The Emergence of Complexity


Unlike the Coosa or the Celtiberians mentioned above, Paleolithic societies were rather simple in that they lacked hereditary offices or complex institutions e.g., voluntary associations, the corvée,[1] guilds, armies, secret societies – the kinds of organizations we see emerging after the Neolithic Revolution.  Certainly most of the social complexity did emerge once farming and herding spread throughout human populations; but in rare cases, institutions of domination evolved even before the advent of the domestication of plants and animals.  This may have happened[2] in societies, usually hunter-gatherer-fisher societies, which predated the Agricultural Revolution; but were able to store some form of wealth.

Storing food was problematic in Paleolithic times and remains so for many hunter-gatherer peoples in the world today.  Many hunter-gatherers in the Paleolithic must have gone for periods without certain kinds of food that under modern conditions could be stored e.g., meat.  This is true even today in certain parts of the world where hunter-gatherers still consider nature a larder and take their food from nature’s storage places as they need them. 

This is all well and good for fruit, roots, nuts and berries; but nature also stores calories in animals that are not so easily brought to the dinner table.  Consequently, when hunters in foraging societies today are able to bring down a large animal they often gorge themselves with meat, since it cannot be kept safely for any significant length of time.  This can be considered a form of storage, though this stretches the concept rather thinly.  Nevertheless, by eating to excess hunters were able to wolf down massaive amounts of calories and other nutrients.

Baegert (1863-1864) reported that early Amerindians of California were known to eat 24 pounds of meat in a 24-hour period.  The anthropologist Allan Holmberg personally saw Siriono Amerindians of Eastern Bolivia eat 30 pounds of meat in a day (1950:36).  Some bands like the Ju/’hoansi of the Kalahari Desert in Southern Africa dry some meat after gorging themselves; but long-term storage was not a main factor in their economy (Marshall 1965:255).  Without storage of foodstuffs, Paleolithic peoples did not develop institutions of inequality, a managerial élite and statecraft.  No chiefs arose in non-storing bands of early hunter-gatherers; but they did arise in hunter-gatherer-fisher societies that were able to store large quantities of food e.g., the Northwest Coast Amerindians, the Chumash of California or the Calusa of Florida. 

Presumably there were others that have not been found by archiologists.  Once stored wealth was possible, it unleashed aggrandizing tendencies and some men strove to elevate themselves as big men and chiefs.  Inequality rose so high among the Northwest Coast Amerindians, for example, that they not only had chiefs and social classes; but they also practiced slavery (see: Case 1.5).

In other words, once storage of foodstuffs was possible, some in society began to move to control it and to accumulate more stored goods than others.  This was the beginning of inequality and the foundations of a stratified society.  Without an economic surplus, men could not easily control food, since they could not monopolize that portion of a group’s food that was not consumed on a daily basis.  In non-storing societies that surplus existed only in nature i.e., the food still available to be picked, dug or killed.  It was there to be collected; but any individual in a non-storer hunting and gathering society would be foolish to collect and store it, for it was already stored in nature and would be there for the having. 




Case 1.12.  Ju/’hoansi Mongongo Nut Non-Storage


For example, the environment of the Ju/’hoansi hunter-gatherers of Africa is abundant with foods, even though they live in a desert world.  By far the most abundant and important of these foodstuffs is the Mongongo nut.  The ethnographer Richard Lee (1968:33) notes that tens of thousands of pounds of these nuts are eaten by the Ju/’hoansi each year, yet thousands more rot on the ground.  These nuts count for 50 percent of their vegetable diet by weight; but they cannot eat them all.

When Professor Lee asked a Ju/’hoansi man why his people didn’t harvest and store Mongongo nuts, one of the staples of the bands in the Kalahari Desert, the man was perplexed, replying that they were already stored for the having in nature.  He went on to emphasize that re-storing them would be stupid, superfluous work.  When the Ju/’hoansi need the nuts, they simply walk through the bush and pick them.  This natural abundance, as opposed to stored food, prevents a person, however much the individual is a naturally born aggrandizer, from gaining an unequal edge on others by amassing wealth.




This is not to say that the Paleolithic people who lacked visible storage technology did not store, in the sense that they left certain foods in nature’s larder to access later (Ingold 1983).  But to say that hunter-gatherers left some foods in nature to be picked at will is very different from storing grains in granaries or calories in herds of animals. 

Why?  Because the former cannot be stolen by thieves and the latter is a storable-stealable-surplus, which automatically presents the need for complex organization to defend the surplus, as well as military excursions to take the surplus of others, should leaders decide to turn their defensive armies into offensive ones and history is replete with examples of men who did just that e.g., the Celtiberians I referenced above (Case 1.11).  Storage helped to create complexity.  From the archeological record, we know that non-sedentary foragers made and exchanged gifts, an exchange that surely included some element of competition i.e., trying to give more or better gifts than one received; but some sedentary foragers took this to the extreme because they lived in a very lush environment that provided them with a storable form of foodstuffs that, in its stored form, was considered disposable wealth.  In essence, to borrow Michael W. Young’s phrase, the Northwest Coast Amerindians were “fighting with food,”[3] though as time passed and they encountered European trade goods they added them into their feasting weaponry. 

Transient foragers in the Paleolithic did not “fight with food” or with much of anything else, for that matter, at least not on an organized level.  Most lived more or less peacefully with each other within the band and with outsiders they mostly developed cooperative means of exchange and aid.  All that was to change with sedentary foragers and even more dramatically with the development of large-scale food production and storage in the Neolithic.  Once food could be stored, we get not only peaceful “food fights,” such as the potlatch; but also we witness the rise of both defensive and offensive weaponry and military tactics, as well as walled cities, moats and all sorts of battlements.  Yet in both cases – storing hunter-gatherer-fishers and domesticators of plants and animals – the causal variable was the same: the presence of a food surplus.

Below in Box 1.1 we see a comparison of simple foragers vs. complex ones:



(after Kelly 2007:294)





Unpredictable or variable

Predictable or less variable





Terrestrial game and plants

Marine foods plus

terrestrial game and plants

Settlement size



Residential mobility




Low population density

relative to food

High population density

relative to food

Food storage

Little to no dependence

Medium to high


Social organization

No corporate groups

Corporate groups (descent





Hierarchal: Classes based

on wealth or descent






Only for older persons



Loose sense of boundaries

Strong sense of need for

perimeter defense


Rare (ad hoc skirmishes)

Common (organized war



Low to absent





Ethic of competition

Suppressed; not tolerated


Resource ownership

Diffuse (group use)

Tightly controlled (private



Generalized reciprocity

Wealth objects;

Competitive feasts


Ad hoc

Permanent and hereditary

Means of production

Available to all

Limited to owners

Expropriation of



By chiefs and members of

upper class


Generally speaking, anthropologists feel that the causal variables behind the rise of complexity and inequality among sedentary storing foragers were a combination of resource abundance, population pressure, intensification of production, storage of foodstuffs (wealth) and the expropriation of labor.

The important point to be taken from this comparison between storers and non-storers is that it was not a specific mode of production that led to inequality and the development of political leadership and statecraft; but rather it was the presence of a storable-stealable-surplus.  It was not farming or herding that did it, though they helped spread inequality, political leadership and statecraft beyond limited foraging/fishing econiches.  Rather, it is the pellucidely simple fact that once there was stored wealth, men began to organize their groups to defend it.  Furthermore, when they had some degree of control over that stored wealth they could begin use it to elevate themselves to high offices and from those perches they could begin to siphon some of it off, not for the pursuit of the social good; but rather for their own personal advancement and those of their close associates, as Mobutu Sese Seko did in the Congo (see Case 10.2).

Rulership also brought about actual production in the sense that society could be organized to produce wealth using an existing means of production.  In the case of the Tlingit of the Northwest Coast of America (Case 4.10), the means of production was key fishing spots.  For the Chumash of Southern California it was seagoing canoes used to fish and transport trade goods.  With such means of production under their control, some men were able to establish themselves as political leaders – chiefs and chiefly families became wealthy, ruling families with hereditary privileges not available to the commoners of their societies.   

Stratification arrived in these non-farming, non-herding societies; but it was very circumscribed and limited to small resource-rich econiches.  The domestication of plants and animals in the Neolithic allowed complexity, inequality, a managerial élite, statecraft, private property and stratification to spread over the globe and become a way of life for all but a handful of human beings in our modern world (Diamond 1987).

These cases of foragers with stores of wealth are highly instructive because they show that it wasn’t farming or herding, per se that caused this transformation.  It was the development of a storable-stealable-surplus.  Before agriculture or stockbreeding, complexity arose in those few foraging societies that lived in environments that had something that could be rationally and efficiently hoarded e.g., dried fish.  It became stored wealth. 

Once humans had stored wealth, social institutions were developed by opportunists to protect and control that wealth.  Archaeology has shown these areas to be on the Northwest Coast of America, the Northwest Plateau, coastal Florida, the New Guinea Highlands, the Ohio Valley and coastal Peru.  No doubt there were others that archaeologists have not yet discovered.

There are different meanings to the term complexity.  Jeanne Arnold (1996 a & b) defines it as having the following two components:


1) Leadership and status are strictly inherited.


2) Leaders have substantial renewable control over the labor of numerous non-kin.


She is talking about hierarchy and about leadership beyond kin group headmanship.  This is certainly an important evolutionary development; but one could also consider the rise of hereditary headmanship in kin groups to be more complex than anything in generalized foraging society.  Rather than a revolutionary breakthrough, the rise of complex institutions had been slowly evolving since the development of stored food, although the creation of technologies that led to agriculture certainly accelerated the process dramatically (Diamond 1987).

Being a headman of a Neolithic kin group was the first poleconomic office – that is, a position with political and economic attributes.  The headman was someone designated as the controller of wealth and labor.  Logically village chiefs would have emerged to stand at the head of a village council of headmen – the “biggest” headman – and then, later on, regional chiefs would unite villages creating larger chiefdoms (Earle 1997).  But a lineage headman was a degree of complexity beyond anything found in the non-storing bands of the Paleolithic.

There is some hair-splitting going on here.  Many see collectivities or corporate groups as preliminary to complexity.  I see a continuum from headmanship on to state offices (see Box 1.2).  Early complexity was a primary result of the ability of go-getters to benefit from the need to protect and redistribute accumulated surpluses.  Initially, this occurred under the auspices of the corporate kin group, so the very first emergence of hierarchy was within kin groups, a phenomenon that later spread as domestication intruded on long sequences of hunter-gatherer cultural evolution.  

Later I will elaborate on the concept of corporate, as in the above-mentioned corporate kin group.  Here let me just say that corporateness is a significant degree of complexity over anything in the Paleolithic.[5]  A corporate group stands as a legal entity above and beyond its constituent members.  We see this in an institution like the wergild that was common in the Neolithic Era.  Wergild was a “harm-payment” in old Germanic law, the compensation paid from one kin group to another in the case of injury or death perpetrated by the member of one group against another.  In some cases another member of the killer’s group might be sacrificed to compensate for the loss of a member of the offended group.  Such “corporate” customs are still common among many tribal peoples.

Of course, as well we see corporateness in marriage payments between kin groups where elaborate ritual means are instituted to symbolize that the matrimonial linkage is between two corporate groups, not a marriage of individuals.  Furthermore, we see that in some cases the death of a wife who is exchanged from one patrilineal kin group to another may require the wife’s corporate group to supply a second wife to replace the loss to the husband’s group (an institution called the sororate).  The levirate is another example (marriage with a deceased husband’s brother).  More on the importance of corporations later.

As people migrated out of Africa and moved over the globe, those who had spread into less lush environments may have skipped the complex hunting-gathering stage and gone from forager to farmer/pastoralist directly.  In fact, most groups did slowly discover domestication.  Some storing foragers may have eventually become farmers; while others like the Calusa of south Florida resisted farming, even looking down on it as less than honorable.  Viewed in retrospect, we can see a generalized pattern that looks something like the sequence in Box 1.2:


Box 1.2.  Political Evolution through History



Evolutionary Direction


Family group



Big man/

Little chief











Hegemony over

Several Kings







But there was no lineal necessity, no teleology, in evolution.  There was no fixed path.  From time to time, some farmers reverted to being foragers and even in tribal farming societies today foraging makes up a part of their economic behavior.  And foragers who knew of farming could ignore such productive techniques.  Jeanne Arnold says:


The Chumash, for instance, were aware of agricultural practices late in prehistory through their limited exchange contacts with the Mohave of the California desert; but they never adopted farming throughout their long and apparently in situ development of up to 12,000 years.  This extraordinary longevity has its parallels in the Northwest Coast and Plateau, where in situ development spans at least 6,000 years in some areas and was never cut short by a new subsistence regime (2001:4-5).


Complex hunter-gatherers created many useful adaptive technologies and survival techniques; but the appearance of a storable-stealable-surplus also had some less desirable effects e.g., the escalation of armed conflict and the impoverishment of some in society.  In other words, once wealth could be stored – domination followed – both domination of surrounding folks and domination of workers within the social group of the chief and his cohorts.

Selfishness and domination emerged in all kinds of storing societies.  Whatever the social structure, if there was storable wealth, aggrandizers engaged in strategic and accumulative behavior, some in support of the commonweal; but some men performed activities that undermined the general good.  

Politics may have included both kinds of behavior in almost every emerging political hegemony.  In every type of society with a storable-stealable-surplus, super-achievers constructed scripts and discourses to elevate themselves and subjugate others, giving themselves privileged access to labor value and other resources.  Thus, domination was a constructed and scripted effort.

I have said that aggrandizers were builders of rule-sets or institutions.  Once these agglomerations of codes, roles and customs became institutionalized they took on mass and jelled into well-known and accepted ways of doing things – customs or institutions.  As such, they functioned to benefit the creators, the central figures in the institutional complexes – headmen, chiefs, kings and so forth.  But they also attracted other self-starters, who saw opportunity in attaching themselves to the ongoing structure (generals, courtiers and viziers for example).  

Once set in motion, institutional formations took on a life of their own.  Fanned by the fuel of opportunity, by the lure of more prestige, power and wealth, institutions tended to get bigger and stronger.  Initially, they did so by the driving force of a charismatic leader, like the already-mentioned Greek basileus Odysseus twenty-eight centuries ago (Case I.5); or they may have come about through the combined energies of a ruling council of headmen that moved the new political economy forward. 

Domination was a constructed and scripted effort; but almost never by a single aggrandizer.  A rising star needed supporters and some of those were closer to the star than others and we see them as his ruling council, priesthood, army, courtiers or simply his faction.  As go-getters surrounding the grand aggrandizer – the princeps – they participated in the formation and manipulation of the doctrine of rule, which they helped fashion in a way that especially benefited them.  In other words, engineering domination was usually a small-group effort.  In this way, a ruling cohort arose in the early societies of the Neolithic.


Heterarchy vs. Hierarchy 


It is likely that early Neolithic communities were a mix of egalitarianism and emerging inequality.   Societies did not immediately become hierarchical in a full sense.  Neither hierarchy nor stratification showed up overnight or fully developed.  More probable is that a blend of heterarchy and hierarchy appreared.  While hierarchy is ranking on a vertical axis, heterarchy is more complex, involving various forms of organization splayed out horizontally.  Carole Crumley says heterarchy is “the relation of elements to one another when they are unranked or when they possess the potential for being ranked in a number of different ways” (1995:1).  In other words, within Neolithic societies there were likely pockets of egalitarian structuring and ranked structuring.

Inequality most probably began in non-stratified ways i.e., unconnected with control of property; but merely as an accumulation of prestige through demonstration of community values e.g., a big man feast as a show of sharing or reciprocal-giving behavior.  There also could have arisen ritual, kinship and associational domains within which aggrandizers could pursue prestige and, with time, prestige became institutionalized in hereditary positions e.g., the big man became a chief or a person good at going into trance became formalized as a shaman. 

It is likely that in the Neolithic, as now in modern tribal communities, most societies were a mix of some egalitarian structures and some hierarchical ones.  Moreover, inequality could have been formed, lost, re-formed, manipulated, maintained and lost again.  Evolution was a bumpy road no doubt.  Nevertheless, in the longue durée, heterarchy has given way to increasing hierarchy, inequality and stratification throughout the world.  The historical trend has been away from communal organization, with rising inequity.


Sources of Inequality  


How could inequality have come about when there was such a strong egalitarian ethos for so long in human society?  Robert Adams (1966) was spot on in seeing the creation of food surpluses as a critical development in the rise of complexity.  He postulates that irrigation agriculture and more intensive horticulture produced a larger population and increased sedentism.  These factors, coupled with increased trade, produced a surplus of food and led to the rise of monopolies over strategic productive resources.  Those in control of the surplus were also able to expand and control craft production, providing them with products to trade, adding wealth to their coffers.  In the mix of these factors, stratified society emerged.

Aggrandizing leaders were after more than power.  They also wanted to fiddle with the economic processes of their communities to be able to siphon off some of the proceeds for themselves.  This began very early on in chiefdoms, no doubt; as we shall see in the case of the Yakut-Mono little chiefs and shamans (Case 2.7 & Case 3.2).  As early as the fifth millennium B.P. we have clear records of stratification from the Mesopotamian Early Dynastic III (ca. 4,600 to 4,334 B.P.) in a somewhat roundabout way.  Apparently, in his votive “Reform Text” plaques that he had made to communicate with the gods in his temple, the city-governor of Lagaš-Girsu in Mesopotamia vowed not to repeat the exploitative abuses of the previous administration (Snell 1997:25).  Specifically, Uru-inim-gina, in his second year in office, and sounding all too modern, promised the gods that he would alleviate oppressive taxation and extensive government interference in the lives of the people.  Accordingly, he pledged to restore fields formerly usurped by his predecessors and vowed not to take advantage of the poor, as had been done by the previous government.  That he was comfortable in promising to tinker with economic life indicates that the policy of fiddling with the economy was an established one for political leaders in Mesopotamia and it is merely one more indication that among the political leadership of ancient societies there were some who tried to be fair and others that tried to exploit the people.

Some explanations of the emergence of stratification or inequality have a mechanical feel to them, as in Adams’ theory; but it is important to keep agency in mind.  The political leaders in Mesopotamia referenced above were agents with political and economic agendas.  Once there was a surplus, aggrandizers like the predecessors to Uru-inim-gina were always looking for opportunities to get ahead and extract more and more from the primary producers of their societies.  Aggrandizers are born opportunists.  Also, the emergence of new conditions and prospects providing such opportunities could appear in a variety of ways:


* Environmental change – changing material conditions in the habitat could provide some groups and individuals with an advantage providing leverage over others


* Investment – achievers could develop certain aspects of the environment to their advantage e.g., improving drainage, creating reservoirs, constructing irrigation systems, etc


* Migration – incoming migrants may have had to take marginal land and therefore were disadvantaged and open to subjugation by autochthones


* Conquest – aggrandizers could enslave captives


* Specialization – go-getters could control craft producers and other specialized activities  


* Feasting – in great displays of altruism, big men could have built up a prestige-base that could be converted into authority


* Trade – aggressive men could have cornered the market on prestige and/or utilitarian trade items


* Ritual – aggrandizers could have developed religious practices that convinced others that they had supernatural powers


* Defense – highly active men could have taken on the role of defender of the settlement


* Corporate groups – aggrandizers within important and powerful groups could have used kin groups, sodalities and cults as power bases


* Labor control – aggrandizers could have fabricated rules to make others dependant in order to siphon off their labor value


* General management – those wanting attention could have pursued construction of communal projects and elevated themselves in the process


No doubt, aggrandizers would not have been limited by any one of these strategies; but would have likely used a combination of means to achieve more prestige, power and property.

Adams (1966) and others who theorize about the rise of civilization point out that not only did social classes and political domination evolve once there was an economic surplus; but also urban living, centers of religious activity, technological and artistic innovations and the development of writing.  These seem like good and modern developments and they were; but aggrandizers also used many innovations as tools of oppression.

For instance, writing can be seen as another form of mystification to those who do not know how to read and write.  Snell (1997:16) sees the development of writing as “an aid to memory in connection with administration” when it developed in the ancient Near East ca. 5,300 B.P. along with the rise of kings and city-states.  It was a power symbol.  For example, during his fieldwork among the Nambikwara of Brazil the famed anthropologist Lévi-Strauss noticed that the band’s leader picked up on the fact that writing was a powerful status symbol and he began to feign the ability to read and write to impress his followers (Layton & Ucko 1999:5).  This must have got Lévi-Strauss thinking about the power of writing because he put forward the idea that the very first writing was a means to achieve political oppression (1973:296-299; also see: Szwed 1988; Derrida 1998; Matusov & St. Julien 2004). 

I would concur that it can have that function, as I have published on the power of the pen elsewhere (Mendonsa 2008a, 2008b); but that is not the reason writing was invented, as Lévi-Straus seems to indicate.  It is more likely that writing was invented out of the need for bookkeeping, as the first print document was about tax collection (Olson 1994).  But, of course, the taxes were extracted by politicos and hence it is very difficult for theoreticians to separate the political from the economic within a political economy.

Be that as it may, Lévi-Straus is correct that writing became an instrument of political oppression, as it sometimes remains today e.g., when anthropologists write of the people they study as being “primitive” (Layton & Ucko 1999:et passim; Matusov & St. Julien 2004).  Professor Hall (1998:186) goes so far as to write of literacy:


the most striking continuity in its history is the way literacy has been used time and time again to consolidate the social hierarchy, to empower elites; but even more importantly, to ensure that those lower in the hierarchy accept the values, norms, and beliefs handed down by the elites, even when it is not in their interest to do so.


In other words, no aspects of “civilization” were politically or economically benign.  Writing, monumental architecture, walled cities, palaces, temple complexes – all such trappings of civilization had an impact on the way people came to think about society.


Trade and Inequality


The discovery of non-local objects at many archaeological sites, especially in graves, strongly suggests that trade existed in prehistoric times (Vanhaeran & d’Errico 2005).  As an institution, trade may have started when people sought to acquire prestige goods from a distance.  Jewelry has been found in conjunction with Neanderthal remains (Hublin et. al. 1996), as well as early Homo sapiens (Tait 2008), many of them made with imported materials or imported as ready-made items. 

But materials to aid in work, hunting and reaping for example, also figured into early trade.  Obsidian was found only in a few locations; but desired by peoples throughout Eurasia.  The same was true in the New World and trade in obsidian grew up in both locations independently.  In the non-volcanic lowlands of the Classic Mayan Civilization 23 sites having obsidian from only two sources in Highland Guatemala have been found (Hammond 1972).

In Eurasia we have the earliest evidence of the long-distance obsidian trade.  These routes opened up during the late-glacial period, in the open landscapes before the spread of forests.  The obsidian was circulated among Epipalaeolithic forager-hunters group around the Fertile Crescent.  Two connecting links are already known: obsidian from the Bingöl region of south-east Turkey reached Iraqi Kurdistan by way of the Hilly Flanks route, and obsidian from the Cappadocian area of central Turkey was carried across the Taurus to the middle Euphrates and the northern Levant (Cauvin et. al. 1998).

During the climatic swings that ended the late-glacial period a warmer Allerød Phase was followed by the colder Younger Dryas Period and increasingly sedentary communities traded obsidian, which penetrated the whole length of the Levant.  The middle Euphrates appears to have been a significant intermediate region in this transmission.

The first Natufian farming communities (Pre-pottery Neolithic A or PPNA) appeared in the temperate conditions that marked the beginning of the postglacial period.  At that time, increased quantities of obsidian from Cappadocian and Bingöl sources were being circulated.  

The full impact of farming and domesticated livestock came with PPNB after 10,500 B.P., when agricultural communities expanded both to Cyprus and Cappadocia.  In Cappadocia they may have been attracted to the high-grade obsidian resources that were being traded across the entire middle Euphrates and Levant and undeniably over to Cyprus.  In fact Bingöl obsidian traveled east as far as the middle Zagros.

During the Late PPNB the first pieces of Cappadocian obsidian appeared on the north-Levantine coast and also there were greater exchanges between the eastern and western wings of the northern Fertile Crescent, mediated through sites like Bouqras on the Euphrates.  In many parts of the area the traffic was handled by major sites such as Çatalhöyük, Tell Abu Hureyra, Beisamoun, Ain Ghazal and Tell Basta.

In the Final PPNB period, during which pottery was in use in some vicinities, obsidian now reached a greater diversity of sites by a variety of routes (Sherratt 2005).  For our purposes, these data indicate that trade in the Levant, and indeed elsewhere in Eurasia, was extant at the end of the Paleolithic and in the early years of the Neolithic.  This set the stage for trade in other materials, namely copper, bronze and iron, which could be used to make better farm implements and the weapons need to defend the new stores of food.

Theodore A. Wertime (1973) indicates that the upland belt and debouching river valleys of Southwestern Asia present a clear priority in the beginnings of copper metallurgy and extractive metallurgy generally.  He suggests that the forces of urbanization contributed to the rise of the use of many metals (polymetallism) in this region. This was a prerequisite to the coming of the Iron Age, which first arose within Anatolia and the Eastern Mediterranean and spread outward from there.  Yet he is not a strict diffusionist, indicating that the course of metallurgy and possibly of the other urbanizing technologies, can best be understood as spreading through a process of diffusion and multiple innovation creating a network of metallurgical evolution over much of Eurasia.  Nevertheless, he sees the area around the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Red Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean as the diffusionary center.   

Perhaps beginning with obsidian and metals major trade came to the attention of politicos in the early civilizations emerging out of the Era of Domestication, when surplus wealth blossomed.  Those of quick minds would immediately have seen the military uses for metal.  Yet, much of the early trade was not in essentials; but rather was in luxury items – jewelry, pottery (valued first as a prestigious item to own), artworks and shells.

Trade most likely began as a multitude of small-scale entrepreneurial enterprises in local and inter-regional trade, expanding to long-distance trade.  When long-distance trade increased and great caravan routes opened – e.g., the Silk Road, the trans-Saharan routes, the Spice Routes and the Amber Road – political and military issues arose in connection with the movement of goods and politicos moved to control trade routes and levied tolls and taxes on them.  Thus, trade became a “siphonable” enterprise.  In these complex societies, rulers also employed craftsmen, merchants and traders to work for them, thereby becoming financiers of long-distance trade (Fagan 1995:348-349).

Trade gave aggrandizers another means of acquiring great wealth; but there was another reason for controlling trade.  A class of merchants had emerged, the members of which were becoming rich and powerful and were perceived as a threat to the state (Collis 1984:16).  Politicos reasoned, no doubt, that they needed to keep the commercial class in check and also profit from trade at the same time.  But control of trade was primarily about generating wealth for the state.  Just as aggrandizing leaders had seen the benefits of controlling the farming economy, they moved to create institutions allowing them to benefit from the efforts of craftsmen and traders.

We see these processes playing out in Ancient Sumer.  After 10,000 B.P. long-distance exchanges in vital commodities e.g., obsidian and luxury goods e.g., seashells reached considerable proportions.  This trade extended over much of the Levant, Anatolia and even beyond (Algaze 1993).  Organized trade, much of it under the control of the temple-palace complexes, accelerated during the sixth millennium B.P., evolving into a nascent “world system” that linked hundreds of Near Eastern groups all the way from Eastern Iran and the Indus Valley in modern-day Pakistan to the Levant, Mesopotamia, Anatolia and the Nile Valley.  In the fifth millennium B.P. this young trading system not only incorporated the Near East; but also reached to Greece, Cyprus and the Aegean. 

This expansion was due to demand for non-local raw materials in various ecological locales – demand by emerging civilizations and states, all achieving greater complexity.



Case 1.13.  The Springboard of Trade in Great Zimbabwe


In Africa, trade stimulated the rise of Great Zimbabwe, the Shona State that came to dominate several chiefdoms south of the Zambezi River in the colonial state of Southern Rhodesia, renamed Zimbabwe after independence.  Their economic base was rainfall horticulture and herding, with wealth being measured by the size of one’s cattle herds (Garlake 1978).  When the opportunity for long-distance trade arose, the Shona chiefs of Great Zimbabwe were able to dominate it, shipping gold and ivory to the Indian Ocean Coast in return for exotic commodities like cloth and glass beads, which they traded in the interior for grain and cattle.

Trade was a strategic choice, a risk-management strategy, taken to cushion the state against the depredations of cattle disease, crop failure and marauding neighbors.  The wealth of trade grew Great Zimbabwe to a city of about three square miles and a population of around 18,000 people at its height near the end of the 14th century (Garlake 1973; Beach 1993).

Trade was a springboard for the state at Great Zimbabwe.  As its kings rose to prominence, trade wealth enabled them to raise armies to intervene in the politics of the neighboring chiefdoms and exact tribute from their own people and other less powerful states in the region.  Trade brought wealth to the politically powerful and the politically powerful controlled trade.  This feedback system worked until Zimbabwe’s population outstripped the land’s productive capacity and it went into decline in the middle of the 15th century.




Community vs. Aggrandizement


In my perspective every human population has had born aggrandizers; but not all historical-material situations have allowed them to begin to compete with others to differentially access power, prestige and property.  Of the three – power, prestige and property – it would seem reasonable that prestige was the first sought. 

In non-storing forager societies of the Paleolithic, men and women sought prestige by becoming shamans, excellent hunters or the woman who knew most about finding fruits and tubers in the wilds.  As we are social animals, it is natural for human beings to seek prestige; but in the non-storing societies of the Paleolithic opportunities to garner prestige were limited.  Prestige could not be passed on to anyone in the next generation.  It died with the individual who had achieved it.

The domestication of plants and animals changed that.  It was like pouring gasoline on a tiny fire.  What started out as a flicking flame of aggrandizement, became a raging forest fire in the Neolithic Revolution as aggrandizers had something to compete for – stored food.  They merely had to overcome the centuries of psychological investment in the ethos of communitarianism, of sharing over competing.

If the ethos of egalitarianism was so enormously important to Paleolithic people for so long, how did aggrandizers emerge?  Why didn’t the community move to stop inequality?  Research shows that in some cases the community did inhibit the emergence of hierarchy, prestige-building, status-seeking displays and creation of debt-obligation relations.  By most ethnographic accounts, primary producers in kin-based communities have the physical ability to resist siphoners taking their surplus.  In tribal peoples today they often don’t resist because aspiring resource managers fabricate sociocultural formations to legitimate their privileged access to producers’ surplus (Foucault 1982:223).  

I assume that this has happened countless times in the past.  Marx (1906 [1864)].  defined the socioeconomic class of an individual by his position in the flow of surplus goods.  Once a surplus was available to ancient peoples, either storing hunter-gatherers with complex social organizations, farmers or herders, fabricated cultural forms emerged to elevate some men to the status of material managers, those deemed responsible for the flow of surplus goods.  Even then, such aggrandizers would have had to work within the context of communitarianism that had existed for eons of time.  Nonetheless, no matter how much the emphasis of early societies was on communal and egalitarian ideas, no society is ever completely unified either in ideology or behavior.  As Malinowski put it in Crime and Custom:  Society is “not a consistent logical scheme; but rather a seething mixture of conflicting principles” (1926:121).  Élites would have been able to take advantage of this as they worked to establish a new order of things.

Michael Young (1971:112) describes how rich individuals in New Guinea feign poverty in order to turn aside the “sorcery of envy.”[6]  No doubt when precarious economic conditions existed or when socioeconomic inequalities were just emerging, aggrandizers consciously had to “keep a low profile and underplay the reality of inequalities in power and wealth” (Hayden 1995:291). 

In the flow, or processes of production in tribal peoples today, does the individual producer have total control over food grown, for example, from ground to mouth?  Or is there someone of another cohort that lays claim to part of that flow?  Even in kin-based societies, headman-control is an inkling of the class control we come to see later in history. 

In my Sisala research, young men and women labored to feed those who could not work and headmen received the fruits of youthful labor to store in family granaries.  These lineage headmen had the authority to control distribution of the stored grain backed by the power of the ancestors, who were thought to kill any junior person trying to take grain from the stores against the will of the headman.  That scenario must have been repeated millions of times in agricultural history.

It is likely that in early farming communities such control seemed innocuous in the context of communalistic kin organization.  For instance, the Sisala headman doled out the surplus in a seemingly egalitarian fashion to each household in the lineage.  Even if he and other elders did not labor to produce the food, they had done so for their parents.  On the other hand, children who needed to be fed from the stores would eventually become workers filling the granaries with their labor.  This institution leveled consumption even though one household farmer may have produced more than another farmer; yet both received equal shares from the granary. 

It is my belief that such “benign siphoning” could eventually have led, in some cases, to extraction of a surplus that enabled ambitious men to build power bases, which we generally call chiefdoms.  While such leveling institutions seem benign, they are not entirely free from the potential to generate stratification and broader political organization.

How did exploitation come about in the initial farming communities?  We can only speculate; but there are good ethnographic data to show that in spite of a strong communalistic value system, over long periods of sustained practice, super-achievers were likely able to institute small changes in the fabric of society’s ideas, norms and practices.  It would seem that this was done through displays of generosity e.g., big man feasts, that built prestige as a stepping-stone to power over people and property control (Hayden 1996).

For instance, a status of primus inter pares is a rung above equality.  It could have been a springboard for opportunists in early societies.  In chapters 8 and 9 we will see this to be the case for the Count of Barcelona in Catalonia (Case 8.1 & Case 9). 

The count went from being one of many regional counts to because a primus inter pares and then, by manipulating feudal ceremonies, established himself as the supreme sovereign and eventually the King of Aragón and Catalonia.  This took various Catalan monarchs centuries to accomplish.

Elaborate public performances are commonly held in modern day tribal societies in which big men strive to demonstrate and objectify their capacity to be the organizer in society.  These are not entirely politically benevolent activities.  As Michael Dietler (2001) says, “Feasts are inherently political.”  Such public performances of individual power are demonstrations of ability, often connecting in the public mind the performer to Deity in one form or another.  We see this operating in the following case:




Case 1.14.  Zuni Privilege for those with Special Powers 


In the past, the Zuni Amerindians had active orders of sword-swallowers and men who could walk on fire (Stevenson 1904; Kintigh 2000).  When they performed their extraordinary feats in public they achieved elevated status and were handed responsibilities for certain political and economic aspects of Zuni society.  The public routine was a recital of abilities validating above average performers to be entrusted with governance and control of economic activities.

For the sword-swallowers connection to the occult was often the path to management of society’s resources e.g., professing special knowledge of minerals, herbs, plants, animals, the bush or forest (often a fearful place for many) and, in general, the ability to contact and control spirits.  Among the Zuni this gave such men special privileges, for example in some cases leaders’ fields were worked by others, and the produce of the land was given to the leader for redistribution or personal use (Parsons 1939). 

Even today, Zuni leaders may in some cases control over one-half of the total land base of a community for their own purposes (Brandt 1994:16).  Also, in communal hunts, larger shares of the animals killed were given to the leaders.  Élites also had privileged access to “such things as mineral deposits” and the members of their cult groups worked mines and quarries for the production of prestige goods e.g., specialized pottery, masks, clothing or tools.  Furthermore, Brandt’s fieldwork indicates that “Religious leaders or their agents often made intervillage agreements to regulate trade between and within their communities and to guarantee exclusivity of village production.” 

These Amerindian practices are an indication of how ancient managers may have arisen through their public demonstrations of extraordinary powers and knowledge.  Access to political power led to economic power i.e., the privilege of command gave leaders the concession of special access to goods and services.




Whatever the specifics of aggrandizing practices, inequality did not happen overnight.  Most likely it was a very slow, incremental process.  In teaching my college classes I used to use the analogy of a stalagmite on a cave floor.  Like drops of water depositing calcium to build up the stalagmite, managers changed society a rule at a time, building sociocultural formations of domination over long periods of practice.

Furthermore, continuing with this metaphor, a stalagmite can be eroded by wind and water and it can be broken through human activity.  The same is true of institutions and sociocultural formations.  After complexity was well on its way, successive generations of office-holders – chiefs, priests, diviners, leaders of secret societies, for example – could eat away at egalitarian formations, even destroying some violently. 

Humans make and remake their world by doing work within it (Childe 1936).  And aggrandizers are always busy remolding society to their benefit.  Recently, in Afghanistan, we saw the Taliban use explosives, tanks and anti-aircraft weapons to blow apart two colossal images of the Buddha in Bamiyan Province, some 230 kms from the capital of Kabul.  Why?  They were doing what thousands of warlords aspiring to be kings or emperors have done throughout history.  They perceived an alien, threatening symbol in the statues and destroyed them, hoping to erase to these foreign symbols from their land.  They had new symbolsf in mind.  

Domination is about fostering a single vision of the world and in the messiness of history it is difficult to pull this off.  It takes work.  It means taking control of land, crops, herds and all sorts of material things; but it also means controlling information and cultural symbols.


Primordialism vs. Constructionism


Some authors have tried to answer the question of why complexity emerges by contrasting primordial sentiments held by tribal peoples – and presumably those of antiquity – with the constructionist activities of aggrandizers who wanted to build new political and economic forms in society.  They see these as being at odds with each other and wonder how aggrandizers could have built chiefdoms on top of such axiomatic and unchanging aspects of ancient life such as kinship and religion.

Primordialism refers to “the idea that certain cultural attributes and formations possess a prior, overriding, and determining influence on people’s lives, one that is largely immune to ‘rational’ interest and political calculation” (Smith 2000:5).  In this sense, people take aspects of their lives like kinship, descent, language, religion, customs and historical territory as primeval i.e., elemental to their lives and their sense of belonging.  Anthropologists used to call “primitive” peoples who had such deep sentiments.  This term is now not in vogue; but in the context of our discussion of how aggrandizers were able to fabricate new complex forms of organization in the early Neolithic, we must assume that in those modest ancient societies primordialism was more common than not.

It is likely that people of a group had a notion that their group was based on a spiritual principle, forming a seamless whole transcending the various members who were bound together by legends of common origins, feeling a shared historic culture, forming a single community and living according to vernacular codes in a historic homeland.

There are numerous ethnographic examples of primordialism.  Anthropologists have repeatedly encountered tribal peoples who expressed the fact that they were the first people, god’s people and that their ways are the correct ways of organizing society.  It is unlikely that ancient peoples were any less ethnocentric.

Primordialism is not restricted to tribal peoples.  We assume that early Neolithic peoples had such feelings because similar sentiments have actually been noted in certain kinds of nations.  Hans Kohn has indicated that for Europe this highly charged, sentimentalist form of nationalism exists in the Germanic East, while the more Western nations of Europe tend toward the voluntarist model of nationalism.  In the former a person born into a nation can never leave it, being instilled with a certain national spirit; while in the voluntarist West, people have the right to choose which nations they wish to claim as their own (Kohn 1944 [1967]).

We also have a century or so of anthropological studies to show that many peoples still living today take this approach to their cultures.  Clifford Geertz, for example, felt that ethnic and national attachments spring forth from “cultural givens” of social existence, such things as kinship, language, religion, race and customs.  He noted that many tribal peoples’ sense of self is bound up in their perception of a common blood, territory, language, religion or tradition (Geertz 1973).

Yet it is important to note that some early anthropologists took native statements about the primal nature of their customs to mean that they were deterministic in their thinking, that individuals were bound by their values, rules and institutions.  The early Anthropological idea was that technologically primitive peoples had primitive mentalities i.e., they could not think rationally, a position mapped out early on by Lévy-Bruhl in his La Mentalité Primitive (1978 [1922]) and Les Fonctions Mentales dans les Sociétés Inférieures (1985 [1926]).  That perspective has been debunked by subsequent research, which shows that native peoples are quite capable of manipulating their own customs to achieve some end, usually in the pursuit of power, prestige and property.

Primordial attachments rest on perception, cognition and belief; but these are malleable and early opportunists, those desiring to rise above the crowd and rule, would have been able to work within the context of primal systems to nudge people in a direction that enabled new and more complex institutions to come into being e.g., chiefship where it had not previously existed. 

It is not a matter of either primordialism ruling peoples’ lives or social constructionism on the part of “wannabe élites;” but rather aggrandizers had to be clever enough to carefully operate in ways that seemed to support only very slight variations of primal beliefs and institutions.  A smart aggrandizer would have built his ruling platform on the foundation of existing axioms and ways of life. 

Yet, aggrandizers did not construct chiefdoms on top of axiomatic and unchanging aspects of ancient life such as kinship and religion; rather they cautiously and with awareness used the building blocks of those very institutions to construct their new way of life – rulership.  The aspiring ruler didn’t want to upset the apple cart; he wanted to own it and the apples.

Again, we have studies that show that élites manipulated cultures to achieve new ends in the pre-modern world.  Paul Brass found that Muslim élites, for example, mobilized the Islamic masses in colonial India by manipulating religious symbols in order to preserve their own positions in the political economy at a time when British rulers in India seemed to favor Hindu élites over them.  In his more instrumentalist framework, Brass saw the augmentation of Muslim ethnicity in India and the rise of Pakistani nationalism as products of manipulation of symbolic resources, such as the tradition of ummah (nation of Islam), by Muslim leaders (Brass 1979).  

Muslim élites trying to pull away from Britain and India were not operating in a cultural vacuum; but preexisting, primal, religious attachments and historical memories were crucial in forming a constraining milieu and molding their outlooks and possible actions.  These were their building blocks of a new order.

It seems that such cases indicate that in primordial societies, when opportunists wished to manipulate the sociocultural formation, they must have used primal sentiments and institutions to their advantage and were, at the same time, constrained by them.  Aggrandizers that strayed too far from primeval sentiments might have found their innovations rejected. 

I speak to this subject with an interest-based approach to the emergence of institutions of domination.  I take it that all peoples in history have had agency (Archer 1988).  But that does not mean that primordial sentiments were trampled as opportunists elevated new institutions.  More likely they were bent, circumvented and used in new ways to achieve dominance.  Anthony D. Smith, writing about nations; but in a way that is applicable to any polity, says:


each nationalism and every concept of the nation is composed of different elements and dimensions, which we choose to label voluntarist and organic, civic and ethnic, primordial and instrumental.  No nation, no nationalism, can be seen as purely the one or the other, even if at certain moments one or other of these elements predominates in the ensemble of components of national identity (2000:25).


My view is that polities and sociocultural formations are social constructs, however much they are perceived of as primordial (or presented by leaders as such); and within this context, aggrandizing élites wishing to rule could manipulate cultural artifacts deliberately.  In the past they engineered society for their own purposes; but did so using acceptable symbols, terminology and behaviors.  Deliberate élite innovation was a product of “cultural work” on the part of aggrandizers, the result of their forming élite narratives within a cultural range of sentiments and norms acceptable to their followers.

One of the collaborations between history and anthropology came about in the publication of The Invention of Tradition by Eric Hobsbawm (historian) and Terrance Ranger (anthropologist) (1983).  They noted that many traditions in pre-industrial societies presented in primordial clothing are actually recent inventions and fabrications on the part of élites.  They are “invented traditions” created by social engineers who designed and re-designed existing symbols, mythologies, rites and legends specifically to further their political and economic ends, while at the same time meeting the needs of the masses in complex and changing worlds in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

These “invented traditions” did not appear out of nowhere, nor could they be so farfetched as to alienate the audience aggrandizers were trying to reach.  Hobsbawm writes that conscious invention succeeded “mainly in proportion to its success in broadcasting on a wavelength to which the public was ready to tune in’ (1983:263).  That “wavelength” in the Third World[7] was often a fine line between old ways and new ones brought on through colonialism and globalization.  In the early Neolithic, it would have been an adjustment of lifeways to meet new needs and challenges initiated by the emerging availability of a storable-stealable-surplus and the new fact that the have-nots wanted what the haves had.

Some have criticized the constructionist approach, claiming it to be élitist i.e., placing too much emphasis on manipulation of the masses by privileged individuals and not enough focus on popular ideas and traditions (Smith 2000:61).  But, as I have said, my approach takes the general culture into account, seeing it as a molding, formative framework within which élites must have operated to effectuate change.  This was true in the early Neolithic and it is true today (see chapter 11). 

Invented traditions are not created ex nihilo, nor are élites stymied by the presence of primordial sentiments among the target population.  In the past, successful aggrandizing élites were able to authenticate primal sentiments and appropriate aspects of the target culture and then they had to give a convincing representation of the new pathway to their constituents in terms the people could understand.  When, for example, the Count of Barcelona was settling the wasteland called Marca Hispanica populated by a variety of peoples, he had to create anew what the French call an ethnie (see Case 8.1).  Professor A. D. Smith defines it as “a named human population with myths of common ancestry, shared historical memories, one or more elements of shared culture, a link with a homeland, and a measure of solidarity, at least among the élites” (2000:65). 

In the Catalonian context, the Count of Barcelona had the past of the Carolingian Empire to draw upon, a bounded territory in the Spanish March, an Islamic enemy to the south, the Catholic ideology and an élitist culture of domination among the castle-lords of the region to formulate an ethnie, though as I have shown elsewhere, this was not an easy process.  Yet, eventually a strong sense of being Catalan developed and persists into today’s Spain (Mendonsa 2008a).

In summary, the Paleolithic saw humans living under egalitarian social conditions in which opportunists were restricted to non-hereditary forms of distinguishing themselves; but hierarchy and office did eventually emerge in storing, agricultural and pastoral societies.  Thus, it was not the type of society that produced inequality but rather the presence of a surplus for which aggrandizing managers began to compete.  Nevertheless, given many primordial values, the emergence of complexity was a process in which the new rulers had to slowly put together novel organizational forms that allowed them to eventually dominate three key means of governance in society: the means of production (control of labor), the means of destruction (control of weaponry) and the means of mystification (information control).

[1] Labor required by the people to the ruling power.

[2] The hunter-gatherer-fisher sedentary societies I use as examples in this work had long histories and may have existed in the Late Paleolithic and there may have

been others about which we are as yet unaware.

[3] See: Young 1971.

[4] Bondage was so complete that among some slave-owning Amerindians of the Northwest Coast, owners could kill their slaves.


[5] In a broad brush fashion, I will refer to the Paleolithic as being a time frame of

egalitarian non-storing bands of hunter-gatherers even though there may have been

a few storing-foragers that began in the later decades of the Paleolithic, especially hunter-gatherer-fishers.

[6] I had originally had written simply “envy,” but in a personal

communication Michael Young suggested adding the word “sorcery”

here in that the two are very much connected in that ethnographic


                             [7] I prefer the less used term Third World over the popular “South” for poor                                                  countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Views: 45


You need to be a member of Open Anthropology Cooperative to add comments!


OAC Press



© 2019   Created by Keith Hart.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service