The Feasting Theory – Part Two

Read Part 1

Last time we saw that at the end of the Ice Age, humans all over the world started increasingly focusing their efforts on acquiring abundant plant foods, allowing them to establish consistent, reliable, and storeable surpluses. These surpluses gave rise to a “feasting complex” which was a standard feature of human social communities all over the world. Such feasts served not only as a way of spreading out periodic shortage risks over diverse areas, but also as a means of integrating larger human social groups, engendering cooperative behavior on a level no other species could match. This likely meant that even as far back as the late Paleolithic era, although immediate groups were still mostly quite small (20-150 individuals), such bands were already part or much larger ethnolinguistic networks spread out over broad geographical areas consisting of potentially thousands of individuals who could cooperate on a large-scale basis for reasons of labor pooling, mate exchange, trade, warfare, and other efforts.

During these feasts, certain individuals, or “Triple-A” personalities (aggressive, ambitious, acquisitive, aggrandizers, or I would just say “assholes”), devised various underhanded means to gain control of the surpluses in order to enhance their status and prestige by supplanting reciprocal (equal) exchange with debt/credit relationships. Such cunning social manipulation allowed them to control people, even in the absence of any formal institutions. The subsequent alteration of the social logic of the tribe (caused by abundance) caused people to work ever harder in an attempt to reciprocate the “gifts” of the aggrandizers, leading to an arms race of intensification. As the capacity to produce surpluses increased, feasts became larger and more elaborate. In response, these aggrandizers devised additional means of engendering even greater surplus production and gaining control of the goods produced thereby in order to further enhance their standing and influence in the feasting community and set themselves up over the rest of the tribe.

Hayden describes this sequence by examining the ethnographic record and broadly categorizing societies into three separate levels. Of course, there are no hard-and-fast divisions here, but this framework allows us to describe the sequence from egalitarian foraging bands to chiefdoms in a more comprehensible manner.

1. Despot Societies

In these societies, warfare is the chief rationale for surplus production. In these societies, the deaths of relatives and allies in battles and raids are compensated by death payments. In addition, military alliances are sealed and treaties ratified by wealth exchanges between villages. These payments are typically more than any single individual can produce on their own. This engenders the need for surpluses that the “Despots” can then control by acting as generals and diplomats. Such places have significant warfare, but minimal population density and minimal food surpluses (for example, the eastern New Guinea highlands which are unsuitable for taro production). As such, they do not have competitive feasting, rather feasting is used to recruit allies and make restitution payments.

“Despot communities do not have competitive feasts, but feasts of solidarity and alliance; Great Man despots are not necessarily wealthy as a result of their own productive efforts, but they typically play prominent roles in warfare, and, more importantly, they play central roles in peacekeeping and in arranging death compensation payments that provide access to benefits unavailable to others, such as choice foods, prestige goods, coercive power in demanding surpluses, and power in negotiations…only exchange of equivalent items occurs in Great Man societies; however…death compensation payments are used to create peace everywhere in New Guinea, and…death compensation payment is a key factor in changing the practice of ‘equivalent exchange.'” (FOI: 30)

Hayden portrays these societies as ones in which ambitious individuals are constantly scheming and conniving in an almost Machiavellian manner to foment conflicts in order to provide a rationale for producing the surpluses which are then turned over to them for peace negotiations and death compensation payments.

It is essential to realize that …what makes warfare a useful tool for ambitious aggrandizers is not necessarily the conflict itself, but the creation of debts that can be partly managed or manipulated by those with ambition. This is what differentiates transegalitarian warfare from warfare in egalitarian communities. Debt is created in three ways:

(1) when individuals are killed in battle, retaliatory killings can be avoided by paying for the initial death with economic surpluses.

(2) in order to secure allies for battles, surpluses can be used to pay potential or actual allies for their support.

(3) when allies suffer losses in battles, they must be compensated by wealth payments for their losses.

All of these situation are predicated on the practice of substituting the value of economic surpluses for a human life–a practice that does not appear to occur to any great extent among strictly egalitarian societies where a human life must be paid for with a human life (i.e. strict equivalent or revenge)” (p. 32)

In some rare instances, straight-up extortion and intimidation was used as a means of increasing wealth and prestige:

“By generating a climate of danger, Despots could make strong demands in the rest of their communities for power and goods. In some instances, the strategy clearly led to the concentration of considerable power in the hands of Despots who married up to 20 wives and who killed members of their own community at whim. These individuals were supported by the community because their fearsome reputations provided increased security from attack” (p. 32)

Nevertheless, the main emphasis was on generating conflicts, and the using surpluses to manage the conflicts and acquire power through such efforts:

Of importance for the present discusion is the fact that transegalitarian warfare required both military and economic strength. It is as the organizer of the compensation payments, generally entailing subsequent exchanges, that ambitious individuals could acquire additional advantages for themselves. They could motivate community members in a positive fashion to produce and surrender surpluses rather than obtaining these through extortion and protection racketeering that was unstable at best…Typically, the amount of wealth deemed to equal the value of a human life for compensation payments was far more than normal individuals or families could amass…I feel that the appropriation of surplus for peacemaking was a key strategy of economically ambitious individuals.” (p. 34)

Corporate Kin Groups

What are corporations doing in traditional foraging societies? Typically, in traditional societies, key resources such as garden plots or water wells are not alienable property owned by solitary individuals to control as they see fit, but owned and managed by what anthropologists call corporate kin groups.

In our modern use of the term, a corporation is a legal entity allowing unrelated people come together to pool capital and labor for some sort of business purpose, such as the production of goods or services. As defined by anthropologists in traditional societies, however, “a corporation is composed of a plurality of individuals; the life of the corporation is independent of its individual members; and, membership is limited to individuals of certain qualification.” Corporations can either be economic, political or religious, or some combination of all three: (1)“economic,” material satisfaction of human needs; (2) “political,” the ordering of human relations; and (3)“religious,” relations with the supernatural. Membership in corporate groups is usually through kinship – relatives by blood, marriage or adoption, and you don’t ever get fired from these corporations:

A landowning group of kinsmen that is autonomous politically and maintains its own system of social controls is often called a “corporate kin group.” Such a group exists in perpetuity, and serves as a ceremonial group and a primary or face-to-face group, in which each individual is responsible to and for other members and they are responsible to and for him…Kin groups are based on ties of blood or marriage. Groups in which all the members claim descent from a common ancestor are called “descent groups,” and one of the most important of such groups is the “lineage”–a descent group in which the members can actually demonstrate (and not merely assume) their relationship…Several lineages whose members claim (but cannot necessarily demonstrate) common descent are generally referred to collectively as a “clan.”

The groups that people develop are among the instruments by which they make use of energy potentials in their habitat. Thus, it is neither necessary nor possible for hunter-gatherers to form corporate kin groups because their relationship with the habitat involves little investment of energy in land and because their groups must split up recurrently. But horticulturalists plant seeds and must wait for crops to grow and to be harvested, and because of these different relationships with the land and with other resources, they develop different kinds of groups, more suitable for coping with their habitat.

Consider a lineage, for instance. This is a corporate kin group designed to deal with the allocation of land and other resources, to maintain legal and social control, to engage in short-term political relations with other groups, and to undertake religious and ceremonial activities. Hunter-gatherers do not face the horticultural problem of allocating land and other resources; hence, lineage organization is never found among the former but is widespread among the latter in one form or another.(MIA: 27)

Gaining control over such corporate kin groups is another method of gaining power used by aggrandizers, according to Hayden.

Since the ability to produce consistent surpluses is quite low, there are too few resources to be used by Depots to generate indebtedness. Instead, feasting is used to ensure social solidarity, make peace, and generate alliances. It is also used as an opportunity for Despots to prominently display rare and valuable artifacts that they have in their possession and thus increase their status and prestigein the eyes of the rest of the tribe:

“The ostensible reason for holding these feasts and dances from the community’s point of view was to attract and consolidate labor in the form of productive workers in the community, good mates, and good military allies–all essential for survival in the Despot community environment. Large communities were critical for success in warfare…from the Despot’s point of view…The important element was …marshaling community or kinship labor…used … to acquire prestige goods used for display in dancing or rituals, all of which Despots could manipulate much in the same fashion as they manipulated death compensation payments…

“Critical to displaying wealth and success was the ability of the host or hosts to procure, display, and give away difficult to obtain or specialized labor-intensive items. Obtaining such objects via regional trade networks and/or by supporting local craft specialists therefore eventually became absolutely essential features of reciprocal and competitive feasting in most cases…The obligations and bonds incurred at feasts could be strengthened even further by carrying them out in ritual or sacred contexts. This is undoubtedly one reason why ritual performances are integral parts of almost all transegalitarian feasts.”

2. Reciprocator (Leadership) Societies

These are societies which can produce much greater surpluses than Despot Societies can. In these societies economic competition between aggrandizers begins in earnest. They represent an intermediate stage between Depot societies and true Big Men societies:

“The distinguishing characteristics of Leaders…are that the communities are openly nonegalitarian, that Leaders compete openly with each other within their communities, there is more emphasis on their organizing and financial role (combined with their ongoing role as warrior leaders) although still nominally for the benefit of the group, and that they initiate exchange with ex-enemies for their own benefit. Leaders are also described as being wealthier, having more wives, having larger social networks and followers, and as participating in many marriage exchanges…they are clearly an evolutionary step toward the Big Man Entrepreneurs, and differ only in degree.”

In these societies, additional means are used besides warfare to enhance the standing and prestige of aggrandizers, the major ones being bridewealth and child growth payments.

Bridewealth is wealth that must be given to the family of a bride by a suitor before a marriage can be contracted. It is an outgrowth of bride service, where the groom is expected to perform services for the brides’ family for a species period of time (bride service is found in the story of Jacob and Rachel/Leah in the Bible). In Reciprocator communities, bridewealth becomes a major avenue of acquiring wealth and power for Reciprocators. In such societies, more wealth = more (and better) wives:

“Communities without Big Men (i.e. Despot or Reciprocator communities) often give wives or pigs to allies that have sustained battle losses on their behalf…and that substitution of wealth for human lives is fairly common in societies without Big Men. By extending this principle to marriage, that is, by transforming the egalitarian ethic of exchanging a woman for a woman into the transegalitarian ethic of exchanging wealth for a woman, Reciprocators could achieve several self-serving goals:

(1) Bridewealth enables Reciprocators with economic advantages to obtain more desirable (generally more productive) wives by simply paying more than other men in the community. Bridewealth may easily have begun as a supplemental payment to bride service or other more egalitarian wife exchange arrangements.

(2)The substitution of wealth for wives enabled wealth Reciprocators to obtain more wives than they might otherwise be able to acquire, thereby acquiring more productive labor to increase their economic advantages.

(3) Bridewealth was an extremely powerful and effective mechanism for creating and enhancing wealth an power inequalities between families in the same community.

(4) Bridewealth could eventually obligate everyone who wished to marry to produce substantial amounts of surplus as well as going into debt.

(5) Bridewealth payments exceeded the net worth of most junior members of the community, thus placing junior men who wished to marry firmly under the control of, and in contractual debt to, aggrandizers with wealth. Men that wanted to marry had to attach themselves to corporate kinship groups or unrelated aggrandizers. Marriage  could thus become largely a contract (and alliance) between corporate kin groups.

(6) Bridewealth payments, like death compensation payments, could be promoted by aggrandizers as “loans” of wealth rather than payments (or a combination of the two). Reciprocators from different corporate groups could agree between themselves to reciprocally pay back these loans in a neverending cycle of exchange that not only could be portrayed to the community as solidifying relations between the groups (and ensuring the flow of mates for the future), but would also continually create a demand for the production of surpluses and of debts both between groups and within groups.” (FOI: pp. 42-43)

Maturation events were used as a means to increase the future marriage value of children. The additional investments in wealth and training only available to certain elite members of the community contributed to establishing a ranked society of elites and commoners. In such cultures, initiation ceremonies became much more complex and elaborate, and required much more costly expenses and specialized training. Think of these as a sort of primitive bar mitzvah.

“Child growth payments are simply the logical extension of bridewealth where surpluses are abundant enough to warrant still higher marriage payments…By investing wealth in children at specified life events (birth, namings, first menstruation, initiations, tattoos, piercings) and in costly training for specific roles, the parents (or corporate group) successively raises a child’s value, especially as a marriage partner. Anyone wishing to marry such a child would therefore have to provide a marriage payment (and/or funeral payment) comparable to or exceeding the amount invested in the child in order to compensate the investing group for the loss of their investments in an explicitly valued corporate member…Clearly advantageous for aggrandizers, such practices would increase the volume of exchange, stimulate expropriatable wealth production even further, and create larger, more binding debts between groups as well as within groups…This investment of labor and resources in children for exchange purposes is not fundamentally different from the investment of labor and resources in the raising and fattening of pigs or cattle for exchange.” (FOI: pp. 44-45)

In Reciprocator societies, feasts are given, and wealth is given away, but the expectation of repayment with interest by the receivers of gifts is still limited. It is encouraged, but not absolutely mandatory. This is probably because the surpluses were not yet abundant enough for people to feel confident in their ability to repay loans, so to get them to agree to accept gifts, exchanges are still considered mostly reciprocal rather than debt-based:

“It is at the Reciprocator level that individual household economic production and exchange becomes the lynchpin for acquiring wealth and power. Like contemporary small capitalists starting businesses, Reciprocators work especially hard to amass the capital necessary to begin the somewhat risky investment cycle and to enhance their subsequent relative position…Leading Reciprocators vigorously promoted a strong work ethic among all their community coresidents to pay off debts. It is also at the Reciprocator level that the manipulation of ideology to consolidate positions of power can first be discerned…for example, success at gardening and especially in producing large yams was largely attributed to the personal magical abilities of the male gardeners…”

3. Entreprenuerial Societies

These are the most productive areas with the highest capacity for regular surpluses, the richest resource base, the densest populations, and the greatest overall abundance. Many places have a significant food resource, such as salmon or tubers such as yams or taro, where they derive most of their calories. In addition to all of the tactics and strategies above, feasts are now used to generate much more formalized contractual debt obligations in which interest payments are now expected and demanded. Economic competition is ratcheted up to a prodigious level due to the richness of the tribe’s natural environment.

“Besides the intensive food production efforts of the immediate family, loans and investments become the major avenue to wealth, success, and power. Entrepreneurs therefore use all previous pretexts for establishing exchange relationships (especially death compensation and marriage payments), they initiate more individual exchange relationships, they organize larger and more elaborate feasts of many types with blatant competition between participating corporate groups and individuals, and they invest considerable amounts of wealth in child growth payments.” (FOI: pp. 51-52)

A key point is that authority is created by this achievement in overproduction, rather than invested in an inherited leadership role. Also the power of the Entrepreneur is not rooted in coercive power, but rather through social prestige. Anthropologists generally describe this as the difference between achieved status and ascribed status. Achieved status is where prestige is attained by personal efforts during one’s own lifetime, such as being a fearless warrior or skilled hunter. Such societies are described by anthropologists as “achievement-based.” Ascribed status is one where one’s status and role are determined at birth, regardless of individual achievement.

Michael Dietler describes the nature of the Entrepreneurial feast:

[Entrepreneurial feasting] involves the competitive manipulation of commensal hospitality toward the acquisition of “symbolic capital” which translates into informal political power and economic advantage. By informal political power I mean what is often called “prestige,” or…”free-floating power.” That is an ability to influence group decisions or actions which derives not from authority vested in a particular formalized status or role, but rather from the relations created and reproduced in the process of personal interaction. In this case, those are multiple relations of reciprocal obligation and sentiments of social superiority/subordination between hosts and guests, created through generous displays of hospitality…(p. 92)

This type of feasting has been described by various anthropologists in many contests ranging from Melanesia to Central America to Asia to Africa. In societies with an egalitarian political ethos, the self-interested manipulative nature of the process may be concealed or euphamized by the fact that it is carried out through the socially valued and integrated institution of generous hospitality, and it may even be perceived as a leveling device. However, this apparent leveling is merely the conversion of economic capital into “symbolic capital”. Feasts may be used as a form of…”indebtedness engineering” every bit as much as the prestation of valuables. This is quite clear in the cases where feasting is recognized by participants to be openly aggressive, but is equally operative in cases where competitive manipulation is subtly euphamized. (p. 93)

Hayden describes the proto-capitalistic behavior of these so-called Big Men Entrepreneurs:

“At the Entrepreurial level, aggrandizers had “capitalist” characteristics. Entrepreneurs had a great deal of wealth and many wives and engaged in a great deal of transactional, investment and administrative work. They sought wives and children that were hardworking and productive. Entrepreneurs tended to establish crafted prestige goods (through their regional connections to other entrepreneurs or their control over high-labor investments) to further increase their control over the finance system (e.g. the control of the coastal shell trade necessary for marriage in Highland New Guinea or the dentalium shells necessary for marriage among many groups of the Northwest)…this control over important prestige items may have been critical in the emergence of chiefdoms…In addition to controlling exchange, wherever possible, aggrandizers attempted to extend their control over basic subsistence resources to the point of even charging fees for passage through owned territories.”

“In addition to death compensation payments and competitive feasts, marriage became a primary sphere of exchange and for acquiring wealth. Not only were child growth payments elaborate, but children of elite families underwent prolonged and costly training for various roles: elite wives, political leaders, warriors, hunters, runners, ritualists. In some cases, menstrual seclusion or boys’ initiatory vision quests could be very costly and last many years. The apparent motive behind this functionally unnecessary and costly elaboration of training was to increase the value of children in terms of marriage payments and subsequent exchanges. Thus, bridewealth increased considerably in Entrepreneur communities, and affinal relationships were sought for their economic value while establishing a biological family was often of only secondary importance…”(FOI: pp. 57-58)

In these societies, warfare was no longer in the interest of Entrepreneurs, so it waned. Warfare actually got in the way of wealth acquisition and reciprocal feasting. Instead, trade networks expanded, under the control of the Entrepreneurs, who used them to acquire prestige and promotional technologies. These goods were used to burnish their own importance, and to attract supporters and followers. For example,the Kula Ring trade was a trade of prestige items (armbands and necklaces) between Trobriand Island chiefs, (and only chiefs), and a way of enhancing their power and prestige. Wealth leading to declining warfare is actually not a new, but a very old concept. The lure of profit was another new way in which Entrepreneurial Big Man attracted sycophants and supporters who were willing to work hard to increase the surpluses that they controlled. Hayden describes two major changes between Reciprocator and Entrepreneurial societies:

1. The first change involves the use of profit as a means of attracting supporters. The greater the return for profit that Entrepreneurs could offer their supporters for contributions to competitive feasts, the stronger would be the motivation of supporters to produce surpluses and to permit Entrepreneurs to influence the use of the surpluses. This would also indirectly increase the total contractual debt in the community. . .

2. The second major change from Reciprocator to Entrepreneur systems was in the importance of warfare. While warfare was still important and was avowedly manipulated by Entrepreneurs for their own economic interests, warfare could also be viewed as interfering with profitable exchange…The New Guinea ethnographers …suggest that it was more difficult to gather large numbers of warriors together for raids in Entrepreneur communities because increasing numbers of people viewed fighting as being contrary to their own marital and exchange interests. (p. 53)

It should be pointed out here that some anthropologists argue that warfare was the chief means of generating prestige in transegalitarian societies, and feasting only came to prominence after warfare was suppressed by formal states and colonial authorities in countries like New Guinea, Melanesia, and the Northwest coast of the United States.

Attracting the best possible labor was a major task of potential Entrepreneurs; only by surrounding themselves with fellow workaholics could the Entrepreneurial Big Man hope to produce the surpluses necessary to build his empire. Hayden quotes the remark of a Northwest Coast Big Man to a visiting anthropologist: “If his ‘tenants’ are good…then…he can do much (i.e. potlatching). If they are not good…he can do nothing.” Attracting and retaining the best labor thus became a major factor in the Entreprenuer’s success, or lack thereof, which is why prestige and promotional technologies become so important, leading to wider trade networks and more elaborate goods. In fact, Entrepreneurs often retained specialized craftsmen just to produce prestige and promotional technologies in order to attract desirable labor to their villages and steal them away from their rivals:

“Another important feature of transegalitarian communities [is] the central importance of attracting energetic, productive, competent, skilled, and successful labor.  It is upon the ability to attract such labor that the success of the aggrandizers, as well as their supporting or corporate groups, depends…Many ethnographies stress the strong, almost Puritan work ethic promoted by aggrandizers at all levels of transegalitarian communities and the work-oriented values sought by aggrandizers in recruiting supporters and tenants. (p. 66)…the expenditure of surpluses or profits for conspicuous displays of wealth …constituted essential advertising and self-promotion to indicate which groups were the most successful, the most wealthy, the most powerful, thereby enabling them to attract the best labor. Many types of artifacts and features were created with no apparent purpose other than to advertise success. (p. 67)

“While practical technologies served to produce food or solve material requirements of life, and while prestige technologies had inherent value that could be traded or invested, “promotional” technologies …could not be used in a practical sense, nor could they be exchanged as valuables. Promotional (advertising) technologies included objects specifically made for grave offerings or ritual offerings (and never used in other contexts), many luxury feasting foods, monumental ancestral poles, megalithic tombs and burial mounds. Obviously prestige objects sometimes were also used as promotional objects, especially when they were destroyed…”

Max Weber claimed that Protestantism led to the austere work ethic and self-denial necessary to produce capitalism, but it turns out that such attitudes extend all the way back to the Stone Age.

Three fundamental changes take place in societies at the Entrepreneurial level that set the stage for the transition to the next level in social complexity–chiefdoms. One, the leaders now begin to regularly claim to have some sort of supernatural power or esoteric knowledge; that is, they begin to manipulate the religious belief systems of the tribe as a method of legitimizing their own authority. The second change is that leadership roles increasingly begin to be passed down to the Entrepreneur’s descendants, although still not through any formalized institutions. There is no heredity “office” of Big Man, yet most Big Men strongly encouraged their sons to follow in their footsteps, much like ambitious Entrepreneurs do today. And third, Entrepreneurs use their influence and authority to command massive labor pools to build much more elaborate feasting facilities and ritual structures with which to enhance their image and emphasize their special connection with the ancestors or gods (as exemplified by structures such as Göbekli Tepe and Stonehenge).

“Beginning in Reciprocator communities, supernatural claims to power constitute one strategy that aggrandizers in most areas of the world attempted to use in order to bolster their influence and power. Supernatural claims could…be used as important validation or legitimization for Reciprocator, Entrepreneur and chiefly privileges…aggrandizers…promoted death cults for their ancestors who were portrayed as supernaturally powerful (often involving the reverence of preserved heads or bodies)…In all transegalitarian societies, aggrandizers have probably attempted to promote and manipulate belief in their own supernatural powers and in the powers and in the power of their ancestors for their own benefit. But it is only as the economic power of aggrandizers increases that they can convince other community members to accept these claims, and can appropriate more overtly the prerogative of being the primary communicator with, and spokesman for the will of, powerful ancestors or other spirits.”

“Aggrandizers therefore frequently devised the construction of ancestral “ritual” structures, including burial grounds and shrines that made manifest the power and importance of their ancestors…Such structures included death cult structures; men’s houses used by the Entrepreneur and his ceremonial support group as residences, sacrificial huts, feasting and cooking shelters; wealth display huts; ceremonial grounds; and “temples.” (p. 56)

“Finally, there is some tendency for roles to be inherited even in Despot communities, the tendency is stronger in Reciprocator communities, and much stronger in Entrepreneurial communities. About 75% of New Guinea Entrepreneur Big Men had fathers that were also Big Men…”

In addition to feasting facilities, Entrepreneurs also begin to construct “men clubhouses” where they and their allies can segregate themselves from the rest of society, and where invitation is by “members only.” Gaining access to the clubhouse thus becomes another motivating factor for supporting a Big Man and economic overproduction. Entrepreneurial Big Men set themselves apart from the rest of society by claiming some sort of esoteric knowledge that only they possess such as an ability to communicate with distant ancestors or the ability to intercede with the gods on behalf of the tribe. They often liked to depict their success as being due to supernatural forces, and depicted themselves as  “rainmakers” (which in some cases, they literally claimed to be!) The importance of elites setting themselves apart from the herd is evident even today with our exclusive resorts, gated communities, members-only golf clubs, downtown athletic clubs patronized by wealthy business elites, invitation-only black tie events, and executive washrooms, just to name a few.

4. Chiefdoms

Chiefdoms were a very common political arrangement before the rise of states. Chiefs were now hereditary offices, passed down from father to son (or within a ruling family). Per Wikipedia, “A chiefdom is a form of hierarchical political organization …usually based on kinship… in which formal leadership is monopolized by the legitimate senior members of select families or ‘houses’. These elites form a political-ideological aristocracy relative to the general group…chiefs lead because of their ascribed status, not their achieved status.”

Hayden ascribes the following four characteristics that distinguish chiefdoms from Entrepreneurial societies:

“First, chiefdoms occur in environments that lend themselves to even greater surplus production and intensification than Entrepreneur communities, often involving intensive agricultural practices and irrigation.” (FOI: p. 63)

“Second …Entrepreneurs could …invest so much wealth in the growth payments for their children that only families of other chiefs (or elites) could provide the requisite bridewealth. Even at the Entrepreneur level, the tendency for children of Entrepreneurs to marry the children of other Entrepreneurs is pronounced…This practice would have excluded a large number of people from being able to compete with the chief for the ultimate control of the debt system, resulting in an almost closed class system in which strict heredity of resources, wealth, and power became established. Thus, the hereditary aspect of chiefdom may be incidental and not central to the emergence or functioning of chiefdoms…” (FOI: pp. 63-64)

Third, because of this development, profit-based Entrepreneur competitive feasts (used primarily by the general populace as a means to select aggrandizers or corporate groups for support when succession was not fixed) were emptied of their function and disappeared…ostentatious material displays became most pronounced when there was uncertainty in reckoning relative status…Nevertheless, the chief is still expected to “give” considerable quantities of goods to community members and especially to other elites…However, power and support no longer appear to be predicated on providing direct investment profits to supporters in return for their feast contributions. Rather, benefits to contributors seem to be of a more indirect nature. (p. 64)

A fourth observation… is the extension, intensification, and elaboration of the importance and use of ancestors to validate claims to power. Chiefs become the direct descendants of the most powerful ancestors and the main priests of the ancestral cult. Communities are organized into real and fictitious lines of descendants from founding ancestors (clans). Chiefs, like transegalitarian corporate heads, erect monumental ritual structures to promote their ancestors as powerful supernatural agents. (p. 64)

That last point becomes especially important in a book by anthropologists Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus called The Creation of Inequality, which surveys anthropological literature from all over the world to determine the prehistoric origins of hereditary inequality. Flannery and Marcus point out that heredity inequality is a product of manipulation of the social logic of any society in order to justify hereditary claims on leadership. They also argue that such a change in the social logic is indicated archaeologically by the  construction of temples to replace men’s clubhouses, indicating that one particular lineage or clan has achieved primacy over all the others, signifying that it alone has a special and unique  relationship with the tribal deities:

“We…take note of a change that accompanied the rise of many rank societies: men’s houses were replaced by temples. This change reflects an important social and political transition. Men’s houses were built by clans or Big Men and tended to be places where men sat around communing with their ancestors. Temples tended to be places where actual deities lived on a full-time or part-time basis. Temples were staffed not by initiated clansmen but by people trained as priests. Often the construction of a temple was directed by the chief because, after all, there were supernatural spirits in his ancestry.” (COE: 210)

Flannery and Marcus dismiss feasting as a source of hierarchical power. They write:

[some archaeologists]…have argued…that hereditary inequality was generated by competitive feasting. There are several problems with this oversimplification. As we have seen…competitive feasting in achievement-based societies usually escalated only after warfare had ceased to be a path to prominence. Instead of creating hereditary rank, it produced individual Big Men who had no way of bequeathing renown to their offspring…if feasting were all it took to produce hereditary inequality, there would have been no achievement-based societies left for anthropologists to study (COE: 199)

I think they misunderstand the feasting theory, however. The feasting theory does not argue that every society that practices competitive feasting will end up with hereditary inequality. As Hayden indicates above, whether or not that happens depends on a constellation of other factors such as the amount and nature of the surplus, how easily it is controlled and appropriated, the nature of the labor it takes in order to produce it (cooperative versus individual households), the population density, the presence or absence of warfare, and the supernatural belief systems. Feasting in delayed-return societies begins the snowball of inequality, but whether that process ends with Big Men, Chiefs or Kings varies by location, culture and time period.

Flannery and Marcus argue that hereditary inequality begins when one segment of society actively manipulates the social logic of the society in order to set themselves up as superior. Often times this was accomplished by an appeal to supernatural forces. This is why the segment of society that sets itself above the rest builds temples: such sacred structures demonstrate their claim on a connection to divine authority as the justification for their favored status vis a vis the rest of the society.

They use the example of the Kachin, a Burmesese hill tribe who have both ranked and non-ranked societies, studied by Edmund Leach in the 1940’s. In the ranked societies, one lineage convinces all the others that is descended from the spirits (nats) who control the village, and therefore, it has a right to rule over the village. They note that a ruling class often recounts a special claim to descent from a either favored elder ancestor or higher-level spirit. For example:

Anthropologist Jonathan Friedman’s scenario begins with a [Kachin] society whose lineages are equal in rank…Each local lineage has its own set of ancestor spirits, arranged in short genealogies of three or four generations. There is also a village nat (spirit) whose domain is the local territory. On a higher plane than earth lie the earth nats and sky spirits which, in the egalitarian mode of Kachin society, can receive sacrifices from any lineage through the intervention of ancestral spirits….the creation of hereditary rank takes place when one lineage convinces all the others that the village nat is its ancestor. That move converts one Kachin social unit into a chiefly lineage, descended from the nat who rules the whole territory. At this point the Kachin revise the cosmology to allege that their most highly ranked lineage is descended from Madai, while their lower-ranking lineages are descended from the lesser nat Thunder. (COE: 198)


In Kachin society the lineages that worked the hardest and produced the greatest surplus could sponsor the most prestigious sacrifices and feed the most visitors. Their fellow Kachin, however, did not attribute such success to hard work; they believed that one only obtained good harvests through proper sacrifices to the nats. Wealth was seen not so much as the product of labor (and control over other’s labor) as the result of pleasing the appropriate celestial spirits. The key shift in social logic was therefore from “They must have pleased the nats” to “They must be descended from higher nats than we are.” (COE: 199)

Another key insight is that leaders achieved power not by becoming the “alpha” of a particular group, but rather no leader could ever rise higher than a “gamma” in any particular society. They note that Chimpanzees naturally set themselves in a natural hierarchy of alphas, betas, and gammas. In hierarchical human societies, however, the alphas were always the gods (or God), the betas were the ancestors or ancestral spirits, and the leaders were merely the “gammas,” the “bottom” tier of the supernatural hierarchy. By invoking this logic they were able to convince others of their claims on power. In many of their anthropological descriptions, a ruling lineage or clan typically claims descent from a first-born ancestor (or last-born in societies where the youngest inherits property), and thus they “inherit” the leadership claims of that society. The leaders of these clans serve as paramount chiefs, with “lower-ranked” clans serving as lesser chiefs and subchiefs, all determined by the lineages of long-departed ancestors.  No doubt this became more common as societies became larger and more complex, and more heirachical leadership was called for. Why not look to the ancestors for justification?

Interestingly, Flannery and Marcus also raise the possibility of debt dynamics giving rise to ranked societies:

There is a third scenario for the establishment of rank society among Tibeto-Burman speakers…Its premises are to be found in Leach’s description of Kachin marriage and the mayudama system.

In the 1940s a moderately well-to-do Kachin groom might have to give his bride’s lineage four head of cattle, plus valuables such as slit-gongs, swords and spears, coats and blankets, and pottery vessels. In many cases the haggling over bride-price went on for a long time, with negotiators using tally sticks to represent cattle and valuables.

Often a groom had to go into debt to pay for a bride. This was as true for wealthy grooms as for ordinary grooms, since bride-price was set higher for the former. One of the contradictions of Kachin logic was that bride-price was supposed to reflect the prominence of the bride’s family, while in practice it reflected what the bride’s family believed the groom could pay. A prominent groom could thus go even further into debt than a man of modest means. It is no accident that the Kachin word hka meant both “debt” and “feud.” Although debts might be left unpaid for long periods, thereby allowing social relations to continue, failure to pay could eventually have repercussions.

In Charles Dickens’s England there were debtors’ prisons for those who failed to repay their creditors. The Kachin punishment was just as grim: debt slavery. Many Kachin, unable to pay their loans, had to sell themselves into bondage to work off such debts. Leach estimates that in days of old, up to 50 percent of the Kachin may have been mayam, or slaves, nearly all owned by the chiefs or village headmen who extended the loans. A rule …held a debtor’s whole lineage accountable for his failure to pay. This swelled the ranks of the mayam.

Slaves in societies such as the Kachin, to be sure, do not fit our stereotype of chattel slavery in the pre-1860 United States. Mayam status was more like that of an illegitimate child, or a poor son-in-law working off his bride service. Debt slaves were considered Kachins, but of a particularly low lineage. Some eventually worked off their debts or married into nonslave lineages.

We consider debt slavery a third scenario that might have brought about the inequality of lineages, both among the Kachin and (as we saw earlier) the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest….(COE: 199-200)

An even more grim depiction is provided by David Graeber in Debt: The First 5000 Years:

…One extreme possibility might be the situation of the French anthropologist Jean-Claude Galey encountered in a region of the eastern Himalayas, where as recently as the 1970s, the low-ranking castes–they were referred to as “the vanquished ones,” since they were thought to be descended from a population once conquered by the current landlord caste many centuries before–lived in a situation of permanent debt dependency. Landless and penniless, they were obliged to solicit loans form the landlords simply to find a way to eat–not for the money since the sums were paltry, but because poor debtors were expected to pay back the interest in the form of work, which meant they were at least provided with food and shelter while they cleaned out their creditors’ outhouses and reroofed their sheds.

For the “vanquished”–as for most people in the world, actually–the most significant life expenses were weddings and funerals. There required a good deal of money, which always had to be borrowed. In such cases it was common practice, Galey explains, for high-caste moneylenders to demand one of the borrower’s daughters as security. Often, when a poor man had to borrow money for his daughters marriage, the security would be the bride herself. She would be expected to report to the lender’s household after her wedding night, spend a few months there as his concubine, and then, once he grew bored, be sent off to some nearly timber camp, where she would have to spend the next year or two as a prostitute working off her father’s debt. Once it was paid off, she’d return to he husband and begin married life.(DF5KY: 9)

Another argument for hereditary inequity is simply this: why not choose leaders via heredity? How else to do it? Heredity inheritance prevents squabbles over leadership succession and ensures an orderly transition. We have notions of “meritocracy” and “fairness” ingrained in us by Western Liberal Democracy, but ancient people did not have such conceptions, by-and-large (Greek city-states were highly unique even in the ancient world). Thus, choosing leaders by descent is not so illogical as we might think at first, as this review of The Creation of Inequality points out:

…Students in my global history class at Notre Dame struggle to understand societies that esteem birth more highly than wealth and that rate breeding above achievement. Yet such values are normal—or have been for thousands of years—because, despite the unwillingness of Americans to acknowledge it, heredity is a rational, practical, scientifically grounded basis for selecting leaders.

Societies that adopt the hereditary principle do so because it is consistent with common observations: Leadership qualities often run in families and, as we now suppose, can be encoded in heritable genes. By limiting contenders for power, heredity makes violent disputes less frequent than in societies run by competing alpha males. Inherited authority discourages corruption and reduces factionalism and partisanship. There is, on balance, less chance of tyranny than under the rule of toughs or visionaries. As with every system, there are disadvantages: Some leaders are bound to be incapacitated by incompetence, sickness or insanity; dynasties become extinct. In the U.S., however, the advantages of a hereditary system elude most people’s attention, perhaps because Americans are so used to seeing themselves as models for the world. “Why can’t others be more like us?” is the implicit question. The often unnoticed answer is: “Why should they be?”

We see in societies that allow unlimited jockeying for power by elites, society is torn apart and riven by civil strife and conflict. A classic case is the late Roman Empire (as well as the late Republic), where constant internal divisions and civil wars tore the empire apart and contributed to its downfall. Although Greek cities sometimes chose their leaders by ballots from the polis, on a larger scale this was difficult given the resources limitations in the ancient world. Hereditary leadership – essentially running the entire proto-state as the “household” of the ruling family, had a certain logic to it.

I would also point to the distinction between de facto hereditary leadership, and de jure hereditary leadership. I suspect the former was present for thousands of years before gradually evolving into the latter by osmosis. For example, in the United States, most contenders for higher office come from a closed circle of elite dynastic families (Bushes, Clintons, Kennedys, etc.), and as inequality becomes more and more pronounced, that circle grows ever tighter. George W. Bush managed to become president despite almost total incompetence even in our “merit-based” democracy. Another Bush son ran for office this year against the wife of a former president, but was upset by the scion of another wealthy elite family who is clearly intent on setting up a dynasty of his own (much of his transition team is comprised of close family members). People are encouraging the wife of the current president to run for elected office. The current prime minister of Canada is the son of a former prime minister. And in Russia, Vladimir Putin has established essentially permanent rule despite the formal existence of elections and democracy.

My guess is that the Iron Law of Oligarchy kicks in over time and limits leadership to a small circle or hereditary elites in any complex society over a few thousand people, regardless of what the nominal system of government happens to be. Eventually, one individual or family wins out over all the others. But such leaders have always been mostly symbolic; in a complex society, no one individual has any hope at all of controlling all the parts and pieces. The difference is, post-Enlightenment societies have to pretend that it is otherwise in order to maintain a veneer of legitimacy.


5. Archaeological Indicators

Hayden considers what sort of archaeological evidence would help determine where along this spectrum a past society would have fallen. Some of the archaeological indicators he cites are:

1.) A Despot society would show evidence of lots of warfare; therefore skeletons showing signs of wounding and violent death would be common.

2.) Beginning with Reciprocator societies, much wealth was expended in marriages and child maturation events. Thus, we would expect to see much more lavish burials of women and children, with rare and luxury grave gods advertising their higher status than commoners.

3.) Obviously, as certain people became more important in their respective societies, we would expect to see either much more elaborate and lavish burials of these individuals, or such individuals and families buried separately from the “commoners,” often in different burial grounds. More elaborate grave goods and personal adornment (jewelry, etc,) would be found in such elite graves. Mummification indicates the sacred status of certain elites.

4.) The need for prestige and promotional goods for Entrepreneurs to display their wealth and status and attract supporters from other villages would lead to greatly expanded regional trading networks. Increasingly, “luxury” goods which were much finer and of higher quality than those used by commoners would be found in such societies. Goods used especially for feasting such as elaborate storage and drinking vessels would be expected to be found. Elites begin to support full-time specialized craftsmen and establish trading networks among themselves over wide geographical areas.

5.) Houses of leaders would be expected to be much larger and more elaborate than those of the average person.

6.) Ritual structures not used for everyday purposes like habitation or food storage would be found in societies where Entrepreneurs emphasized their connection to the ancestors and manipulated religious beliefs for their own benefit. Feasting centers, men’s clubhouses, ritual centers, sacrificial altars and eventually primitive temples would be found in the remains of Entrepreneur settlements, indicating greater and greater degrees of hierarchy.

“In brief, emphasis on death compensations and the management of warfare should be reflected in fortifications, armor, violent deaths, parry fractures, and settlement patterns. Emphasis on the control of brideprice payments can lead to the formation of residential corporate groups in extreme cases, possible female-oriented cults and figurines, and richly endowed adult female burials in cultures where wealth is buried with the dead. Use of child growth payments can generally be expected to lead to rich child burials in cultures where wealth is interred with the dead. Use of surpluses to obtain political power and some control of others’ products will involve the development of prestige technologies. Reliance on reciprocal and competitive feasts can result in the development of prestige food vessels, initial forms of public architecture, regional trade, and domesticated feasting foods. Investment strategies with interest payments can be expected to lead to wider regional trade networks, higher volumes of of prestige goods, increased craft specialization, and, frequently, systems of numeration in physical form. Finally, the auxiliary emphasis on ancestral power to justify claims to supernatural abilities should affect burial practices, evidence for cults (e.g. the keeping of skulls), and the occurrence of special burial or cult structures.” (p. 76)

Feasting also gives us a very good explanation about how we eventually stumbled into agriculture as a way of life. The need to produce greater and greater surpluses to repay the requisite interest to Entrepreneurs and to throw increasingly elaborate feasts as a means to acquire power and prestige led to ever more intensification, which eventually resulted in domestication proper. That’s what we’ll be considering next time.

FSI: Foundations of Social Inequality. edited by T. Douglas Price, Gary M. Feinman

MIA: Man in Adaptation: The Institutional Framework. Yehudi Cohen, editor.

COE: The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire. Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus

DF5KY: Debt, The First 5000 Years. David Graeber.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.