The Origins of Inequality

New Humanist magazine asks, “Are we city dwellers or hunter-gatherers? New research suggests that the familiar story of early human society is wrong – and the consequences are profound.” The authors take issue with the familiar story about how the members of hunter-gatherer bands enjoyed a certain social and political equality, but the invention of agriculture, and especially the rise of cities, represented a fall from Edenic grace. Essentially, the existence of surpluses allowed some people to exploit them, and set themselves up as kings (this is the kleptocratic theory of the origins of the state). 

But archaeological evidence throughout Europe keeps turning up graves of Paleolithic people who were clearly richer than everyone else, including one from 15000 BC showing “stunning signs of honor: bracelets of polished mammoth-ivory, a diadem or cap of fox’s teeth, and nearly 3,000 laboriously carved and polished ivory beads.” So it looks like hunter-gatherers had hierarchies too. Yet we do not find “fortifications, storehouses, palaces – all the usual trappings of emergent states.” The authors note that:

A wider look at the archaeological evidence suggests a key to resolving the dilemma. It lies in the seasonal rhythms of prehistoric social life. Most of the Palaeolithic sites discussed so far are associated with evidence for annual or biennial periods of aggregation, linked to the migrations of game herds – whether woolly mammoth, steppe bison, reindeer or (in the case of Göbekli Tepe) gazelle – as well as cyclical fish-runs and nut harvests. At less favourable times of year, at least some of our Ice Age ancestors no doubt really did live and forage in tiny bands. But there is overwhelming evidence to show that at others they congregated en masse within the kind of “micro-cities” found at Dolní Věstonice, in the Moravian basin south of Brno, Czech Republic, feasting on a superabundance of wild resources, engaging in complex rituals and ambitious artistic enterprises, and trading minerals, marine shells and animal pelts over striking distances.

The authors note that Plains Indians and arctic Inuit also practiced this sort of seasonal state construction, and that:

archaeological evidence suggests that in the highly seasonal environments of the last Ice Age, our remote ancestors were behaving in broadly similar ways: shifting back and forth between alternative social arrangements, permitting the rise of authoritarian structures during certain times of year, on the proviso that they could not last; on the understanding that no particular social order was ever fixed or immutable….

Rather than idling in some primordial innocence, until the genie of inequality was somehow uncorked, our prehistoric ancestors seem to have successfully opened and shut the bottle on a regular basis, confining inequality to ritual costume dramas, constructing gods and kingdoms as they did their monuments, then cheerfully disassembling them once again.

Thus might Stonehenge* or Newgrange have gotten constructed without a permanent kingship, priesthood, and bureaucracy to commandeer all the surplus food and direct all the surplus labor. This issue came up this year in class. I mentioned the ziggurat of Ur and the Giza pyramids as evidence of the power of the state. I then showed Stonehenge and suggested that it too must point to the existence of powerful kingship. One student asked, “How do you know they didn’t just get together and build it because they wanted to?” – and I had to admit that she had a point! If some king directed its building, surely we would have the remains of a neolithic palace somewhere. So I had to modify my position – not all monumental architecture points to kingship. I would say that it does indicate economic surplus and (probably) religious motivation. And I’m sure that someone had to be in charge of the actual construction.

* From the article (emphasis added):

Careful excavation has shown that many of these structures – now plausibly interpreted as monuments to the progenitors of powerful Neolithic dynasties – were dismantled just a few generations after their construction. Still more strikingly, this practice of erecting and dismantling grand monuments coincides with a period when the peoples of Britain, having adopted the Neolithic farming economy from continental Europe, appear to have turned their backs on at least one crucial aspect of it, abandoning cereal farming and reverting – around 3300 BC – to the collection of hazelnuts as a staple food source. Keeping their herds of cattle, on which they feasted seasonally at nearby Durrington Walls, the builders of Stonehenge seem likely to have been neither foragers nor farmers, but something in between. And if anything like a royal court did hold sway in the festive season, when they gathered in great numbers, then it could only have dissolved away for most of the year, when the same people scattered back out across the island.

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