Pathways to Civilization

Megalithic Stone Temple in Malta
Maltese temple at the solstice

Hope everyone’s having a great Christmas!

Apparently we can add the Amazon rain forest to the list of sites with ancient stone monoliths:

Rancher discovers massive ‘Stonehenge’ in the depths of the Amazon (The Week)

I recently picked up a book by Colin Refrew written in the 1970’s: Before Civilization. I was intrigued by a remark Marvin Harris made about Renfrew in Cannibals and Kings where Renfrew pointed out the similarities between ancient stone monuments around the world and speculated that they functioned as the centers of prehistoric redistributive chiefdoms. Harris, in his explanation of state formation, writes about the mico corn granaries of the Cherokee chiefs, and how they were “a public treasury…’to fly to for succor’ in the case of crop failure, as a source of food ‘to accommodate strangers or travelers,’ and…a military store’ when they go forth on hostile expeditions.'” However, everyone had to acknowledge that the “public” treasury was under the control of the head chief, who had “…’an exclusive right and ability…to distribute comfort and blessings to the necessitous.'” The chief, however, was not yet despotic or controlling, however, and “associat[ed] freely with the people as a common man”. This ties in directly with the “feasting theories” we’ve been discussing recently:

Colin Renfew has drawn attention to the rather stunning similarity between the circular wooden Cherokee feast center council houses and the mysterious circular buildings whose wooden post-holes have been found within the precincts of neolithic ceremonial enclosures, or “henges,” in Great Britain and Northern Europe. The increasingly elaborate burial chambers, earth mounds, and megalithic alignments characteristic of the period from 4000 BC to 2000 BC in Europe have rather precise parallels among the mounds erected by prehistoric inhabitants of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys , the stone burial platforms and monolithic statuary of Polynesia, and the monolithic tombs and memorials of modern Borneo. All of these constructions played a role in the smooth functioning of pre-state redistributive systems, serving as the locus of redistributive feasts, community rituals dedicated to controlling the forces of nature, and memorials to the generosity and prowess of deceased big man hero chiefs. They seem enigmatic only because they are the skeletons, not the substance, of redistributive systems. Since we cannot see the investment of extra labor in agricultural production, monument-building appears to be a kind of irrational obsession among these ancient peoples. But viewed with in the living context of a redistributive system, tombs, megaliths and temples appear as functional components whose costs are slight in comparison with the increased harvests which the ritualized intensification of agricultural production makes possible. pp. 112-113

These stone monuments are the heart of Renfrew’s book. The main thrust is that the “diffusionist” school of cultural development was being invalidated by the “radiocarbon revolution,” at that point still fairly recent.

Before this time, it was commonly believed that all the major cultural innovations – from writing to metalworking to large-scale construction, were “discovered” by the ancient civilizations of the Near East and and diffused outward from there. But radiocarbon dating proved that this view was wrong. It showed that ancient monuments like Stonehenge and the megalithic temples of Malta, were, in fact, older than the pyramids! Likewise, metalworking appears to have been developed just as early outside of the early Near Eastern civilizations in some locations like the Balkans. There are even intriguing signs of an independent discovery of writing through such things as the Tărtăria tablets and Rongorongo script. Renfew also points out several remote cultures and locations where such traditions have been practiced independently of any contact with other cultures.

What this tells us is that there is not a “linear” path to some sort of civilizational “end point,” but rather different cultures will adopt and reject different technologies, and the introduction of a certain technology does not dictate the path of that civilization. We now know that many of the innovations of the Near East were discovered independently all over the world. It’s fascinating to hear Renfrew talk about how these megalithic stone structures and tombs cause us to reevaluate our view of history, and this book was written almost twenty years before the discovery of Gobeckli Tepe! This book was way ahead of its time.

But what I want to highlight is this section, where he talks about the connection between feasting, inequality, and monolithic construction. It ties together a lot of what I’ve been reading lately. It will also be important for the next posts on the development of the first cities:

At this point it is illuminating to look at some modern, non-industrial communities in other parts of the world…What is particularly suggestive in the present context is the picture these communities give of the potential availability of neighbouring groups- whether lineages or whole tribes-to join in the construction work. All of them imply some social framework where such co-operation is possible. And often the motivation for the construction is less religious than social. The desire for an impressive monument which will reflect credit on the community as a whole and not simply on the dead man. In this sense, impressive funerary monuments are often designed for the living rather than the dead.

Indeed, if there is suitable incentive, co-operative effort can work to build impressive monuments even for single individuals. The Kelabits of north Borneo have a living ‘megalithic’ tradition, where imposing monuments of large stone are erected as memorials or tombs, generally to a single man. One of these, erected in 1959. was built by an old, heirless man by the usual expedient of inviting his neighbours to a great feast, in return for which they willingly lent their services. Tom Harrisson records the graphic statement of the old man in question:

“The whole of the perishable rest (of my belongings), salt, rice, pigs, buffalo as well as many other things to purchase, like tobacco, betel nut, eels, and labour, I will expend with due notice at a mighty feast after the next rice harvest. I am in a position to give a very big feast. Hundreds of people will come, including my relatives over in the Kerayan and Bawang to the east and as far as Pa Tik beyond Kubaan to the west. It will be a splendid amusement, splendid exchange.”

“On the last day I will declare my monument. All my imperishable property is to be collected in a heap on the ground over there, a dart’s flight from the long-house ladder. Every man present will come out when it has stopped raining and form a line from the fine old dragon jar in the centre of the slope down to the single bank of the stream bed. Along this living chain, from hand to hand, should pass first the small surface stones and gradually as the work goes down, larger stones and then boulders. All this will travel from the river bed up to bank on to the little knoll above flood level, slowly shaping a pile of stone. Presently this will grow into a mound higher than the long-house is off the ground, and twice the width anyone can leap. All mine.”

Thus will my belongings be secured forever. Thus my own memory will stand to eternity- It will be larger than any ordinary man’s can be, because so many come to my feast and are so well entertained- since I have nothing to keep and pass on, I will spend the lot in one great formal display; and in consequence make a mighty effort to do well by me, piling rock upon boulder upon pebble upon stone.”

This splendid description cannot, of course, be compared in its details with the collective burial monuments of Europe, yet it does reflect two general points which may well be applicable. In the first place there is the importance of the social occasion, the feast, at which the actual construction of the tomb is only one among a number of memorable events. And secondly there is this passionate concern for status-whether personal, or of the family or group-which can be enhanced by the display and the conspicuous consumption of wealth. Families and tribes will invest considerable labour in accumulating the food resources and the other ‘capital’ needed to hold such a feast and impress neighbouring groups.

Another example, from a different tribe in Borneo. is reported by Tom Harrisson and Stanley O’Connor; this time it concerns the erection of impressive standing stones or ‘menhirs’. These were brought from far away and erected as a proof of rich and powerful status, as a memorial to bravery, or to mark the grave of a person:

“As the stones were collected from a distant place, those bringing the stones were likely to meet with all sorts of enemies. Head-hunting at that time was frequent. To erect a stone would therefore need a strong force. A great gang of people was needed to meet these dangers and to transport the stone to the erecting spot. Only big stones were used by powerful families. It involved three to four days to get a stone to its destination. The ceremonies were almost the same whatever the reason for erecting the stone. One buffalo a day was killed for bravery; and one buffalo and one pig a day were killed for status-and the same number was necessary for childlessness. The total number of animals depended on the number of days involved in the operation of erecting the stone.”

“Repeat ceremonies took place yearly following the erection of the stone.”

Often in Borneo the occasion for feasting and the erection of monuments is entirely funerary. And in general there is no great difficulty in gathering together a band of willing helpers, if the occasion is primarily a great feast, at which it would be churlish to refuse one’s co-operation.

Indeed, in some societies the whole process of feast-giving, with the accompanying exchange of gifts, takes place on a regular basis and is the very core of the social life of the area. An example is afforded by the Kyaka people of the western highlands of New Guinea. Here the exchange and the feasting are certainly not ad hoc, on-off affairs like the rather informal examples already described. Groups or dans occupying adjoining territories entertain each other in a regular manner, which is prescribed by a definite cycle. Much effort goes into the accumulation of foodstuffs for the feast, and into the preparations. The success and magnificence of the occasion is of crucial significance to the whole community governing as it does its esteem or standing in the eyes of its neighbours.

Settlement here, as in Arran or Rousay, is dispersed, in homesteads or homestead clusters, and each clan, numbering between 20 and 160 adult men, has its own continuous territory- These groups are identified or referred to by the name of their best-known ceremonial ground. Children of clan members marry outside the clan, and the clan generally acts together in the event of hostilities, as well as in the ceremonial exchange festivals.

These festivals do not involve the erection of permanent monuments, and indeed I do not know of an ethnographic instance where the erection of such monuments takes place as part of a regular annual festivity of this kind. Yet it is easy to see how such a social cycle could be turned to advantage if a claim or other monument had to be built.

The three instances discussed here, all from south-east Asia, certainly offer a plausible range of social circumstances that could have facilitated the building of the tombs in Arran or Orkney. Indeed, I believe that we should regard these Scottish tombs as the chief monuments of basically egalitarian tribal societies of this kind. In most cases, they must surely have been the principal feature of the territory in question, which may itself have been known by the name of the monument, just as the Kyaka clan territories are often known by their chief ceremonial ground.

In this perspective we can see the megalithic monuments- ‘tombs’ now becomes too restrictive a term – as permanent social centres for the group within whose territory they lay and whose dead they received. We can visualize too that, as in New Guinea, when the population of one territorial group rose above an acceptable figure, some of the younger members would break away, and set up a comparable group with its own territory. The construction of a megalithic tomb would be one of the steps such a group would have to take in order to establish its identity, just as among the Kyaka it would be necessary to be the host community at one of the ceremonial feasts and exchanges in the annual cycle.

I suggest that we should view the tombs of Arran or of Rousay as an indication of societies where co-operation between neighbouring lineages, this social and ceremonial activity involved some elements of competition. In Rousay, for instance, the stone cairn of Midhowe must have been a source of great pride to the group which it served, and of admiration or even envy to adjacent communities. It is, in its way, a magnificent monument, and very probably its grandeur was dearly bought through the extravagant use of cattle and sheep in feasting, offered in exchange for labour.

There is, indeed, evidence for ritual or feasting activity outside some of the chamber tombs of Britain, where animal bones have been found in excavation; and a number of the tombs have impressive exterior features, such as the ‘courts’ in northern Ireland, or the facades, of massive upright stones, of the Cotswold tombs. Moreover, the abundant evidence for a traffic in stone axes over long distances in neolithic Britain has already been interpreted by Grahame Clark as an indication of ceremonial gift exchange. Since we have this independent evidence for formal exchanges, as well as indications of feasting, it seems appropriate to place the megaliths in this wider social context.

Ethnographic comparisons can be misleading if too much is made of similarities and differences in point of detail; and indeed, to make too close an equation between prehistoric Orkney or Arran and modem communities in Borneo or New Guinea would be rather foolish. Yet the comparison helps us to see how small farming communities, living not far above the level of minimum subsistence, and with very limited technologies, can co-operate in impressive enterprises. In the same way small neolithic communities could well, in the right social framework, create monuments which at first sight seem more appropriate to a great civilized state, such as Egypt. (pp. 138-142)

Beyond this point, the argument is as yet purely hypothetical, but we can see that those communities which were dose-knit, at peace with themselves and able to resist pressures from neighbours would be at a considerable advantage. Now it is precisely this common participation in social events and religious observances, which the megaliths symbolize, that often serves to strengthen a community, especially a dispersed community where the homesteads may be several kilometres from each other. The mesolithic people of Téviec and Hoëdic with their well-organized family burials, already marked and given significance by a stone cairn, may have found such solidarity of real value when dealing with their new neighbours. In such circumstances, with an increasing population and an increasing pressure on the land, the features favouring solidarity in the community would be reinforced, so that the social significance given to proper burial and the importance of the actual physical memorial would be enhanced. These factors, together with the usually peaceful competition of neighbouring groups, expressed in social terms by generous gift exchange or the erection of still finer monuments, would favour the rapid evolution of unifying and prestige-bestowing monuments and hence of megalithic architecture. (pp. 144-145)

Here, Renfrew discusses the dynamics of chiefdom societies, which are different from egalitarian and transegalitarian village societies, and yet also distinct from fully developed “kingship” societies like Egypt and Mesopotamia. Many of the ancient monument-building societies appear to have been organized along these lines. The economy of such societies involves a high degree of specialization, yet instead of market exchange, redistribution is accomplished via the chief’s activities. And as we’ve seen, such societies are able to pool large amounts of voluntary labor, usually through work feasts rather than coercion:

Archaeologists have in mind two extremes of social organization when discussing the prehistoric past: neolithic “egalitarian’ society, and the state, with its hierarchical social structure, its bureaucracy and its armies. Yet between these two extremes lie some of the ‘barbarian’ societies of prehistoric Europe. The temples of Malta, for instance, are too big to have been the product of single small and independent farming villages.

Anthropologists have recently been thinking very carefully about such societies as Malta must have been: more highly organized and more complex than simple ‘neolithic’ farming villages existing at the tribal level, yet not civilizations or states like Egypt or Sumer. They have identified what may be called chiefdom societies. These share a good many features in common, beyond the obvious one of boasting a chief as leader. In particular, along with the social structure there is often a distinctive economic structure, different from the simple tribal one, with its gift and different again from that of the state, with its written records and sometimes its commercial market economy.

The essential feature of chiefdom society is the marked social hierarchy, in which status is governed to a large extent by birth: those most closely related to the chief, and hence closest to direct descent in the male line, often have a particularly high status. Generally the chiefdom is divided into groups, each with its sub-chief, and sometimes (in the case of a ‘conical clan”) each group will trace its descent from one of the sons of the ancestral founder. The chief, who enjoys enormous prestige, naturally officiates or takes pride of place at ceremonies, when the whole tribal group may meet together, and he will often command and lead in time of war. A whole series of villages, each with its petty chieftain, can be linked together in a social unit, all owing allegiance to one chief.

The chief has an economic role as well as a social one: he receives, in the form of dues or gifts, a significant part of the produce of each group and area. Most of this he distributes among his people, perhaps at a feast, in the form of gifts. And this redistribution, although perhaps at first sight purely a social courtesy, does have a real economic significance: possible some measure of specialization. Fishermen, to take one example, can specialize in an activity that their coastal situation makes particularly convenient, catching more fish than would be needed simply for themselves and their families. The surplus can then be passed on as a ‘gift’ to their local chief, who may pass some on to the paramount chief, keep some himself and give the rest to other members of the community. The fishermen know, in making their gift, that they will receive comparable goods” perhaps produce of the land, by the same method.

This redistribution thus allows the ecological diversity of the chiefdom to be exploited much more efficiently, making locally concentrated resources available far more widely. And it encourages craft specialization by potters or metallurgists, or canoe builders, or any others whose craft is so complex that it demands resources of labour and skill beyond those of a single family.

Both socially and economically, then, the chiefdom draws together the various repetitive elements of an unstratified tribal society, where each community is much like its neighbour, and forms out of them a larger, if rather loosely articulated unit where different people have very different social and economic roles. This is the beginning of the shift towards what the sociologist Durkheim called ‘organic solidarity’ and away from the ‘mechanical solidarity’ of the egalitarian tribe. The greater efficiency and productivity of this more integrated society makes possible a greater population density, and often results in larger individual village or settlement groups.

What interests us particularly when we are talking about Malta, however, is that the frequent ceremonies and rituals often seen in a chiefdom, and which serve to express and enhance its unity, are sometimes matched by the emergence of a priesthood-of specialists in ceremony and ritual-who, like the other specialists, participate in the centralized redistribution. Also highly relevant to Malta is the great capacity of chiefdom society for mobilization, for organizing considerable bodies of men who can devote much labor to the fulfillment of some task essential to the well-being of the community. Three features of the chiefdom make this possible. The first is their larger population-so that there are actually hundreds or thousands of people in the group who might be available. The second is the solidarity of the group: it can work together, and people will participate willingly in a common task which has the approval of the groups as a whole and has been organized by the chief. And finally, the system of redistribution gives the economic means- the capital, so to speak-for such enterprises: the chief can arrange for his subjects to contribute foodstuffs which can be used to feed such a task force. In this way, the chiefdom population can undertake impressive public works-irrigation schemes, for example, or monuments-which would be right outside the scope of a single village.

Comparison with recent non-civilized societies in other parts of the world can help to make this model more vivid and real for us. Above all, it documents in practice how relatively simple societies of chiefdom type can in fact achieve feats of construction that we would more readily expect in a developed civilization. In Africa there are many well-developed chiefdom societies, and indeed states, with elaborate systems of government, Indeed, the great stone buildings at Zimbabwe may well have been built within a comparable social framework.

The most striking similarities of all, however, are found among the isolated societies in Polynesia, some of which were organized as chiefdoms. Here again, generally without any permanent central bureaucratic machinery, ceremonial platforms and burial monuments were constructed that at first sight we might expect to find in a sophisticated urban civilization. Malta is not alone in the creation of massive monuments by a chiefdom society…(pp. 155-159)

In this section, Renfew draws a comparison between the statuary tradition on Easter Island and the construction of the megalithic temples of Malta:

The structures of Easter Island are, however. the most relevant here: together with the celebrated statues, they constitute a complex of monuments quite as surprising as the temples of Malta, although some four millennia more recent. In fact, Easter Island offers a splendid analogy to Malta: both islands are remote-Easter Island, far in the Pacific, incomparably more so-and both bear enigmatic signs of activities on a gargantuan scale by a vanished population.

The funerary platform, or ‘ahu’, of Easter Island was a long wall, running parallel to the sea, up to five metres high and in exceptional cases a hundred metres long. It was buttressed on the landward side by a slope of masonry, below which was a gently sloping stone terrace containing burial vaults. The wall had one or more oval pedestals for the colossal statues, which faced inland towards the terrace. Some of the Easter Island statues are more than ten metres high.

Easter Island has a hundred of these image ahu, chiefly along the coast, and a further 160 ahu of different types. A few, like the Ahu Vinapu, have carefully dressed masonry as impressive as that of Hagar Qim or Mnajdra in Malta. The seaward wall of some of these monuments, with a first course of great upright slabs, has an undeniable if superficial resemblance to the Malta temple facades…

This burial was only a family affair, and nude no special demands on the organization of the chiefdom. Yet the bigger platforms, some of them built no doubt to mark the death of a chief, demanded more labour than could be supplied by a local residence group. It was here, as in the construction of the ceremonial mounds of Tahiti, that manpower had to be and this was made easy by the chiefdom organization. The impressive and monumental stone carvings, the work of specialist craftsmen, were likewise dependent on the redistribution system.

My proposal is that some social organization arose in Malta, Just as in Easter Island, resulting in what was effectively a chiefdom society, where the chiefs could mobilize their tribesmen to construct great monuments. We know Easter Island was sub-divided into ten tribal regions, and have tentatively suggested that the Maltese islands may have harboured six. And in Malta, as in Easter Island, these chiefs were not personally very wealthy, lacking large or permanent houses or great stores of goods. Indeed, the chiefs, like the priests and the artists carving the reliefs and statues in Malta, and the images in Easter Island, were themselves part-time specialists. They did not have the bureaucracy or the palace organization of the kings and princes of the great early civilizations.

The similarities between the two cases spring from a single feature, however, which can hardly be gainsaid in face of the monuments: a social organization which in favourable circumstances could lead to the mobilization of considerable manpower resources to accomplish communal tasks, and which allowed the development of a considerable measure of craft specialization, these things being possible at a fairly low level of technology, and specifically without the use of metal.

David Kaplan, writing of Mexico, yet another area of great and early monumental achievement, has put the general point rather well:

“I think that we have greatly underestimated the ability of many stateless societies, particularly chiefdoms, to engage in communal production on a fairly large scale, the notion apparently being that such production requires the direction of a powerful, centralized, coercive state. we have also underestimated the ability of such societies to engage in specialised production, the idea being that this kind of production requires large numbers of full-time specialists. By doing so we nave often overestimated the socio-political complexity of the pre-Hispanic cultures of Mesoamerica to the point where they have become difficult to understand and explain without calling into pIay such hard-to-find features as large-scale irrigation systems or monopolies over ceremonial trade.”

(pp. 159-166)

We can see how such craft specialization and mobilization of labor can have given birth to the first “urban” and “literate” civilizations of the ancient Near East. Many histories describe these civilizations as a radical departure from previous social structures with the emergence of full-time bureaucratic class of specialists and the arrival of class stratification replacing kinship structures. However, as we’ll see later in our exploration of the birth of cities, much of that history is probably wrong.

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