to those of their kin, especially their close kin.


(4.)  Human social life is the complex product of this ceaseless struggle for survival and reproduction.


(5.)  Humans have evolved strong behavioral predispositions that facilitate their success in the struggle for survival and reproduction.  The most important of these predispositions are as follows:


• Humans are highly sexed and are oriented mostly toward heterosexual sex.  This predisposition has evolved because it is necessary for the promotion of humans’ reproductive interests.  Males compete for females and for sex, and females compete for males as resource providers.


• Humans are highly predisposed to perform effective parental behavior, and the female desire to nurture is stronger than the male desire.  Effective parental behavior has evolved because it promotes reproductive success in a species like humans.  The family as a social institution rests on a natural foundation.


• Humans are naturally competitive and highly predisposed toward status competition.  Status competition is ultimately oriented toward the securing of resources, which promotes reproductive success.  Because of sexual selection, the predisposition toward status competition is greater in males than in females.


• Because of the natural competition for resources, humans are economic animals.  They are strongly oriented toward achieving economic satisfaction and well-being, an achievement that promotes reproductive success.


• In their pursuit of resources and closely related activities, humans, like other species, have evolved to maximize efficiency.  Other things being equal, they prefer to carry out activities by minimizing the amount of time and energy they devote to these activities.  A Law of Least Effort governs human behavior, especially those forms of behavior that individuals find burdensome or at least not rewarding in and of themselves.  The Law of Least Effort places major limits on the behavior of humans everywhere; much behavior can only be explained satisfactorily by taking it into account.


(6.)  None of the tendencies identified above are rigid. Rather, they are behavioral predispositions that move along certain lines rather than others but that interact in various ways with the total physical and sociocultural environment.  The behavioral predispositions tend to win out in the long run; but they can be diminished, negated, or amplified by certain environmental arrangements.


(7.)  From the above it follows that humans’ most important interests and concerns are reproductive, economic, and political.  Political life is primarily a struggle to acquire and defend economic resources, and economic life is primarily a matter of using resources to promote reproductive success.


(8.)  Many, probably most, of the features of human social life are the adaptive consequences of people struggling to satisfy their interests.


I agree with Sanderson that fundamental causation lies primarily in the biostructure and ecostructure (what Harris would call the material world, although he largely ignored the biostructure).  These material factors affect social structure and mental formations.  But it does not end there.  As Sanderson points out “Once structures and superstructures have been built by biostructures and ecostructures, they may come to acquire a certain autonomy.  New needs and new interests may arise therefrom, and these new needs and interests, along with reproductive, economic, and political interests, may form part of the human preference and value structure characteristic of the members of a society.”  In other words, it is not mutually exclusive causation for which we should be looking; but rather how biostructure, ecostructure, social structure and mental structures interact to produce any given repetitive set of human behaviors, what Ruth Benedict called “The Patterns of Culture” (Benedict 2006 [1934]).


The End of the Ice Age


The end of the Ice Age brought dramatic changes to human populations; but not the rise of chiefs in those societies lacking long-term storage of foodstuffs.  Food storage was very important in the development of complexity.  Food storage based on wild foods that facilitated greater sedentism was also an impetus to population expansion. 

Some scholars have noted the importance of sedentism in the emergence of complexity.  For instance, in Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind Professor Renfrew (2007:114) writes:


It is a central idea of the present work that the most decisive turn in prehistory – and a key ingredient in the solution to the sapient paradox[5] – came with the order-of-magnitude increase in the variety of engagement between humans and the material world, mediated by the use of symbols, that began with the development of sedentism – living the year round in a permanent dwelling within a well-established residential community.  Quite rapidly material things then achieved new importance.  This seems to be true for the human experience in different parts of the world, along different and quite independent trajectories of development.


His thesis is that sedentism contributed to the emergence of complexity in human society.  I believe this is misplaced emphasis on the fact of sedentism, one that obscures the real causal variable of the emergence of complexity – the capacity of the group to produce a food surplus.  Nonetheless, some hunting and gathering bands faced conditions that reduced their mobility prior to coming to live in permanent villages with stores of food.  In the southern Levant, there is clear evidence that the subsistence and nutritional foundation for the expansion of population appeared several thousand years before the appearance of domesticated plants (Kuijt 2008).

After about 15 thousand B.P., with global warming, the population curve of hunter-gatherers approached that of carrying capacity (Fagan 1995:154).  This had two main effects on human life: (1) mobility was reduced and (2) humans were forced to innovate to exploit local food resources more intensively.  It is significant, however, that the innovations in technology and food-getting techniques were made by individuals and small leaderless groups and not by the rise of formalized leadership.  Collectives still cooperated to produce their food and distributed those foodstuffs in an egalitarian manner without the emergence of chiefship.

The only exceptions to this were to be found in those hunter-gatherers that lived in environments that offered them foodstuffs that could be stored on a long-term basis e.g., where there were seasonal phenomena such as caribou migrations, salmon runs or especially plentiful but seasonal nuts or cereals.  In these few environments humans harvested enormous quantities of food in a short time and also processed and stored them for later use.  Brian Fagan writes:


Storage technology now assumed a new and pressing importance; thousands of fish were dried on racks in the sun or in front of fires, and the nut and wild cereal harvest was placed in basket- or clay-lined pits for later consumption.  There was nothing new in the notion of storage; much earlier in prehistory, big-game hunters, for example, dried meat and pounded it to make food on the march.  What was new, however, was the notion of large-scale storage in more sedentary settlements, where mobility was no longer a viable strategy.  By using storage and by careful seasonal “mapping” of game, plant, and aquatic resources, early Holocene[6] hunter-gatherers compensated for periodic food shortages caused by short-term climatic change and seasonal fluctuations (1995:159).


I will discuss examples of these in more detail later (see: Case 4.10).

The end of the Ice Age also saw greater sedentism with some groups living in a central base camp and part-time in satellite camps.  As it became necessary to exploit local resources more thoroughly, groups began to exchange more goods and materials with their neighbors.  Scarce items in one area, such as obsidian, stone for axes, metal ore, shells for ornaments and the like, were traded between communities and sometimes over long distances.  Technology was in transition.  Society was becoming more complex; but the new more multifaceted food processing and tool-making tasks still could be handled by individuals and families without overarching leadership. 

Eventually the complexity becomes reflected largely in increased evidence of a rich symbolic life, especially in planned burials and the presence of elaborate grave goods e.g., at the Ertbølle cemeteries in Denmark, dating to about 7 thousand B.P. (Price 1985).

Some few communities developed even greater complexity since they settled in marine environments, which served as seafood cornucopias (Binford 1983).  It is unclear, however, when these more complex societies developed or how much there complexity corresponded to the Amerindians of the Northwest Coast or other documented hunter-gatherer-fishers (see Case 1.5., Case 3.4., Case 4.6., Case 4.7., & Case 4.10).  Professor Fagan (1995:168) says, however, that they likely developed within the last 10 thousand years and they must have had some “form of simple social ranking, probably based on lineages or other kin groupings, marked by differences in wealth, diet, and burial customs.”[7]  What we do know from the archaeological record is that they had food storage, highly developed hunting, fishing and plant processing equipment and were involved in exchange of exotic objects and raw materials with neighboring groups.  They also had highly developed rituals and an elaborate ceremonial life.

At this point we only know that with these Stone Age hunter-gatherer-fishers and documented ones like the Northwest Coast Amerindians, the Calusa and the Chumash, maritime resources played a significant role in stimulating rising complexity (see below under The Emergence of Complexity).


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