Case 1.7. Comparison of Mortuary Rites in Sisalaland, Northern Ghana & the Ancient Levant
We see this ethnographically. In my study of ritual in Northern Ghana I observed Sisala household heads officiating at rites, the opening words of which always involved calling out the names of their departed ancestors, each of whom was a previous household headman (Mendonsa 1975b; 1976; 1977; 1982). By doing this the living household headman was implicitly reaffirming his authority and position of importance within the group, all the while seeming to be acclaiming the value of lineage solidarity.
Aggrandizers in ancient times would have understood the value of such rituals in their self-promotion efforts. They would have discerned the value of tapping into the emotional power of such rites. As corporate descent groups emerged, they provided segments of society in which aggrandizers could find a foothold, a place of leadership as a kin group headman. From that position, they could champion egalitarian values, while at the same time promote themselves as segment headmen. As Professor Kuijt (2002:83) says, “such segmentation was limited” and it “occurred within the broader context of an egalitarian ideology.”
Society did not move from egalitarianism to hierarchy overnight. The establishment of institutions of power was a process, one in which multiple aggrandizers over generations no doubt had to walk a fine line between old and new orders. Clearly a rational strategy for aggrandizers would have been to become involved in rites that reinforced community values, while at the same time elevating the status of certain key dead individuals to whom they were closely related, subtly lifting up their own stature in the process.
In my work on ritual in Sisalaland Northern Ghana I found that the authority structure was periodically reinforced as elders presided at sacrificial rituals (Mendonsa 1976; see also: Blanton 1995). An elevated social identity was formed every time an elder presided at a ritual, an act which linked him with previous headmen in the group. Acting in a public forum as the headman, the Sisala elder was creating intelligible meaning for the group. Part of that meaning was that the group was unified; the other part of the message was that he was an authoritative leader. Ritual created a political rationale for his actions as a leader of the group. As he presided, the Sisala elder was reinforcing a gerontocratic authority structure that dictated that he held certain rights and privileges denied to others in the group, especially women and junior males.
Professor Kuijt (2002:84) notes that for the Pre-Pottery Neolithic Levant mortuary rites in which there was a selective practice of cranial deformation, the plastering of the skulls of certain selected individuals and the caching of plastered skulls in groups – all signifying the presence of social differentiation. Furthermore, there was a gradual appearance of personal adornment in select graves. This is straightforward evidence of the decline in group solidarity and the rise of corporatism, most likely in the form of lineages or descent groups, each with their respective leadership. It is also likely, as Professor Kuijt points out, that there could have existed a body of ritual specialists presiding over such rites. Such cults are common in the ethnographic record.
These publically-witnessed rites would have involved the initial funeral of the deceased. Later, the grave was re-opened and the skull removed. The skull-less body was then re-buried and more rites centered around the cleaning and plastering of the skull. The skull then underwent a secondary burial in a separate place. In presiding at such rites, the individual or individuals supervising them would have been emphasizing the linkage between the living and the dead; but also the authority structure among the living. Such ritual specialists were involved in creating and reinforcing a standardized memory, a linkage between a collective of ancestors and the remaining social group.
In Sisalaland Northern Ghana, not all ancestors were remembered at such rites. Only the names of prominent senior Sisala men, mostly headmen, were addressed in the rites. Subtly then, the rites were both reaffirming the solidarity of the group and highlighting the gerontocratic authority structure. Clearly in the Sisala case, ritual and political authority cannot be separated and they were being co-embedded in the minds of the ritual community.
No doubt, the same would have obtained in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic Levant rites. In both cases, mortuary rites linked the living and the dead in a single community, with the Sisala materializing this connection with ancestor shrines and a communal grave in the family courtyard; and the Levantine folk with processed skulls of selected ancestors.
In the Sisala case, the important dead ancestors were being remembered at each rite by addressing them by name. In the Levantine case, the process was twofold: firstly some skulls were collected to be cached; secondly, from that cache ritual specialists took some skulls to have skull-masks created (Kuijt 2002:86). In both cases, in the world of the dead, some individuals were clearly more important than others. The somewhat understated message in both cases was that the world of the living should reflect the social organization in the world of the dead, as both were considered part of a larger social unit.
Performing rituals entailed knowledge of how to contact the ancestors, the right to call the public together for ritual purposes, as well as supervising and shaping the content of the ritual – for example, in Sisalaland who to mention and who to leave out of the litany of ancestral names. In the ancient Levant, presumably it was the ritual elder deciding which skulls to cache and which to provide with further attention. For those selected skulls the procedure was rather elaborate e.g., the creation of a naturalistic face, including all the features of a normal face. In both the Sisala and Levantine cases, as the presiding authority, the elder in charge was mediating the relationship between the living and the dead, which in and of itself had a powerful emotional impact on participants and bystanders.
Traditionally in Sisalaland the dead body was buried in a communal grave in the family courtyard and ancestor shrines were also situated within the courtyard. By 1998, the time of my last ethnographic trip to Northern Ghana, modernization had altered the burial practices in a few cases. The fact that big men, chiefs and other notable individuals were now being buried alone in cemented graves with decorations and writing on the cement indicated that a process of individualizing was beginning in Sisalaland, largely due to colonial contact, the rise of Ghanaian nationalism and the penetration of the area by the market economy (Mendonsa 2003).
In the Levantine case, the caching of selected ancestral skulls in extramural locations would seem to indicate the creation of a ritual focal point, a materialization of the ancestor cult, outside the family dwelling. As time passed, these skulls had added to them votive objects – human figurines and faunal remains. One interpretation of such a materialized skull cache is that it was a political center, holding the processed skulls of prominent leaders, a symbolic focal point for living political leaders.
The entire meaning of such ritualistic activities is unclear to archaeologists working in the region; but one interpretation is that the archaeological findings coincide with what was transpiring in Sisalaland i.e., that changes in burial practices represented changes that were occurring in society.
Professor Millaire (2004) also found that the manipulation of human remains in ancient Moche society in Peru was based on the belief that such ritual processing of dead bodies was a way of changing destiny. This would seem to indicate that such mortuary skeletal manipulation by ritual specialists was common cross-culturally, with ritual activities having social meaning and implications for social change.
For example, there have always been big men in Sisalaland, perhaps even great men who could conceivably be called little chiefs; but traditionally they were always buried in the family tomb beneath the courtyard of their lineage of birth. Their greatness was part of the collective character of the kin group. No manipulation of the ancestral skeleton was involved, nor was their bigness marked by a different burial; but their funeral would be longer, three days being normal for an average man, while big men might have a funeral that would go on for twelve days. Furthermore, the names of such men automatically went into the genealogical lexicon to be recited at every ritual by the man’s community.
It does not seem a stretch of the imagination to assume that the changes afoot in the ancient Levant also reflected social changes. With the advent of a storing economy, it seems that aggrandizing leaders were emerging and that archaeologists can see this in the changes in burial practices. It is an interpretation not at odds with the data from Sisalaland and other ethnographic examples too numerous to cite; but for a good number of them see the bibliography in Sir Jack Goody’s classic, Death, Property and Ancestors (1962).
It seems clear that within these early Levantine communities there existed a nascent form of governance associated with mortuary rituals. Another interesting aspect of the archaeological data is that mortuary practices are very uniform in multiple Levantine communities of that time. Kuijt (2002:87) speculates that this may represent some form of regional cult, perhaps even regional governance of some sort. Further research may provide more insight into this; but for our purposes here what we see in these two instances is certainly the emergence of ritual institutions that indicate the move away from an egalitarian state to one that is socially differentiated. It would appear, at the very least, that corporatism was on the rise, with family groups developing headmen with special ritual knowledge within the context of an ancestor cult. In such corporations were being sown the seeds of chiefdoms and the rise of even greater individualism.
We will pursue the impact of domestication in more detail in the next chapter.
The Question of Warfare
Bronislaw Malinowski (1941) was clear on the fact that it was surplus production that produced warfare and the cultural institutions accociated with it and that prior to the Agricultural Revolution warfare did not exist. After several groundbreaking ethnographies on hunter-gatherers and the development of general hypotheses about their peaceful lifestyles, work that confirmed Malinowski’s thesis, there was the expected reaction by nay saying anthropologists who questioned the general perspective developed by the ethnographers who did the fieldwork e.g., the 1978 Ethnology article by Carol Ember. She made some questionable claims that do not concern us here; but the one that does is her contention that hunter-gatherers were not ‘typically peaceful.” Modern-day hunter-gatherers are not entirely peaceful and, as archaeologists tell us, neither were those of the Paleolithic; but by comparison to the warfare that developed after the Agricultural Revolution, they were very peaceful.
It is my contention that once a surplus generated stratification in storing societies, whether sedentary foraging, agricultural or pastoralist societies, aggrandizers fabricated rules and ideas that favored militarism and forms of true warfare, not simple skirmishes or petty disputes. Earlier non-sedentary foragers of the long Paleolithic may have had violent individuals and may have periodically retaliated against a neighboring band in small-scale scuffles; but violence was limited to makeshift conflicts, murder of individuals or capital punishment. The idea of organized, enduring feud had not arrived in the non-storing bands of the Paleolithic. As Kelly states:
The transition from capital punishment to feud or war – that is, the transition that encapsulates the origin of war – is thus contingent upon the development of the companion concepts of injury to the group and group liability that provides grounds for generalized, reciprocating collective violence that takes the form of raid and counter-raid (2000:43).
It was when a society found itself in the presence of strategic economic stimuli (e.g., land, prime fishing holes, etc) that opportunists formulated ways of arming their fellows to, perhaps in the first instance, defend their resources; and then to move from defensive warfare to offensive combat. Strategic economic stimuli created excess wealth and this stimulated the desire on the part of aggrandizers to formulate rules and roles – political and religious – that gave them the power to control the surplus and to go after the stored wealth of others. This was usually done by emerging politicos; but they also may have acted in concert with shamans or nascent priests, as we will see in Case 3.2 where little chiefs and shamans collaborated to extract surplus value from their fellow sedentary foragers.
This is a diminutive example of what is commonly known to historians as the palace-temple complex e.g., that of Pi-Ramesse of the Pharaoh Ramesses II (3,279-3,213 B.P.) that housed within its walls royal palaces, the high court, military barracks and temples, all the architecture of power. Also, the Pharaoh had constructed a giant statue of himself as the enthroned monarch and wall paintings depicting his victories in war (Tyldesley 2000). All those materializations of statecraft were centuries away from the simplicity of life in the Paleolithic.
Kelly (2000:chapter 2) notes that the development of segmentation is a key causal variable in the emergence of war. It is lacking in most of Fabbro’s sample of peaceful societies and present in most warlike societies (1978). Segmentation of a group is also at least a covariant of the rise of élites and inequality in my view. It is, therefore, important that we understand what an unsegmented society is and how it differs from a segmented one.
Unsegmented societies have a minimum degree of elaboration of social groups; while segmented societies are internally demarcated e.g., into lineages, moieties or clans. No level of organization beyond the local community is found in unsegmented groups; while in segmented ones there are levels of organization beyond the local community. Within local groups of unsegmented societies, families are usually identifiable as detachable constituent units; while in segmented societies, within local groups, families are not identifiable as detachable constituent units but are one segment in a larger grouping. In unsegmented societies, nuclear families tend to predominate within the local group; while in unsegmented societies nuclear families are only one form of family organization and corporate extended families are common. In unsegmented societies the culturally recognized coactive groups are limited to the family and local community; while in segmented societies, the culturally recognized coactive groups found are not limited to the family and local community. In unsegmented societies there are no units that are equivalent in structure and function; while in segmented societies segments are units that are equivalent in structure and function. In unsegmented society there is no segmental organization and no segmental hierarchy; while in segmented societies there is both segmental organization and segmental hierarchy and segmental organization is a combination of like segments into progressively more inclusive groups within a segmentary hierarchy. Unsegmented groups show no corporations of any sort; while corporations are a common feature of segmented societies e.g., lineages and clans. Unsegmented societies lack social substitutability and there is no wergild;  while social substitutability is a feature of corporate groups (or sodalities) in segmented societies and the wergild may be found. Unsegmented societies lack descent groups; but may have egocentric bilateral kin networks or kindreds; while segmented societies have descent groups. In unsegmented societies there is no rule-bound marital exchange between set groups; while rule-bound marital exchange between set groups is common in segmented societies. In marriage in unsegmented societies, there is no significant transfer of valuables, though brideservice may exist; however in segmented societies both exist.
In the Atlas of World Cultures (Murdock 1981) there are only 32 of 563 societies (5.68%) that are unsegmented; while there are 551 segmented societies (94.32%). The significance of the vast difference between the percentage of unsegmented and segmented societies is that in Fabbro’s (1978) study of peaceful societies he found that unsegmented societies tended to be peaceful, with only two instances of segmented societies showing peaceful characteristics.
There is further empirical confirmation of the thesis that segmentation and social substitutability are key factors causing warlike attitudes in a society. Ross (1983) sampled the ethnographic data on 90 societies, of which 25 were foragers, as defined by them having less than 25% of their sustenance derived from domesticated plants or animals. Of these 25 foraging groups, 8 were of the unsegmented type and 17 did not conform to this organizational type; that is, they had instances of social substitutability and/or some degree of segmentation. His data show a very strong association between the low frequency of warfare and the unsegmented organizational type. In other words, warless societies lacked the organizational features associated with segmentation and social substitutability, those attributes that are conducive to the development of group concept e.g., “us vs. them.”
We can safely assume that hominids and early human hunter-gatherers were unsegmented and that, for some reason, segmentation began to occur after a very long period of time, and then rather abruptly. It began to form in farming communities and among pastoralists and sedentary forager/fishers e.g., the Northwest Coast Amerindians, the California Chumash and the Calusa of Florida; but segmentation proliferated once animals and plants were domesticated. In all cases, sedentary foragers and domesticators, the common variable was the presence of strategic resources – land, fishing grounds or pastures – that produced a storable-stealable-surplus – stored grain or seafood or herds. Once this situation obtained, aggrandizers moved to secure the surplus and did so by building institutions of authority e.g., chiefdoms and priesthoods.
Again, Ericksen & Horton (1992) provide cross-cultural data that show that unsegmented societies uniformly do not have the cultural concept of group liability or institutions such as the wergild, where vengeance is taken out on any member of the offender’s kin group. That is, social substitutability is lacking in unsegmented societies in their data set. They also found that the absence of kin group responsibility in hunter-gatherer societies made it seven times more likely in those societies that individual self-redress would be used than in other types of societies e.g., farmers or herders (1992:73-74). Also, those foragers that had some segmentation tended to have the concept of group responsibility and the practice of blood feud. Unsegmented societies lacked the defining characteristics of the blood feud and certainly did not have organized warfare, with the intent of dominating another society, seeking land, labor or prestige (Wright 1942:560-561).
Warfare is rare to nonexistent within and between unsegmented foraging non-storing societies inhabiting environments characterized by low resource density, diversity and predictability at densities below 0.2 persons per square mile (Kelly 2000:133). Furthermore, spontaneous disputes over access to resources occur both within and between unsegmented foraging societies in environments that are rich in naturally occurring subsistence resources, those that are characterized by high resource density, diversity and reliability. They also occur in environments that support population densities in excess of 0.2 persons per square mile. The frequency and severity of clashes is augmented by higher population densities and/or environmental circumscription (cf. Carneiro 1988).
All the data I have referenced indicate that pre-planned group efforts to exact vengeance are and were rare to non-existent in unsegmented foraging societies. Once a society, even a hunter-gathering one, develops segmentation the concept of social substitutability emerges and we see members participating in institutionalized blood feud.
What is significant for my theory is that pre-planned collective efforts to raid an enemy required some degree of leadership and preparation. It was a time for opportunists to shine and as history shows, feud was not a dead end street. Warfare developed next and this provided alpha males an opportunity to take leadership roles, which usually did not stop there, as go-getters have, throughout history, found ways to translate military success into political authority and wealth.
Blood feud was a stepping stone for aggrandizers who aspired to be grandees, which of course is a cognate word, both coming from the Latin adgrandir – to increase, as in increasing one’s power or status. Logically, such go-getters began to engage in warfare along with the building of political institutions, often in conjunction with the formation of religious institutions and they also fabricated the idea of male superiority, which in time led to patriarchy. These ideas, activities and institutions are related to militarism.
Case 1.8. Segmentation & the Settlement of Dispute among the Sisala of Northern Ghana.
In my own fieldwork in Ghana among the Sisala people I saw how segmentation works, both to create conflicts and to resolve them; but the process took leadership (Mendonsa 1982; 2000; 2001; 2003). Let's look at one case to illustrate this point. The Western Sisala where I did my fieldwork are a patrilineal people with clans, which are divided into lineages, several of which make up a village. My village of Bujan was segmented into nine patrilineages divided into two moieties, with three lineages on the Fokorniaa side (descendants of Fokor) and six on the side called Fuoniaa (descendants of Fuo). The principle lineage in the Fokorniaa was Fokorjang; while the senior lineage in the other moiety was Fuojang. Lineages were the only corporate groups, with members farming together and sharing food. Moieties were nominal units only, with no corporate functions, though Fuoniaa moiety was said to be the “elder brother” of Fokorniaa moiety. I suspect that the first settlers of Fokorniaa came late to the village and could have even been strangers, though they may have been clan members. In any case, they were considered clansmen and junior kin to the members of Fuoniaa at the time of my first fieldwork in the 1970s.
Bujan was one of several villages comprising the Crocodile clan, an exogamous unit. It was not an economically corporate unit; but did have a clan ritual leader, an earth priest, who periodically presided over ancestral sacrifices thought to benefit the whole clan. It was forbidden to have sex with or marry any classificatory “sister” or “mother” within the clan. This meant that a young man would have to travel miles to find a legitimate lover. Many made the trip, especially on market days held in distant clans.
I knew of only one case where it was known that there was an ongoing sexual relationship between a “brother” and a “sister” from our village, each coming from opposite moieties. No one was able to stop the tryst and people said that it would one day cause the village trouble.
But that was a rarity. Most illicit love affairs in the village were between young men and wives of their “brothers” and sometimes their “fathers,” as older husbands married polygamously could have young, attractive wives. This case is about one such affair, which ran against the norm that stated that one never sleeps with the wife of a kinsman, unless he dies and the wife is inherited and taken as a wife by the surviving brother.
I will call the couple involved by the fictitious names of Halu, a female; and Batong, the male in question. Halu, a young wife in her twenties, was married to a man in the moiety of Fuoniaa and Batong, a young unmarried man, was of the Fokorniaa moiety.
One morning while I was still in my hut I heard shouting and went outside to see young men armed with spears, hoes and axes threatening each other in the “no-man’s-land” that separated Fuoniaa from Fokorniaa. There was much shouting involved. My hut was next to that of the clan earth priest in Fuoniaa moiety and he, a very old man, came out after me. He surveyed the situation and quickly dispatched a small boy on an errand. The boy disappeared into the maze Fuoniaa compounds.
About the same time there were deafening screams coming from one of the lineage compounds in Fuoniaa and I later learned that the offended husband and his brothers were beating Halu for having slipped out of the compound during the night to sleep with Batong.
I found out that the husband had gone to Halu’s room during the night and found her absent. He did not know where she had gone and, at first, he thought that perhaps she had merely gone to defecate in the bush. When she did not return he called his brothers and they waited for her at the lineage gate. When she tried to sneak back in just before daybreak they jumped her and beat her with their fists. One old man hit her repeatedly with his walking stick; but, being blind, he wasn’t very accurate and later one of the men told me that he hit them more than the transgressing wife. It was a story that got amplified with the telling and became a source of merriment around village fires.
I was torn between observing the young men in the open space, who I thought would soon come to blows; and going over to the sounds of a screaming woman. I stayed next to the earth priest because I figured that was where the anthropological interest would lie. I was not disappointed.
Shortly the little boy returned to the side of the earth priest with another old man in tow. I knew this man to be the “eldest elder” of Bujan. This is a formal office and he is often called upon to settle disputes and is one of the presiding elders at ancestral sacrifices. He and the clan’s earth priest conferred briefly and then they sent the boy off again. This time he returned rather quickly with a tin plate full of cool ash from a firepit that had burned down and cooled. The earth priest took the plate of ash and, with the other old man, ambled toward the combatants, although the young men were doing nothing more than shouting insults at each other.
Let it be said that this was no small matter to the earth priest and the senior man of Bujan. According to Sisala lore, to spill the blood of a clansman, or to have sex with a clanswoman, would anger the clan ancestors to the point that they would cause all sorts of misfortune to befall the clan e.g., crops would fail, women would miscarry, people would become ill and others would die.
The two old men hurried as fast as their frail legs would take them to the scene of the confrontation, where the Fuoniaa chaps were facing the young men of Fokorniaa, all brandishing weapons that could cause blood to spill upon the earth, thus insuring a catastrophe for the clan.
This was a conflict between two segments of the segmentary lineage system (Smith 1956; Sahlins 1961). It is what social anthropologists call “structural conflict,” where one segment feels wronged by another and feels the need to retaliate. In this case the Fokornia boys came out and shouted first at the still sleepy Fuoniaa boys to “come out and fight! Those attacked, the Fuoniaa boys, felt the responsibility to defend the honor of their segment – their moiety. In an unsegmented society, the husband would probably have gone over and beat up or killed Batong. In this segmented case, it was a structural affair.
If the segmentation caused the ruckus; it also resolved it without bloodshed. The two groups of shouting youths stood face-to-face, about ten feet apart. The earth priest and the senior elder of Bujan placed themselves in between the shouting men, who totaled about twenty, with a few more on the Fokorniaa side. When the earth priest spoke, the combatants fell silent. He admonished them to stop before blood was spilt on clan ground and he went into some detail about the consequences of such an event. The confrontation turned into a classroom.
Then the senior elder of the village spoke and, in Sisala fashion, repeated most of what the earth priest had already said. While he was speaking, the earth priest took the plate of ash and dribbled a white line on the earth separating the two sides of potential combatants. When he was done, he again spoke, this time at some length. The young men were silent; but fidgety.
The earth priest noted that they could not cross that line of white, cool ash from the once hot fire. It was a metaphor and a ritual symbol, the kind for which every ethnographer waits. He explained that if they crossed the line of cool ash, the clan ancestors would kill them. He was pulling rank on them. He made this point repeatedly, which was great for note taking: “As this ash was once part of a raging fire; it is now cool. Your fires are raging in your hearts; but they too, like the ash, must be cool.”
Hot and cold are Sisala symbols that all present immediately understood. The illicit affair was a hot thing; but the spilling of clan blood would be even hotter. A hot thing does not make a hot thing right. Only a cool thing does that. That was the logic. Breaking clan rules makes things hot. Becoming angry over such a delict also creates unwanted heat. Hot things make the ancestors angry and they will rain misfortune on the clansmen if the hot things are not cooled. This was the council of the two elders, who by this time had been joined by all the senior men in the village.
After the sermons, which bored the young warriors, as sermons are want to do, they dispersed, grumbling their way back to their respective moieties, bowing to the higher authority of the elders and the unseen supernatural power of the ancestors.
Of course, several sacrifices had to be made by the senior men of the Fokorniaa to placate the ancestors of the clan, so as not to cause any more trouble. All was smoothed over until the next group conflict produced by the nature of their segmentary social structure. It was a group vs. group affair but had the segmentation been absent, as in a band of hunter-gatherers for example, most likely it would have been a conflict between individuals, not segments of kin groups.
Unsegmented societies that existed before the emergence of segmented sedentary societies in the Neolithic tended to act out their hostility in one-on-one confrontations or in small raids, as is the habit of contemporary hunter-gatherers (Dickson 1990:166).
In the early years of the Neolithic, segmentation was a bedfellow of hierarchy. Both can be said to be a cause of warfare, since it is difficult to interlock two or more separate hierarchies without some conflict. When a storable-stealable-surplus stimulated the rise of élites and ranks in society, leaders needed to defend the surplus of several segments e.g., lineages within a village. Obviously, defense was easier and more efficient if the segments were united under village leadership, hence the rise of chiefs to deal with such matters. Evans-Pritchard (1940) felt that the Nuer segmentary lineage system gave the Nuer an advantage in warfare because when two segments combined they formed a larger unit and a chieftain would emerge to lead them. There were countless combinations of groupings, each of which would be a new level of organization led by a designated leader. It is likely that Neolithic groups facing new conditions and needs also began to develop leadership over and above lower order kin segments.
Knauft (1990) reports that foragers typically have an ethos stressing non-competitive approaches to inter-personal and inter-group relations and a low frequency of social aggression, as well as a low valuation of aggressive behavior. Violence in history tended to increase with the development of a surplus of food that could be stored, in granaries for agriculturalists or in herds for pastoralists. This became what I term a storable-stealable-surplus and necessitated centralized control, militarization and led to violence in raids and defensive measures to protect community wealth that far exceeded the skirmishes that occasionally occurred in the egalitarian foraging world of the Paleolithic.
But it is not foraging lifestyle that prevents massive warfare so much as their tendency toward egalitarianism and non-segmentation. Kelly (2007) notes that violence is more common in non-egalitarian societies than in egalitarian ones. For example, in complex sedentary foragers, violence may be culturally acceptable and may frequently occur between individuals in competition for prestige. My contention is, however, that behind the demise of an egalitarian ethos there was a material cause – the presence of a storable-stealable-surplus.
Therefore, warfare had “its roots in the demographic and economic changes of the Neolithic Revolution” (Haas 1982:329). No doubt with the need to store and control early storage bins of grain and other food crops, early politicos would have organized locals to defend their stores, most likely on a volunteer basis i.e., there were, as yet, no standing armies. Yet as early as ancient Sumer (ca. 7,300 B.P.) there were armies composed of full-time soldiers who did not disband during times of peace. With the passage of time these professional soldiers became better trained and equipped than army reserves and volunteers, adding to the power of the state.
Case 1.9. Militarism in Ancient Sumer
Indeed, kingship in Sumer arose out of a more democratic assembly of elders who had a primus inter pares called the ensi, a city-governor. War stimulated the move to a more totalitarian political structure. As Sumer prospered struggles between city-states increased as did pressures from barbarians. Warrior-kings arose to cope with such threats and “gradually kingship with all its privileges and prerogatives became a hereditary institution and was considered the very hallmark of civilization” (Kramer 1963:74). These early warrior-kings established a regular army of heavily armored infantry, which attacked in phalanx formation and who were supported by the ancient tanks – horse-drawn chariots.
Grain storage was at the heart of this military buildup. During Sumer’s Ubaid 1 Period (ca. 7,300–6,700 B.P.), in the extreme southern portion of present-day Iraq, on what was then the shores of the Persian Gulf, people began to experiment with grain production. Settlers established permanent colonies there, pioneering the growing of grains in arid conditions. Their success led to what I call a storable-stealable-surplus. Once the Sumerians had permanent settlements and stores of grain, they had a problem that would face almost all farmers who developed beyond subsistence farming. That was the fact that while they had grain, there were others who did not. Their precious stores of grain were “stealable” or open to theft. As such they needed protection and militancy on the part of the producers, in the form of a reserve army, was the first response to such a threat; but once the state grew larger and more powerful, a standing army was in order.
Complexity was need-driven. Armies grew out of the same collective efforts that went into the digging of irrigation canals to succor the crops of these early Sumerian planters. It was another form of centralized coordination of labor. We know that a central government had arisen in Ubaid Sumer because their large villages had the first temples of public architecture in Mesopotamia. Their settlements show lower-ranked houses surrounding a temple-government complex of higher-ranked houses, indicating the emergence of social stratification. Ranked grave goods also show signs of a hierarchical society, indicators of decreasing egalitarianism. Peter Bogucki (1990) calls this transition the “trans-egalitarian” period, wherein households competed for resources with some winners and some losers.
In other words, this became a time of upward social mobility, with élites moving up, leaving commoners behind. This was the nascent rise of an élite class of hereditary chiefs. Perhaps they were kin group headmen who were linked to the administration of the temple, its shrines and granaries, since at this time, stored grain not only fell under military protection but also under that of the shamans and priests. Most likely, heads of state were responsible for mediating conflicts within the community and also protecting it from attacks by outsiders.
Thorkild Jacobsen (1978) and other Sumerian scholars believe that, for the first time, this culture saw the rise of a ranked society with rural peasants and lower-stratum townsmen being lorded over by a centralized élite cadre residing in the town’s temple complex. The rise of this aristocratic group of politico-religious leaders was stimulated by, among other things, the central need to protect society’s stores of food – the storable-stealable-surplus on which their existence depended. Protecting this storehouse by mystical means was part of their self-defined civic duty.
Roper (1975) indicates that war also increased with the growth of trade and efforts to control strategic sites along trade routes. In a more general sense, another important factor in the development of warfare was the evolution of centralized governments and hierarchy (Kelly 2000:1-2).
There is another aspect of war in the Neolithic, one which involves how farmers interacted with foragers. Some believe that as farmers were forced to migrate by demographic pressures, they encountered foragers and the meeting was not peaceful (Keeley 1996). Evidence for this comes from mass graves, arrows embedded in skeletons and village defensive systems of farmers who established themselves in Europe. It appears that there was violent conquest initially and ongoing attacks by non-farmers, either foragers or pastoralists. In any case, the emergence of agriculture likely stimulated warfare because farmers needed land and they used that land to produce a storable surplus, which made them vulnerable to attacks by have-nots. The presence of food stored in early villages made them tempting targets for nomadic bands or rival settlements
Once there were communities with stored wealth, warfare, both defensive and offensive, became a part of the human existence. Politicos found it convenient as a means of shoring up their power to militarize their societies with an eye toward defending their communities against attackers. On the other hand, some use their military forces to attack those communities they felt to be vulnerable. There were roughly two goals in such offensive war: (1) the attackers could sack and burn, taking wealth and slaves; or, (2) they could subjugate the members of the losing community to demand tribute or periodic payments. The latter approach was usually consistent with expansive chiefdoms, as in the case of the complex Amerindian chiefdoms of the Southeastern United States. By the time of European contact, the area’s political centers were linked in alliance, tributary or conquest relationships (Anderson 1994:74). Arriving Europeans found clusters of communities grouped around distinctive political centers, the smaller communities being subservient to the powerful center.
Case 1.10. Redistribution Chiefship among the Coosa Amerindians
The Coosa or Cofitachequi, a small group of Amerindians who lived in modern-day South Carolina, had two administrative/decision-making levels consisting of primary chiefs and their immediate followers; and lesser tribute-paying chiefs and their retinues (Hudson et. al. 1985). The Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto found a three-level settlement ranking system consisting of a major ceremonial/political center surrounded by smaller tribute-paying centers, which in turn were surrounded by tribute-paying villages (Anderson 1994:75). This hierarchical form was also noted by the Pardo Expedition (1566) where élites were seen as having distinctive dress and they were ranked into big chiefs and lesser nobles, the latter supporting the big chief, who in some accounts was called the Great Sun. Decisions were made by a chief in consultation with his Privy Council or principal supporters, comprised of men with inherited positions and also others who had distinguished themselves in warfare.
The Great Sun lived in the center of town, with the dwellings of his nobles arrayed around him, symbolic of central and peripheral authority. This is a common pattern in history (Smout 1980) that has been replicated over the centuries because, having established power, aspiring men moved to shore it up with aggressive war and its spoils. The Great Sun’s residence was set apart from the homes of commoners and served as his abode; but also as a temple – combination house and council room. These were mound-builders and the chief’s complex was often raised on one.
Not only were élite Coosa distinguished from commoners by dress and settlement pattern, they also acted in the service of the Great Sun as warriors, litter bearers, those who would fan him in public appearances, etc. In this openly visible service, nobles demonstrated both their close proximity to central authority and their dependence on it. The politico-religious center was about the business of siphoning off wealth from the periphery and it was paid in both foodstuffs and luxury goods – maize, deerskins, martin skins, bark blankets, feather mantles, trousers, leggings, moccasins, etc. – which were stored in large quantity near the residence of the Great Sun. He also had corncribs throughout his chiefdom filled with maize that was available to him upon demand. This chiefly complex in the middle of town was a redistribution center. Maize stores could be distributed to anyone in need, indeed Spanish armies were supplied with large quantities of food from them, and the Great Sun would also distribute luxury goods and slaves captured in war to his loyal followers. Of course, this was a method of maintaining the support of the key members of society.
The chief was also set apart in death with elaborate mortuary ceremonies, his body laid to rest in specially constructed tombs and symbolically surrounded in death by the noble dead. At these sites elaborate mortuary rites and ancestor veneration were performed. These tombs, as well as temples, shrines and sacred relics, were overseen by an organized priesthood and defended, as were other chiefly properties, by a warrior cult. These sacred sites were the “ideological centers of individual polities” (Anderson 1994:80). When warfare broke out, one focus of aggressors was the destruction of an enemy’s sacred places, thought to be especially demoralizing to a people the aggressors wished to conquer.
Warfare was designed to devour a tribal people, steal their food stores, disrespect their sacred places and ancestors and bring them into slavery, or to their knees as suppliers of tribute. The chiefdoms of the Southeastern United States were in a more or less constant state of war and were separated by buffer zones as a means of warding off attacks. Stimulated by the lust for capturing the stored wealth of others, raids were frequent. Towns were fortified and warriors were kept at the ready to defend the stores of the chief.
When the Spaniards arrived they were repeatedly facing well-organized military units who practiced by hit-and-hide tactics and larger-scale campaigns. Warfare and the pursuit of power, stored food and tribute had become a way of life by the time of European arrival.
The Defender/Invader Syndrome
Once there was a storable-stealable-surplus and leaders rose up to manage community affairs, as in the Coosa case above, there arose a problem that had not confronted peoples in non-storing societies in the Paleolithic: the need to defend their stores. For the first time in human existence in the Neolithic farming and stock-raising communities there were surpluses of food that had to be stored (herds are stores on the hoof). In farming communities granaries constituted a pool of wealth, much like a bank account. In pastoral societies, this “bank account” had hooves and was moveable; but it presented herders with the same problem: the need to defend their wealth.
Another way to state this is that for the first time in history there were haves and have-nots. As societies such as the Natufians and later the Mesopotamians became wealthier and wealthier their leaders faced the problem of defending their granaries and flocks. They became the defenders and beyond their defensive walls and moats were the invaders, those “barbarians” who wanted their wealth and women, even their young men to enslave.
If early aggrandizers took leadership roles in these early communities to solve problems e.g., the creation of irrigation works, then the wealth generated by expanded agricultural lands presented them with another managerial nightmare: how to protect that wealth from the foreign invaders.
In many ancient civilizations archaeologists are able to recover the remains of their efforts – the walls, moats and battlements that speak of besieged communities. We also see chieftains and kings being buried with weaponry and the inscriptions they left behind tell us of brave leadership in warfare. Many went to their graves as a result of death on the battlefield defending their communities. Heroes were born and their deeds became the stuff of literature, written on the tablets, pottery and walls of the great architectural builds and monuments the left behind. Later ancient papyri tell us of epic battles and heroics on the battlegrounds of ancient civilizations as their leaders fought to defend and conquer. In Mesoamerica codices from the great Pre-Columbian civilizations tell the same story.
The root of such conflicts had begun to grow in the early Neolithic as communities became wealthy and others tried to take that wealth and enslave the primary producers. If early aggrandizers were men who desired power, prestige and property, then warfare gave them a new and heroic stage on which to perform, as attested by the military grave goods and epic tales of great defender kings e.g., the Iron Age warrior élites, the Celtiberian warrior aristocracy, referred to in later literary sources as nobles and princes (Almagro-Gorbea & Lorrio 2004).
Case 1.11. Celtiberian Warfare
The early Celts of Iberia had formed a socio-economic structure, encouraged by personal clientship and adapted to a stock-raising environment that encouraged single combat between champions, mercenary armies and cattle thieving raids. In that sociocultural environment, the whole society was imbued with a warrior ethos.
It is one of the ironies of history that tribes such as the early Celts whose leaders had to prove themselves in personal combat and by raiding wealthy communities for booty evolved into those very communities who then had to organize themselves politically and militarily to fight the invading Carthaginians and Romans. In such historical cases, the mobile invaders became sedentary defenders.
As so often happened in history, the arrival of these invaders led to a full-scale mobilization in the Celtic world ushering in the appearance of the oppida as administrative/defensive centers that controlled large territories and provided cohesion in the wars against the foreign invaders. In other words, the threat of invasion was a further stimulus to the development of complexity and the creation of public defenses that required military-political leadership.
In this context, warlike, virile and combative ideals played an essential role in Celtic leadership. War and religion came together in siege situations. Scholars have analyzed the literary sources, iconography and funeral practices to glean information about the existence of their religious practices linked to war. The data indicate that the gods were invoked in rituals and were called upon to witness pacts of mutual defense against invaders. In the context of such community accords, aggrandizing men were able to attain great socio-politico-military heights.
As Almagro-Gorbea (1997) has noted for the Celtiberian culture, war and society developed in tandem. In the Bronze Age (ca. 5,000-2,600 B.P.) the Celtiberian warrior culture evolved out of the Bell Beaker Culture (ca. 4,400 – 3,800 B.P.), which already displayed evidence of warfare in its élite burials. Bronze Age warriors specialized in war and although they were a minority, they were the élite leaders who imposed a militaristic ethos on Celtiberian society.
Why such militarism? These Neolithic people had something to defend and there were those who wanted to take what they had. About 3 thousand years ago in Iberia the Celtiberians were already living in permanent hill-fort settlements (castros) that characteristically occupied places that were easy to defend, fortified with surrounding walls to protect a number of individual circular dwellings suggesting. These people were simple defenders, not having developed a complex social organization or significant hierarchy. The spread of the early hill-fort phenomenon reveals vulnerability to raiders. Much of the conflict revolved around access to prime grazing territory. As time passed, this instability favored the rise of leaders and a more hierarchical society with warrior élites in command by the Iron Age.
During this time, warrior élites led seasonal raids, usually in the spring and autumn, resolving conflicts with neighboring tribes by means of ambushes, guerrilla attacks and fights between "champions," as indicated by the large bronze swords found, suggesting single combat. Most common warriors relied on the spear.
The leadership in warfare were organized in age-sets and had to prove themselves in grueling initiation rites that enabled them to become members of élite warrior fraternities (Peralta 1990). Their reward for such trials was combat, bringing honor and plunder. The ideology developed in such warrior age-sets and their attendant rites was one glorifying combat. These ideas moved beyond defense of homeland to one of aggression on foreigners. Youthful age-set members (iuventus) practiced ver sacrum, expeditions to faraway land where they raided, hunted and sometimes settled, having conquered the locals. Raiding brought honor and booty. These traveling warriors were, in fact, the “bandits” (latrones) that show up in Roman documents. Of course, such military adventures led to great instability among the tribes of Iberia and such warrior organizations and raiding parties were not unknown throughout the known-world up to modern times (Benveniste 1969:1:222-223). In fact, European legends indicate that “young men with spears” were often the founders of towns.
Ritual and warfare were interlinked. According to Roman sources, these bandit groups were led by a chieftain or dux, who was endowed with magical powers and normally the most powerful individual who was clearly identifiable among the warriors depicted on the Late Bronze Age stele from Southwest Iberia (Harrison 2004). Warrior followers consecrated themselves to these chieftains until death by means of the devotio rites, usually involving fire and boiling water, along with a ritual meal (Ramos Loscertales 1924; García Fernández-Albalat 1990:202). Such a relationship between warfare and ritual was common throughout the Celtic world (Sergent 1999: 216). In such rites de passage the young aspirant was “reborn” as a warrior. The young men were taught ancient songs and given the equipment of war – a spear, shield, linen cuirasse, leather helmet and dagger. The initiate was also given a bronze-tipped lance, which symbolically linked him to the ancestors of the bygone Bronze Age as did the songs, which were reputed to have come down from that olden time.
Upon completion of the devotio, the new warrior was to spend his life fighting or hunting. They would conduct raids during the summer months and return home in the winter to hunt and participate in village life. The Romans saw them as bandits; but their community saw them as genuine warriors who were fighting using guerrilla warfare instead of acting like a regular army.
Militarism tends to grow and create growing complexity. Into the Iron Age Celtiberian society was becoming increasingly hierarchical, militaristic and expansive throughout pre-Roman Iberia. Élite burials have been discovered by archaeologists that attest to the nature of warrior-chieftains as militaristic leaders. Almagro-Gorbea (1996:84-85) interprets such finds as indicating the formation of a hero cult and the defensive battlements of the villages point to a world in which communities were being defended against external threats by such leadership. It would seem that their society was becoming more complex. Leaders were rising up to manage community affairs and protect their wealth. They did so with military prowess that was used to enhance community security.
But expansion and imperialism were in the offing. Grave goods from this era indicate that Iron Age Celtiberian “princes” were élites whose aristocratic character would have contributed to the progressive expansion of this type of society (Almagro-Gorbea 1987). Hereditary aristocracies had formed around militaristic chieftains. Graves reveal many spears; but few horse harnesses and other élite goods, indicating a small élite class of leaders and many infantrymen pulled from the commoner class. At the same time, we see an evolution of settlements going from typical villages to towns with parallel lined streets.
The new hierarchical militaristic socio-economic organization would have encouraged demographic growth and the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of those who controlled grazing land, as well as the abundant salt deposits of the area, which were essential for livestock-raising, preserving foodstuffs and the production of iron from the major stone outcrops of Iberia (Lorrio 1997:64). Élites also moved to control trade (Almagro-Gorbea 1993:147).
This is a familiar pattern of stimuli for the development of complexity – a storable-stealable-surplus, land with value, mineral wealth and trade opportunities. In Celtiberian society this led to the evolution of chiefship out of a kin-based social structure, that which Celtiberian scholars have called the gentiliate social organization (Almagro-Gorbea & Lorrio 2004). These patriclans were characterized by agnatic descent from a common ancestor, real or mythical, with the pater familias serving as the incarnation of the numen or guardian divine or “hero founder” of the family. This genius familiaris conferred potestas on the patriarch who served his clan as lord and priest, which office included properties, servants and clients.
Militarism and worship dovetailed. These clans could include numerous families and the pater familias was the equivalent of the leader of a whole settlement and its lands. With time his family gods became the guardian divinities of the entire community and this domestic worship of the family "hero founder" evolved into the ritual complex of the conditor of the oppidum (manager of the fortified town). Also with time’s passage the conditor developed worship to temples independent of the domestic sphere.
As aggrandizing leaders consolidated their political and economic control, private ownership of the land and a client system developed, with larger, more cohesive and powerful social units forming around chieftains – warrior élites. We find them in aristocratic tombs filled with luxury items and symbols of warfare. They were the heads of dynasties of the heroic type, wherein leaders defended the community’s wealth and provided military expertise to ensure the safety of their followers.
The chieftain not only defended his community’s stores, herds and lands; but he also organized bands of brigands who interacted with similar groups of mercenaries in the Mediterranean World from Carthage, Greece and Rome. This interaction led to the formation of more organized armies among the Celtiberians.
The army had a chieftain who was worshipped by his followers through the devotio, a consecration of life to the charismatic leader. This tradition, adapted to the enlarged clan structure implied changes in the tactics and forms of war, with earlier traditions and rites becoming adapted to them. The warrior fraternities became integrated into the iuventus, while the chieftains of the patriclans with a client structure became the duces and champions, adapting earlier ideological concepts to the more complex forms that had evolved. These eugeneîs or noble bearers of the sword, the principles, were rulers at the time of the coming of the Romans to Iberia.
The paramount type of settlement from ca. 2,300 B.P. onward was the oppidum, a fortified town designed to protect both people and property (Almagro-Gorbea 1994). For strategic reasons, these oppida were situated on high points on rocky outcrops or hills. They controlled a chora or large, hierarchically organized territory, which included dependent castros and hamlets. The oppidum was the political and administrative center of polity (civitates or poleis) from the third to second century onward (Burillo 1998:210-216). These Celtiberian city-states were autonomous i.e., their administrative bodies could enter into alliances, declare war or peace and elect their own military leaders. The cities minted coins and took part in official ceremonies (Burillo 1988:184).
Over time the Celtiberians had become urbanized. This progressive adoption of city life meant that they were considered, by the conquering Romans, as togati, which means that they were seen as peaceful, civilized, people that the Romans saw as capable of wearing the Roman toga (Ciprés 1993:64). Of course, the Romans were referring to the nobles, not the great masses of peasant stock, as the principles had developed great wealth compared to the masses.
A noble princeps usually tried to extend his power in order to control the whole territory. These various territorily-based nobiles formed the senatus to represent the oligarchy (amalgam of the most powerful clan heads) according to Roman sources. There seems to have been a general trend towards oligarchic institutions with a complex administration, in which the senatus was led by elective praetores and magistratus. There were also warrior assemblies (corios) that consulted on peace and war, headed by the dux or person holding command.
This was a world of force and combat, used to protect one’s own property and also to take that of others. War was an integral part of the political process, though as the Celtiberians urbanized, archaeologists begin to find more luxury items in élite graves.
Defensive war had evolved into offensive efforts. War was now a more organized attempt by the oligarchs to take wealth from neighboring city-states. It is significant that war was now not abandoned in winter. The army was more professional, being comprised of spearmen led by equites – mounted leaders – who were the ruling elites of the oppida and civitates and leaders of their armies (Almagro-Gorbea and Torres 1999). Their resplendent weapons and the possession of a horse indicated high social position.
Also, war had now become “big business.” For example, when the Celtiberians laid siege to Carabis in 188 B. C. a Celtiberian army of more than 17,000 men with 400 horses was involved. Roman sources report that the Celtiberian armies often had a ratio of 4:1 infantry/horsemen, which is much higher than the 10:1 ratio more common in antiquity.
These warrior-élites were also political leaders and issued coinage and were the first to become Romanized by joining the Roman legions and their client system (Syme 1958:1-23), which of course was another avenue to power, prestige and property added to their existing control of the local economy.
The importance of the Celtiberian equitatum (mounted élites) is evidenced by decorations on recovered coins, fibulae and funerary stelæ. They were the power élite of their day and they retained what they considered to be noble fighting tactics e.g., even mounted warriors would dismount and fight hand-to-hand and challenges by one side against the other could lead to single combat between leaders to settle a conflict. Such as duel offered increased honor and social prestige (Ciprés 1993: 92).
The ideological framework of “honor & shame” (Gilmore 1987) explains the special relationship of the Celtiberians with their weapons. Roman literary sources repeatedly mentioned the warrior's refusal to surrender his precious weapons, preferring death instead (García Riaza 2002: 206-212). Clearly, warrior-politicians were driven by an ongoing warrior ideology. The Roman writer Cicero is said to have claimed that the Celtiberians in proeliis exultant, lamentantur in morbo (delight in battle and lament if they are ill) (Almagro-Gorbea & Lorrio 2004).
Death in battle was considered to be more honorable and the fallen were given a special funeral wherein the body was exposed to birds, considered to be sacred animals which would carry the warrior to “the beyond.” Warriors who had been ritually tied to a chieftain were required to commit suicide if he were to be killed in battle and they survived (Ramos Loscertales 1924).
We see in the Celtiberians an evolution from simple stock-raising peoples to a militaristic urban society headed by aggrandizing, ravenous élites who formed a warrior class backed by a wealthy group of oligarchs who fed off the labor and death in battle of the average Celtiberians. They started out as defenders of their surplus wealth, only to evolve into aggressive warrior-rulers who sent mercenaries and brigands out into the world and warred on neighboring city-states. In other words, they underwent a transformation from defenders to invaders.
In the evolution from combative defender to combative raider, warlike political leaders in ancient societies honed their ideologies and skills to take things one step further, that is, at times the successful ones lusted to once again become the raiding invaders and empires were born out of such covetousness and desire. These ravenous leaders developed two main strategies to motivate their followers to risk their lives in aggressive warfare: (1) they offered them the spoils of war – booty; and (2) they offered them glory.
In a History of Militarism Professor Vagts states that Assyrians “afford the clearest demonstration of past imperialism and militarism” (1959:15). Assyrian leadership had to win the hearts and minds of the people and then motivate them to fight for their nation. The ideology that they used was that the motherland, the royal center, demanded obedience from the unruly, subhuman periphery. Warriors were told that since they were lucky enough to have been born Assyrians it was their duty to obey their leader and expand his domain (Liverani 1979). One could call such an approach “expansive nationalism” and history would see it’s reverberations from the Assyrian Empire to Hitler’s Thousand-Year Reich.
Because there was, beginning in the Neolithic, something to fight for, warfare became a way of life in the world of city-states in the Near East. Peace was only a temporary suspension in a habitual state of war (Harmand 1981:23). While warfare most likely was more or less continuous, it affected and conditioned “the entire cultural system, from population distribution and organisation of the family to urbanism, from the economy to religion” (Almagro-Gorbea & Lorrio 2004:75).