So I’m Writing a Book?

This past year was one of trials for me. I spent the majority of it unemployed. That could be the subject of it’s own post. Let’s just say that if I could not have to sell my life away one hour at a time, I would be a much, much, happier person. Sadly, that’s not possible, as I came up with 3 lemons in the family slot machine.

During my involuntary time outside of the labor market, I figured I could–nay should–spend time on doing what I really want to do–write for a living. I began to read extensively and work on a book.

What I wanted to do was write a history book – a book of “Big History” which told not just a fragment of the human story, but all of it. I guess I’m not lacking in ambition! But it went nowhere. All too often I got bogged down in way too many details and essentially being a stenographer of other people’s work. After all, I’m relying on other people’s work for most of the information, as I am not a professional anthropologist or historian. What I was really after was the immediacy and colloquialism(?) of a blog post or Reddit comment.

I wanted it to be something “separate” from the blog. Yet, while I could crank out blog posts easily, the book just was not coming together. I abandoned it multiple times, and probably wasted a lot of time I should have spent doing something else (although I’m not exactly sure what).

But what really changed my perspective is an anecdote I head from Tim Ferriss. Ferris, for those of you who don’t know, is the wildly popular huckster whose “Four Hour” brand began with the book “The Four Hour Work Week.” He’s since become a wealthy mulitmedia celebrity with his own blog, a podcast, series of best-selling books, and numerous other projects. He’s managed to become sort of the Tony Robbins of the Silicon Valley crowd.

When he was writing The Four-Hour Workweek, he too just couldn’t bring it together. It sounded like the exact same problem I was having. Then, someone told him to write the book as if he were writing an email to someone. His technique then became to open an email program (Outlook? Gmail? Not sure which one), and compose his thoughts as if he were writing an email to someone.

That did the trick. The lesson here was obvious—I need to write this book as blog posts. It’s the only way I can get it done. And that has been the genesis of many of the posts this past couple of months.

The other inspiration was sitting right under my nose the whole time. I’ve extensively referred to Marvin Harris’s books as an inspiration. his books are written in an accessible, essay style, without a linear narrative. For example, Cannibals and Kings contains chapters such as “The Origins of Agriculture,” “The Origin of the War,” “The Origin of Pristine States,” and “The Cannibal Kingdom,” to name a few. I feel it’s time to update some of those ideas.

So, you, dear reader, are the beneficiary of this, as these posts will be put up here over the course of, well, however long it takes me to write this stuff despite having a job now :/ . I’m not sure what the ultimate resolution will be – I know the Archdruid manages to wrap up his blog posts in a book and sell it, but I have not decided if I will leave all the posts up when (if) the book is published. Heck I have no idea how to publish a book, or if I will self-publish, or what.

Which is to say I know nothing. Feel free to give any advice and or encouragement (discouragement?) you feel would be helpful in the comments below. So you can look forward to more overly-long posts in the vein of this Quixotic book project, along with my usual ramblings on economics, politics, automation, our failing society, architecture, and whatever else I feel like. Whether that’s good or bad I leave to you.

The tentative outline is as follows:

1. The Earth in Space/The Earth in Time: Borrowed from H.G Wells’ An Outline of History, this will deal with the big picture of our place in the universe and concepts of “deep time.” The usual description of time as a film reel or football stadium. A lot of Big History books start with the beginning of the universe (e.g. David Christian’s Maps of Time), but that leads to a ton of chapters on astrophysics, astronomy, geology, etc. before you even get to the arrival of humans, and history is about humans, after all. Of course everything is relevant (where did that oil come from anyway?), but you’ve got to draw the line somewhere. More setting the stage than anything else.

2. The Origin of People: Human evolution for the hurried. Emphasis on recent discoveries. The “bushy” as opposed to “linear” origins of of humanity. The running-man hypothesis. The Catching Fire hypothesis. Neoteny. Tools. Fire. Baby Slings. The Stone Age. 99% chimp. Domestication of man’s best friend. What happened to the Neanderthals?

3. After the Ice: A brief look at humanity after we became the “Last Ape Standing” until end of the Pleistocene. Migration, bottlenecks and founder populations. The Pleistocene overkill presents humanity’s first experience of scarcity.

4. The Origin of Inequality: largely the Feasting Theory posts.

5. How Feasting Led to Famine: Intensification was a big leap backward for humanity!

6. The Origin of Cities: The most recent series of posts.

7. The Origin of States: Mostly an expanded part 4 of the feasting series of posts.

8. The Origin of Money: The real story from an archaeological perspective rather than the libertarian fantasy. Debt comes first. Money is not metal, etc. Working on this one now-difficult! Material from this post and this post.

9. Why History Happens: Mostly the Fates of Nations series of posts from last year.

10. The Bronze Age Collapse: The rise and fall of the first global economy. Environmental devastation, erosion, non-renewable resources, etc.

11. The Cycles of History: also taken from some of the the Fates of nations series of posts, a description of Peter Turchin’s structural-demographic cycle theories, diminishing returns, Malthusianism, Craig Dilworth’s Vicious Circle Principle.

12. The Origin of the Market: largely  a retread of Karl Polanyi’s work. There is nothing “natural” about markets, globalism was always an elite project.

13. The Origin of the Corporation: Tells us a lot about today’s world.

14. The Origin of capitalism: It’s the fossil fuels (and control of them) stupid! May combine this with above.

15. The Future: the moral of the story, and what the future looks like if we don’t change course.

It will, of course, be a summation of many of the themes of this blog – that intensification always leads to diminishing standards of living for the majority in the long run, that technology leads to more work not less, that letting aggrandizers run the show is a recipe for disaster, that grain-based annual agriculture is bad for people and the environment, that economics is a secular religion that is preventing us from solving our mounting social problems, that we are experiencing diminishing returns to technology and population growth, that more people prevent us from solving our problems, that Markets are not natural or perfect, but quite fallible and just one way among many to organize societies, that our current living standards come from the liberation of a billion years’ stored sunlight in the form of fossil fuels, that thinking otherwise is a cargo-cult, and that industrial civilization is utterly dependent on non-renewable finite resources and cannot continue indefinitely, and that we probably aren’t going to Mars.

I’ll also present an ideal situation centered around Permaculture, renewable energy, and socially embedded, non-market based, yet decentralized, economies. Think Bill Mollison’s Permaculture, Leopold Kohr’s The Breakdown of Nations, E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, with a little Barry Commoner and Buckminster Fuller thrown in. Do I expect anyone to follow this blueprint? No. but that’s not the point. I want to at least demonstrate that a better world is entirely comprehensible and possible, even if we won’t choose it. Don’t worry, it won’t be the usual hopium.

So that’s it. Will it happen? Who knows. But it’ll be fun to try. Thanks for coming along for the ride! Should be a fun year.

The Origin of Cities – Part 4

The Urban Revolution

We’ve seen that cities grew out of sacred ritual/cultural sites, many of them connected with feasting, built by chiefs/shamans. These centers formed the nucleus of cities even before population growth caused by irrigation and agrarian (plow) agriculture. These forms of agriculture caused not only rapid population growth, but also great differences in wealth, and the emergence of hereditary status.

There are a number of theories or “models” which have been proposed for the emergence of cities in southern Mesopotamia over the years.

Some theories argue that rapid immigration to urban centers was brought about by the transformation of marshland into productive farm fields. People would have fled to the temple complexes seeking work, and this drove the rise of cities. Farmers fleeing adverse environmental conditions like erosion and salinization would have also contributed to this.

Others focus on the emergence of social classes, in particular the priest class which gained a monopoly on intercession between men and the gods, and their managerial role centered in “temple cities.” Occupational specialization (such as potters, carpenters, jewelers, smiths, weavers, merchants, etc.) is also thought to have led to the emergence of class structures.

These managerial elites are often depicted as the world’s first “governments” supported by taxes collected from food producers in the surrounding agricultural villages. Specialized producers of luxury goods would have settled down in cities to be close to their customers and the critical trade routes, the thinking goes. The canal system, and later the invention of oxcarts (probably emerging from chariot technology) made the transport of goods easier, and as trade grew, so too would cities in certain favorable locations. This view sees classes and professions emerging at about the same time, and intimately entwined with the emergence of cities and, later, the state.

At least that’s how the standard story goes. But as we’ve seen, early temple complexes were nothing like states in the modern sense. They did not have the power to tax, nor the power to make binding laws over the whole society. They undertook various pro-social activities for the benefit of the community, but did not control them in a governmental sense. Craft specialists were attached to various households; they were not “separate” professions, as we have today. This is a projection of our modern times onto the past. And there is actually no indication of a “separate” class of managers emerging – there is no distinction made between an office and the person who occupies it. Even the form of buildings in the cities does not differ from that of households on the land, unlike what we would expect to see in the emergence of totally new social structures.

Rather than some new concept called social classes, it makes sense that these transformations would grow out of earlier ones. Early cities were most likely ordered by kinship and householding, not the emergence of separate classes or professions in any modern sense. This is the view of Jason Ur of Harvard University, who sees the urban “revolution” as less of a revolution than initially thought.

Households and the Emergence of Cities in Ancient Mesopotamia (PDF)

In his view, rather than “economic rationality,” or “a radical transition to a bureaucratic organizational structure, in the Weberian sense of the term,” he argues that such changes were “the result of cumulative changes in existing kinship structures.” He writes,

“Far from the adaptive outcome of problem-solving deliberations, the enormous urban agglomerations at Uruk and Tell Brak were the unintended outcome of a relatively simple transformation of a social structure. It is only ‘revolutionary’ to outside observers of the longue durée; to the actors themselves, this transformation fit neatly within existing understandings of the social order.”

In his view, kinship was not supplanted at all, but continued to be the principle organizing factor in social relationships, and not just at the village level. The ruling class was simply one among many influential households, and were still dependent upon maintaining social relationships for their authority.

For example, it’s true that the inhabitants of cities far exceeded Dunbar’s number of 150. This is thought to engender the necessity of a separate “managerial” overclass to coordinate all the activities of the society.

But in a society organized around households, households rarely exceeded 150 people, usually close kin. In addition, households were usually managed by a single “head” of the household. These heads typically managed the activities of, and represented their respective households politically, so it would have not been been difficult for 150 heads to coordinate activities among themselves. In addition, not only would people within the households be ranked by age, seniority, skills and gender (as indeed they still are in modern-day families), but the households themselves would have been ranked against one another by various criteria, such as seniority, lineage, household size, and craft specialization. Temples were also organized on this basis, and would have been just another household in this mix; albeit one that was granted special provisions due to its character as a “public utility” and religious institution. Many of these temple activities have been misconstrued by later historians as the first “governments” or as a proper “state.”

So it’s far more likely in my opinion that this “natural” hierarchy most likely led to the inequality that we see in early cultures than the emergence of some sort of wholly new parasitic ruling class. Indeed, we see similar hierarchical structures even in non-state people who lack any sort of professional bureaucratic organizations. As I’ve alluded to earlier, the “state” was really more of a proto-state; essentially the ruler’s personal household writ large. The impersonal bureaucratic “Westphalian” state model that we associate with the term was a much later invention:

Despite the emphasis on administration and bureaucracy in early state models, the concept of an office, which exists independently of the person occupying it, is…not present in Sumerian or Akkadian. No general term for “office” or “officer” may exist, but administrative roles with various “official” or religious (and often both) duties certainly did exist…individuals (“officials”) who filled these roles attained their positions by virtue of kinship proximity to elites, and retained them through continual maintenance of those relationships

If bureaucracy was an unknown concept, what then was the structural basis for urban solidarity?…Often it is suggested that kinship remained important mostly in rural areas. To the contrary, kinship, in the metaphorical but meaningful form of the household, remained a durable organizing principle long after the first cities.

This observation was first made by Max Weber, who recognized that polities in the Near East and Egypt were run as royal households, headed by a patrimonial ruler who treated it as his own personal property. These oikoi (singular oikos), as Weber called them, were not capitalistic in motivation; rather, they were entirely focused around the want satisfaction of the patrimonial ruler and were essentially self-sufficient. Weber’s patrimonial state is the opposite of the rational bureaucracy assumed by many earlier models. “In the patrimonial state the most fundamental obligation of the subjects is the material maintenance of the ruler, just as is the case in a patrimonial household; again the difference is only one of degree”. In a patrimonial state, “offices” are flexible and without fixed boundaries. “Powers are defined by a concrete purpose and whose selection is based on personal trust, not on technical qualification… In contrast to bureaucracy, therefore, the position of the patrimonial official derives from his purely personal submission to the ruler, and his position vis-à-vis the subjects is merely the external aspect of this relation”.

Weber wrote at a time when knowledge of ancient Near Eastern languages was still rudimentary, but nonetheless his understanding has proven to be remarkably accurate. The standard study of social structure (Gelb 1979) shows the predominance of household organization at multiple scales. The Sumerian term e2 could designate a building, ranging in size from a single room to a palace or a temple, but it could also designate a family or a household; with regard to the latter, “the term ‘household’ extends in meaning to cover social groupings ranging from a small family household living under one roof to a large socio-economic unit, which may consist of owners and/or managers, labor force, domestic animals, residential buildings, shelter for the labor force, storage bins, animal pens, as well as fields, orchards, pastures, and forests”. The Akkadian word for house, bitum, had exactly the same semantic range. For Gelb, this Weberian oikos organization pertained only to large-scale “public” households, most typically those of the palace and temples; alongside of them, and presumably subsumed within them, were “familial households” which were much smaller and kinship-based. Nonetheless, this distinction is absent in the native terminology, which used e2 or bitum for both. Despite its firm grounding in the textual record, Gelb’s oikos model has been largely overlooked by archaeologists, with a few notable exceptions…

In fact, the household was an almost universal structuring metaphor in the pre-Iron Age Near East. .. Societies were structured as a series of interrelated and nested households that varied in scale from nuclear families to institutional households (many of them with a religious component, i.e., “temples”) to the entire polity, which was either the household of the king or of the main god of the its capital city. In Schloen’s “Patrimonial Household Model,” these vertical and horizontal connections between households are not disembedded, as in a bureaucracy. Political organization depended entirely upon the maintenance of personal relations between the king (the “father” or “master” in both Sumerian and Akkadian) and the heads of sub-households (“sons” or “servants”).

As a result, here were real limits to centralized authority. The effective power of the ruler is diluted by his need to exercise authority through subordinates (and their subordinates), whose ‘household’ domains are smaller in scale but similar in structure to his own. As a result, all kinds of private economic activity and jockeying for political and social advantage can take place beyond the ruler’s direct supervision. What looks at first glance like an all-encompassing royal household reveals itself, when viewed from another angle, to be a complex and decentralized hierarchy of households nested within one another and held together by dyadic ‘vertical’ ties between the many different masters and servants who are found at each level of the hierarchy. Such an arrangement was inherently dynamic…

Households and the Emergence of Cities in Ancient Mesopotamia (PDF)

Similar social structures existed in ancient Egypt, where the running of Egypt as the household of the Pharaoh was more obvious:

Pharaonic Egypt was organized around a system of phyles (as called by the Greek invaders). These social units were based on the clan structure of previous tribal society which continued to form the foundation of class society in the post-3000 BC period.

Initially, the administrators of the economy were all related (kin) to the king. As the bureaucracy grew more extensive, non-clan individuals who had demonstrated competence in such activities were drawn upon to serve in the administration of the economic and political arrangements of the kingdom. …Strong evidence exists for an ongoing rotation of work in the service of the king by clan membership, including rotation through the various religious cults and royal mortuary temples. This rotation appears to have been organized around the principle in which a regular portion of the available (male?) labour would have been sent for yearly duties in the king’s service. …the construction of the pyramids was undertaken precisely on this basis …the limited redistribution that existed in the Egyptian economy was organized on the basis of clan membership).

As the economy of the Nile Valley grew more extensive and increasingly interconnected, the organization of society by phyle ‘ . . . allowed the king to maintain a central authority by preventing the growth of rival institutions independent of royal control’. Essentially, the continued dependence on the original tribal structure permitted the continuation of the form of that structure even as the king and priesthood usurped the social control previously exercised by the various clans. In short:

“The phyle system as an institution…played an important role in the development and success of Egyptian kingship in the Old Kingdom. The concept of a centralized government and its attendant bureaucracy . . . developed from the clans and village societies of predynastic Egypt. The evolution of the phyle as an institution parallels the development of the state. Emerging from its original character as a totemic system of clans that served to identify and regulate the personal and family loyalties that form the basis of a primitive society, it developed into a bureaucratic mechanism that organized a large number of people for tasks as varied as building pyramids and washing and dressing the statue of a dead king.”

Wray, Credit and State Theory of Money pp. 87-88

So the emergence of an “impersonal professional bureaucracy” managing society on behalf of a single absolute ruler has little basis in fact. Neither does the emergence of separate classes or professional associations until much later. It is yet another Flintstonization of history.

On Oriental Depotism

Religious and military specialists are invariably depicted in the standard history books as a non-productive overclass that extorted tax contributions by the threat of violence from a hapless peasantry in order to fund their lavish lifestyles, or so we’re told. The rise of this overclass—”macroparasites” in William McNeill’s terminology—far wealthier than the peasants, spawned a demand for luxury goods, hence the establishment of monumental “palatial” architecture, specialized luxury goods, fine art, and long-distance trade. The bureaucrats used writing and mathematics to push around a cowering underclass, which is why we see the development of writing and mathematics at this time.

Here’s a textbook example of the narrative from the book By The Sweat of thy Brow (emphasis mine):

Whatever the details of the “Neolithic Revolution, Gordon Childe’s famous phrase, it had by 3000 B.C. transformed the egalitarian communities of the earlier Stone Age, in the advanced food-producing regions, to totally different social structures. In these the masses of the people were reduced to servile status and kept economically at subsistence level by the systematic expropriation of their surplus production for the benefit of a small class of kings, noble warriors, and priests, and to support the army and the bureaucracy (whose chief function was tax collecting, in other words, expropriating the surpluses). Class division, representing a division of labor, thus became the foundation of the social structure. As the elite groups at the top continued to concentrate wealth in their own hands they inspired still more specialists to come into existence to serve their increasingly sophisticated needs. Besides potters, weavers, armorers, and metalworkers, there now appeared clerks or scribes, possessing the mysterious arts of writing and mathematics. In the irrigation civilizations the large agricultural surpluses called into being a class of merchants, in whose train lawyers and other auxiliaries of commerce followed.

Such “despotism” is usually contrasted to the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome, with it’s lack of centralized governments and class divisions, which were based on private ownership and individuals striving in markets, eventually leading to Western capitalism. Yet we now know that chattel slavery only played a very minor role in Asian economies, mostly in domestic work. Most prisoners of war were maimed or killed, not enslaved, as the technology to hold large ethnic groups in permanent subjugation simply did not exist in the Bronze Age. In fact, the first societies where slavery was critical to the functioning of the overall economy were the “freedom-loving” Western economies of Greece and Rome! Certainly “free market” capitalism before 1860 had far more slaves (including “indentured servant” debt slaves) than the “despotic” systems of the ancient Near East. Most unfree labor was due to debt servitude, rather than systematic oppression from elites. The Sumerian word for slavery made no distinction between these various forms of unfree labor.

The emergence of of priests and bureaucrats is depicted in most history books as the emergence of a new class practically overnight, bullying the productive classes, stealing all their money, and forcing them into permanent servitude to build the temples and monuments which served little purpose besides aggrandizing themselves.

This inevitably leads to an obvious question when modern-day people read this: why would ancient people have allowed this to happen? What were they thinking? It’s depicted as some sort of great mystery and endless speculation has been devoted to the emergence of the “state” which is depicted as a useless development serving no purpose whatsoever.

This “mystery” comes from an ignorance of how such people saw their own culture. It’s also heavily corrupted by the ideas promulgated by the modern-day religion of economics. For example, the economist Robert Allen writes: “it is difficult to discern any productive contribution that the Pharaoh, the priesthood, or the aristocracy made. The main function of the Pharaonic state was to transfer a considerable fraction of the income produced by Egypt’s farmers to an unproductive aristocracy.”

But there is no evidence whatsoever that the people themselves saw their societies this way.

Is it so hard to see the bureaucratic and managerial activities performed by priests and scribes as having a pro-social purpose, or at the very least, the perception on the part of society that that their activities served a pro-social purpose? The idea that leaders kept the majority of people at the permanent edge of starvation while seizing nearly every last morsel for themselves is hard to square with the historical evidence.

In fact, we saw that the activities performed by centralized chiefs did allow for economic expansion that would not be possible at village-level societies. We’ve already seen the need for specialization and allocation of goods was enabled by such redistribution-fishing villages gave donations of excess fish, farming villages excess grain, and each received the fish and grain that they could not produce themselves. We also saw how such networks wold have provided a safety net–some villages may have had a bumper crop, others a bad harvest, while redistribution networks would have made sure no one went without. For example, the Inka redistribution system of storehouses was so efficient and abundant that even its detractors acknowledge that poverty was unknown in the empire (per Charles Mann’s 1491). Skilled craftsmen engaged by chieftains engaged in specialized labor such as pottery, metalsmithing and weaving, often as a form of public welfare provision. Long-distance trade has been managed by elites from the very beginning using their social connections as a way to acquire and maintain social standing.

As for the monuments, there is no evidence whatsoever that they were built through coercion. This was most likely a misconception caused by depictions of the enslavement of Jews in the Bible coupled with the staggering size of such monuments. “Only slaves could have built such things,” went the logic, “and we know there were plenty of slaves back then because the Bible tells us there were!”

The modern-day economic priesthood sees any and all work as a “disutility” needing either the threat of force or the reward of money to coax people to lift a finger, since all people are inherently “lazy” by nature (very similar to Judeo-Christian concepts seeing mankind as “fallen” and “sinful”). Since there were apparently no labor markets as we know them, the thinking went, all such work must have been coerced, leading to “Oriental Despotism.” After all, where else would all those ancient monuments and irrigation works come from? But are people truly as inherently “lazy” as economists depict them?

It’s hard to square this with the evidence. Would lazy people have built Göbekli Tepe, with its massive T-shaped carved stone pillars of several tons apiece? Would lazy people have transported the stones of Stonehenge 160 miles? Would they have erected standing stones in the Orkney islands? Would lazy people have erected hundreds of Moai on remote Easter Island?

In fact, all the evidence shows that the people who built these ancient monuments did so voluntarily as a way to define and assert their cultural identity. Besides, ancient “despots” would not have had access to the necessary force to compel people to do these things if they didn’t want to. Nor they could they have “paid” people when the means of subsistence were freely available to all. Metals were very rare in this time period. Are we expected to believe that massive amounts of labor were coerced by aggrandizing elites wielding nothing more than stone spears and flint knives? The amount of metal used by ancients at this time probably could not forge even a single chain, much less enough chains to enslave an entire population as depicted in the Cecil B. DeMille movie The Ten Commandments. Michael Hudson writes:

No doubt maintaining Neolithic practice, corvee activities had to attract and hold their participants. For Babylonia, Richardson cites rulers emphasizing their efforts to promote “public joy” in corvee projects by “invest[ing] such occasions with an atmosphere of feasting and plenty. This made the tasks “something closer to a prebend, an opportunity; a festival” with the benefit of group membership and identity. Indeed, he asks:

“Would it even be possible to create a corps of ‘forced,’ , to semi-free’ laborers to toil under adverse conditions-for no more than one week a year? Would workers who had toiled for 150 days of the year in the dirt and mud to grow barley for state and bare survival choose to resent a few days of collective labor, in the company of neighbors and with the prospect of feasting and song? Should we really imagine teams of tens of thousands groaning under the weight of massive building blocks under the stern eyes of whip-wielding overseers, when the average work .. account text deals with teams of workers numbering fewer than two hundred?

Richardson estimates that institutional building work in Babylonia “only comes to something like 40% of the farming work'” needed for families on the land to produce their own sustenance- ‘not more than a week of’ work compared to six months of farming.”And most corvee labor was seasonal so as not to interfere with the crop cycle. In Egypt, the workers’ town housing the specialized labor force that “worked hard on the pyramids (such as moving megaliths)” was, in Lehner’s description, “a rather elite place of high-status royal service and possibly higher-quality” recompense than recruits might have known in their home districts.

Labor in the Ancient World, pp. 652-653

This was also exacerbated by the unfortunate choice of the term “rations” to initially transcribe the cuneiform texts. This choice has been lamented by Orientalists ever since. It implies a bare minimum of food from a severely limited supply, as if workers were the inhabitants of a particularly nasty concentration camp or gulag. But these “rations” were often quite generous and far beyond bare subsistence. Modern Assyriologists prefer to describe these as “salaries” or “wages” instead. Professor Piotr Steinkeller writes of ancient Larsa: “National building projects were an extremely important tool of political and cultural integration,” a “nation-building” effort instilling an idea of protonational solidarity as workers came to think of themselves as “fellow members of a united Babylonia.” Similarly, Sir Leonard Wooley writes of Egypt, “The building of the colossal tombs of the Egyptian kings was as much an ac of faith as was the building of the great cathedrals of mediaeval [sic] Europe, and its object was not simply to minister to the vainglory of the ruler but to take out, as it were, an insurance policy for the country.” (The Beginnings of Civilization, p. 324)

As for taxes, were these really “extorted” from an unwilling population by the constant threat of violence as we’ve been led to believe by the history books? Again, there is really no evidence of this.

First, it should be noted that taxes were paid by villages and households, not by individuals. Rather than taking all the surplus, taxes were actually assessed based on the harvests. Egyptians used a device called a Nilometer to measure Nile flooding, and assessed taxes accordingly–A poor harvest meant lower taxes. In this, they may be more generous than modern states—thanks to concepts like “national debt,” taxes often become more onerous in times of economic hardship, not less. In addition, since households on the land usually produced what they needed internally for direct use, there was little individual surplus to tax in any case. These were not market-based consumer economies like our own.

Additionally, the payment of taxes was couched not only as a social, but also as a religious duty. Even today, churches promote tithing (as described in the Bible), and many people gladly hand over a tenth of their income with no coercion whatsoever. And it’s likely they get much less benefit to this arrangement than people get from official duties to nation-states.

This is the so-called Managerial Model of state formation. Many Egyptolgists see the establishment of the Egyptian “state” emerging out of these activities. Peter Turchin, in this blog post, describes the managerial (or functional) model (while at the same time dismissing it):

The theories underlying (explicitly or implicitly) the discussions of the Egyptian state by Egyptologists that I have read so far are resolutely functionalist. ..I am going to base my discussion on an article by Fekri Hassan, “The Predynastic of Egypt,” published in 1988 in Journal of World Prehistory, because Hassan makes very explicit the conceptual underpinnings of his model. …Here’s what Hassan says:

” the process leading to the state was set in motion by factors inherent in the socioecology of agricultural production. Attempts to dampen the effects of agricultural fluctuations by pooling the resources of neighboring communities led ultimately to the emergence of the chiefs. Further enlargement of the economic unit led to a hierarchy of chiefs and the emergence of regional political units. Legitimation of power led to an emphasis on funerary offerings and status goods. This political technology stimulated trade. Skirmishes with “Libyan” and “Asiatic” raiders provided a raison d’etre for “military” power and added to the image of chiefs as keepers of world order.”

Note that warfare (“skirmishes with raiders”) plays decisively secondary, if not tertiary role in the process of state formation.

There are two problems with the Hassan hypothesis. The first one is that it goes against everything we know about people living in small-scale egalitarian societies (here I follow Chris Boehm, e.g. his Hierarchy in the Forest). Hassan says

“In its initial stages, the people were able to see the material benefits of representatives and cooperation. The chiefs also had to work harder than others to maintain their position.”

And a couple of pages later:

“The representative may have thus acquired by group consent and support a political power—the ability to act upon the actions of others. … The increase in the power of chiefs probably resulted from the continued benefits to the community resulting from their managerial activities. The extension of the group interaction over larger territories is likely to have led to the rise of a hierarchy of chiefs.”

The problem with functionalist explanations like this one is that it proposes an end point of an evolutionary process in which a new structure arises that fulfills a certain function—in this case, dampening the effects of agricultural fluctuations by integrating many villages within a large-scale society with managerial elites that can take surpluses from one area and direct them to where shortages are. But this explanation does not propose a plausible mechanism of how we get to this end point.

In fact, egalitarian societies are very resistant to the idea of creating permanent chiefs and endowing them with structural power to order everybody else around. Furthermore, the chiefs themselves would be less than eager to submit to the power of a paramount chief above them. Even today, and in dire straits, people coming from egalitarian societies find it extremely difficult to constitute and uphold hierarchies….why should we expect that ancient Egyptians would willingly give up autonomy and submit to the rule of chiefs? This is not just a theoretical argument. By Naqada IIIC (Dynasty I) the rulers of Egypt practiced massive human sacrifices. That’s what happens when you submit to chiefs and kings. It’s almost better to starve during a periodic famine than become a powerless peasant in a despotic archaic state.

Evolution of the Egyptian State – The Managerial Model (Cliodynamica)

Turchin’s favored models focus exclusively on martial explanations for state formation. But as we’ve extensively seen in the past few posts, such societies went through a long transegalitarian period before the emergence of hierarchical societies. The road to hereditary managerial aristocracies would have been paved by the long transegalitarian phase preceding it. The feasting theory does, in fact, provide a plausible model of how we get to such a point. Redistributive chiefdoms have been extensively documented all over the world, complete with monumental architecture, craft specialization, trade networks, and pyramidal levels of hierarchy (paramount chiefs, subchiefs, clan elders, etc.). It’s hard to account for this by warfare alone.

It’s far more simple to explain the emergence of proto-states by seeing them as a mutual social contract rather than the establishment of blatantly exploitative relationships by a parasitic minority as depicted in most history books. Over time this social contact became more and more lopsided, to be sure, but it makes it far easier to understand the emergence of such social structures in the first place by seeing them as 1) perceived at least in the beginning as being pro-social, and 2.) emerging out of existing organic relationships rather than being the result of entirely new ones.

Part of this distorted perception comes from the discipline of economics, which is inherently hostile to the very idea of a social contract. Instead, it sees society as nothing more than countless transactions between isolated individuals. But ancient people did see themselves so much as individuals but as members of various groups.

Besides, is the lopsided relationship between primary producers and managerial elites really so hard to understand?

For example, consider the banking and investor classes of modern-day capitalism. They justify their outsized rewards and staggering wealth by claiming that only they can “allocate capital” appropriately, and through such activities, each and every single one of us is made better off! They claim that if capital was allocated by, say, democratic consensus instead of private individuals, it would inevitably be “wasted” and “misallocated.” “Only we,” the bankers proclaim, “and we alone, have the talent and skills to accomplish this task!!” In this, they are perennially backed up and reinforced by the religion of economics, which argues that institutions of collective governance are always rife with “cronysim,” and that “central planning” is always a recipe for disaster (if not dictatorship, c.f. Hayek).

In fact, we clearly see that more and more of this capital is being “allocated” to support their own lavish lifestyles-exotic vacations, exclusive mansions, private jets and helicopters, palatial condos, rare artwork, luxury goods like sportscars, jewelry, watches and handbags, expensive suits, cocktail parties, and lavish weddings and graduation parties for their offspring that cost more than the average person’s yearly salary.

And yet, in spite of all of this, the bankers and executives still claim that their activities are not only necessary, but pro-social! Take away our ‘incentives’ they say, and society will fall back to a more primitive level. “Only we have the ‘special skills’ to do this work,” they claim, just as the ancient rulers claimed to have “special powers” to intercede with the gods and maintain the social order. In fact, during our latest financial crisis, one CEO banker famously claimed to be doing “God’s work”–most likely word-for word the exact same phrase uttered by the pharaohs, kings, princes and potentates of past eras. Has anything really changed?

Yet do we “rise up” and correct this? Why, then, would we expect ancient people to so? Are we really so radically different than the peasants of past eras?

Just like as the temple scribes and priests used their insider knowledge of writing and mathematics to maintain their privileged position vis-a-vis the rest of society in the ancient world, so too do modern bankers use their knowledge of the complex and opaque banking system to bamboozle the public and claim that only they have the “highly specialized knowledge” to manage the economy. In both instances, specialists make recourse to esoteric knowledge unavailable to the common people.This would have made even more sense in ancient times, when only the scribes and priests could manipulate the symbols of mathematics and writing required to maintain the activities of the government bureaucracy, unlike today where literacy and numeracy are commonplace.

After all, were not the households of redistributive chieftains not also “allocating capital”? Would they, too, not justify a earning premium on such “pro-social” activities, exactly as do today’s banking and investor elites? Is not the control and management of labor and resources the key factor in both? Today’s bankers constantly make reference to their brilliance and their “talent.” The average person could not possibly do these things, they argue. “Just trust us,” they say, “our activities are absolutely indispensable to the smooth running of the economy.” By performing this role, they say, we “deserve” to earn these outsized rewards. After all, we are doing “God’s Work!” Furthermore, they claim that without them and their managerial prowess, society would descend into chaos; “misrule” as the ancient Egyptian leaders called it.

Over time, more and more capital would be kept and less and less redistributed as the wealth of society grew. This wealth would have been increasingly diverted into the coffers of the managerial elites in order to maintain their lavish living standards. But again, this is no different than modern-day society. Eventually those who kept the least and redistributed the most became those who kept the most and redistributed the least. But that is long way from describing elites as merely “parasites” who played no role whatsoever in the emergent social order besides collecting taxes and whipping slaves in order to build stone monuments for purely egotistical purposes.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that ancient proto-states were always benign and never despotic. Or even that they were “necessary” in an objective sense. However, it doesn’t seem as though the people of these societies felt as though they were being “oppressed” any more than most people do under modern-day capitalism (which is to say, somewhat). Most routine activates took place at the village and household levels, and must have gone on relatively unchanged for thousands of years. Nor does it seem like the leaders coerced most behaviors from their citizens, acted in cruel and arbitrary ways towards them, or “enslaved” them in any way. Respect seems to have been mostly given voluntarily, as it is  towards today’s heads of state.

Collective festivals and rituals must have reinforced this spirit. No doubt threats to the “stability” of the social order were dealt with swiftly and harshly, but again, that is no different than modern states. I can find few tales of widespread and arbitrary cruelty or coercion on that part of these “despotic” leaders in any account. Rather, harshness and cruelty was reserved towards members of various “out groups.” There are many stomach-churning accounts of the horrible and shocking things victorious armies would do to the vanquished in many ancient accounts; all one has to do is read the Bible for examples of that. But internally, if one was member of the “in-group,” it appears that the “Oriental Despotism” of ancient rulers may have been greatly exaggerated, again often to discredit the idea collective governance. In any case, it would have been far easier to “run away” during this time period if one had wished to than it is in modern-day capitalist societies where all empty lands are filled and widespread private ownership greatly limits the ability for self-sufficiency.

In fact, often times governments acted a curb on the rapacious behavior of “private” elites. Debt slavery was a major driver of inequality in ancient societies-conflicts between creditor and debtor classes became endemic throughout the ancient world. “Populist” leaders appear often in history, claiming to restore the balance between the first “one-percent” and everyone else. In fact, we see “oppression” more often as the result of the activities of “private” individuals rather than governments! A prominent example is given by one of the first law codes in history, that of the Sumerian ruler Ur-Nammu. He writes of the corruption and abusive practices he put an end to and decrees “equity in the land”:

“…After An and Enlil had turned over the Kingship of Ur to Nanna, at that time did Ur-Nammu, son born of Ninsun, for his beloved mother who bore him, in accordance with his principles of equity and truth… Then did Ur-Nammu the mighty warrior, king of Ur, king of Sumer and Akkad, by the might of Nanna, lord of the city, and in accordance with the true word of Utu, establish equity in the land; he banished malediction, violence and strife, and set the monthly Temple expenses at 90 gur of barley, 30 sheep, and 30 sila of butter. He fashioned the bronze sila-measure, standardized the one-mina weight, and standardized the stone weight of a shekel of silver in relation to one mina… The orphan was not delivered up to the rich man; the widow was not delivered up to the mighty man; the man of one shekel was not delivered up to the man of one mina.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Code_of_Ur-Nammu

Very commonly, new rulers would declare a “clean slate” upon their ascension to leadership, annulling previous debts. The famous law-giving king Hammurabi did so, for example. He declared amdurarum (debt annulment) upon taking the throne. This hardly seems like “oppressive” behavior to me.

The key, then, to understanding past structures is to look at today’s. We are fundamentally the same creatures, with the same brains and social instincts, despite our increased technological capabilities. Our technological ability compounds over time, building on previous discoveries, but our social structure is largely limited by how our brains work. Over the past few centuries, our technological evolution has far outstripped our social evolution, as noted by many commentators including Edward O. Wilson:

“Humanity today is like a waking dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world. The mind seeks but cannot find the precise place and hour. We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.”
― Edward O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth

In fact, the difference in lifestyles between our executive and banking classes is likely far greater than that between the peasants and the rulers of past eras. For example, the bonus of bankers in one year in the United States–just the bonuses , mind you, not the actual salaries–was greater than the combined income of all of every single minimum wage worker in the country-our modern-day equivalent of serfs. Its doubtful that Egyptian royalty could claim the same. Forty million children in the U.S go to bed hungry every night, yet one single hedge fund manager will “earn” over a billion–1000 million-dollars in a single year, even while sleeping and going to the toilet. Would early “despots” have gotten away with such disparities in wealth? And yet we tell ourselves that we are somehow more “advanced” than these ancient societies. Really???

So it’s not hard to figure this out – it’s just the same old manipulation of the social logic, and we are just as susceptible as people thousands of years ago, despite us telling ourselves that we are all much too “smart” and “rational” to fall for any of that that stuff in our high-tech modern era of “science” and “reason.”

Is it so hard to understand why ancient peoples put up with the lavish lifestyles and sybaritic excesses of their ruling elites? Why did they? It is more appropriate to ask, rather, why do we? Answer that question and we have definitively solved the “mystery” of state formation once and for all.

The Origin of Cities – Part 3

The Social Logic Transforms

For a long time Jericho and Çatalhöyük, and similar other examples were isolated enigmas. These were essentially supersized villages of thousands of people. They preceded the Urban Revolution described by Childe by millennia, at a time when most people still lived in villages closer to the optimum (Dunbar’s number).

In the fertile alluvial valleys of Mesopotamia around 4000BC, suddenly dense urban settlements are established once again, but on a very different order from earlier ones like Jericho and Çatalhöyük. These are true cities, with planned streets, temples, palaces, granaries, and so forth.

But why did large groups of people suddenly start living in such dense settlements again? And why did it happen when and where it did? It’s notable that when cities reappear, they are planned, with temples, streets, palaces, etc. This has led to the conclusion that cities are intrinsically tied with the emergence of the state as a governing entity, replacing tribal or chieftainship modes of governing:

At some point during the fourth millennium BC, farmers and herders in Mesopotamia began to concentrate in large, densely occupied settlements, the best known of which is Uruk. For millennia previously, since the start of sedentary life in the Near East, settlements had, with a few exceptions, rarely exceeded a few hectares in size; now places like Uruk and Tell Brak exceeded one hundred hectares of settled area.

Contemporary with this demographic expansion, monumental architecture, specialist-produced status-marking goods, record keeping devices, and mass produced pottery appeared, which have been interpreted as signifying a new complex and centralized form of sociopolitical organization, i.e., the state. On these empirical bases, archaeologists have interpreted the record of the Uruk period as the beginnings of urbanism as a settlement form, and the state as a political structure.

Why did these settlements begin and grow where the previous failed? I suspect that it is because the intervening years had seen a transformation in the social logic. The evidence shows that Near Eastern societies had transitioned from a transegalitarian phase to a much more hierarchical one over the intervening thousand years or so. This allowed for the introduction of much more top-down political systems which were required to make cities possible. Such systems may have emerged as a result centuries of domesticated agriculture and anial husbandry, along with the attendant feasting they engendered.

There are several clues in the archaeological record indicating such a change:

1.) Temples: As Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus point out, the emergence of hierarchy is strongly correlated with the building of temples. Temples indicate the emergence of full-time religious specialists who gained a monopoly on intercession with the gods/ancestors and derived their enhanced status thereby. The lack of any specialized religious structures was noticeable at both Jericho and Çatalhöyük.

We have used the building of men’s houses as an indicator of village societies where leadership was based on achievement. This enables us to use the decline of the men’s house and the rise of the temple as an indicator of societies with some degree of hereditary leadership…the transition from the men’s house to the temple seems to have been associated with the decreasing importance of ordinary people’s ancestors and the increasing importance of the celestial spirits in the chief’s geneology. (COI: 207)

Temples…went on to replace men’s houses in several parts of the New World…the transition was accompanied by evidence of hereditary inequality…we have seen that as chiefly elites emerge, they begin to dedicate buildings to the highest celestial spirits in their cosmos.

Mesoptamia[n]…societies were among the first to replace the small ritual house with the temple. Beginning 8,700 years ago with the Terrazzo Building at Cayonu, Turkey, villages of the Tigris-Euphrates drainage built increasingly temple-like structures. For centuries, some early temples coexisted with circular building that look like men’s houses or clan houses. Finally, between 6,500 and 6,000 years ago, the temples stood alone. (COI: 260)

But we can see this hierarchical transition most accurately reflected in the pottery. Pottery first becomes widespread at this time. Pottery, being fired clay, does not decay, and it has very distinct artistic motifs and creation methods. This leads archaeologists to use pottery artifacts (along with grave goods and building types) to classify distinct cultures before the introduction of writing.

The Samarran culture is defined by Samarran ware pottery, and these pieces have distinctive markings indicating the makers of the pottery, and possibly the owners. This is a clear evidence to archaeologists of 1.) The existence of specialized laborers, and 2.) The emergence of private property.

At Tell es-Sawwan, evidence of irrigation—including flax—establishes the presence of a prosperous settled culture with a highly organized social structure. The culture is primarily known for its finely made pottery decorated with stylized animals, including birds, and geometric designs on dark backgrounds. This widely exported type of pottery, one of the first widespread, relatively uniform pottery styles in the Ancient Near East, was first recognized at Samarra. The Samarran Culture was the precursor to the Mesopotamian culture of the Ubaid period.

Samarran ware was traded far and wide in the Near East at this time. The ability to store goods individually for long periods of time indicated a greater shift toward inequality. As mentioned earlier, storage for foodstuffs would have also aided greatly in feasting.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samarra_culture

Following Samarran Ware is the introduction of Halaf Ware, a distinctive polychromatic (multi-colored) pottery style. Early evidence indicated that this style was primarily traded between various political centers in the region rather than between neighboring villages, indicating the presence of an elite trading network.

The clay that allowed pottery to be made also allowed the first permanent records to be kept. Halaf culture also saw the introduction clay seals called bullae, indicating ownership and management of surpluses. Even more importantly, such seals were often included in burials indicating that status position were now being inherited.

Tell Arpachiyah is the main settlement of the Halaf culture that has been excavated. Excavations start to show differentiation in housing sizes and belongings. There are also the presence of what are called tholoi: keyhole-shaped structures that are thought to indicate the presence of early temples and religious specialists. The clay token heralds the eventual appearance of writing later in Mesopotamia:

In pre-agricultural Mesopotamia, there was little need for counting. Egalitarian societies practise reciprocity (the rule of hospitality) and there is no separate portion of society which needs to keep track of what it is owed or who owes it…With the development of agriculture, one sees the introduction of clay tokens representing quantities of grain, oils, etc., and units of work. These tokens indicate a major conceptual leap as well as a need for systemization.’

[T]he conceptual leap was to endow each token shape … with a specific meaning’. Previously, any markings, such as those on tally sticks, could not be understood outside the context in which they were notched. With tokens, anyone conversant with the system could immediately understand their meanings. Moreover, as each token represented a particular object, it was now possible to systematically ‘. . . manipulate information concerning different categories of items, resulting in a complexity of data processing never reached previously’.

In the fourth millennium, accompanying urbanization or the formation of classes, these tokens assumed new shapes, were of a higher quality indicating production by specialized craft workers, and featured lines and marks which required the development of writing and reading skills. Writing emerges from bookkeeping. The marks are designed to solve the technical problem of storage and cumbersome tallying. When tokens were few in number, it was easy to both store and count them. With a growth in the number and types of token, a new system had to be developed to allow easy maintenance ‘of the books.’ Hence, a particular mark indicated so many tokens, and one mark replaced the physical presence of (say) ten tokens.

We also now begin to see tokens as part of the funerary goods found in grave sites, and these are only found in the graves of the wealthier members of society. Tokens are a status symbol, indicating a change from egalitarian to hierarchical society. Eventually, the production of tokens and their administration becomes a temple activity, associated with the system of taxation that has supplanted the older tribal obligations. Writing – in this case the marks on the clay tokens that are the unit of account – was ‘invented to keep track of economic transactions’.

Taken together, these indicators show that the transegalitarian societies of Mesopotamia, especially in the Northern plains, were becoming more stratified.

A number of ancient villages in Northern Mesopotamia provide us with clues to social inequality such as elite children buried with sumptuary goods, long-distance exchanges of polychrome pottery among elite families, the clustering of satellite hamlets around chiefly villages, and the burning of elite residences in raids. For Southern Mesopotamia, the evidence for rank is more subtle… (COE: 260-261)

2. The plow: The domestication of cattle allowed for eventual the introduction of the plow. The plow may seem unrelated to the emergence of the state, but in fact it likely had a great social impact.

Early gardening was based around the hoe. Archaeologists believe that much of this hoeing labor was initially done by women, possibly as an extension of their gathering role. In fact, agriculture was typically associated with female deities, possibly indicating their initial role in cultivating grains. Or it may simply related to the earth being perceived as “womb” from where the planted “seed” grows, similar to the female’s role in human reproduction:

Early agriculture may …have made use of an organization of work along sexual lines, the women, perhaps assisted by children, planting and cultivating while the men hunted. Ancient mythology possibly lends credence to the assumption of women as agriculturists; Isis, Cybele, Demeter, and Ceres, the Egyptian, Asian, Greek, and Roman divinities of grain-raising are all goddesses. More probably, however, the goddess seemed appropriate as a symbol of fertility…(BtSoTB)

But it takes significant grip and upper-body strength to control a plow pulled by large animals. The first plows in Mesopotamia were called ards, and were basically hoes attached to a wooden frame.

In all of the Old World’s high cultures, crop cultivation started with plowing. Its indispensability is reflected even in the oldest writing. Both the Sumerian cuneiform records and the Egyptian glyphs have pictograms for plows. Plowing prepares the ground for seeding much more thoroughly than hoeing does: It breaks up the compacted soil, uproots established plants, and provides weed-free, loosened, well-aerated ground in which seedlings can germinate and thrive.

The first primitive scratch plows (ards), commonly used shortly after 4000 BC in Mesopotamia, were pointed wooden sticks with a handle. Later most of them were tipped with metal. For centuries they remained lightweight and symmetrical (with the draft line in a vertical plane with the beam and share point). Such simple plows, which merely opened up a shallow furrow for seeds and left cut weeds on the surface, were the mainstay of both Greek and Roman farming. They were used over large parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia until the twentieth century. In the poorest regions they were pulled by people. Only in lighter, sandier soils would such an effort be speedier than hoeing (EWH: 30)

Plowing was undoubtedly the activity where animals made the greatest difference. Given the relatively high power requirements of this task, it is hardly surprising that the first clearly documented cases of cattle domestication involved plow farming. In time, these animals were also used in many regions for lifting irrigation water and for processing harvested crops, and they were eventually used everywhere for transportation (EWH: 41)

Evidence indicates that cattle became much more common in the Ubaid period:

Archaeologists…find impressive numbers of cattle bones in the refuse of ‘Ubaid villages. Their abundance raises the possibility that oxen had now been harnessed to wooden plows, allowing families to cultivate larger tracts of land.(COI: 283)

With plowing came significant social changes 1.) The control of food production passed exclusively into the hands of men. If women and their children wanted to eat, they needed to submit to the control of their fathers, uncles, brothers and husbands. This is thought to be directly related to the emergence of patriarchy and the demotion in the status of women to little more than chattel in many ancient Near East cultures.

Its often said that the passing down of land to firstborn sons led to the need for “paternity assurance” and hence the strict and oppressive controls imposed on female sexuality. This is unlikely, as land was typically collectively owned by the temples and clans until later periods. What’s more likely, given the evidence of clay seals above, is that it is status positions that being passed down. Thus, men needed to be assured of paternity, and marriage contracts became dependent upon strict assurances of virginity.

Once patriarchal authority became established and politics became firmly entrenched in the hands of males, much more hierarchical structures were able to form, leading to much more hierarchical householding systems replacing the communal structure we see in the earliest farming villages:

Farming, as it started and spread from the Fertile Crescent, was originally hoe-based, thus largely women’s work, as hoe-based farming can be done while child-minding. The men hunted and later herded, the women farmed. There was no inherent reason to shift away from egalitarian norms and beliefs. But the larger population led to the development of substantial permanent settlements, which persisted for centuries or even millennia, and then collapsed. Settlements which were physically structured in a way that did not reflect any apparent social hierarchy.

It has been suggested that such settlements failed because the belief system could not longer sustain them. But it had for many generations. It is more likely that some new factor destabilised the social arrangements, leading to the abandonment of the concentrated settlements. Otherwise, they would more likely have simply reached an upper limit and plateaued in size.

One factor could be climate change: the productivity of the region declined. Though there is apparently no correlation between a drop in regional surges and collapses in population in Europe and climatic conditions.

A possible disrupting factor could be pastoralist raiders; disrupting the productivity of the region. This has been suggested as reason for the collapse of “Old Europe”, the farming settlements of the Danube valley…

A third possible factor could be the introduction of the plough, disrupting the social logic of the egalitarian settlements…Ploughs have two effects–they increase the productivity of farmers and they concentrate farming in the hands of males. More productivity means (1) more people, (2) more possibility for social differentiation, (3) a more sizeable possible extracted surplus. Moreover, ploughing is men’s work–both because of the greater grip and upper body strength required and, more crucially, as it is not compatible with childminding. As neither is animal herding, that leads to a male monopoly of the major productive assets and, as a consequence, male domination of public social space.

Suddenly, family relations become much more hierarchical. Hierarchical families provide easier support for wider social hierarchy: ploughs predate the first states. Contradiction between the egalitarian social logic which originally sustained the first wave of urban settlements–manifested in their physical construction–and the new logic of male domination of productive assets, and so public social space, could have been so disruptive as to lead to the abandonment of the first wave of concentrated settlements–which reflected, and were associated with, the previous social logic–and dispersal into new villages, which could now reflect physically the new social logic. Possibly helped by the plough increasing the land area which could be cultivated. A social logic that had not yet developed the means to support larger aggregations of population.

When sizeable settlements arise again, they are both significantly larger in population–they are undoubtedly cities–and physically reflect much more hierarchical social arrangements. Including explicit physical public spaces, which Çatalhöyük, the largest of the earlier settlements, had entirely lacked–it had no streets, one went from house to house via roofs.

Hierarchical families, based on unequal gender relations, may well make the generation and acceptance of wider social hierarchy more acceptable, but that is hardly enough in itself to generate states. Though the larger populations, higher individual productivity and capacity for social differentiation from the plough created a much larger possibility for the creation of states.

Origins of the state (Thinking out loud)

In fact, we see in the ethnographic record that the introduction of cattle does lead to significant status differentiation between individuals and families. As mentioned earlier, cattle-herding cultures often do have a hierarchical structure of powerful chiefs, subchiefs and clan elders who control the political life of the tribe. They also engage in elaborate feasting rituals, often involving sacrifices to the gods.

In fact, North Africa is unique in that it developed cattle herding before crop cultivation. Unreliable rainfall during the “wet Sahara” period placed a premium on being able to move around with changing climate conditions, meaning herding was much a more logical way of life to adopt than sedentary farming, and domesticable sheep and goats are not native to North Africa. Some archaeologists consider this crucial to the formation of Egypt’s hierarchical top-down political system. The Pharaoh often depicted himself as a “great bull” trampling his enemies, and carried the crook and flail–herding implements–as symbols of his authority. Some archaeologists believe that the office of Pharaoh is the direct decedent of the powerful headmen typically seen in herding societies.

Of special relevance to the development of economic institutions is the work of Thurnwald. From his ethnological studies in East Africa he developed a theory of development of simple societies into stratified social systems, feudalisms and despotisms. He pointed out that a stratified society with clearly distinguishable social classes usually results from cultural contacts between gardening, artisan, or hunting-fishing peoples on the one hand and herding peoples on the other, with the herdsmen tending to form an aristocracy. Such a society may develop along feudal lines if the clan heads of the herdsmen remain relatively equal rivals, into a despotism if power can be centralized under a single dynasty, or into a tyrannis if someone outside the traditional aristocracy can seize power. The ancient despotic state, such as Egypt is a development typical of this scheme. Not only is the economy intimately connected with the social structure in Thurnwald’s schema, but the development of the two is pictured as a dynamic relationship.

Thurnwald also placed great stress on gift-giving, or reciprocity, as a pervasive element in primitive economic life, a pattern far removed from the acquisitive motives of the market economy and requiring a symmetrical pattern of social relationships for its operation. Indeed, Mauss has suggested that gift exchange is the fundamental principle underlying all primitive trade.

Polanyi, Trade and Market in Early Empires, pp. 345-347

Much larger tracts of land could now be cultivated via the plow. This meant that a single farm could feed many more people than before. While earlier agriculture had been based on shifting cultivation, in the alluvial plains of Mesopotamia, the same ground could be cultivated year after year, allowing land to be passed down much easier than it could in earlier farming villages.

The bump in energy utilization via plowing also freed up more people to do non-agricultural labor. The ability to cultivate larger fields most likely resulted in significant inequality. Throughout history we see that new technology that allows labor to be more productive allows fewer people to manage more labor, leading to inequality in and of itself.

With limitations on field size due to labor needs, there was a limit on how big a farm could grow. With plowing, certain families could effectively cultivate much larger fields if they had access to cattle. Although plantation slavery did not develop in Mesopotamia as it did later in Rome, often times debtors would become debt slaves to large landowners, causing a spiral of inequality. People who lost their farms and people fleeing from debt were likely some of the earliest inhabitants of cities.

Sumerian descent was reckoned in the male line, although elite women were mentioned in the genealogies of aristocrats, and women could hold high office. Sumerian kings, like the monarchs of other societies, were allowed multiple wives. Royal polygamy was not just a perquisite of office but a diplomatic strategy, allowing rulers to forge marriage alliances with the aristocracy of other cities.

Commoner marriage, with few exceptions, was limited to one man and one woman. Divorce was allowed, but bigamy and adultery were punished, often severely. One inscription discovered at Lagash states that “the women of former days used to take two husbands, [but] the women of today [if they attempted this] were stoned with stones [upon which was inscribed their ‘evil intent.’

What evil intent? Most of the societies discussed in earlier chapters saw no harm in polygamous marriage. For societies that believed in reincarnation, paternity was not a concern. Babies were seen as recycled ancestors, and all children born into a polygamous marriage were considered full siblings.

The logic of Sumer was different. Men were seen as “planting a seed” in the woman, and because of the male-oriented system of inheritance, the origin of this seed was a major concern. A woman who lost her virginity before marriage, committed adultery, or took two husbands had created intolerable doubt about paternity. The state intervened to protect what it saw as a husband’s rights but phrased it in terms of good and evil to make it appear that it was carrying out the will of a deity.

The term for “father’s brother” appears in Sumerian cuneiform texts. This suggests …that one of the preferred types of marriage might have been between a man and his father’s brother’s daughter. Anthropologists call this “patrilateral parallel cousin marriage,” and it is still common today in parts of the Near East.

Sumerian marriages, like those of the less complex societies seen in earlier chapters, required gifts between the bride’s and groom’s relatives. Exchanges of gifts could go on for months. Marriage was considered a legally binding contract, and divorce could cost the husband a fee in silver. Owing to sexism, it was harder for women to get a divorce.

It is probably from the Sumerians that later Near Eastern societies, including the Aramaic-speaking authors of the Old Testament, got the notion that marriage should be restricted to one man and one woman. The flexible marriage partnerships of egalitarian societies, which came in six or seven varieties, had been arbitrarily reduced to a legal contract between a man and a woman. Nothing could be allowed to make a man worry that his male heir was the result of someone else’s “seed.” (COI: 478-480)

3. Marriage: One intriguing theory for the origin for inequality in Flannery and Marcus’s book, The Creation of Inequality, is marriage alliances with neighboring cultures. For example, societies with surpluses often wished to establish regular trading relationships with neighboring cultures who had access to desired status goods. To create such relationships, women from the “advanced” society would be often exchanged as wives with the leaders of such cultures. The recipients of these wives then emerged as a hereditary overclass in the “lesser” culture.

We know that the inhabitants of southern Mesopotamia established trading outposts all throughout the ancient Near East early on. We know that they desired all sort of goods from neighboring cultures, from timber to ivory to precious stones, and later metals for bronze. We know that trade took place, including of jewelry, metals, pottery, and other artifacts. Might this have been instrumental in expanding social inequality throughout the region? In fact, even into the era of Bronze Age kingdoms, marriages between royal households was commonly used to establish political/economic alliances, and only aristocratic households could participate. This certainly must have cemented status differentiation all cross the Levant.

In their book they describe the establishment of hereditary inequality in a Burmese hill tribe called the Kachin by way of interactions with a more complex hierarchical farming society called the Shan:

There may Once have been more than 300,000 Kachin living in the hills of northern Burma. Hpalang lay 5,800 feet above sea level in forested hills receiving 120 to 150 inches of rain a year. The Kachin cleared patches in the forest, growing rice, millet, buckwheat, yams, and taro by taungya, or slash-and-bum agriculture. Taungya is called a long-fallow system because’ new land must be constantly cleared, while old fields are given 12 to 15 Years to regain their fertility. The Kachin also raised zebu (humped) cattle, water buffalo, pigs, and chickens. The meat of the larger animals, however, was eaten only after the latter had been sacrificed during ritual, and at such times many guests shared in the feasting…

The Kachin themselves used the term gumlao to refer to societies in which all social units were considered equal. ‘When such units became ranked relative to one another, they used the term gumsa…The contrast between gumlao and gumsa leaders was great. Under gumlao, each village was autonomous. Some gumsa chiefs, on the other hand, oversaw more than 60 villages at a time. They could ill afford to forget, however, that it was the chief’s entire lineage that enjoyed high rank, not the chief alone. This led to a complex dynamic among brothers…

One scenario [for hereditary inequality]…includes interactions with a more complex neighboring society, called the Shan. The Shan differed from the Kachin in significant ways. Instead of practicing long-fallow, slash-and-burn agriculture in the highlands the Shan were supported by permanent wet-rice paddies in the riverine lowlands. Shan agriculture was so productive that it could support princely states with lineages of aristocrats, commoners, and slaves. While the Kachin sacrificed to spirits of the earth and sky, Shan rulers had been converted to Buddhism.
Hereditary aristocrats sought to communicate their rank through displays of valuables called sumptuary goods. The sumptuary goods sought by the Shan included jade, amber, tortoise shell, gold, and silver. The resources of the Kachin hill country included all these items. Significantly, the Kachin were chronically short of rice, while the Shan produced a surplus.

For several generations the family of the saohpa, or Shan prince, of a district called Möng Hkawm sent noble Shan women to marry the Kachin leaders who controlled the jade mines of the hill region. Sometimes a dowry of wet-rice land accompanied the bride. The Kachin chief reciprocated with raw materials for sumptuary goods.

One effect of this intermarriage…was that it encouraged the shift from gumlao to gumsa. Having a Shan wife raised the prestige of a Kachin leader and encouraged him to model his behavior on that of a Shan prince. Incipient Kachin chiefs might convert to Buddhism, dress like a Shan, and adopt Shan ritual and symbolism. They did so in spite of a serious contradiction in social logic: the mayu-dama relationship of the Kachin, in which the recipient of the bride was inferior, was incompatible with Shan logic. Shan princes all had multiple wives, and it would be unthinkable for any of their marriages to make them someone else’s dama.

While ambitious Kachin leaders considered Shan-like behavior a mark of prestige, it only increased their followers’ resentment and hastened their over throw. The result was an inherently unstable situation in which hereditary inequality was repeatedly created, lasted for a few generations, and then collapsed. (COI: 197-198)

Interestingly, both the unification of Upper and lower Egypt, and of Northern and Southern Messopotamia, was preceded by a cultural unification, in the Naqada and ‘Ubaid periods respecitively. All throughout these area, we begin to see cultural uniformity–similar goods, similar temples, similar artistic motifs. We also begin to see much more status differentiation–for example the Naqada III shows the presence of elite graveyards set apart from commoners. Did intermarriage play a role in this? Did the “lesser” cultures slowly adopt the religion and behaviors of the “higher” agricultural people with whom they traded, just as the Kachin adopted Shan customs and religion?

4.) Irrigation: While the old ideas put forward by Wittfogel about managing canals leading to the first central governments may have been oversimplified, the necessity of organizing collective labor to build irrigation works and keep them free of silt would have certainly required some way of managing it, even if just at the village level. This would have led to the creation of an elite supervisory class with control over labor. Piotr Steinkeller writes:

I submit that the beginnings of corvee coincided with the introduction of irrigation-based agriculture on the alluvium, which must have happened sometime during the Obeid period…organized collective labor[‘s] “invention” was directly connected with the appearance of extensive irrigation networks. It is impossible to say which of them came first. In all probability these two phenomena developed more or less concurrently, with the needs of agriculture dictating the use of labor force above that of a single family, and with the availability of labor so created enabling further expansion of irrigation works. This spiral process led to the formation of village clusters based on a shared irrigation system and subordinated to a single agency of control, eventually resulting in the appearance of urban centers and city-states.

In order to manage this labor, the priest caste used clay tokens combined with standardization of both time and materials. Out of this record-keeping developed writing and numeracy. Those knowledgeable in the specialized tasks of reading, writing, and mathematics emerged as an elite class of people. The presence of clay bullae seals indicates that this class had emerged long before the first true cities were founded.

4.) The household: Mesoptamian society seems to have transitioned from a Tribute Economy based on villages where reciprocity and redistribution prevailed, to one based primarily on Householding (oikoi). A household has a distinctive hierarchy, with a “pater familias” at the top, and a ranking order underneath that person (younger brothers, primary wives, secondary wives, elder children, younger children, servants, slaves, etc.). So too would a society based around householding structure itself along similarly ranked lines, with the “head” of the overall “household” being the ruler. Not only that, but various households would also have been ranked against each other. This would have created a gradient of hierarchy that is often mistaken for the establishment of social classes. Religious beliefs reflected this dynamic-the gods, too, were portrayed as living in a household with it’s own ranking hierarchy, overseen by the supreme ruler god, the ultimate “alpha.” The temples themselves were also organized on the household basis:

The gods were the alphas of two dominance hierarchies, one human and one divine. In the city of Lagash, for example, there was a great temple called Eninnu…It had two temple staffs: one visible and one invisible. The invisible staff began with a doorkeeper and butler, both minor deities. Below them were a divine chamberlain, counselor, and bailiff, and still further down the list a divine charioteer, gamekeeper, inspector of fisheries, and goatherd, as well as musicians, singers, and errand boys. The visible staff began with a high priest and continued with human counterparts for all the divine officials. The city’s ruler was ex officio head of the church…(COI: 478)

Most labor was “attached” to various households, and even though it was organized along kinship lines, households often included unrelated people, including full-time craft specialists (leather workers, jewelers, smiths, carpenters, etc.). These craft specialists would produce for the household primarily, but over time it appears that craftsmen could also sell their labor to others for an agreed-upon wage. These wages were paid in the temple’s unit of account. Because the temple denominated such units in weights of silver, this became a common way of paying craft specialists. This may have given rise to the misconception that people’s labor was primarily organized by “labor markets” using silver coins as a medium of exchange. In fact, coins did not exist until the Classical period, and most “salaries” were paid by the public sector, i.e. the temples, often in commodities such as wool, oil and barley.

All of these changes paved the way for the creation of early Sumerian cities in the Tigris-Euphrates river valley after 4000 BC. These cities were invariably centered on their temples, the home of the gods, with the priests organizing and managing the day-to-day operations of society. It is these activities which give cities there special character, above all the need for long-distance trade.

Temples and their precincts comprised the earliest city centers. Set corporately apart from the community at large to serve as self-supporting households of the city god and/or ruler, they were larger, more specialized and more internally hierarchic than personal households. They also included many dependents whose families on the land were unable to care for them, e.g., the blind and infirm, war widows and orphans, and others who could not function in normal family contexts. Placed in the institutional households that served as the ultimate sanctuaries, these individuals were put to work in handicraft workshops or other public professions (e.g., the blind musicians) in an early form of welfare/workfare.

It appears that archaic populations felt that the best way to keep handicraft production and exchange in line with traditional social values was to organize such activity under the aegis of temples, or at least to establish a strong temple interface as a kind of “chamber of commerce.” Public ritual and welfare functions already existed as the germ out of which this economic role would flower. As gathering places, temples became natural administrative vehicles for sponsoring trade. In retrospect it seems quite natural that the temple’s ritual functions broadened in time to include the role of sponsoring markets. Populations attending sacred ceremonies engaged in trade and exchange, much as they did at the fairs of medieval Europe. Out of this commerce developed temple sponsorship of standardized weights and measures, contractual law and the regularization and enforcement of trade obligations.

Concentration of the economic surplus was first achieved in the temple sector. Temple workshops were set corporately apart from their communities, endowed with their own land, dependent labor, herds of animals and stores of precious metal to support their handicraft activities and generate commercial surpluses. Many temple and palace lands were farmed by community members on a sharecropping basis, typically for a third of the crop or some other fixed proportion. Indeed, as history’s first documented landlords, the temples earned the first known land‑rent.

Administrators were assigned such usufructs to provide food for their support, and may have exchanged some of this barley-revenue for luxuries. The resulting “redistributive” system of production and consumption preceded market trade and pricing by thousands of years. Also, as business corporations (in contrast to family partnerships), temples appear to have earned interest.

In short, profit‑accumulating enterprise was public long before being privatized. This explains why the first economic accounting and the organization of large-scale handicraft industry appears first in public, often sacred contexts. Temples systematized profit‑seeking in ways that only gradually became acceptable for private individuals acting on their own. (Wealthy individuals were expected to use their resources openhandedly or consume them in conspicuous displays such as burials or marriage feasts.) Indeed, the temples’ entrepreneurial functions emerged out of their sacred status “above” the community’s families at large, most of whom still functioned on a subsistence basis after taking into account their luxury spending….The first organized surplus‑yielding property thus was public rather than private. ..

From Sacred Enclave to Temple to City (Michael Hudson)

COI: Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus, The Creation of Inequality.

EWH: Vaclav Smil, Energy in World History

BtSoTB: Melvin Kranzberg and Joseph Gies, By the Sweat of Thy Brow

The Origin of Cities – Part 2

Jericho – the First City

Cities were preceded by proto-cities, which were in essence large-scale farming villages. The most famous of these are Jericho in Israel and Çatalhöyük in Turkey. Proto-cities are distinguished form true cities in that they do not have a pre-planned layout, show no signs of hierarchy or separate social classes, and do not appear to have distinct religious or governmental buildings outside of private dwellings. All of the residences at Çatalhöyük were the same layout, for example, and there were no palaces or specialized religious structures. There were no streets either; the city was a honeycomb warren of mud-brick houses built on top of one another and accessed via ladders from openings in the ceiling which also allowed for ventilation.

For Lewis Mumford, the consummate historian of cities, Jericho alongside the Jordan river was the first city. Yet Jericho was established long before the transition to domesticated agriculture, meaning that it cannot be a response to the surpluses caused by it. It was still in essence, a large pre-agricultural village inhabited by people who were still largely hunter-gatherers. The reason it was mistaken for a city is because it was surrounded by a four meter high wall, with an eight meter tower that has been dubbed “the world’s first skyscraper,” and which was likely the tallest structure on earth at that time.

For Mumford, then, walls are the hallmarks of the city, that is, the distinguishing feature of a city are its walls. In his estimation, the walls were testament to the rising surpluses caused by sedentary agriculture and the need to defend those surpluses. Walls protect the surpluses from raiders–cities, walls, warfare, and centralized governments all went hand-in-hand, and they all stemmed from population growth engendered by agriculture, went the thinking. By hiding behind city walls, early people could stay safe from the increasing violence caused by a population growth and develop the first “private” property, went the story.

Mumford also sees walls in cities as the beginnings of the first “surveillance state.” By putting up walls around a city, the rulers could determine who was coming and who was going– and manage accordingly. In this view, the watchtower completes this picture. The watchtower allowed the inhabitants to keep a lookout for distant raiders coming for their surpluses, and retreat behind the walls as soon as the marauders showed up.

And yet, we may have misunderstood the walls of Jericho.

What caused archaeologists to doubt the walls’ defensive purpose was the lack of any evidence for large-scale warfare or raiding, such as weapons or skeletal injuries. And why was Jericho alone walled? If there was all this fighting going on in the Neolithic, surely we would see similar walls elsewhere, and yet we don’t see any other walled cities in this time period. The layers of Jericho that showed destruction came much later in its history, closer to the early Bronze Age.

What archaeologists did find, rather than signs of warfare, was a massive buildup of river silt and related debris along the base of the walls. This led archaeologists to surmise that the wall of Jericho were built as flood walls, to prevent the village from being inundated by the nearby Jordan River during the rainy season (Jordan river flooding is mentioned in the Bible). The river provided a source of water for growing the cereal grains which were becoming increasingly central to the new way of life at this time. The cereal grains grown nearby may have been used for feasting, and the walls may have been to keep out those who were invited to the feast from those who were not. Not only that, but there were hardly enough people in early Jericho to adequately defend such a long perimeter of wall!

Since third-millennium Mesopotamia, urban density has been catalyzed by the defensive military need of inhabitants to gather in walled towns. Indeed, the word “town” derives from the German Zaun (“fence”), typically referring to the walled military camps planted across Europe by the Roman emperors in standardized designs. But civilization’s first urban areas are not well characterized as such towns. Although Jericho appears to have been a walled center by about 9000 BC, its walls were not necessarily fortifications; they may well have been flood walls. In any event, when archaeologists next encounter urban sites, such as Çatal Hüyük in the sixth millennium BC, they find a cosmopolitan neutrality….It appears that the earliest towns were sanctified from raids. Southern Mesopotamian fortifications, for instance, do not appear until relatively late, c. 2800 BC.”

From Sacred Enclave to Temple to City(Michael Hudson)

In fact, Jericho’s walls may have served primarily a social purpose, rather than a defensive one.

Or, at least, that’s what a number of archaeologists believe. In their opinion, the walls served a similar purpose as today’s gated communities–to separate selected people from those around them. And the tower was a part of that. The tower may have actually built as a promotional technology – built by aggrandizing elites to demonstrate the riches and power of the village, rather than to keep a lookout for raiders.

Recently, archaeologists have argued that the tower was specifically designed to play on the fears of the local population. The stairwell of the tower was oriented in a very specific way relative to the sunset on the longest day of the year:

In a 2008 article, the Tel Aviv University researchers proposed that the tower and wall of Jericho should be seen as cosmological markers, connecting the ancient village of Jericho with the nearby Mount Qarantal and sunset on the longest day of the year. The new paper fortifies their hypothesis…”Reconstruction of the sunset revealed to us that the shadow of the hill as the sun sets on the longest day of the year falls exactly on the Jericho tower, envelops the tower and then covers the entire village,” .. “For this reason, we suggest that the tower served as an earthly element connecting the residents of the site with the hills around them and with the heavenly element of the setting sun.” Its construction may be related to the primeval fears and cosmological beliefs of the villagers…

The “cosmological significance” of the tower connects it with the previous megalithic sites which also had very specific orientation relative to nearby geographical features and celestial objects. The researchers go on to describe how constructing such a monument would serve the interests of the important people of the village:

The researchers note that this is the first instance of human beings erecting such a tall structure, even before the transition to agriculture and food production in the region. Liran and Dr. Barkai now believe that the tower, which required about ten years to build, is an indication of power struggles at the beginning of the Neolithic period, and that a particular person or people exploited the primeval fears of Jericho’s residents in persuading them to build it. ..”This was a time when hierarchy began and leadership was established,” Dr. Barkai told the Jerusalem Post. “We believe this tower was one of the mechanisms to motivate people to take part in a communal lifestyle.”

First skyscraper was a monument to intimidation: How Jericho’s 11,000-year-old ‘cosmic’ tower came into being (Science Daily)

Thus, the tower may be some of the earliest evidence anywhere of the transition from transegalitarian societies to more collective, hierarchically-based lifestyles, well before domesticated agriculture or the much later cities of Mesopotamia.

We’ve already talked about the “lures” that Triple-A personalities used to get people to work for them – the lure of profit, and the lure of addictive and psychoactive substances. We also talked about the need to attract “highly motivated and skilled” labor from rival villages and the competition between aggrandizing individuals to acquire followers. We mentioned that such villages often constructed elaborate public works to “advertise success” and attract people from neighboring villages to come and settle there (such as the totem poles of Northwest coast villages). Was the tower at Jericho built for this purpose? As a side-note, I recently read the CEO of a major company here where I live (Northwestern Mutual) say in an interview with the local newspapaer that he hoped the new skyscraper they were erecting downtown would allow them to attract “top talent” to our decaying Rust-belt city. So using tall towers to “advertise success” by aggrandizers is not so far-fetched.

Schlifske says new Northwestern Mutual tower will attract talent (JSOnline)

The walls would have enforced separation between “us” and “them.” Inside the walls would be the feasting ceremonies with their rich foods and plentiful psychoactive substances, including possibly alcoholic beverages. Great exchanges of food and wealth, moderated by the Big Men, would take place. The tower, with its cosmological significance, would have attracted people from far and wide to come there and work the Big Men, as the archaeologists posit. It would have enticed people from the surrounding areas to abandon their hunter-gatherer ways (and the related freedom) for the lure of psychoactive substances, whose characteristics would have eased the transition. It would also serve to attract the Stakhanovite “hard workers” from other surrounding villages. As we’ve seen, labor was almost universally pooled through work feasts, and no doubt the construction of Jericho’s wall and tower was a result of such lavish feasts. No doubt the cosmological orientation of the tower and its connection to the surrounding hills would have reinforced the “supernatural” powers and abilities of the Big Men elites.

So, then, walls were actually a physical manifestation of many of the behaviors that Hayden associates with the beginning of hereditary rank societies–bridewealth, specialized training, secret societies, and so on. The social logic became manifested in the actual physical world as walls separating elites from commoners. While we cannot entirely rule out walls as protection form raids, its notable that early walls were just as likely to be within cites as around them. This clearly implies that they were less about defense than about social exclusion. And they would have helped to reinforce a new social identity apart from the hunter-gatherer bands of the outside world:

In Peter J. Wilson’s book The Domestication of the Human Species, the anthropologist argues that humans first walls were probably a social or cultural development. They allowed people to develop a sense of individual and group identity in villages and cities that grew far beyond the size of any hunter-gatherer group. It’s possible that humans needed walls to deal with the psychological stress of living in bigger groups; they gave people separate spaces where they could cool off from conflicts or share their feelings without social judgments.

In the years since Wilson’s book came out, archaeologists have confirmed that many city walls appear to serve a social purpose rather than a military one.

In the Neolithic village Ilıpınar, located in the Anatolian region of Turkey, walls helped villagers consolidate their identity as a community. These people’s biggest threat was not a military incursion, but fragmentation into hunter-gatherer groups. And indeed, it seems that Ilıpınar’s inhabitants did eventually return to a semi-nomadic way of life. The village was slowly abandoned after several hundred years of permanent settlement. But first, it was occupied by people who only lived there for part of the year. It’s as if they became partial nomads, then abandoned village life altogether. Early walls in cities were also used to enclose small groupings of homes rather than the entire settlement. Perhaps these internal walls were used to separate powerful groups from everyone else.

Why Do We Build Walls Around Our Cities? (io9)

Indeed, the lifestyle of such a large agglomeration of people would have been highly unnatural to people accustomed to either hunting and gathering or very small villages. Walls were as much about keeping people in as keeping them out–Richard Manning speculated that the Great Wall of China may have been less about defense than about keeping the first inhabitants of agrarian civilizations from running away from the drudgery of farming to join the nomads. As we’ll see below, early walls may also have demarcated sacred ground as societies became more hierarchical with the emergence of full-time hereditary religious specialists. The walls seen around early cities may derive from their origin as sacred spaces rather than just a need for defense.

Thus walls appear to have played a social role first, with the defensive one coming later due to the “militarization” of the ancient world that came with the Bronze Age.

Another possibility is that the walls served a ritual purpose; to demarcate sacred space from common areas:

Excavations by Orkney College at the nearby Ness of Brodgar site between the Ring and the Stones of Stenness have revealed several buildings, both ritual and domestic and the works suggest there are likely to be more in the vicinity. One structure appears to be 20 metres (66 ft) long by 11 metres (36 ft) wide. Pottery, bones, stone tools and polished stone mace heads have also been discovered. Perhaps the most important find is the remains of a large stone wall which may have been 100 metres (330 ft) long and 4 metres (13 ft) or more wide. It appears to traverse the entire peninsula the site is on and may have been a symbolic barrier between the ritual landscape of the Ring and the mundane world around it.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prehistoric_Orkney#Ring_of_Brodgar

Mesopotamian temples, for example, had walls around them because they were concerned with ritual “purity.” In order to enter the sacred space of the temple, the priest had to first perform ablutions before entering:

The need to please the gods made ritual purity a major concern in Sumer. As early as the Uruk period, some temple precincts had been walled off from the secular parts of the city. Before entering the temple, even a Sumerian ruler had to perform ritual ablution, washing away the pollution of the secular world. (The Creation of Inequality, p. 481)

Similar separating walls may have been more to demarcate ritualized landscapes than protect private property. Since the first true cities centered around temple precincts in Mesopotamia, this may have caused the misconception that cities were always places of military rule and centralized government. Walls may have also simply served to demarcate a group’s territory, with its major monuments serving as the cultural identifier.

The Enigma of Çatalhöyük

Çatalhöyük, in central Turkey, was on of the world’s earliest “cities” discovered by archaeologists. It discovered in the late 1950’s and excavated British archaeologist James Melaart beginning in the 1960’s. The city began and ended long before the cities of the marshlands of southern Mesopotamia were founded.

This was a much larger agglomeration of people than anywhere else in the world at this time, leading to speculation about what caused it. The city was occupied about 8000 BC, and had what is estimated to be over 2000 inhabitants:

It’s hard to say what, exactly, Çatalhöyük was. Was it a city or just some kind of bizarre, outsized village? We know it lasted for millennia, with thousands of people living there continuously from about 7500 BCE to 5700 BCE. Perhaps we might say that was the closest thing to a city in the Neolithic, since hundreds more people lived there than in typical villages nearby. But it had none of the features we associate with the grand, walled cities that emerged thousands of years later in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

How Farming Almost Destroyed Human Civilization (io9)

The most notable feature about Çatalhöyük is the lack of hierarchy. Here, in this early proto-city, all the dwellings are approximately the same size and layout. There are no specialized buildings such as palaces or temples. Sacred spaces, to the extent we can identify them, were within private houses–there were no temple structures. Nor does there seem to have been much in the way of gender inequality. The dead were buried under the floors of the dwellings. Sometimes the skulls of these bodies were removed and plastered to resemble the living, and stored in dwelling units. This has led to speculation about ancestor worship.

There were no palaces, no massive ziggurats or pyramids dedicated to the gods, and no signs of class distinction. Every family had a small, slightly rectangular one-room home with a hearth. Each home was roughly the same size. Streets didn’t exist in Çatalhöyük — homes were erected next to each other, honeycomb-style, and people just walked over each others roofs to get home through doors in their ceilings. Though there was art, there was no writing. And there was little in the way of specialized labor. Unlike in ancient Uruk or Mohenjo-Daro, there were no cottage industries in bead-making or weapons production. Families lived by hunting, but mostly by keeping farms and small herds of animals like goats in the nearby hills.

How Farming Almost Destroyed Human Civilization (io9)

Çatalhöyük was built on two hills near the Kashen-Dag volcano, which provided a rich source of obsidian–volcanic glass. Such a sharp substance would have been particularly useful before metal was commonly utilized – even today it’s used in some surgical tools because, unlike metal, it never rusts or dulls. Obsidian from this region has been identified at sites all over the Levant, including Jericho, indicating the presence of long-distance trade networks between large groups of people long before the emergence of the first literate civilizations.

One remarkable recent discovery is that the people living together as “families” in these dwellings were not biologically related to one another, as revealed by DNA. These were unrelated people living together in the Neolithic – a very strange condition indeed!

Perhaps Çatalhöyük was a “city of refuge.” As places “set apart” from their surrounding communities, one of the functions of the first cities may have been as places of refuge for fugitives such as convicted murders. There, they would have been outside of tribal justice systems and accepted into a “new” family. Such cities appear to have been common in various cultures around the world and functioned as a way of keeping tit-for-tat blood-feuds from escalating out of control. Perhaps disease played a role too. For example, “leper colonies” were places where diseased people were quarantined and lived with one another apart from society, and are widely attested to in the Bible. These “penal/leper colonies” may have been the world’s first large agglomerations of people:

The first city that appears in the Bible (Genesis 4) is not a commercial port, administrative capital or military outpost, but the city of refuge located “east of Eden . . . in the land of Nod,” to which Adam’s son Cain withdrew after he killed his brother Abel….Such cities of refuge are found not only in the Old Testament but also in Native American communities at the time of their first contact with white men, suggesting a nearly universal response to the problem of what to do with public offenders. Throughout history, exile has been a widespread punishment for manslaughter and other capital crimes, including treason. The exile is obliged to leave his native community on pain of death, liable to retaliation by the victim’s family taking revenge.

Sanctuaries for such fugitives must have been well peopled, for an early myth says that Romulus helped populate Rome by founding an asylum for them.The Israelites are said to have created twelve cities of refuge, one for each tribal region…Such cities are assumed to have been placed on hills, mountains or other prominent spots plainly marked, as described in Deuteronomy 19…In any event, each year public workers are reported to have been sent to repair the roads leading to them, and to maintain signposts guiding manslayers…

From Sacred Enclave to Temple to City(Michael Hudson)

Or, perhaps it was some sort of religious commune, maybe even a type of monastery/nunnery. One feature noted by early excavators was the presence of a large number goddess figurines. This led to the speculation by Melaart that Çatalhöyük was the center of a “goddess cult.” Although this has been dismissed by most later archaeologists, certainly some sort of collective religious sentiment would have been needed for such a large agglomeration of people–unrelated people no less– to live together in relative harmony for thousands of years. Perhaps they were similar to today’s Amish, whose religious beliefs are key the the enforcement of strict egalitarianism, and hence communal solidarity and a stable social structure.

As enigmatic as Çatalhöyük’s social structure and religious beliefs is the the reason why is was abandoned. Early speculation was that a change in climate was the cause. Yet recent research has indicated that abandonment occurred during a period of relative climatic stability. Another speculation is that disease outbreaks, caused by living in close proximity to domesticated animals, may have caused large die-offs of people and the abandonment of villages.We know that people lving in close proximity to animals is the vector for a whole host of new diseases that were established for the first time in the Neolithic, such as smallpox. Communicable diseases would have spread much more easily. Or perhaps the soil became exhausted and the forests were overharvested to provide fuel for heating.

One tantalizing speculation is that Çatalhöyük outgrew its social structure. As the village grew larger, it need to form various hierarchies in order to manage its growing numbers. Yet this also introduced wider class divisions that were antithetical to the egalitarian social norms at this time, a legacy of hunting and gathering. This tension was unable to be resolved, and so people eventually just walked away rather than submit to the “control” of elites.

The problem is that people in Neolithic mega-villages had inherited a system of social organization and spirituality from their nomadic forebears. Because nomadic life requires everyone in the group to share resources to survive, these groups would develop rituals and customs that reinforced a very flat social structure. Certainly there would be families that had more prominent positions in a hunter-gatherer group or small village, but if they ever started hoarding resources too much that would be bad for the entire group. So people would strongly discourage each other from ostentatious displays of social differences.

All of this works nicely in a small community, where you know all of your neighbors and only share with people whose lives are bound to yours (even if you don’t like them very much). But once you have a thousand people living together, it’s harder to have a flat social structure. People need local representatives to stand in for them, and perhaps even a system of writing to keep track of everyone and what they own. Some people start to do specialized tasks, and social differentiation begins.

But the ideology of these Neolithic people in mega-villages…may have treated any kind of social differentiation as taboo. As soon as somebody took enough power to be a representative or proto-politician, other people would rail against them…major conflicts may have grown out of this tension between a belief in flat social organization and the need to create social hierarchies in larger societies. It’s an intriguing hypothesis, especially when you consider that when cities re-emerge in the 4,000s BCE, they have rigid social hierarchies with kings, shamans, and slaves. Plus, they have writing, which is primarily used to tally up who lives where and owns what.

How Farming Almost Destroyed Human Civilization (io9)

Recent evidence has shown that increasing signs of inequality begin to emerge later in the settlement’s history, closer to its eventual abandonment. Coincident with this development is a large degree of non-fatal head injuries seen in the skeletons, apparently caused by projectiles. The speculation is that increasing inequality led to increasing social tensions, exhibited by the blows to the skulls, which are absent from earlier generations.

One reason this may have happened was cattle. Cattle were domesticated in this same region of Turkey, and yet there is little evidence of cattle-herding at Çatalhöyük even long after it became commonplace elsewhere in the vicinity. It’s speculated that, again like the Amish, certain “technologies” that would lead to class divisions may have been deliberately ignored or suppressed. After all, an excavation of a modern Amish settlements by furture archaeolgists (assuming there are any) would raise some interesting questions if you had no idea of what Amish social structures and belief systems were like.

The hundreds of homes excavated thus far exhibit remarkable unity in how they were built, arranged and decorated, with no sign of any distinctive structure that could have served as an administrative or religious center. In most of the layers of successive settlement, each household seems to have had a similar amount of goods and wealth, and a very similar lifestyle. It’s primarily in the most recent uppermost layers, after about 6500 B.C., that signs of inequality begin to emerge. [Ian] Hodder speculates that this uniformity, as well as a strong shared system of beliefs and rituals, kept people together in the absence of leaders. He cautions, however, that it may not have been an egalitarian utopia.

“We believe people in Çatalhöyük were quite equal, but it might not have been the nicest society to live in,” he says. “Residents had to submit to a lot of social control — if you didn’t fit in, you presumably left. What Çatalhöyük may show is that such a society only works with strong homogeneity. For many generations, it was very unacceptable for individual households to accumulate [wealth]. Once they started to do so, there is evidence that more problems started to arise.”

In line with Hodder’s theory, the skulls with this characteristic [injury to the top back of the skull] were found primarily in later levels of the site, when more independence and differentiation between households started to emerge. Hodder speculates that, with these inequalities potentially creating new tensions among the community’s members, non-fatal violence may have been a means to keep everyone in check and prevent or diffuse full-fledged conflicts that could break the settlement apart. “The head wounds, in a way, confirm the idea of a controlled society,” Hodder says. “They suggest that violence was contained and regulated, not something that led to large-scale killing.”

What Happened to Turkey’s Ancient Utopia? (Discover Magazine)

So once cattle-herding was introduced, the thinking goes, class-based differences start to emerge.

Farmers in the Fertile Crescent, more than 200 miles east of Çatalhöyük, began domesticating cattle around 8000 B.C. By 6500 B.C., the practice had moved to parts of Turkey’s Central Anatolia, Çatalhöyük’s general neighborhood. But evidence of domesticated cattle at Çatalhöyük is scarce until after the move to the West Mound. Compared with their neighbors, the people of Çatalhöyük appear to have been “late adopters” of that era’s hottest new innovation: domesticated cattle.
“Every domesticated animal is a hugely complex new technology that offers great potential for change, but also requires great investments,” says Katheryn Twiss, an associate professor of archaeology at Stony Brook University and co-director of Çatalhöyük’s faunal analysis laboratory. “If you have cattle, you can start to plow, but you also have to be able to get enough water and graze, and to keep them healthy and safe from predators. There may have been reasons to resist adopting this technological advance.”

Some 3 million animal bones have been found at Çatalhöyük — primarily from sheep and cattle, but also goats, horses, dogs, boar, fox, deer, hare and other species. Twiss’ team has been analyzing them to determine when, and why, the settlement transitioned from hunting to herding. Ongoing research may link the arrival of domesticated cattle with emerging inequality between households, and increasingly individualistic behavior among Çatalhöyük residents.

What Happened to Turkey’s Ancient Utopia? (Discover Magazine)

Whatever the reasons, proto-cities were abandoned all over the Near East, not returning to such levels until the establishment of literate Near-Eastern civilizations of Egypt, Mespotamia and the Indus Valley. This shows that there is nothing “inevitable” about population growth leading to cities. For a long time, walking away was a viable option.

The Origin of Cities – Part 1

It may seem odd to connect the rise of cities to ritual, inequality, and debt, and yet they play a very large role in the urban revolution.

The conventional story has cities as a sort of natural response to the population growth and the sedentary lifestyle engendered by agriculture. The need to settle down and abandon a nomadic existence led to villages, and agglomerations of people in certain ecologically favorable spots inevitably grew over time as population increased, becoming the first cities. The concentration of population, the need to control labor and redistribute surpluses, and the need to conduct military campaigns, led to the emergence of specialized “classes” – bureaucrats, soldiers and rulers – who heralded the emergence of “states.” Taxes flowed into the capitals where rulers used them to build infrastructure, as well as grandiose temples and palaces for their own aggrandizement, paid for seizing the surpluses of the productive classes, often through violence. Such early states are invariably depicted as “despotic.”

Or so the story goes. But what if that picture we’ve told is too simple?

The archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe first coined the term “Urban Revolution” to describe the rise of cities starting in the third millennium BC. Childe assumed that cities were a natural response to increasing population pressure thanks to intensified agricultural methods, and that the subsequent characteristics of cities emerged spontaneously from people living in close quarters. He listed ten characteristics of the urban revolution, among which were: Full-time economic specialization and the division of labor; monumental public architecture; a hereditary ruling class; writing and mathematics; predictive sciences such as astronomy; standardized systems of weights and measurement; naturalistic art; and long-distance trade.

Yet, as we saw last time, large-scale construction and economic specialization was commonplace already in chiefdom societies, with their redistribution networks and their work feasts. And we saw that large-scale construction was often done under the aegis of chiefs and other important figures to establish a unique “cultural identity” and express social solidarity, not through slavery or coercion. Such large-scale public structures long preceded cities. As we saw last time, monumental stone megaliths reach back to end of the Ice Age, when the caves were abandoned.

And as we saw redistribution allowed greater economic specialization, larger social networks, insurance for shortages, a safety net for uncertainty, more trading opportunities, and greater population growth than simple reciprocity. Such activities were apparently viewed as beneficial for the wider society, rather than being ‘extorted” by violence as commonly depicted. Many of these tasks no doubt grew out of the early neolithic feasting complex. The benefits of wider social networks would have become even more important given the need to provide for defense from neighboring cultures as population increased.

Historians and archaeologists usually interpret cities as heralding the rise of a “new” social form; that is, the replacement of kinship structures with social classes. This is connected with the emergence of a full-time “professional” bureaucracy which is needed to manage  the distribution of goods and labor, as well as a hereditary ruling class set apart from the “commoners,” that controls the whole affair. This bureaucracy is sustained by “contributions”–taxes–from food producers, who remain in smaller-scale villages governed by reciprocity and kinship.

In addition, the standard story continues, specialization of labor caused people to from new “professional” associations apart from kinship structures. Specialization of labor concentrated in cities in order to cater the new wealthy upper classes, leading to the first markets, and later spreading to encompass long-distance trade. As people became full-time specialists instead of generalists, they needed some way to exchange their goods, leading to the spontaneous formation of “free and open” markets using a precious metals as a medium of exchange. From this economic activity, the standard story goes, the bureaucrats and ruling classes “extorted” goods from the productive classes in return for “protection money;” yet the vast majority of these “contributions” did little but support a parasitic ruling class living in luxury off the backs of the producers.

Yet in this period people did not so much interact as “individuals” as members of various communities. As we’ll see later, economic interaction was not via strangers using cash (which would not exist for thousands of years) in markets. Nor is there evidence for “despotism” or the “coercion” of taxes, or the forcing of labor to construct ancient monuments. Such monuments were managed by rulers, but appear to have been built by corvee labor and other specialists who were compensated for their work, often through feasting. It’s another “Flintstonization” example of us projecting our “modern” social structures onto the past.

In fact, many parts of the standard narrative for the beginnings of cities may be entirely too simple and wrong. For example:

– Agriculture–growing food in the same place year after year,–requires sedentism, but as we’ve seen, sedentism more likely lead to agriculture than the other way around. Sedentary populations existed as far back as the Neolithic era, and proto-cities were founded in the Levant as far back as 8,500 BC. Widespread trade networks and collective labor also apparently existed as far back as the Neolithic era, thousands of years before the first cities–we see beads, copper, and obsidian traded all over the Levant for thousands of years before urban forms emerge, for example.

– Monumental stone architecture long predates cities, from Göbekli Tepe, to Nevali Çori, to the orthostats of Nabta Playa and and Stonehenge, to the megalithic stone temples of Malta, to the barrows and cairns of prehistoric Europe. In places like Easter Island and other places in the South Pacific, monumental structures were built by chiefdoms without cities or significant population density.

– Rather than a separate “professional” bureaucracy, or the speculative existence of social “classes,” such relationships may have emerged out of existing social structures. A “ruling class” and hierarchy existed in many chieftainship societies all over the world without cities or even the cultivation of cereal grains. Nor is sedentism even required: pastoral nomads typically have powerful chiefs and headmen, for example, the Mongols, or the Masai herders, while still being largely nomadic.

– Cities were centers of long-distance trade between cultures, but internally were run by debt/credit relationships and/or centralized redistribution networks, and not by “free and open markets” or money exchanges. Specialized labor began under the aegis of temples, often as welfare provisions for the sick/poor/elderly/disabled. Temples functioned as “public utilities.” Profit making enterprises and the charging of interest began through the activities of “public” institutions, and not through the activities of “private” individuals. Social norms were ordered around preserving and maintaining social relationships and trust, which would would have precluded economic “competition” for profit.

– Cities were often autonomous and “cut off” from the surrounding countryside, both politically and economically. They can not be seen as centers of “government” or anything like a “state” in the modern sense of the term. They were places where unrelated people were able to come together to conduct arms-length economic transactions apart from the embedded cultural institutions which functioned at the village and household levels. These transactions were “sanctified” by the religious authorities. This gave temples a “cosmopolitan” character early on. Temples were often sanctified from raids, and thus became places where the community stored its surpluses for safe-keeping. Some early cities may also have been “cities of refuge” where offenders were banished to escape the reach of tribal justice. Defensive walls around cities appear to have arrived later with the Bronze Age.

Michael Hudson sees the unique characteristics of cities identified by Childe not as responses to population density, but rather stemming from their origins as religious/ritual centers dating all the way back to the ice age. These sites were not occupied year-round, but served as places where widely distributed communities came together to conduct “doctrinal rituals” that bound the society together. He writes, “…all ten of Childe’s urban characteristics turn out to be grounded in preurban ritual activities that long retained a public character, above all those associated with Bronze Age temples, their communal storage facilities, handicraft workshops and sponsorship of the festivals that were the focal point of the archaic calendar.”

Thus, the origin of cities was long before the agricultural revolution as was very much tied together with the activites of ritual feasting. Many of the ancient megaliths show the same “cosmological” orientation as the early temple cities do. The calendrical orientation was associated with the priestly caste who used astronomical observations to determine the timing of the feasts. The design of these sites was intentionally made to represent a cosmic order manifested on earth, a common theme of early ruling classes who were establishing a celestial “order” on earth – “as above so below” in language of hermeticism. Just as the sacred feasting rituals provided the opportunity for the gift exchanges that led to the interest-bearing debt and inequality, so too did the written debt/credit relationships which supplanted them originate in the sacred context of the temples.

Concentrations of people first occurred at ritual sites. ..The localization of specialized meeting areas for ritual and exchange may be found as early as the Ice Age, and later in sacred groves and seasonal gathering spots. These sites were occasional rather than year‑round settlements. It therefore is appropriate to view them as social constructs independent of their scale, performing urban functions long before they came to grow substantially in size and attract year-round settled population…Only if we assume that the earliest gatherings of people must have been year‑round does it follow that urban forms could not have developed prior to the agricultural revolution. Seasonal gathering sites existed already in paleolithic times. The idea of sanctifying their ground must have survived to play a germinal role in patterning more permanent cities…

It may seem unusual to begin the history of urbanization in the Ice Age, but this is a logical corollary of viewing cities as originating simultaneously in sacred cosmological functions ‑‑ ordering their communities, supporting astronomical observers who helped administer the festival calendar, and sponsoring festivals of social cohesion ‑‑ while also organizing external relations (trade and war) with the objective of preventing external trade and warfare from deranging the ordered proportions that governed domestic social life.

From Sacred Enclave to Temple to City (Michael Hudson)

In fact, such ritual feasting centers long predate cities. Religious/cultural centers are present in societies all around the globe at various stages, as we saw last time. They are not the result of population density. For example, most cultures throughout the South Pacific have a large ritual complexes, despite not having anything like a “city”:

A marae (in New Zealand Māori, Cook Islands Māori, Tahitian) malaʻe (in Tongan), malae (in Samoan) and mālaʻe (in Hawaiian) is a communal or sacred place that serves religious and social purposes in Polynesian societies…In Māori society, the marae is a place where the culture can be celebrated, where the Māori language can be spoken, where intertribal obligations can be met, where customs can be explored and debated, where family occasions such as birthdays can be held, and where important ceremonies, such as welcoming visitors or farewelling the dead (tangihanga), can be performed.

In Māori usage, the marae atea (often shortened to marae) is the open space in front of the wharenui or meeting house (literally “large building”). However, the term marae is generally used to refer to the whole complex, including the buildings and the open space. This area is used for pōwhiri – welcome ceremonies featuring oratory. … The meeting house is the locale for important meetings, sleepovers, and craft and other cultural activities. The wharekai (dining hall) is used primarily for communal meals, but other activities may be carried out there. … Marae occur in various sizes, with some wharenui being a bit bigger than a double garage and some being larger than a town hall.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marae

Interestingly, many of these ritual complexes were surrounded by walls and palisades, such as “Old Lapaha” in Tonga. Such walls were not defensive, but rather a way to “set apart” ceremonial and religious grounds. Thus, the earliest walls observed in cities may in fact, stem from their role as sacred ground and not from a defensive need (as we’ll explore below). In fact, such religious structures were apparently “sanctified” from raids, and hence became the place where the community stored its valuables. We see this even today, with Christian churches functioning as “hallowed ground” where fighting is prohibited and enemies can interact peacefully. Churches were traditionally the place where a community kept their valuables (such as gold) to keep them safe from raids (although this backfired for Christians when the pagan Vikings showed up).

Much like the ancient cities of refuge (such as that to which Cain withdrew in Genesis 4, and which Numbers 35 and Joshua 20 describe as being established throughout Israel), temples served as sanctuaries for fugitives from the retaliatory fury of local feud justice. They also served as sanctuaries to store the savings of their communities ‑‑ gold and silver, seeds, tools and other sanctified assets deemed free from attack by neighboring communities that shared a common religious belief that such seizure would be sacriligious.

Such ritual sites needed to be centrally located, and they were often situated on waterways to facilitate travel to and from them by all members of the community at various times of the year. Other times, such ritual sites were set at the boundaries of their communities, rather than the center, where different people came together to conduct commerce, or at critical trade routes.

To perform this role of neutral bridges, such sites tended not to develop at the center of their communities (i.e., “automatically” as a result of growing population density and scale), but at boundaries or natural crossroads between diverse communities. Assur, for instance, sat astride the Tigris intersecting central Mesopotamia’s major east/west trade route, and many other entrepots likewise were situated near the sea or on major transport rivers. The landlocked town of Çatal Hüyük seems to have been the center of its own regionwide trading network.

These sacred sites became the centers of trading. The reason is fairly simple – inside the society, economic relations were governed by principles of reciprocity and redistribution (and later householding). Market exchange -interaction with strangers–was rare. Thus, ritual sites provided the locations–the “portals”– where people from disparate cultures could come together without fear of attack. And the negotiations would have been conducted under the watchful eyes of the gods, sanctifying such exchanges. After all, what is the motivation to deal honestly with “strangers” that you would never see again otherwise? We have also seen that long-distance exchange networks were established by elites such as “Big Men,” and that the control of this trade and the display of “prestige” items took place at ritual feasting events. Thus, feasting centers and their entrepreneurial exchanges (as we’ve already seen), naturally emerge as centers of long-distance trade and ritualized profit-seeking:

Cities were not an automatic byproduct of population pressures sprawling inward from the land, but were a planned and structured response to the need to conduct external relations, above all trade…Urban development thus may be attributed largely to heterogeneous groups coming together to engage in commerce and communal rituals….Early southern Mesopotamian cities took their character from their temples, which played a major role in this trade. Prior to the Bronze Age these temples served as ritual centers and gathering places, and their commercial functions evolved out of this role.

Thus, the “cosmopolitan” nature of cites is present from the very beginning, long before population growth or even recorded history. In fact, the first true city that emerges in the historical record, Eridu, appears to be not only a sacred site centered on its temple complex (Sumerian kingship was said to have descended directly from heaven to Eridu), but also a meeting place of the three distinct lifestyles of ancient Mesopotamia – herding, farming, and riparian. Eridu was where these distinct cultures interacted.

Eridu appears to be the earliest settlement in the [Mesopotamian] region, founded ca. 5400 BC, close to the Persian Gulf near the mouth of the Euphrates River….According to Gwendolyn Leick, Eridu was formed at the confluence of three separate ecosystems, supporting three distinct lifestyles, that led by the Abgallu (Ab = water, Gal = great, Lu = man) came to an agreement about access to fresh water in a desert environment. The oldest agrarian settlement seems to have been based upon intensive subsistence irrigation agriculture derived from the Samarra culture to the north, characterised by the building of canals, and mud-brick buildings. The fisher-hunter cultures of the Arabian littoral were responsible for the extensive middens along the Arabian shoreline, and may have been the original Sumerians. They seem to have dwelt in reed huts. The third culture that contributed to the building of Eridu were the Semitic-speaking nomadic herders of herds of sheep and goats living in tents in semi-desert areas. All three cultures seem implicated in the earliest levels of the city. The urban settlement was centered on an impressive temple complex built of mudbrick, within a small depression that allowed water to accumulate.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eridu

The inhabitants of Eridu may have not only had radically different lifestyles but also spoken very different languages. Some have speculated that the religious structures of Eridu were the inspiration for the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, where differences in languages and cultures were first said to have emerged.

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.

Fun Facts

It’s the last Fun Facts of 2016!

Your chances of dying in a car crash are at least 9.5 times lower than dying in a human extinction event.
http://motherboard.vice.com/read/armageddon-comma-explained

It takes about an hour for a snowflake to fall from a cloud.
http://sandpointreader.com/how-fast-does-a-snowflake-fall/

The richest 10% hold 76% of the wealth.
http://money.cnn.com/2016/08/18/pf/wealth-inequality/index.html

The world’s 25 largest defense budgets

A Wyoming Resident’s Vote for Senator is 68 Times as Influential as a Californian’s.
http://utopianist.com/1200

The cost of U.S. healthcare is now 800% higher per person than it was in 1960, even when adjusted for inflation.
http://fiscalpost.com/2016/08/cost-of-u-s-healthcare-now-800-higher-per-person-than-it-was-in-1960-even-when-adjusted-for-inflation/

Tic-tacs are almost pure sugar but due to their weight are allowed to be labeled as zero sugar per serving.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tic_Tac#Ingredients

The real incomes of about two-thirds of households in 25 advanced economies were flat or fell between 2005 and 2014…If the low economic growth of the past decade continues, the proportion of households in income segments with flat or falling incomes could rise as high as 70 to 80 percent over the next decade.
http://www.mckinsey.com/global-themes/employment-and-growth/poorer-than-their-parents-a-new-perspective-on-income-inequality

According to the White Paper (WP-16-02) published by the European School of Management and Technology…more than 95 percent [of the] initial Troika loans to Greece went to pay principal and interest on prior Troika loans, or to bailout Greek private banks, or to pay off European private investors and speculators. Less than 10 billion euros was actually spent in Greece.
http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/08/24/greek-debt-and-the-new-financial-imperialism/

The average American family had the same amount of wealth in 2013 as it did in 1989.
https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/08/the-average-american-family-had-the-same-amount-of-wealth-in-2013-as-it-did-in-1989

Pablo Escobar had so much wealth that he spent $1,000 a week on rubber bands just to keep his mountains of cash neat.
http://tywkiwdbi.blogspot.com/2016/09/divertimento.html

Air pollution kills more people than malaria and HIV/Aids combined.
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/sep/05/toxic-air-pollution-particles-found-in-human-brains-links-alzheimers

Nearly one in every 200 children in the world is a refugee
https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/sep/07/nearly-half-of-all-refugees-are-children-unicef-report-migrants-united-nations

Developing countries are home to 89 percent of the world’s 10- to 24-year-olds; by 2020, they will be home to nine out of every 10 people globally.
http://campaign.r20.constantcontact.com/render?m=1103172936704&ca=9ac07858-2a57-44cf-8e5f-d64552f9967f

More Police Officers have died due to 9/11 related illnesses as a result of their work at ground zero than in the attack itself. The numbers continue to grow.
http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/thousands-suffer-9-11-illnesses-14-years-article-1.2356281

69 of the world’s top economic entities are corporations rather than countries in 2015.
The world’s top 10 corporations have a combined revenue of more than the 180 “poorest” countries combined including Ireland, Indonesia, Israel, Colombia, Greece, South Africa, Iraq and Vietnam.
http://www.globaljustice.org.uk/news/2016/sep/12/10-biggest-corporations-make-more-money-most-countries-world-combined

Nearly 80% of the nitrogen found in human tissues originated from the Haber-Bosch process in which artificial ammonia is produced.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haber_process

In in the 1970s professional 10 pin bowlers made twice as much as NFL players.
https://www.reddit.com/r/todayilearned/comments/52rzeg/til_that_in_in_the_1970s_professional_10_pin/

Out-of-pocket [medical] expenses dragged 11.2 million people into poverty in 2015.
http://www.modernhealthcare.com/article/20160913/NEWS/160919973

In Fiscal Year 2012, DOL recovered $280 million in back pay for 308,000 workers. That amount far exceeded the total lost to criminals in street and highway, bank, gas station and convenience store robberies in 2012.
http://www.epi.org/publication/wage-theft-bigger-problem-theft-protect/

Hippo ranching almost came to America.
https://read.atavist.com/american-hippopotamus?no-overlay&preview

Just 3% of American adults own half of guns in the US.
https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/sep/19/us-gun-ownership-survey

When Julius Caesar died he left today’s equivalent of about $270 to each and every Roman citizen.
http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/ancient/appian-juliusdeath.asp

San Francisco has less than one-tenth Bangkok’s population but six times as many homeless people.
http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/18/opinion/sunday/what-san-francisco-says-about-america.html?smid=fb-share

Racial wage gaps were larger in 2015 than they were in 1979.
http://www.alternet.org/labor/wage-gap-between-black-and-white-americans-40-year-high

Tuberculosis caused 20% of all human deaths in the Western world between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.
http://dienekes.blogspot.com/2013/09/tuberculosis-and-out-of-africa.html

Law enforcement officers beat their significant other at nearly double the national average.
http://www.wikibediya.xyz/2016/09/cops-beat-their-wives-girlfriends-at.html

The Forbes 100 billionaires are collectively as rich as all black Americans combined. At current growth rates, it would take black Americans two hundred and twenty-eight years to have as much wealth as white Americans have today.
http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/10/the-widening-racial-wealth-divide?mbid=rss

Police make more arrests for marijuana possession alone than for all violent crimes combined.
http://boingboing.net/2016/10/12/police-arrest-more-people-for.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+boingboing%2FiBag+%28Boing+Boing%29

Payday loan facilities outnumber Taco Bell and McDonald’s restaurants in the United States.
http://financeography.com/payday-loan-facilities-outnumber-taco-bell-and-mcdonalds-restaurants-in-the-united-states/

The amount of debt held by current and former students in the US is more than the total GDP of 180 countries.
http://financeography.com/these-180-countries-have-a-gdp-lower-than-the-total-u-s-student-loan-debt/

The cost of attending an in-state public university has risen 77% since 2005, yet wages have only risen 24%.
http://financeography.com/the-cost-of-attending-an-in-state-public-university-has-risen-77-since-2005-yet-wages-have-only-risen-24/

Between 2005 and 2015, those under 30 went from owning their home at about a 34.5% rate down to 27.7%. Over the same decade, they went from owing $350 billion in student loans to over $1.3 trillion by the end of the first half of 2016.
http://financeography.com/millennial-home-ownership-shrinks-as-student-debt-grows/

From 1980 to 2014 none of the growth in per-adult national income went to the bottom 50 percent, 32 percent went to the middle class (defined as adults between the median and the 90th percentile), 68 percent went to the top 10 percent, and 36 percent went to the top 1 percent.
http://equitablegrowth.org/research-analysis/economic-growth-in-the-united-states-a-tale-of-two-countries/

1 in 6 adults in the US take antidepressants and sedatives.
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-4025354/United-States-psychiatric-drugs-1-6-adults-antidepressants-sedatives-study-reveals-experts-warn-just-tip-iceberg.html

America’s overdose epidemic shown in interactive map

 

The Feasting Theory – Part 5 – The Big Picture

1. Summary

In Food and the Status Quest: An Interdisciplinary Perspective, the Feasting Theory is summarized this way:

Brian Hayden…proposes that through the lure of feasts, with their free meals, delicacies, dances, exciting entertainment, and ambitious organizers, “triple A” personalities draw others into contractual agreements that generate debts and thereby confer social leverage. In other words, through competitive feasts, surpluses are produced and converted into wealth and power by enterprising individuals, creating social inequalities. He takes a step back in time and proposes that during the Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods in resource-rich environments, triple A individuals manipulated relationships through competitive feasting in such a way as to dodge the leveling hammer of egalitarian ethos. This leads him to the proposal, supported by compelling evidence, that the need for certain amounts of rare delicacies for competitive feasts may have been a significant factor in the domestication of certain plants and animals, and thus may have given impetus to early agriculture.

T. Douglas Price summarizes the ideas as:

…Brian Hayden has…suggested that it is specifically the feasting aspects of rivalries between leaders that are the driving force behind food production. Hayden argues that highly competitive individuals, or “accumulators,” emerge in resource-rich communities and that these individuals used the competitive feast as a means for developing and enhancing their power and leadership through a series of alliance and debt relationships.

…Hayden discusses the transition to social inequality in terms of different pathways or stages. In this context he defines specific types of accumulators or aggrandizers as Despots, Reciprocators, and Entrepreneurs. These individuals are the focus of change. These types of leaders respectively define a sequence of intensifying social inequality and institutionalized power.

Despot communities witness an increase in warfare along with evidence of feasting. Several strategies are used to increase the power of the leader. Feasting is used to build alliances; compensation payments for inquiry or death are made to allies. Equivalent exchange and egalitarian relations are the ideal in these societies and differences in residence and wealth are , archaeologically speaking, not pronounced. The Despot is operative only in one or two realms such as warfare and production and a number of different leaders may be present in the community. The position of Despot is ephemeral and most often achieved. (p. 145)

Reciprocator communities are overly nonegalitarian and leaders compete within the community. Reciprocators are describe as wealthier, with more wives and larger social networks. Several new strategies for creating debts, surplus, and power include bridewealth, more elaborate feasts, and perhaps child growth payments. Hayden suggests that agriculture may have originated as a means for more intensive food production among Reciprocator organizations. (p. 145)

Entrepreneur groups are characterized by intensive food production. Loans and investments are the primary strategies that aggrandizers use to obtain wealth and power. Surplus is now used in competitive feasts to create contractual debt involving interest payments. Warfare is less important in such societies as it interferes with the generation of surplus and the exchange of wealth. Marriage also becomes a major conduit of wealth through bride payments. Entrepreneurs also try to consolidate various roles of leadership, including ritual, military, and financial. Entrepreneur communities have distinct patterns of status inheritance and represent clear situations of institutionalized inequality. (pp. 145-146)

Hayden himself summarizes the theory this way:

1. Under conditions of scarce, unreliable resources vulnerable to overexploitation, sharing becomes mandatory. This limits the development of prestige technologies as well as economically based competition; aggrandizive behavior is curtailed and proscribed.

2. As resources become more abundant, more reliable, and less vulnerable to overexploitation, private ownership and the use of surpluses for competition and prestige is tolerated as long as these activities do not adversely affect the subsistence prospects of other community members. These developments differentiate generalized from transegalitarian hunter-gatherers;

3. Every sizeable community has at least a few individuals with aggrandizive and competitive tendencies; and

4. Under varying conditions of surplus production, aggrandizive individuals use combinations of strategies to persuade other members to produce surpluses and to surrender some degree of control over the surpluses. These strategies include fomenting disputes with other communities to be settled by wealth payments; obtaining marriage and war allies through feasting; making reciprocal or interest-bearing loans of wealth; establishing wealth payments as part of marriages, increasing the value of marriageable children by expending wealth at their maturation events; and the formation of secret societies to create special relationships of political, economic, and supernatural support. (p. 124)

The feasting model of domestication posits that a range of technological innovations made it possible to produce surpluses on a relatively dependable basis in certain favorable environments, especially riparian, coastal, and cereal-rich habitats. These innovations included new fishing technologies (nets, weirs, fishhooks, leisters), mass seed-gathering and processing technologies involving crushing and boiling, similar mass nut processing strategies, and long-term storage technologies. The resulting surpluses, in turn, underwrote aggrandizer strategies that transformed egalitarian bands into transegalitarian complex hunter-gatherers replete with socioeconomic inequalities, hierarchies, and economically based competition in which feasting played a key role. Because feasting was based on surplus production, and because success in feasting conferred survival and reproductive benefits (in terms of surviving food shortfalls and obtaining military allies and marriage partners), powerful pressures were created to increase food production, especially of the most desirable foods and luxury foods used to impress guests. Since individuals were vying with each other to acquire mates or allies using surplus production, there could never be enough food produced. Lower-ranked individuals could always be expected to try to produce more in order to improve their chances of obtaining better allies or partners, no matter what the absolute level of production was.

2. The Tyranny of the Gift

Gift economies have often been portrayed as ones where everyone just gives freely with no expectation of return. The chiefs in such societies have been perceived as coming by their leadership role by virtue of a bottomless, almost irrational generosity, with every measure of wealth passing through their hands immediately being given away. This has been depicted as attaining maximum prestige through maximum generosity. Sometimes leaders gave so much away that they were left destitute! This led to the supposition that tribal leaders were not self-interested at all, and unalloyed altruism was the only motivation behind human behavior in so-called primitive societies.

Hayden argues that this perception is specious. Leaders are not actually being irrationally generous, he argues, rather they are shrewdly and cunningly manipulating the social environment, pursuing “investments” that they expect will pay off at some future date, even if they have to deal with temporary hardships to accomplish it. These “investments” are ultimately in the service of generating social prestige. Gifts are not open-handed generosity, but always come with strings attached, even if is unstated. Some leaders may seem poor, but that is because all of their income is immediately poured back into more investments, with which they hope to gain more status. The fact that some aggrandizers wound up destitute due to their “generosity” is not because of irrational altruism, he argues. Rather, just as some naive or inexperienced investors sink all their money into the stock market and wind up ruined, some Entrepreneurs similarly lose all their “investments” through some combination of bad luck or incompetence:

Ultimately the generosity of aggrandizers is a calculated economic strategy meant to centralize control in their own hands and increase production. They operate like contemporary businessmen with recruitment expense accounts or job benefits calculated to attract skilled, productive employees and administrators. In biology, animal behaviorists have also recently emphasized the importance of costly “advertising”displays such as antlers in reproductive success. In all transegalitarian societies, most people are guided by their own self-interest, and aggrandizers will only be successful to the extent they can appeal to the self-interest of others and manipulate it for their own benefit. (FOI:  69)

…other social anthropologists express the view that the altruistic cultural imperative to be generous (in exchange for esteem) is so overpowering that it leads people to contravene their own material self-interest and become destitute (the traditional foil for economic rationalism and cultural materialism in traditional societies). Such claims are simply untenable in terms of ethnographic reality. As Mauss clearly recognized: “In theory gifts are voluntary, but in fact they are given and repaid under obligation…Prestations which are in theory voluntary, disinterested and spontaneous, but are in fact obligatory and interested.” For him, transegalitarian gift-giving constituted an archaic form of contract, and wealth was primarily a means of controlling others. It is evident from all the previous ethnographic accounts that giving and feasting are indirect techniques of control and generating more wealth. Contrary to the statements of some social anthropologists, the mere act of giving wealth away by itself does not result in increased power for the giver. To be effective, wealth must be given away in contexts that generate recognized and binding obligations or other expected practical benefits.

These techniques do not work all the time any more than capitalist techniques of investment produce wealth in every business venture. Many modern businessmen experience repeated failures and bankruptcies. In both transegalitarian and capitalist societies, it is the promise, potential, and prospect of substantial increases in wealth that motivate people to spend and borrow. And transegalitarian aggrandizers and contemporary land or stock investors frequently live in reduced circumstances in order to reinvest all possible surpluses in wealth creation projects….However transegalitarian aggrandizers were no more assured of success than enterprising capitalists and many must have lost all their investments due to adverse circumstances or incompetence. Similarly, not everyone who invests in the stockmarket today can be said to understand the logic of the market;it would seem by some accounts…that not every individual who made investments in transegalitarian communities understood how aggrandizive strategies worked either. Thus, anecdotal examples of individuals who lost their wealth in giving potlatches hardly makes a convincing case for a cultural norm of generosity acting to override common sense and economical self-interest.(FSI pp. 69-70)

I began this series on feasting on American Thanksgiving, so it is fitting that I conclude it during the Christmas season, our very own modern version of competitive gift-giving and overproduction. Clearly, gift giving is meant to be both reciprocal and competitive. After all, who would continue to receive gifts while giving back nothing in return? It just “feels bad,” indicating that reciprocity is deeply hard-wired into our behavior.

Gifts are actually a way of demonstrating one’s superior social status over an inferior, especially a gift that cannot be easily repaid. Imagine if someone gave you a new sportscar for Christmas. You would certainly regard that person as “superior” and feel an obligation to that person, would you not?

Often times, the “gift” is a way of humiliating the opponent. The giver is elevated in status, and the receiver is lowered. Give enough gifts away, and everyone else is lowed in status before the efforts of the aggrandizing workaholic and his scheming accomplices. All of this is grounded in human primate social instincts. Producing surpluses as a marker of status, competition between individuals for prestige, and the use of debts and reciprocity to get people to work for you, are as much a part of primate social behavior as mating and grooming.

Howard Bloom particularly emphasizes the humiliation factor of gift exchange in The Lucifer Principle:

In many cultures…giving things to people is a way of humiliating them. It is a sneaky technique for drawing attention to the recipient’s lowliness on the hierarchical ladder. Take, for example, the “big men” of Melanesia and New Guinea. In the days before traditional practices were supplanted by Western ways, a young New Guinean would work like a maniac to raise himself in the eyes of his peers. He would strain feverishly to boost his yield of pigs, yams, and coconuts. He would recruit his wives, children, and relatives to join in the frantic race for agricultural productivity. If all went well, he would take the profits and plow them into building a men’s clubhouse. When the neighbors— pleased with the clubhouse food and entertainment—were sufficiently impressed, the struggling entrepreneur would ask them to join his growing army of pig, yam, and coconut growers.

The grand climax of the young man’s effort would come when he challenged a local “big man”—a high-placed figure revered for his powerful following. The contender would do it by inviting his older rival to attend a feast. At the grand dinner, the upstart would banquet the elder with a deluge of pork dishes, coconut pies, and sago almond puddings. The young man’s followers and those of the guest would count every dish of food that hit the table. If the mountain of delectables the rookie offered was large enough, the big man knew he was in serious trouble.

The elder would go home and spend the next year spurring his followers to new heights of productivity. Then he would invite the young challenger to a feast at his place. He, too, would heap the table with pies, roasts, and puddings. And, once again, the crowd would keep a breathless count, for if the older dignitary failed to lay on as rich a feast as the young man had the previous year, it would all be over. The venerable gentleman would be shamed. As he plunged down the ladder of prestige, his followers would desert him, and the callow whippersnapper who had mounted the challenge would leap dramatically upward in the pecking order. Now he would be the big man. In New Guinea, the man who could not give as much as he received earned only one reward—disgrace.

The New Guineans were not alone in regarding the giveaway as a technique for incurring humiliation. The Kwakiutl people of the Pacific    Northwest were famed for their potlatches. In the potlatch, a Kwakiutl chief would invite a rival and his tribe over for a visit, then shower the guests with gifts. The greater the pile of presents, the more the guest would lose face, plummeting down the pecking order. Among the Kwakiutl, to give away goods is divine, but to accept them is less than human.

Even our recent ancestors were aware of generosity’s subversive power. medieval European aristocrats threw an annual feast and invited the peasants to stuff themselves. The ritual drove home the fact that the noble was on top and the peasants on the bottom. The Anglo-Saxon word for someone on the crest of a social heap—lord—was a testament to the put-down power of the handout. The word’s literal meaning: “loaf giver.

The role of the giveaway as a hierarchical weapon goes back to our cousins the chimpanzees. ..when one of these meat gourmets is lucky enough to kill a young gazelle or a baby baboon… females, children, and even his rivals crawl toward the hunter, lowering their eyes and stretching out their hands with palms upturned. They whimper, squirm, and cry.”Such is the power of generosity to elevate the giver and cast down those who receive. No wonder those on whom we lavish aid are not particularly fond of us.

The idea that giving stuff away is a way of humiliating and controlling another person is widely known among hunter-gatherers. Marvin Harris tells a story about the anthropologist Richard Lee. Lee wishes to repay the !Kung San Bushmen of the Kalahari he has been staying with for their generosity. He purchases an ox from local pastoralists for the Bushmen to slaughter and eat. Upon hearing of this, the Bushmen constantly disparage and denigrate his gift: “I know that ox, why, it is nothing but skin and bones!”; “You bought that worthless animal? Of course, we will eat it, but it won’t fill us up.” When the ox is finally slaughtered, it is full of meat and fat, and the Bushmen feast with gusto. Confused as to why they spent so much time crapping all over his gift when they clearly enjoyed it, he asks for an explanation. One Bushman tells him:

“Yes, of course we knew all along what the ox was really like,” one hunter admitted. “But when a young man kills much meat he comes to think of himself as a chief or big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We cannot accept this,” he went on. “We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. This way we cool his heart and make him gentle.” (CPWW: 125-126)

The strategies used by aggrandizers may seem diverse, but they all have one thing in common – they are all expressly designed to overwhelm equivalent exchange with debt/credit relationships. Once this was unleashed and the old restrictions on accumulating behavior fell before it, we began the process that led to big men, chiefs, kings, emperors, generals, presidents, and CEOs.

The Eskimo explained their fear of boastful and generous gift-givers with the proverb “Gifts make slaves just as whips make dogs.” And that is exactly what happened. In evolutionary perspective, the gift-givers first gave gifts that came from their own extra work; soon people found themselves working harder to reciprocate and to make it possible for the gift-givers to give them more gifts; eventually the gift-givers became very powerful, and they no longer needed to obey the rules of reciprocity. They could force people to pay taxes and to work for them without actually redistributing what was in their storehouses and palaces. Of course, as assorted modern big men and politicians occasionally recognize, it is still easier to get “slaves” to work for you if you give them an occasional big feast instead of whipping them all the time. (CPWW: 126)

If people like the Eskimo, Bushmen, and Semai understood the dangers of gift-giving, why did others permit the gift-givers to flourish? And why were big men permitted to get so puffed up that they could turn around and enslave the very people whose work made their glory possible…Competitive feasting and other forms of redistribution overwhelmed the primordial reliance on reciprocity when it became possible to increase the duration and intensity of work without inflicting irreversible damage upon the habitat’s carrying capacity. Typically this became possible when domesticated plants and animals were substituted for natural food resources. Within broad limits, the more work you put into planting and raising domesticated species, the more food you can produce. The only hitch is that people don’t usually work harder than they have to. Redistribution began to appear as people worked harder in order to maintain a reciprocal balance with prestige-hungry, overzealous producers. As the reciprocal exchanges became unbalanced, they became gifts; and as the gifts piled up, the gift-givers were rewarded with prestige and counter-gifts. Soon redistribution prevailed over reciprocity and highest prestige went to the most boastful, calculating gift-givers, who cajole, shamed, and ultimately forced everybody to work harder than the Bushman ever dreamed possible. (CPWW: 127-128)

Harris argues that this creates “prestige” and contrasts that with the old hunter gatherer regime where the landbase prevented the kinds of surpluses that would empower aggrandizers, and prestige went to the humble, self-effacing, generous leader:

Among the Bushmen, Stakhanovite personalities who would run about getting friends and relatives to work harder by promising them a big feast would constitute a definite menace to society. If he got his followers to work like the Kaoka [a South Pacific horticultural society] for a month, an aspiring Bushman big man would kill or scare off every game animal for miles around and starve his people to death before the end of the year. So reciprocity and not redistribution predominates among the Bushmen, and the highest prestige falls to the quietly dependable hunter who never boasts about his achievements and who avoids any hint that he is giving a gift when he divides up an animal he has killed. (CPWW: 127)

Just as bright, colorful plumage is a marker signalling evolutionary fitness in birds, it appears that producing surpluses of food and goods is a similar form of “signaling” one’s fitness in primates. We don’t display bright and colorful plumage like birds, or large antlers like deer; as big-brained social primates, displaying wealth is our form of “peacocking.” Even today conspicuous displays of wealth are commonly seen as a strategy to attract desirable mates, as the advertising industry knows and manipulates so well.

It’s likely that most primates would also produce large surpluses to attract females if they could, but they cannot. Only humans, with our big, social brains, can sufficiently manipulate our natural environment in order to produce these massive amounts of surpluses. This probably gave us a survival edge over the other species of humans who are now extinct. Thus, one could see surplus production as a sort of evolutionary behavior hard-wired into us. And that makes our subsequent history as a species make a lot more sense.

A great example of how this concept still underpins modern methods of acquiring social for power is illustrated by this anecdote featuring one of the greatest aggrandizers of modern times, President Lyndon B. Johnson:

In the 1940s, then Congressman Lyndon Johnson wanted to hire a promising young man named John Hicks to manage his successful radio station in Austin. Meeting late at night at a restaurant, Johnson gave the eager kid the kind of pitch that most of us dream of getting at some point in our lives.

“Johnny, I want you on my team,” Johnson said. There was more than that—he was prepared to be incredibly generous.

“I’m going to lend you ten thousand dollars. And I want you to take it and buy yourself a Cadillac car. And I want you to move to a better apartment. I want you to be somebody. Furnish the apartment. Get [your wife] a fur coat. I want you to to [join some local clubs] and be somebody here in Austin.”

This was an offer to someone making $75 a week, coming from one of the most powerful Congressman in the United States. This was said in a restaurant that should have been closed but not stayed open any time Johnson wanted to eat there. Here was a rich, powerful man making an offer that couldn’t, shouldn’t be refused.

But somehow, this kid, John Hicks, said no. Why? It had a lot to do with Johnson’s next words, according to Robert Caro.

Asked how he would ever expect to be paid back, Lyndon smiled and in his charming way said “Johnny, don’t worry about that. You let me worry about that.”

It’s interesting to see the levers of Johnson’s mind work. He wasn’t just selling a kid on a job, he wasn’t just trying to put him in debt either. He was trying to put him in debt while committing him to a number of very attractive lifestyle choices that are hard to ever walk away from. No ever moves to a crappier apartment by choice, no one ever wants to go back to not being someone.

Lyndon was a notoriously horrible boss—known for working employees almost like slaves, demanding complete and total subservience, utter and unquestioning loyalty. But he was also a brilliant, manipulative reader of people. To suck people in, he knew exactly what to do and say.

If You Don’t Take The Money, They Can’t Tell You What To Do (Thought Catalog)

And this was actually fairly innocuous signaling behavior for this particular silverback: Johnson was a dong-waving sex machine (Cracked.com)

3. How the Rich get Rich (and stay that way)

What really struck me reading this literature was how similar the methods of gaining and keeping power in transegalitarian societies are to those in our own transegalitarian culture.

I first had this realization when Hayden talked about how elites made “investments” in their offspring in order to “raise their value,” particularly as marriage partners. The identification of this behavior among America’s upper-class and aspiring upper-class parents is unmistakable. So-called “helicopter parents” spend outrageous sums to get their children into the “right” schools, sometimes putting them on waiting lists before they are even conceived! In Manhattan, even preschool can run tens of thousands of dollars per year if is “exclusive” enough. Then there are the “extracurriculars” that are now de rigeur for the children of the upper class – sports like swimming and tennis, horseback riding lessons, dance lessons, music lessons, summer camp, foreign languages and travel, volunteering, and getting private tutors for the all-important testocracy.

In New York City, it costs more to let a 3-year-old socialize with other 3-year-olds than it does to educate a college student. This is mind-blowing. And it’s not only about the cost. Let’s say that I was able to pay $1,100 a month to put my daughter in preschool. There’s a wait list to get her in. Certain nursery schools are as coveted as some of the most prestigious liberal arts colleges. For example, my 3-year-old daughter is currently on the wait list of at least three different preschools because there are no available slots for her. Should a place open up, these schools are more than happy to take my $1,100-$1,400 per month to teach my daughter how to share and build with blocks.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sarah-fader/in-new-york-city-preschool-tuition-can-equal-college-tuition_b_4756223.html

Elite children now have to be full-time applicants for the next round of exclusive schooling due to the unrelenting pressure placed on them in American “achievement culture.” These parents also spend outrageous sums on what Hayden called “maturation rituals” and “child growth payments” including birthdays, bar mitzvahs, high-school and college graduations, weddings, and baby showers. It follows that the more unequal the society, the more lavish and expensive these events become. In America, the sums of money spent on these things are staggering, and usually much higher than in more egalitarian Europe. Such expenditures serve no useful propose other than status differentiation. In India, with some of the worst wealth disparities on earth, one recent five-day wedding cost 5 billion rupees – an astonishing 74 million dollars!

…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…In some cases…[training]…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 …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…

Entrepreneurs could eventually maneuver themselves into positions where they could invest so much wealth in the growth payments for their children that only families of other…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

Assortative Mating – It’s an unspoken rule that you can only marry within your class – bricklayers don’t marry doctors, and glamorous actresses don’t marry auto mechanics. When marriage happens, it creates an alliance between two families just as much now as back then, and if those families are not at least somewhat equal in wealth and status, a marriage will not happen, and even if it does, it is unlikely to succeed.

Assortative mating is the idea that people marry people like themselves, with similar education and earnings potential and the values and lifestyle that come with them. It was common in the early 20th century, dipped in the middle of the century and has sharply risen in recent years — a pattern that roughly mirrors income inequality in the United States, according to research by Robert Mare, a sociologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. People are now more likely to marry people with similar educational attainment — even after controlling for differences between men and women, like the fact that women were once less likely to attend college.

Equality in Marriages Grows, and So Does Class Divide (NYTimes)

So-called “power couples” abound in modern day America. It’s difficult to find any member of the power elite whose spouse is not also a member. Bill and Hillary Clinton are one prominent example, but there are countless others, most of them unknown to the general public. Many elite marriages today are between graduates of Ivy league universities, which leads directly to the next point:

Functionally unnecessary  and costly elaboration of training for highly specialized rolescan anyone think of a better description of American colleges and universities than that?? College is not about education – it doesn’t take four to six years of exclusively reading books and attending lectures to become a brain surgeon much less an architect, engineer, economist, or lawyer. No, college is all about maintaining exclusivity to the upper classes. Occasionally, you will get some people to admit that college is actually all about the “social experience”, meaning that from some reason we need to put 18-year-olds at least five figures into debt to socialize them properly, I guess. That’s a sad reflection on our society if that is truly the case.

The sponsorship of youths into secret societies or elite social institutions is another way in which the status of an individual can be reinforced. It is generally presumed that the possession of esoteric knowledge, which can be acquired through such organizations, is an important element in supporting and increasing social status in all societies. However, secret societies also played important roles in the creation of personal links involving wealth exchanges and political support. They were therefore another key strategy in attempts by ambitious individuals to restrict others’ access to power and to acquire power for themselves of their corporate group.
Prehistoric Rites of Passage, in JOURNAL OF ANTHROPOLOGICAL ARCHAEOLOGY ARTICLE NO. 16, 121 – 161 (1997)

Secret societies and elite social institutions. That includes everything from the Skull and Bones Society to the Bilderberg Group to the Rotarians. Clearly, “initiation” is a tool used by the elites to enhance their status relative to the rest of us, and as a way to grant only highly “selected” individuals access to the inner sanctums of power.

The final social mechanism through which the social position of a child or youth could be elevated in status and economic potential was through specialized training and educationone strategy for increasing the social value of a child was to expand on this general instruction, either by extending its length and severity or through training in specialized occupations…..We view this frequently extensive and esoteric training as one strategy used by aggrandizers to claim privileged control over resources and activities that were held in common among generalized hunter-gatherers…Among groups with ascribed status, high-ranking male children often received additional specialized administrative and esoteric instruction and were subjected to longer training periods than the general populous [sic]…The analysis of the training data suggest two different types of training in addition to the general education requirements received by community members: (1) male occupational specializations and (2) administrative and esoteric training of elites.
ibid.

Occupational specializations and administrative training. M.D.’s. J.D.’s and M.B.A.s anyone? Clearly, undergoing extensive occupational specialization, such as that of an attorney, scientist, engineer, university professor or medical doctor are ways to achieve status and differentiate yourself in our society. These professionals are well compensated and gain high status by virtue of having exclusive knowledge of, for example, critical engineering or medical techniques. Attaining such intensive education is frequently the path to high status for many individuals. It’s notable that access to these professions in strictly rationed by various professional organizations. For example, the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association strictly limit the number of lawyers and doctors through extensive examinations and onerous licensing requirements. These professions set their own educational requirements and typically make them costly and onerous to limit access to people from wealthy and prominent families.

Displaying costly and difficult to obtain goods.“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.” If you went to someone’s house and they had a genuine Picasso hanging on the wall, what would you think? The reason rare artwork is so valuable is because they are our society’s “prestige items.” Rich people bid against each other to acquire them, and in era of extreme inequality the prices of such things escalate not due to any “market forces,” but simply because having them is desirable for status reasons. There are many such objects too numerous to list here – expensive watches, sportcars, jewelry, even comic books!

Image-building activities – Have you ever wondered why there is a “donor wall” on everything? Or why the rich people spend money donating to the symphony when it seems like they don’t even like art or music all that much? Elites know the importance of image-building, which is why they underwrite artists, just like the chiefs who retained specialized craftsmen. Our elites may not build temples like the kings of old, but they do fund our secular substitutes – “cultural” activities such as symphony orchestras and the theater, and the art museums which function as our secular “temples” where we display the quasi-mystical artifacts that define our culture, replacing religious relics in our “rational” post-Enlightenment society. Consider that ever-more lavish art museums are being built all over the world, funded primarily by the wealthy and corporations, yet these buildings serve no economic purpose! They have nothing to do with a profit-orientated society, so why, then, do we build them? For the same reasons the Egyptians built the Pyramids, the Mesopotamians built ziggurats and medieval people built Gothic cathedrals – as forms of cultural expression and identity. And, often times, just like a cathedral, these art museums become the critical building that defines a place in the modern world, such as the Louvre in Paris, the Guggenheim Bilbao, or even the art museum here in Milwaukee.

Segregation from the commoners in clubhouses and exclusive events – I’ve already talked about this, but there are million different ways the elites use “exclusive access” and “velvet ropes” to seclude themselves away from the “commoners,” from golf clubs to executive washrooms to gated communities.

Cultivating exclusive social networks

Elite members of transegalitarian societies created unusually long-distance networks based on kinship, ritual ties, and exchange relationships. Maintaining such networks entailed great expenditures and considerable time. In contrast, normal community members maintained, on average, much smaller and more local networks. Thus, elites would have had greater flexibility to cope with resource fluctuations.

The rich are rich thanks to their access to exclusive social networks of other rich people. The wealthy preach “rugged individualism” to the masses, but are always doing favors for each other and helping each other out. It’s all about social affiliation; for example, wealthy businessmen cultivate social ties with other people of the same “class” as they are in order to get special business deal and contracts, often negotiated on the golf course or in luxury sports boxes (see above).

Debt and interest payments

Getting something for nothing and getting other people to do ones’ producing for oneself have always been effective lures for getting people to enter into contractual agreements. For many people they are still irresistible, as modern-day advertisers and con artists who offer free gifts to their targets are well aware. These same lures operate in traditional societies, as is…apparent in [the] description of the moka system in New Guinea, and [the] descriptions of the potlatch among the Kwakiutl of British Columbia. All of these authors use modern economic terms such as “credit”, “investment”, and “interest” to describe these systems. They make explicit comparisons between these traditional “gift-giving” systems and modern economic practices of “high finance.” (p. 133)
Typically, the supplement or interest, expected on a loan is quite high, ranging from 50 percent to 100 percent, or even higher for risky loans. Given the inherently inflationary nature of these systems, families are frequently pushed to their maximum willingness to produce surpluses in order to avoid defaulting on debts. Defaulting can result in the rupture of relationships between families, clans, and communities, which carry important economic, political, martial, and defence consequences. These can be the form of outright retaliation or simply lack of support for important undertakings; few people would risk involvement with families that were obvious failures. (p. 133)

The use of surpluses to generate debt and interest repayments by the wealthy to control and manipulate the rest of society need not be elaborated further. One is referred to David Graebers Debt, the First 5000 Years.

Control over the means of production

It seems evident that the main goal of aggrandizers was to attract, control, and manipulate labor. To do this, aggrandizers had to provide tangible benefits…the generosity of aggrandizers is a calculated economic strategy meant to centralize control in their own hands and increase production. They operate like contemporary businessmen with recruitment expense accounts or job benefits calculated to attract skilled, productive employees and administrators…

Of course the rich are rich not through their own efforts, but because they control the labor of numerous others, from the handful of employees of a small business, to the the tens of thousands of employees all over the world working for a major corporation. Highly specialized experts such as engineers and scientists are retained by wealthy entrepreneurs, yet it is the entrepreneurs who ultimately profit from their labor. For example, the Koch Brothers’ wealth is predicated on ownership of their global corporation and the knowledge and technical expertise of thousands of individuals who work for it. Yet the fruits of this labor disproportionately accrue to the Koch Bothers themselves, who use it to further aggradnize themselves at the expense of society, all while claiming that they are wealthy exclusively through their own efforts.

4. Where Capitalism comes From

What’s all this stuff about feasting and gift-giving have to do with the modern world, anyway?

It’s no coincidence that Hayden calls his aggrandizing personalities “Entrepreneurs.” I’m sure you’ve noticed by now the similarities between the Triple-A personalities of the Stone Age tribes and the businessmen, bankers and CEOs who control our modern political/economic system. This is not lost on Brian Hayden:

…The same process is followed throughout the world even today. Elites are constantly developing desirable, labor-intensive or rare materials, including foods, to distinguish themselves from others and to provide motivation for participating in competitive organizations. Elites know that many people will compete to obtain the “best” that is available. Because these items are widely desired, other entrepreneurs are constantly seeking ways to make them available to more and more people, eventually developing technologies that substantially reduce costs. Thus aluminum, plastics, and complex industrial goods like automobiles all began as labor-intensive elite consumable items and became commonplace items as the technologies were refined. Similar developments can be seen with elite exotic food fads in contemporary society, and this undoubtedly occurred in prehistoric times, although at a much slower pace. (p. 143)

Competitive feasts are thus primarily mechanisms for converting surpluses in subsistence economies into wealth and power…Even in contemporary industrial society, promotion may depend in part on the display of competence and achievement through the holding of business or political dinner feasts with appropriate displays of prestige items and socially accepted self-aggrandizement. To the extent that such dinners or parties are used as criteria for promotion to desirable or powerful positions, they constitute competitive battlegrounds for Triple A personalities, and they can be considered as a special industrial type of competitive feast. (p. 144)

Neither was this lost on Marvin Harris:

…with the rise of capitalism in Western Europe, competitive acquisition of wealth once more became the fundamental criterion for big man status. Only in this case, the big men tried to take away each others’ wealth, and highest prestige and power went to the individual who managed to accumulate and hold onto  the greatest fortune. During the early years of capitalism, highest prestige went to those who were richest but lived the most frugally. After their fortunes had become more secure, the capitalist upper-class resorted to grand-scale conspicuous consumption and conspicuous waste in order to impress their rivals. They built grand mansions, dressed in exclusive finery, adorned themselves with huge jewels, and spoke contemptuously of the impoverished masses. Meanwhile, the middle and lower classes continued to award highest prestige to those who worked hardest, spent least, and soberly resisted all forms of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous waste. But as the growth of industrial capacity began to saturate the consumer market, the middle and lower classes had to be weaned away from their frugal habits. Advertising and mass media joined forces to induce the middle and lower classes to stop saving and to buy, consume, waste, destroy, or otherwise get rid of ever-larger quantities of goods and services. and so among middle-class status seekers, highest prestige now goes to the biggest and most conspicuous consumer. (CPWW: 128-129)

Here’s how I see the history. For thousands of years, since the birth of inequality in the distant past, kings and potentates have appealed to religious authority to justify their differential access to wealth and power. With the Enlightenment, all that was swept away. This was most likely due to the migrations to the New World, and the exploitation of its seemingly limitless resources.

The aristocrats whose ancestors may have worked the hardest and kept the least in the remote past now worked the least and kept the most, and people started to take notice. The decline of universal religious belief thanks to the Reformation and the rise of Enlightenment “rationalism” (which also contributed to the birth of science), caused people to increasingly question the social order. Nullius in verba–“take no ones word for it” was the motto of the Royal Society. No longer could the aristocrats appeal to religion and were swept away or became increasingly irrelevant.

At the same time, the new world envisioned by Enlightenment thinkers would be devoid of classes assigned at birth—no more hereditary princes and serfs; everyone would be equal. That is, ascribed status would vanish, only achieved status would matter. With the settlement of the Americas and the French Revolution in Europe, this seemed like a realistic possibility. One’s status would be determined by what one could accomplish with one’s own two hands and intelligence, rather than an accident of birth.

I would argue that in the aftermath of the Enlightenment, we once again entered another transegalitarian phase, strikingly similar to the Stone/Bronze Age world, except with steam engines and the resources of much of the “undeveloped” world at our disposal. Once again, overproduction and debt engineering would become the primary means to acquire status, wealth, and power, and the best minds of an age began to scheme once more.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what gave birth to what we now call capitalism. Except this time debts and investments were done in the interest of selling in “free” markets with the end goal of converting money into more money, and converting that money into social status, wealth, and power. The aggrandizers of the Stone Age are the precursors of today’s corporate titans, investors, entrepreneurs, CEO’s, executives, bankers, and so on. Just like their Stone Age counterparts, they are constantly scheming to profit, only this time in the markets rather than through feasting. Rather than piling up roast pork, coconuts, sago-almond puddings and racks full of yams, they piled up sugar, cotton, tobacco, spices, and eventually cars, refrigerators, computers, and cell phones.

They began by importing exotic and addictive foodstuffs into Europe—sugar, tobacco, cloves, pepper, tea, coffee, even opium! These substances were both useful and addictive, and could only be obtained through adventurous, buccaneering trade. This is very similar to the use of psychoactive substances by the aggrandizers back in the Stone Age—manipulating human appetites to gain wealth and prestige, except these aggrandizers were able to convert the entire Caribbean into sugar plantations staffed by slaves, for example. Introducing these substances into urban areas and getting people hooked on them once again became a method of attaining wealth and prestige and moving up the social hierarchy.

Then came industrial mass production. It began with the British Agricultural Revolution— ways to dramatically increase agricultural output. Then, Triple-A personalities reorganized labor in the factories spinning New World cotton into cloth for the global marketplace. First powered by water, and later by coal, the factories unleashed unparalleled material abundance, and the mechanization of production caused a radical reorganization of society. This vast overproduction was noted even by capitalism’s critics, including Karl Marx, who coined the tern capitalism to describe the system of investment and profit of what he termed capital. In Britain, numerous highly-skilled “tinkerers” constantly searched for new ways and means to increase output. Today we call this the Industrial Revolution. These processes fed on each other—more production gave rise to the means to increase production still further. The drive to understand the forces that lay behind this abundance helped further the rise of science–the steam engine gave birth to science rather than science giving birth to the steam engine.

Mass production took a major step up with the assembly line pioneered by stereotypical Triple-A personality Henry Ford, who once again reorganized labor, and now even high-tech goods such as automobiles and refrigerators could be put in the hands of ordinary people. Institutionalized science became enlisted in the unrelenting drive to increase production still further, and entrepreneurs constantly pursued new innovations in order to come up with new products to put in the marketplace in the service of their own profit and aggrandizement.

This behavior is fundamentally the same as that of the Big Man Entrepreneurs described by Hayden, perhaps not in specifics, but in kind. Investments are pursued that lead to profit. Some entrepreneurs succeed, while others fail. The entrepreneurs work ceaselessly night and day to increase production. They promote a stringent ethic of hard work and sacrifice (The Protestant Work Ethic). They strive to attract and retain the best labor–competent, hardworking, highly skilled individuals, and to lure such workers away from their rivals. They compete to outproduce their opponents, whom they hope to defeat and humiliate. They invest in image-building activities to promote themselves and advertise success (luxurious buildings, advertising, sponsorships, etc.). The “winners” of such competitions eventually drive all other players from the field.

It’s easier to understand the emergence of capitalism when you realize it is grounded in human social instincts and the drive for prestige. Capitalist greed and overproduction may seem irrational, but it not once you realize that it’s about production at all! Overproduction is just a means to an end – and the end is always social status. Nobody really “needs” all these goods and services. Rather, it is all about overwhelming reciprocity and getting everyone else into debt, requiring more growth to pay back the interest to the aggrandizers, like I said in my introduction. Just as there can never be enough food for feasts, there can never be enough production of goods. There must always be more, because all that matters is relative status, and relative status is not an absolute number; rather it comes from having more than the other guy. The impetus to generate growth to repay the aggrandizers is fundamentally the same now as it was then, and inevitably leads to the same results–overproduction, overwork and intensification.

Just as wealth was produced and then destroyed  in the potlatch ceremonies of the Kwakiutl chiefs—conspicuous waste—our landfills pile up with garbage that we use and then throw away. Is the potlatch destruction of goods any more irrational than our throwaway culture and mountains of waste? Is capitalist greed any more illogical than producing goods to throw a big feast in order to climb the social ladder?

Have you wondered why people with billions of dollars keep trying to earn even more even though it is more than they can spend in a thousand lifetimes?  That’s why–there is no absolute level of wealth that is “enough;” they simply need to have more than their opponents. You and I may see that as irrational, but the aggrandizers who claw their way to the top are the descendants of those who constantly sought to outproduce their rivals in the distant past and disproportionately passed along their genes, particularly in agricultural societies. Capitalist overproduction can therefore be seen as a fundamental primate instinct related to maximizing one’s social status and therefore their reproductive fitness.

Marvin Harris has a chapter on the origins of capitalism in his book, but this is one case where I strongly depart from his views. He argues that capitalism was caused by the freeing up of the  productive classes from the being under the thumb of the greedy useless-eater political establishment, the “internal bureaus of plunder” who persistently stripped them of every morsel of their surplus in order to fund their lavish lifestyles. He writes:

I believe the secret of the “great leap forward” in productive effort was the release of ambitious individuals from political, social, and moral restraints on self-serving attempts to accumulate wealth. European entrepreneurs were the first people in the history of the world who could go about their business without worrying if some “internal bureau of plunder” was about to cut them down to size. Equally important, they could accumulate wealth without sharing it with friends and relatives who helped them get rich. Like “big men,” entrepreneurs accumulated wealth by making their followers–now called employees–work harder. But unlike Solomon Island mumis, entrepreneurs did not have to beg, cajole, and entice. Possessing capital, the entrepreneur could buy “help” and hire “hands” (plus backs, shoulders, feet, and brains). And the entrepreneur did not have to promise to give everything away at the next company picnic. Since his followers were not the “big man’s relatives or fellow villagers, it was easy for him to disregard their requests for a larger share of the product. Moreover, the helping hands-backs-shoulders-feet-brains had little choice in the matter. Deprived of access to lands and machines, the “help” could not work at all unless they accepted the legitimacy of the entrepreneur’s claim to “the meat and the fat.” The “help” assisted the entrepreneur not so they could all have a feast, but simply to keep from starving. In sum, the “big man” entrepreneur was free at last to regard the accumulation of capital as an obligation higher than the redistribution of wealth or the welfare of his followers. (C&K: 265-256)

But this is simply wrong. We now know that all of the institutions for capitalist growth were present as far back as the Middle Ages, and even earlier in many places and in many periods all over the world. And the idea that the rich had to give everything away is contradicted by history. Massive fortunes were accumulated by wealthy and powerful individuals in all ancient societies that we know of–Babylonia, Persia, Greece, Rome, Byzantium, India, China, the Ottoman Empire, the Mongol Empire, and elsewhere, without worrying what anyone else thought. Hired labor goes back to ancient Babylonia. We’ve also seen that feasting was actually a means of acquiring power, and that the “gifts” were really investments, not open-handed generosity.

For example, recent data has suggested almost modern rates of growth in ancient Greece, where the economy was highly decentralized and private ownership was the norm. And Peter Vries has made the case that the “weak” state was far more true of China than of the Western European nations where capitalism was born. The notion that the productive classes were always and everywhere kept in a state of perpetual deference to an all-powerful bureaucracy in order to support a feckless rentier elite uninterested in economic growth and improvement in technique is an outdated one that has been thoroughly debunked by recent scholarship, as Gregory Clark points out:

The popular misconception of the preindustrial world is of a cowering mass of peasants ruled by a small, violent, and stupid upper class that extracted from them all surplus beyond what was needed for subsistence and so gave no incentives for trade, investment, or improvement in technology. These exclusive and moronic ruing classes were aided in their suppression of all enterprise and innovation by organized religions of stultifying orthodoxy, which punished all deviation from established practices as heretical….There may have been societies before 1800 that fit this popular stereotype. There were frequent attempts by religious authorities to impose fallacious dogmas about the natural world. But…as an explanation of the slow nontechnical advance of the world as a whole before 1800, the prevailing view makes no sense. It is maintained only by a contemporary variety of dogmatism–that of modern economics and its priestly cast [sic].

The central vision of modern economics, the key massage of Adam Smith and much of his followers, is that people are the same everywhere in their material preferences and aspirations. They behave differently only because of differences in incentives. Given the right incentives–low tax rates on earnings, security of property and of the person, free markets in goods and labor–growth is guaranteed. The long Malthusian night persisted because of the inability of all societies before 1800 to create such institutions. This vision permeates contemporary economics, from the practical councils of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to the theorists of university economics departments…In economic history…the Smithian vision is the dominant intellectual tradition. Indeed much of modern quantitative economic history has been a search for empirical confirmation of his vision of growth. These empirical studies of past societies, however, rather than confirming Smith’s hypothesis, systematically find that many early societies had all the prerequisites for economic growth, but no technological advance and hence no growth…(pp. 146-147)

…By 1200 societies such as England already had all of the institutional prerequisites for economic growth emphasized today by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. These were indeed societies more highly incentivized than modern high-income economies: medieval citizens had more to gain from work and investment than their modern counterparts. Approached from the Smithian perspective, the puzzle is not why medieval England had no growth, but why today’s northern European countries, with their high tax rates and heavy social spending, do not suffer economic collapse. The institutions necessary for economic growth existed long before growth itself began.(FTA p. 10)

Rather, I would argue that capitalism was impossible before technological advances made it possible to drastically increase production in a short time frame. Wealth is not a means in itself, but always a means to an end – and that end is always social status. But in pre-market societies, social status was achieved not through possessing lots of money (since preindustrial societies were not market-based, as Karl Polanyi documents at length in The Great Transformation), but by ownership of land. A recurring theme in Moses Finley is that of the successful merchant making a pile of money and then using it to buy a villa and a title and retiring to the countryside to live the life of a gentleman. This causes no end of consternation among modern-day economists—”Stupid merchants, why didn’t you keep working harder and break through to capitalism!!!”

But this is a classic Flintstonization of history. Limited by the constraints of thermodynamics, and without the technological or material means to rapidly increase production, land ownership was controlling the means of production, since all wealth ultimately derived from what could be grown on the land via photosynthesis. In preindustrial societies, merchants did not increase production, they just moved goods around in space (as the Physiocrats argued). As Paul Colinvaux would point out, one way to deal with a stagnant society is through the creation of a caste system – people are rationed to their niches. In agricultural societies, land ownership was the highest niche, not buying and selling. Therefore, it is extremely logical in such a world to convert wealth into status by purchasing land, because land was what conveyed status. Landowners were the only people who cold vote, for example, and they filled all the important political offices, not the merchants. Thus, becoming a wealthy landowner was the main way of achieving prestige, and commercial activities were simply a means to that end. The economists’ mistake follows from their assumptions that economic behavior is is something wholly divorced from society, and that the “natural” human drive is to maximize wealth rather than to maximize social status.

By contrast, in market societies where literally everything can be bought and sold – including land and labor, it is access to capital–wealth which can be reinvested–which conveys status. This is typically in the form of money, so today’s status seekers strive to turn money into more money through investments and the sales of commodities (Marx’s M-C-M’), in order to maximize the amount of money the have, and therefore maximize their social status. In a world of rapid technological advance thanks to institutionalized science and the voyages of discovery and colonization, rapid growth was once again possible for the first time since the emergence of settled agriculture.

“Societies before the Industrial Revolution were dependent on the annual cycle of plant photosynthesis for both heat and mechanical energy. The quantity of energy available each year was therefore limited, and economic growth was necessarily constrained. In the Industrial Revolution, energy usage increased massively and output rose accordingly…What can, however, be asserted with confidence is that a necessary condition for the move from a world where growth was at best asymptotic to one in that it could be, at least for a period, exponential was dependent upon the discovery and exploitation of a vast reservoir of energy that had remained untapped in organic economies. Only by adding the products of plant photosynthesis accumulated over a geological age to the annual cycle of photosynthesis, which had previously been the source of almost all the energy available for human use, could the energy barrier that had constrained growth so severely in the past be overcome…”

http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/371/1986/20110568

Harris’s mistake is not understanding that Western Europe was the first “market society,” where markets became the chief organizing principle of society, rather than religious or kinship ties. Furthermore, it is the first one where Triple-A personalities could significantly increase production for sustained periods of time, because of the vast resources of the New World, and later fossil fuels. Centuries of technological advance during the medieval period could now be utilized for this purpose. In Robert Allen’s view, high wages in England led to the drive to substitute capital for labor.

Once again, debt, interest, and investments come to the fore. Constraints against usury which made sense in the thermodynamically-constrained agricultural world were relaxed, and then eliminated. The prime tactic of the status quest once again became hard work, overproduction, savings, investment, and debt engineering, just as in the previous transegalitarian phase. People once again mimicked the behavior of their Epipaleolithic ancestors. The wealth pouring into Europe from the New World led to the what economists call the Industrious Revolution in Northern Europe after 1600, and the advent of coal and the steam engine led to the Industrial Revolution. Triple-A personalities once again invested their time and effort into overproduction and invention in order to gain status. We know their names—Fugger, Arkwright, Owen, Boulton, Darby, Smeaton, Ford, etc. These are the people Adam Smith wrote about.

The Protestant Work Ethic lionized hard work and self denial, and Calvinism preached that the wealthy were favored by God. A new generation of Triple-A personalities took advantage of this new order to topple the land-owning aristocrats from their perch and replace them on the ladder of the social hierarchy. This long, protracted battle is what we call “Economic Liberalism” today. The aggrandizing producers eventually decisively won this battle, and used their newfound power to reshape society. They enclosed the common lands and removed the self-sufficiency of the peasants, allowing them to gain control over their labor and use it to build their fortunes. Market relations would now permeate all of society, sweeping away all that had come before, as Marx noted (“all that is sold melts into air…”). Social relations became replaced by monetary ones. They spread Markets all over the globe, often by force, using machine-based overproduction to destroy local economies and undermine self-sufficiency. They imposed taxes on people to put them into debt and thereby forced them to work in their fields and factories in order to acquire the money they needed to pay their taxes. They forced people to work harder than ever before. In this new world, they–the entrepreneurs–would be the ruling class. Wealth was power, and the wealthy would be the rulers. The world once again separated into classes, the workers and the owners, rather than aristocrats and commoners.

Fast-forward to today where, in many places, the rich rule either directly or indirectly. America, for example, is now a plutocracy–rule by the rich. The politicians must go hat-in-hand to the “job creators” and seek their support. The bankers now control the money supply and lure everyone else into debt. Or, sometimes, the rich simply seek office and rule directly as in our last presidential election.

Just as back then, this was accompanied by changes in the underlying social logic:

5. The Social Logic

Just like back then, the increasing power of entrepreneurs would have been justified by a number of alterations to the social logic. And just like then, religion would become pressed into service to justify the wealth and power of the elites. Except, in the post-Enlightenment era of rationalism and science, this new religion would have to use scientific principles and rationalism  in order to justify the new social arrangements and inequality. We call this new religion economics, and its high priests economists. Note how the importance and prominence of economists and their arguments has risen exactly in tandem with rising inequality and the disappearance of social mobility.

The changes in the social logic are now commonly deployed to justify the grotesque and increasing inequality in our own transegalitarian society are probably the exact same ones as were deployed back in the Stone Age, viz:

We are all made better off through the aggrandizers’ efforts. The aggrandizers are portrayed as increasing production beyond what it otherwise would be. The increased production makes us all better off, goes the logic. Reining in the activities of the aggrandizers, or putting any brakes or limits whatsoever on their behavior will only make us all worse off in the long run, they argue. Their bottomless desire for wealth and  power leads to a better world for all  through the “trickle-down” effect. The investor class claims to have a unique ability to organize labor and “allocate capital” “We alone can do this,” they claim, and even argue that it is doing “God’s work.”  It’s the doctrine of the “Invisible Hand” a concept whose religious origins should be obvious.

No doubt this was the logic of the Stone Age as well. The people who stumbled out of the clubhouse with full bellies after a night of feasting and fornicating no doubt would argue that the aggrandizers’ efforts made them quite well off indeed. What they didn’t realize is that they would now have to work harder then ever before thanks to the aggrandizers’ behavior. They were forging the very chains that would bind them.
How often do you hear this argument: “Corporations don’t rich through exploitation– You can’t get rich except by selling stuff that people want!!!” That is, the system constrains the behavior of corporations and makes them act in pro-social ways via the “invisible hand.” In my opinion, this is THE motive for allowing the aggrandizers to retain unlimited power. Not a day goes by when you don’t hear this rationalization somewhere. Here’s one randomly plucked from Reddit: “Free-market capitalism makes new wealthy people. Bill Gates was not born a billionaire. Mark Cuban was not born a billionaire.”

The reason this justification is so seductive is because there is a grain of truth in it. The aggrandizers’ efforts do raise the level of production above what it would normally be, and this can provide for temporarily better living standards in the short run, as Marvin Harris pointed out. Having a “safety net” thanks to overproduction no doubt helped early humans to survive – it may be one of the the reasons why we’re the only species of Homo sapiens left on the planet.

The problem with this is that even without the aggandizers efforts, the tribe could still produce everything it needed to survive, but it would get it without having to repay the aggrandizers by constantly working harder and producing more. Instead of letting the aggrandizers take control, people could theoretically produce what they needed cooperatively for themselves (as they did initially), rather than allow the aggrandizers to put everyone else in hock and convert this into despotic power. For example, we’ve seen a combination of corporations and banks essentially trap almost the entire nation in debt slavery. Entire nation-states are now  controlled by a small group of wealthy bankers via debt payments. As Thomas Jefferson noted, banks are more dangerous than standing armies.

The wealthy work harder than everyone else–they deserve what they get!!!

This is another very popular one today. Our modern media is constantly touting the heroic work ethic of today’s business elites that would put Alexei Stakhanov to shame. Our executive/entrepreneurial class are portrayed as literally superhuman—working hundreds of hours per week, sleeping only a few hours a night, falling asleep at their desks or popping pills to stay awake, going for days without eating or subsisting on fast food and meal replacement powders, living at the office for weeks at a time, missing life events like weddings and funerals, even skipping the birth of their children—all in order to work more. Wall Street promotes a culture of superhuman overwork where employees have literally died at their desks and uses this as a way to justify their multi-million-dollar bonuses–bonuses which far dwarf the collective wages of every single minimum wage worker in America.

One of the most-read articles on the Wall Street Journal’s web site last week was a piece about how 4 a.m. — a time so ungodly there’s even a TED Talk about how surreal it is — has become the most productive hour for go-getters. Donald Trump has been endlessly knocking Hillary Clinton for sleeping (gasp!), calling out her lack of stamina as he brags about not needing much sleep and his former staffers say that vacations would “bore and perhaps scare” the GOP presidential nominee.

And then there is Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who said in a recent Bloomberg BusinessWeek interview that she regularly pulled all nighters when she worked at Google and can judge a startup’s chances for success by whether people are working on the weekends. “Could you work 130 hours in a week?” Mayer said, referring to the value hard work played in Google’s success. “The answer is yes, if you’re strategic about when you sleep, when you shower, and how often you go to the bathroom.”

Stop touting the crazy hours you work-it helps no one (Washington Post)

This is no doubt a reaction to the extreme inequality of our present age. By constantly promoting the superhuman work ethic of Triple-A personalities in the media, it justifies their mind-boggling wealth and makes the commoners believe the rich “earned” every cent by dint of working longer and harder than the “lazy” commoners who are concerned with just getting by and wasting their valuable time on things like on sleeping and recreation.

Consider the words of this classic aggrandizer:

“I’m a strange man, an odd man,” [Shigenobu] Nagamori, 71, says in an interview from Nidec’s headquarters in Japan’s ancient capital, with his old prefabricated shed preserved in the building’s lobby 19 floors below. “I push against the grain.”…More than four decades into the job, he still works every day and vows to stay on in some capacity until 2030, his target for increasing annual revenue to 10 trillion yen from 1.2 trillion yen in the year ended March…

…Even in a nation renowned for devoted workers, the company stands out for its demands on employees. Meetings, Nagamori says, are held on weekends or after regular tasks are done. New staff are sometimes told to clean toilets, and taking days off is seen as lazy. Nagamori makes no apologies. “These days, if you tell people to put everything into their work, you’re soon dubbed a black company,” he says, referring to the Japanese term for firms that flout labor standards. “I have no problem saying that. If you don’t work, you lose. The only ones I can’t stand are layabouts.”

Nagamori decries what he sees as a lack of ambition in Japan. Too many young people are content with only “small happiness,” like going home to their children in the evening rather than working late to become their company’s next president, he says.

The Eccentric Billionaire Who Ignores Investors to Get Them Rich (Straits Times)

Compare that to a Siuai Big Man named Soni recounted by Harris:

That night, exhausted from weeks of feverish preparations, [Soni’s followers] talked about the rest they had earned now that the feast was over. But early the next morning they were awakened by the booming sound of wooden gongs being beaten in Soni’s clubhouse. A handful of sleepy people straggled over to see who was making all the noise. It was Soni, and this is what he told them:

“Hiding in your houses again; copulating day and night while there’s work to be done! why, if it were left up to you, you would spend the rest of your lives smelling yesterday’s pig. But I tell you yesterday’s feast was nothing. The next one will be really big.”

Clearly Soni (or rather his forefathers) is the literal and figurative ancestor of today’s capitalist entrepreneur and CEO. And we all dance to their tune.

Conversely, the poor are seen as lazy rather than unfortunate. Anybody undergoing hardship has only themselves to blame for not pursuing profitable investments, or not repaying their loans. The poor deserve their misfortune as surely as the rich do their wealth.

While no doubt there are some “ten times” workers who are far more productive than average, it simply beggars belief that anyone can “earn” thousands of times more than anyone else through “hard work” alone. For example, the three Wal-Mart heirs have more wealth than a city the size of Phoenix, Arizona. And twenty people have as much wealth as the lower half the entire American workforce! As Oxfam discovered, 83 people have as much wealth as the world poorest three and a half billion people. Can anyone believe this is simply he result of “working harder?” The answer for many people, apparently, is “yes.”

They are favored by the gods/God!

It may seem ridiculous to include this in our modern “rational” society, yet its clear that the rich are perceived by the average person as having some sort of supernatural power or ability, just as they were in stone age times. The rich are commonly portrayed in the media as preternaturally competent and intelligent, and not, for example, lucky or fortunate, even if their wealth is mostly inherited. For every successful business person there are hundreds of failures who were presumably less “gifted” entrepreneurs. This is seen as divine favor and not for what it is—survivorship bias.

It’s telling that  the expression “rainmaker” is often used to denote someone who can make business deals happen through social connections, ascribing almost magical abilities to such people. Without the “rainmakers,” the thinking goes, any business would go under, as though the “rain” they make is somehow down to their very existence, and not through manipulating social connections (just like a tribal chief!). It’s telling that charisma, roughly means “touched by the gods.” I can tell you from conversations I’ve had with people that they see the rich as just having a certain magical “something” about them that they can’t describe that leads to their success. This, along with ideals of “hard work,” leads people to accept the extreme inequality of modern-day capitalism. It’s also notable that highly religious people seem to be much more accepting of extreme inequality, and the prevalence of religious beliefs are strongly correlated with levels of inequality both between nations and within them (as the U.S. demonstrates).

6. The Modern Religion

The modern “religion” used to justify the aggrandizing behavior of our elites is called economics. Just as the kings and chieftains of old supported a full-time priestly caste to rationalize their hold on power, today’s rich spend fortunes supporting economic institutions and paying generous salaries to a professional economist caste that disseminates pro-wealth propaganda to the masses. Thousands of economics classes in schools all over the world every single day repeat free-market dogma the way theology schools once taught the Bible.

Economic “science” is mainly simplistic libertarian propaganda clad in scientific drag in the service of justifying extreme wealth inequality and never-ending growth. It is non-falsifiable, and denies human nature insofar as it requires all people to be rationally-motivated calculating machines constantly seeking to increase pleasure and avoid pain (homo economicus). Work is seen as a disutility, and all players in the market are said to have perfect knowledge (i.e. omniscience). “Welfare economics” argues that money taken from the wealthy and given to the poor is wrong, since each derives the same amount of “utility” from such wealth.  Consistent with the Enlightenment era, it obscures its shaky foundations and implicit assumptions not in the opaque, colorful language of theology but with fiendishly advanced mathematics. Just as the illiterate commoners were once kept in deference by the rituals of the Catholic Church, the average person today is prevented from criticizing economics by its use of the inscrutable mathematics that economists use to construct specious models that justify their foregone conclusions, all based on a foundation just as hypothetical as the existence of remote gods and ancestors.

One is not required to understand the Market, only to have “faith” in it, and to believe its ministrations will work out for the best in the long run. The Market is said to be “all-knowing”, and its workings are said to be beyond human comprehension, much like the unknowable “will” of the gods in past societies. The rich are entitled to rule, because toppling them from their perch would lead to “chaos,” similar to concepts of “unrule” in ancient Egypt and China. The nevereneding cycle of booms, busts, manias, and crashes are just part of the system, just like the floods, droughts and famines in times past, and nothing can be done about them, claim the economists, despite the fact that the Market is theoretically a human construct. Like the Cargo Cults of the South Pacific (another Marvin Harris chapter), the economic priesthood fiddles with interest rates and money creation to spur “growth” despite the fact that economists admit they have no real understanding as to its actual cause (hint: energy capture). The Market religion even has it’s own version of human sacrifice in the form of the unemployed, whom we are told are necessary victims in order to prevent the dreaded “inflation.”

A full critique of economic “science” is beyond the scope of this post, but this article is one of the best I’ve seen recently in describing the profession of economics vis a vis society:

How economists rode maths to become our era’s astrologers (Aeon)

7. Conclusion

The birth of domesticated agriculture and the birth of industrial capitalism are both based on the same fundamental primate social instincts–the quest for social prestige through competitive overproduction.

Initial inequalities become institutionalized over time when wealth becomes passed down through generations—dynastic wealth. The endgame is when people start falling into debt to the aggrandizers, and the debt becomes trans-generational too. The resulting inequality is then justified by subtle transformations in the social logic (either religious or otherwise) that take place over time. Creeping normalcy allows small changes to accumulate generation after generation—consider, for example, that levels of debt that would have been seen as outrageous just one generation ago are now seen as “normal,” and an Orwellian police state is just taken as a given even in Western democracies. The Law of Cumulative advantage magnifies this process over time. The transegalitarian arrangement of achieved status falls in the face of ascribed status when contestant growth can no longer be maintained, such as when the land became filled and intensification reached its upper limit. Or as when the environment gives way or fossil fuel extraction reaches it peak output.

I believe we’re in another transegalitarian phase now, and we’re about to enter an era of permanent lords and serfs (aka Neofeudalism). Hierarchy will once again be ascribed at birth. The world is full, and “innovation” is increasingly just intensification as more and more resources are brought to bear just to maintain the status quo. Thomas Piketty has shown that wealth is increasingly being derived from inheritance, not earnings. He points out that if the growth of stocks and investments is faster than the growth of the economy as a whole, earned wealth will be unable to compete with inherited wealth, leading to an ossified social order. He points out that the wealth of heiress Lilliane Bettancourt, who did nothing but inherit a fortune, grew as fast as that of software developer Bill Gates who started a company. Gates’ wealth increased just as much after he left Microsoft that when he worked as its founder and chairman. In other words, Bill Gates “earned” even more by being a professional billionaire as he did being a “hard-working” entrepreneur.

It’s often argued that people are constantly moving up and moving down the social ladder, but this is deceptive. In fact, the vast majority of people stay in the same class they are born into their whole lives. Social mobility is not as high as commonly believed. Even in the sclerotic caste systems of the ancient world, people still moved up and down the social ladder, contrary to popular belief. It’s just that it was very hard to do, and required extraordinary skills and luck, which few possessed. That’s once again where we’re headed. Gregory Clark has demonstrated that social mobility even over multiple generations is surprisingly static, even taking into account the past few centuries of economic growth.

The problem today is the same as it was back during the birth of agriculture–intensification always makes the average person worse off in the long run. This social logic is the reason we work longer hours than medieval peasants did in today’s fossil-fuel powered, highly automated world. We have so much abundance that we are constantly subjected to thousand of advertisements per day preying on our insecurities and our desire for status to get us to buy all the stuff we are producing. And yet we must live in this world to pay back the entrepreneurs who can never, even have enough, since it is a classic arms race with no endgame.

And the end of this game might be mutually assured destruction considering that our environment cannot take relentless overproduction and intensification forever and ever, even with the tools modern science at our disposal, any more than it could thousands of years ago. Eventually, it will hit a limit (which it almost certainly already has). We are destroying the very life-support systems of this planet in order to allow the aggrandizers to play their competitive status games. It’s time to rein them in, or like the elk whose antlers grew so big they could no longer escape their predators, we may go extinct due to success rather than failure.

Capitalism, then, is a system that is committed to an unbounded increase in production in the name of an unbounded increase in profits. Production, however, cannot be increased in an unbounded way. Freed from the restraints of despots and paupers, capitalist entrepreneurs still have to confront the restraints of nature. The profitability of production cannot expand indefinitely. Any increase in the quantity of soil, minerals, or plants put into a particular production process per unit of time constitutes intensification. It has been the burden of this book to show that intensification inevitably leads to declining efficiencies. That declining efficiencies have adverse effects upon the average standard of living cannot be doubted.

What must be made clear is that environmental depletions also lead to declining profits. This relationship is not easily understood because, according to the laws of supply and demand, scarcities lead to higher prices. Higher prices, however, tend to lower consumption per capita (the market symptom of declining living standards). Profits can be sustained temporarily if the drop in per capita consumption is compensated for by an expansion in total sales based on population growth or the conquest of international markets. But sooner or later the curve of rising prices caused by environmental depletions will begin to rise faster than the curve of rising consumption and the rate of profit must begin to fall.

The classic entrepreneurial response to a fall in the rate of profit is exactly the same as under any mode of production that has been overintensied. To compensate for environmental depletions and declining efficiencies (which manifest themselves as falling rates of profit), the entrepreneur seeks to lower the costs of production by introducing labor-saving machines. Although these machines require more capital and hence usually have higher start-up costs, they result in lowering the unit cost of the product.

Thus a system that is committed to perpetual intensification can survive only if it is equally committed to perpetual technological change. Its ability to maintain living standards depends on the outcome of a race between technological advance and the relentless deterioration of the conditions of production. Under the present circumstances, technology is about to lose that race. (C&K 266-267)

C&K: Marvin Harris, Cannibals and Kings.
CPWW: Marvin Harris, Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches.
FTA: Gregory Clark, A Farewell to Alms.

The Feasting Theory – Part 4 – From Chiefdoms to States

In our previous posts, we looked at how feasting may have led from informal Big Men to hereditary chiefs.

Brian Hayden’s analysis does not explain how chiefdoms may have developed further along into what archaeologists call “pristine” states. Pristine states are the earliest states. They did not have other states to look to for examples; they had to develop everything on their own from scratch. Later on, “secondary” states form due to their exposure to earlier states. Sometimes they are also called “competitive” states because they form in response to completion from established states.

Marvin Harris, in his book “Cannibals and Kings” speculates as to a gradual process by which this may have occurred. He starts out with Big Men feasting as described by the Feasting Theory, then progressing to “redistributor” chiefs” brought about by increasing warfare, eventually leading to true kings, where the king is the nominal “owner” of the land, and a feudal/peonage system developed where power flows down from the ruler through a branching hierarchy of intermediaries. More and more of the redistributed wealth is retained by the king’s household and invested in “image-building” activities like a formal retinue of retainers and advisors, palace guards, a full-time priesthood, skilled craftsmen, and large-scale building projects. An administrative bureaucracy is established to manage the king’s interests in regards to labor management and taxation. Taxes are collected and law and order is enforced. The entire state is the king’s personal household. Out of such “patrimonial” states develop states and empires proper.

In the absence of a formal theory that takes us from feasting to states, I will combine Harris’ ideas with my own to speculate on how this may have happened.

First, we must define what we mean by states. Here, I will define something I call state capacity. When most or all of the features of state capacity are present, we can then be said to have a formal state. State capacity waxes and wanes over time; when state capacity withers or disappears altogether, we can be said to have a collapse.

These are my (somewhat arbitrary) determinants of State Capacity.

  • The ability to manage and conduct large-scale warfare.
  • The ability to make binding laws and enforce them.
  • The adjudication of disputes in a fair and impartial manner.
  • The ability to guarantee the personal safety of average citizen.
  • The ability to undertake diplomacy, pay war reparations, and negotiate peace treaties.

The above concepts are often grouped together and described as the state having a monopoly on violence. In addition, we can name several more related to the economic sphere:

  • The ability to conduct long distance trade.
  • The ability to regulate commercial transactions (leading to markets).
  • The ability to set standardized weights and measures (e.g. a price schedule and a unit of account that eventually evolves into a universal currency i.e. money).
  • The ability to collect taxes and redistribute wealth and resources throughout the territory.
  • The ability to organize and undertake large-scale communal labor projects for the benefit of society as a whole (e.g. temples, roads, canals, flood embankments, civic buildings, monuments, defensive works, aqueducts, etc.).
  • Control over certain critical key resources–the “commanding heights” of the economy, such as forests or mines.
  • The ability to make provisions for the unfortunate, often expressed as providing for the general welfare (widows, orphans, the disabled, war veterans, the ill, and so forth).

And we can add spiritual factors as well:

  • In previous (pre-Enlightenment) societies, the ability to undertake religious functions to intercede with the gods or ancestors on behalf of the whole society.

All of these functions rest on claims of legitimacy. In the past, legitimacy seems to have always derived some sort of divine sanction, whether from gods or ancestors. Religious concepts are what bound society together–the word religion comes from the Latin word ligare, meaning “to bind together.” In some cases, the priest caste ruled directly (as in Mesopotamia); in others, there was some sort of connection between religious and secular authorities, such as between a priesthood and a ruler as in Egypt.

In post-Enlightenment societies, however, as in certain classical formations, legitimacy is derived from the consent of the governed, although divine sanction still played a role (e.g Rome had a state religion and a high priest [Pontifex Maximus], Greek cities had a patron deity, such as Athena for Athens). Because the state is not kinship-based, it needs to claim legitimacy, and uses religion to do so. This religious claim may grow out of the supernatural descent claims of certain paramount chiefs who constructed temples to validate their relationship to the gods. In some states, as Egypt, the ruler may be seen as divine, in others, acting on behalf of the gods, and in others, as simply a leader with a good pedigree. The state religion is the endgame of the spiritual beliefs extending all the way back to cultic ritual centers like Göbekli Tepe and before that, the candle-lit caves of Chauvet and Lascaux.

…virtually every other state has relied on religion to legitimate itself. The founding myths of the Greek, Roman, Hindu, and Chinese states all trace the regime’s ancestry back to a divinity, or at least to a semidivine hero. Political power in early states cannot be understood apart from the religious rituals that the ruler controlled and used to legitimate his power. (OPO: 88)

Francis Fukuyama defines a state in the following terms:

First, they possess a centralized source of authority, whether in the form of a king, president of prime minister. The source of authority deputizes a hierarchy of subordinates who are capable, at least in principle, of enforcing the rules on the whole of the society. The source of authority trumps all others within its territory, which means that it is sovereign. All administrative levels, such as lesser chiefs, prefects, or administrators, derive their decision-making authority from their formal association with the sovereign.

Second, that source of authority is backed by a monopoly on all the legitimate means of coercion, in the form of an army and/or police. The power of the state is sufficient to prevent segments, tribes, or regions from seceding or otherwise separating themselves (This is what distinguishes a state from a chiefdom.)

Third, the authority of the state is territorial rather than kin based. Thus France was not really a state in Merovingian times when it was led by a king of the Franks rather than the king of France. Since membership in a state does not depend on kinship, it can grow much larger than a tribe.

Fourth, states are far more stratified and unequal than tribal societies, with the ruler and his administrative staff often separating themselves off from the rest of society. In some cases they become a hereditary elite. Slavery and serfdom, while not unknown in tribal societies, expand enormously under the aegis of states.

Finally, states are legitimized by much more elaborate forms of religious belief, with a separate priestly caste as its guardian. Sometimes that priestly class takes power directly, in which case the state is a theocracy; sometimes it is controlled by a secular ruler, in which case it is labeled caesaropapist; and sometimes it coexists with secular rule under some form of power sharing.

With the development of the state, we exit out of kinship into the realm of political development proper…Once states come into being, kinship becomes an obstacle to political development, since it threatens to return political relationships to the small-scale, personal ties of tribal societies. It is therefore not enough to develop a state; the state must avoid retribalization or what I label repatrimonialization. (OPO: 80-81)

For Fukuyama, the critical feature of the state is that it is not based on kinship, or recourse to kinship, unlike the tribal and chiefdom political arrangements we’ve already seen. In fact, kinship ties actually impede effective state formation, and thus are constantly having to be suppressed or mitigated for the state to function properly. Fukuyama calls this “The Tyranny of Cousins.” It’s notable that in instances of state collapse, such relationships often come back to the fore. Fukuyama see the Chinese state, with its vast impersonal bureaucracy chosen by  merit rather than family ties (nepotism), as the first true state in the modern sense:

…the state that emerged in China was far more modern in Max Weber’s sense than any of its counterparts elsewhere. the Chinese created a uniform, multilevel administrative bureaucracy, something that never happened in Greece or Rome. The Chinese developed an explicit antifamilistic political doctrine, and its early rulers sought to undermine the power of entrenched families and kinship groups in favor of impersonal administration. This state engaged in a nation-building project that created a powerful and uniform culture, a culture powerful enough to withstand two millennia of political breakdown and external invasion. The Chinese political and cultural space extended over a far larger population that that of the Romans. The Romans ruled an empire, limiting citizenship initially to a relatively small number of people on the Italian peninsula. While that empire eventually stretched from Britain to North Africa to Germany to Syria, it consisted of a heterogeneous collection of peoples who were allowed a considerable degree of self-rule. By contrast, even though the Chinese monarch called himself an emperor rather than a king, he ruled over something that looked much more like a kingdom or even a state in its uniformity. (OPO: 92-93)

This is in contrast to other locations, where:

In China, the state was consolidated before other social actors could institutionalize themselves, actors like a hereditary, territorially based aristocracy, an organized peasantry, cities based on a merchant class, churches, or other autonomous groups. Unlike in Rome, the Chinese military remained firmly under the state’s control and never posed an independent threat to its political authority. This initial skewering of the balance of power was locked in for a long period, since the mighty state could act to prevent the emergence of alternative sources of power, both economic and political…Unlike China and like Europe, India’s institutionalization of countervailing social actors–an organized priestly class and the metastacization of kinship structures into the caste system–acted as a brake on the accumulation of power by the state. The result was that over the past twenty-two hundred years, China’s default political mode was a unified empire punctuated by periods of civil war, invasion, and breakdown, whereas India’s default mode was a disunited system of petty political units, punctuated by brief periods of unity and empire. (OPO: 93-94)

Let’s take a look at some of Marvin Harris’ theories on state formation:

Redistribution: Harris speculates that early states developed out of redistributive chiefdoms. In these chiefdoms, the leader (typically a paramount chief)  takes in the surplus production of the whole society–subsistence farmers, households and other corporate groups and redistributes it across the wider society through intermediaries by maintaining a series of storehouses. The chief uses a portion of the surplus to manage and undertake large-scale efforts on behalf of the whole society, such as undertaking long-distance trade to procure distant commodities, building temples to the culture’s major deities, supporting full-time religious specialists, leading military efforts, and supporting specialized craftsmen and artisans out of his household (e.g. weavers and smiths). Chiefs also used a portion of the surpluses to maintain a specialized caste of warriors (specialists in violence) for territorial conquest and defense.

Redistribution was also done to take care of the “unfortunates”—people who fell on hard times, had no family or clan, or whose families could not care for them for some reason such as widows, orphans, war veterans, the elderly, the disabled, etc. Often times such people were put to work by the chief in specialized tasks; for example, the blind often became bards, and widows and orphans wove textiles. In this way, taking care of people who fell on hard times would have been a common pro-social expectation provided by elites and expected by the commoners.

In these cases, feasting was no longer necessary to gain “prestige,” since there was no longer any dispute over formal leadership roles or dynastic succession. Chiefs still redistributed the surplus, but it was no longer through feasting. Rather the undertaking of long-distance raids and the building of great monuments and temples would take its place. Feasting still occurred, however, under the guise of religious holidays. The dates of these public festivals were determined by the managerial elites using the astronomical calendar and served the former purposes of communal feasting  such as reaffirming cultural identity and deploying large amounts of communal labor, as Piotr Steinkeller describes:

…it is generally recognized that in the ancient and premodern societies feasts constituted an exceedingly important strategy to mobilize labor for public projects. As stated by Michael Dietler and Ingrid Herbich at the outset of their exhaustive study of this subject, “The use of feasts to mobilize collective labor has been a widespread and fundamental economic practice of societies around the world. In fact, variants of the practice are so strikingly omnipresent in the ethnographic and historical literature that a good case can be made for acknowledging it both as virtually a universal feature among the agrarian societies and as nearly exclusive means of mobilizing large voluntary work projects before the spread, of the monetary economy and the capitalist accommodation of labor and creation of a wage labor market.”

These authors argue for the need of a fully theorized understanding of the specific range of practices that enable voluntary labor to be mobilized on a scale above the household level, how the possibility for labor exploitation inheres [sic] in some of these practices, and, crucially, the ways that feasting operates as a mechanism of conversation within this realm. ” They further define “work feast” as “a particular form of the ’empowering feast’ mode in which commensal hospitality is used to orchestrate voluntary collective labor.’ Although Dietler and Herbich focus on the feast as a means to mobilize voluntary labor for communal works, it is certain that their conclusions are equally applicable to the societies in which participation in such operations was outright obligatory or, at the very least, sanctioned by Custom ‘such as the Mesopotamian and Egyptian ones. Even though the builders of Tummal and the pyramids of Giza were compelled by their governments to work on these projects, the expectation of communal feasts must have been an important inducement for them to work on such undertakings with a positive attitude. (LIW: 200-201)

Harris believes these redistributor chiefs eventually became so powerful that they became kings:

The larger and denser the population, the larger the redistributive network and the more powerful the redistributor war chief. Under certain circumstances the exercise of power by the redistributor and his closest followers on one side and by the ordinary food producers on the other became so unbalanced that for all intents and purposes the redistributor chiefs constituted the principal coercive force in social life. When this happened, contributions to the central store ceased to be voluntary contributions. They became taxes. Farmlands and natural resources ceased to be elements of rightful access. They became dispensations. And redistributors ceased to be chiefs. They became kings. (C&K: 113)

The entire society becomes, in essence, one giant “household” under the command of the redistributor chief, whose lineage becomes the ruling family and whose headman becomes a hereditary “king” (ancient Egypt provides an example of this model).

Harris names several other factors that would lead to state formation:

Hydraulics – One of the earliest theories of state formation was proposed by Karl Wittfogel back in the nineteenth century. He noted that all early states were in places of scant rainfall and hence were dependent upon massive irrigation works for their food production. He argued that the managers of such projects were the first elites, and the bureaucracy required to build and maintain such large-scale projects were the first governments. He also argued that the control such leaders exercised over water made them “despotic” because they had exclusive control over the critical resource (water) that the rest of the society needed to survive. This led him to concepts such as “Oriental Despotism” and an “Asiatic Mode of Production,” that had a big impact on Karl Marx’s materialistic theories, which argued that the social structure of any given society derived primarily from the mode of production of its food and goods.

“During the four thousand years before Christ, in the great river valleys of Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China, the state took on the function of building grand hydraulic works, which in turn required centralized managerial bureaucracies to operate. Whoever controlled those means of production–in such cases it was a group of agromanagerial experts–became perforce the effective ruling class. The common techno-environmental basis in all those ancient Oriental civilizations, giving rise to similar social structures in them, was water control, mainly a program of irrigation made necessary by inadequate or unseasonal or undependable rainfall…”

Wittfogel’s ideas have fallen out of favor, due to the discovery that the canals were managed on the village, not the state, level. His theories were also heavily criticized by later archaeologists, notably Karl Butzer. However, the need for much closer levels of cooperation and coordination would have clearly been necessitated by canal usage, and it would have required much more complex bureaucracy than the simple farming societies which were governed by chiefdoms with scant bureaucracy. Thus, irrigation no doubt must have played at least some sort of role in the rising complexity of early Near Eastern societies, which certainly had knock-on effects on incipient state formation. Marvin Harris at least partially endorses Wittfogel’s theory:

In my opinion, the actual record of discoveries made by archaeologists has consistently favored the hydraulic theory. When the theory was first formulated, almost nothing was known about the conditions that had given rise to the agro-managerial states and empires of the New World. Wittfogel stimulated the first attempt by archaeologists in the late 1930’s to detect the presence of irrigation during the formative phases of native states in South America. Recent work by archaeologists at Columbia University and Harvard continue to support the view that the growth of cities, states, and monumental architectures in the pre-Columbian cultures of highland and coastal Peru grew step-by-step with an increase in the size and complexity of their irrigation systems. Excavations carried out in Mesoamerica by William Sanders and Richard MacNeish have also tended to confirm the importance of irrigation. As I showed in an earlier chapter, hydraulic agriculture was the basic source of subsistence for Teotihuacan and for the Aztec’s cannibal kingdom. (C&K: 245)

It’s notable that the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture of Ukraine has been “lost” to history because it never crossed over the threshold of becoming a true large empire or state from chiefdom level, despite settled agricultural villages and population density equivalent to that of ancient Mesopotamia. Could this be because agriculture was rain-fed rather than irrigated?  Some estimates (although disputed) have the “cities” of this culture as the largest on earth at one point.

Cereals – All the early centralized states arose where cereal grain cultivation was practiced – wheat and barley in the Middle East, millet and rice in China and India, maize and quinoa in the Americas. Places which primarily grew fruits, tubers or legumes did not become more stratified than chiefdoms.

A recent paper argued that this was because the latter types of foods were fairly perishable, and hence not readily “approriable.” Cereal grains, by contrast, were easy to appropriate by would-be leaders; they were easily moved around and stored for very long periods of time, contributing to incipient state formation:

…consider a hypothetical community of farmers who cultivate cassava (a major source of calories in sub-Saharan Africa, and the main crop cultivated in Nigeria), and assume that the annual output is well above subsistence. Cassava is a perennial root that is highly perishable upon harvest. Since this crop rots shortly after harvest, it isn’t stored and it is thus difficult to steal or confiscate. As a result, the assumed available surplus would not facilitate the emergence of a non-food producing elite, and may be expected to lead to a population increase.

Consider now another hypothetical farming community that grows a cereal grain – such as wheat, rice or maize – yet with an annual produce that just meets each family’s subsistence needs, without any surplus. Since the grain has to be harvested within a short period and then stored until the next harvest, a visiting robber or tax collector could readily confiscate part of the stored produce. Such ongoing confiscation may be expected to lead to a downward adjustment in population density, but it will nevertheless facilitate the emergence of non-producing elite, even though there was no surplus.

Cereals, appropriability, and hierarchy (VoxEU)

In the case of the Trobriand Islanders, for example, their method of food gathering made the emergence of despotic elites less likely to occur:

…even though they feared and respected their “great provider” war chiefs, the Trobriand commoners were still a long way from being reduced to peasant status. Living on islands, the Trobrianders were not free to spread out, and their population density had risen in Malinowski’s time to sixty persons per square mile. Nonetheless, the chiefs could not control enough of the production system to acquire great power. There were no cereal grains and yams rot after three or four months, which means that the Trobriand “great provider” could not manipulate people through dispensing food nor could he support a permanent police-military garrison out of his stores.

An equally important factor was the open resources of the lagoons and ocean from which the Trobrianders derived their protein supply. The Trobriand chief could not cut off access to these resources and hence could never exercise genuine permanent coercive political control over his subordinates. But with more intense forms of agricuture and large harvests of grains, the power of “great providers” evolved far beyond that of the Trobriand chief. (C&K: 110)

Impaction – The areas where the first states arose were all surrounded by areas of sharply reduced productivity. Egypt was confined to a narrow strip along the Nile surrounded by vast and inhospitable deserts. Mesopotamia outside of the river valleys was surrounded by pastoral nomads, mountains, deserts, and other conditions unsuitable for intensive agriculture on a large scale. Similar conditions are found in the river valleys of China, India, Mexico and Peru. Harris argues for Carneiro’s circumscription theory

Under what circumstances would the conversion of a redistributive chieftainship to a feudal state be likely to occur? To intensification, population growth, warfare, storable grains, and hereditary redistributors, add one more factor: impaction. Suppose, as Robert Carneiro has suggested, a population being served by redistributors has been expanding inside a region that is circumscribed, or closed off, by environmental barriers. These barriers need not be uncrossable oceans or unclimbable mountains; rather, they might merely consist of ecological transition zones where people who had broken away from overcrowded villages would find that they would have to take a severe cut in their standard of living or change their whole way of life in order to survive. With impaction, two types of groups might find that the benefits of a permanently subordinate status exceeded the costs of trying to maintain their independence. First, villages consisting of kinspeople forced to enter the transition zones would be tempted to accept a dependent relationship in exchange for continued participation in the redistributions sponsored by their parent settlements. And second, enemy villages defeated in battle might find it less costly to pay taxes and tribute than to flee to these zones.

Very little physical coercion would be needed to keep the emergent peasantry in line. Kinship would be used to justify the legitimacy of differential access to resources on the part of junior or senior lineages or of wife-giving, wife-taking alliance groups (those who gave wives would expect tribute and labor services in return). Access to the stored grains might be made contingent upon rendering craft or military services. Or the “big men” of the more powerful group could simply begin taxation by redistributing less than they took in. External warfare would increase and defeated villages would be regularly assimilated into the tax and tribute network. A growing corps of military, religious, and craft specialists would be fed out of the central grain stores, amplifying the image of the rulers as beneficent “great providers.” And the social distance between the police-military-priestly-managerial elite and the emergent class of food-producing peasant drudges would widen still further as the scope of the integrated food production facilities increased, as trade networks expanded, as population grew, and as production was intensified still further through more taxation, labor conscription, and tribute.

How well does the theory of environmental circumscription and impaction accord with the evidence? The six most likely regions of pristine state development certainly do possess markedly circumscribed zones of production…all of these regions contain fertile cores surrounded by zones of sharply reduced agricultural potential. They are, in fact, river valleys or lake systems surrounded by deserts or at least very dry zones. The dependence of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and India in the flood plains of the Nile, Tigris-Euphrates, and Indus is well-known. In ancient China conditions of climate, soil, and topography limited intensive forms of agriculture beyond the river margins of the Yellow River Basin. Central highland Mexico south to Tehuantepec is also dry and in addition “suffers from severe rain shadow effects in the highland basins and stream valleys that were the aboriginal population centers.” And finally, the Peruvian coast is notable for the stark contrast between the lush vegetation bordering the short coastal rivers that flow down from the Andes and the desert conditions that prevail everywhere else. All of these regions present special difficulties to villages that might have sought to escape from the growing concentration of power in the hands of overly aggressive redistributor war chiefs. (C&K: 114-117)

Density – The first states all began in the broad alluvial river valleys suited to intensive year-round agricultural production, and hence, places which could support much larger and denser populations than regions where shifting cultivation was practiced. With more and more people working cheek-to-jowl in a small area year after year, no doubt more and more conflicts arose, leading to new needs for social management and conflict resolution. Hunter-gathers have very limited population density, horticulturalists would have somewhat higher, but it’s likely that the old tribal systems of conflict resolution and dispute adjudication would have been sadly inadequate for the kinds of densities produced by irrigation agriculture.

Furthermore, there is no doubt that all of these regions were the scene of rapid population growth prior to the emergence of the state. I mentioned earlier that the population of the Middle East increased fortyfold between 8000 and 4000 B.C. Karl Butzer estimates that the population of Egypt doubled between 4000 and 3000 B.C. William Sanders estimates that population tripled or quadrupled in the highland zones of early state formation in Mexico, and similar estimates also apply to Peru, China, and the Indus Valley. “For all areas one receives the impression of an increase not only in the total number of sites but also in the density of distribution, size, and elaboration of sites.” (C&K: 117-118)

It’s notable that the very existence of the state itself caused population growth. With its ability to do things like to build canals, store large surpluses, and restrict violence, as well as the advantages of scale, states would have engendered the very growth they sought to manage. This would have led to a feedback loop as growing populations due to state power would have created the need for more powerful elites and even more state power.

The organization that we call a “city-state” is the logical, indeed the inevitable, outcome of the invention of agriculture by an animal of social habits. Agriculture requires settlement. An unchanged breeding strategy makes that settlement dense. Government in a dense community requires specialization. And a dense settlement containing both rulers and ruled must inevitably divide up the country into land to live on and land to farm. The city-state has emerged, along with a rationale that requires people within it to have different specialties—that is, different niches…The need for government in dense communities did more than just save a few individuals from the worst consequences of our change of niche. It also allowed further increases in the carrying capacity. Government could ration, distribute and hoard. Surplus and deficit could be balanced from place to place, and from season to season, ensuring an even flow of the necessities for life, making the luxury of large families the more safely enjoyed. (FON)

Nutrition & Disease – Both nutrition and disease must have played a role in hierarchy after the emergence of the state  – officials could stay out of the heat and the moisture and escape the overcrowding and disease which beset increasingly densely packed-in food producers. And elites would have had differential access to better nutrition, which would have made their offspring healthier. We know that certain nutrients are critical for proper brain and body development, nutrients that would have become scarce as the means of getting food shifted. We now know thanks to the emerging science of epigenetics, that deficiencies in certain nutrients, as well as changes in status, causes differential gene expression – different genes are switched on and off. Moreover, these deficiencies persist through generations.  David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene, writes, “Some of the most provocative work in this field suggests that these epigenetic marks-and not just the genes themselves — may be altered by experiences and passed down to subsequent generations.” Elites with better access to nutrition early on could have passed down these advantages across generations. William McNeill writes in Plagues and Peoples:

Whatever the ancient distribution of schistosomiasis and similar infections may have been, one can be sure that wherever they became widespread they tended to create a listless and debilitated peasantry, handicapped both for sustained work in the fields and digging irrigation channels, and for the no less muscularly demanding task of resisting military attack or throwing off alien political domination and economic exploitation. Lassitude and chronic malaise, in other words, of the kind induced by blood fluke and similar parasitic infections conduces to successful invasion by the only kind of large-bodied predators human beings have to fear: their own kind, armed and organized for war and conquest. Although historians are unaccustomed to thinking of state building, tax collection, and booty raids in such a context, this sort of mutual support between micro- and macroparasitism is, assuredly- a normal ecological phenomenon.

How important parasitic infection of agricultural field workers may have been in facilitating the erection of the social hierarchies of early river valley civilizations cannot be estimated very plausibly. But it seems reasonable to suspect that the despotic governments characteristic of societies dependent on irrigation agriculture may have owed something to the debilitating diseases that afflicted field workers who kept their feet wet much of the time, as well as to the technical requirements of water management and control which have hitherto been used to explain the phenomenon. (P&P: 63-64)

Charismatic Authority – Sometimes a bold new idea or a particularly charismatic leader can use powers of persuasion or belief to unite disparate people and cause them to surrender their autonomy and bind together in some sort of collective endeavor, sort of like a religious cult on a larger scale. Francis Fukuyama writes:

Archaeologists who speculate about the origins of politics tend to be biased in favor of materialistic explanations like environment and level of technology, rather than cultural factors like religion, simply because we know more about the material environment of early societies. But it seems extremely likely that religious ideas were critical to early state formation, since they could effectively legitimate the transition to hierarchy and loss of freedom enjoyed by tribal societies…Religious authority allows a particular tribal leader to solve the large-scale collective action problem of uniting a group of autonomous tribes. To a much larger degree than economic benefit, religious authority can explain why a free tribal people would be willing to make a permanent delegation of authority to a single individual and that individual’s kin group…the only problem, however, is that you need a new form of religion, one that can overcome the inherent scale limitations of ancestor worship and other kinds of particluaristic forms of worship.

There is a concrete historical case of this process unfolding, which was the rise of the first Arab state under the Patriarchal and Umayyad caliphates. Tribal peoples inhabited the Arabian peninsula for many centuries, living on the borders of state-level societies like Egypt, Persia, and Rome/Byzantium. The harshness of their environment and its unsuitability for agriculture explained why they were never conquered, and thus why they never felt military pressure to form themselves into a centralized state…Things changed dramatically, however, with the birth of the Prophet Muhammad in A.D. 570 in the Arabian town of Mecca…There is no clearer illustration of the importance of ideas to politics than the emergence of an Arab state under the Prophet Muhammad. The Arab tribes played an utterly marginal role in world history until that point; it was only Muhammad’s charismatic authority that allowed them to unify and project their power throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The tribes had no economic base to speak of; they gained economic power through the interaction of religious ideas and military organization, and then were able to take over agricultural societies that did produce surpluses. (OPO: 87-88)

Even today we frequently see people surrender their initiative and independence to a larger religious group of their own volition with no coercion whatsoever. This is evident in cults from ones as small as the People’s Temple and the Branch Davidians, to massive cults such as Mormonism and Scientology. As Dostoyevsky said, “So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship.”

Warfare – Harris also points out that warfare tends to increase the power of elites. He argues that warfare is what allowed the big men to become war chiefs, and points out that earlier big men had not only thrown great feasts, but had also been great war leaders as well (which is why Flannery and Marcus argued that warfare, not feasting, was the root cause of inequality). The original big men also became the generals. Thus, in ancient times, it may be more accurate to speak of a “feasting-fighting” complex, rather than just feasting alone:

Formerly, the mumis [Big Men] were as famous for their ability to get men to fight for them a they were for their ability to get men to work for them. Warfare had been suppressed by the colonial authorities…but the memory of mumi war leaders was still vivid among the Siuai. As one old man put it: “In the olden times there were greater mumi than there are today, They laid waste to the countryside and their clubhouses were lined with the skulls of people they had slain.”

In singing the praises of their mumis, the generation of pacified Siuai call the “warriors” and “killers of men and pigs.”…Oliver’s informants told him that mumis had more authority in the days when warfare was still being practiced. Some mumi leaders even kept one or two prisoners who were treated like slaves and forced to work in the mumi’s family gardens. And people could not talk “loud and slanderously against their mumis without fear of punishment.” This fits theoretical expectations since the ability to redistribute meat, plant food, and other valuables goes hand-in-hand with the ability to attract a following of warriors, equip them for combat, and reward them with spoils of battle…the mumi who wanted to lead a war party had to be prepared personally to pay an indemnity for any of his men who were killed in battle and to furnish a pig for each man’s funeral feast. (C&K: 106-108)

Similarly, warfare was also a catalyst for early state formation:

Egypt’s legendary history begins with a tale of conquest, and specialized instruments of war and fortification appear early in the archaeological record. In Mesopotamia weaponry and representation of slaves and battles are present in early predynastic times. Fortifications and documentary evidence indicate that that Shang China, at the time of the emergence of the first Yellow River states, was an extremely militaristic society. Recent discoveries in the heartland of the earliest Indus River states have confirmed the existence of strongly fortified neolithic villages that were destroyed by conquest. In the New World “both coastal Peru and Mesoamerica show a long history of warfare”; archaeological “indications of fighting are present no later than the start of the first millennium B.C.” The kind of warfare that was conducive to the evolution of the state obviously must have involved long-distance external combat by large coalitions of villages rather than internal warfare…(C&K: 118)

Fukuyama cites warfare as key to the formation of the Chinese state:

The chief driver of Chinese state formation was not the need to create grand irrigation projects, nor the rise of a charismatic religious leader, but unrelenting warfare. It was war and the requirements of war that led to the consolidation of a system of ten thousand political units into a single state in the space of eighteen hundred years, that motivated the creation of a class of permanent trained bureaucrats and administrators, and that justified the move away from kinship as the basis for political organization. As Charles Tilly said of Europe in a later period, for China, “war made the state, and the state made war.” (OPO: 94)

Peter Turchin has argued that warfare is the crucial factor in state formation. States form in order to defend accumulated wealth from raiders, in his estimation. He argues that early states arose in transition zones between nomadic pastoralists and settled agriculturalists. In his view, it is not that these areas are circumscribed, but rather that they sit at the intersection of these two contrasting modes of living, what he calls “steppe frontiers.” He argues that such steppe frontiers are the crucible of state formation: “over 90% of mega-empires arose within or next to the Old World’s arid belt, running from the Sahara desert to the Gobi desert.” More recently, he has also pointed to warfare as critical to state formation and inequality:

I have argued…that conditions of endemic warfare between human groups create enormous selection pressures for larger group size (“God is on the side of big battalions”) and for effective (which means centralized) military organizations. Under such conditions, emergence of centralized military hierarchies becomes virtually inevitable. The result is the rise of increasingly complex centralized societies – chiefdoms, complex chiefdoms, and archaic states…Unfortunately, hierarchical organization gave too much power to military leaders and their warrior retinues, who abused it (“power corrupts”). The result was that early centralized societies (chiefdoms and archaic states) were  hugely unequal… alpha males set themselves up as god-kings.

Is Human Sacrifice Functional at the Society Level? (Cliodynamica)

The Z-Curve of Human Egalitarianism (Cliodynamica)

Even today, warlords tend to be the first form of “government” to form in the absence of a formal state caused by a breakdown in civil order. These warlords tend to be charismatic individuals who can command enough followers skilled in the application of violence to enforce civil order. They put an end to the widespread crime, looting, rape and other assorted violence that occurs during periods of state breakdown. This makes them the de facto government, and over time, they may evolve to become the de jure government as well. We see such a dynamic in post-collapse regions such as Somalia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Afghanistan. Eventually, the warlords seek legitimacy, which, as we saw, they typically get from some sort of external (usually religious) authority, or else they are put in their position by a stronger power. This exact same sequence may have happened in the distant past as well, except the violence was not caused by state breakdown, but rather by the absence of any state in the first place!

Regarding state formation, Francis Fukuyama concludes:

We seem to be getting closer to a fuller explanation for pristine state formation. We need the confluence of several factors. First, there needs to be a sufficient abundance of resources to permit the creation of surpluses above what is necessary for subsistence. This abundance can be natural: the Pacific Northwest was so full of game and fish that the hunter-gatherer-level societies were able to generate chiefdoms, if not states. But more often abundance is made possible through technological advances like agriculture. Second, the absolute scale of the society has to be sufficiently large to permit the emergence of a rudimentary division of labor and a ruling elite. Third, that population needs to be physically constrained so that it increases in density when technological opportunities present themselves, and in order to make sure that subjects cannot run away when coerced. And finally, tribal groups have to be motivated to give up their freedom to the authority of a state. This can come about through the threat of physical extinction by other, increasingly well-organized groups. Or it can result from the charismatic authority of a religious leader. Taken together, these appear to be plausible factors leading to the emergence of a state in places like the Nile Valley.

Thomas Hobbes argued that the state or Leviathan came about as a result of a rational social contract among individuals who wanted to solve the problem of endemic violence and end the state of war… I suggested that there was a fundamental fallacy in this, and all liberal social contract theories, insofar as it presupposed a presocial state of nature in which human beings lived as isolated individuals. Such a state of primordial individualism never existed; human beings are social by nature and do not have to make a self-interested decision to organize themselves into groups. The particular form that social organization takes is frequently the result of rational deliberation at higher levels of development. But at lower ones, it evolves spontaneously out of the building blocks created by human biology. (OPO: 89-90)

In addition to this excellent list, I would add two other critical factors: The role of climate, and The role of bronze.

The role of climate – The formation of the earliest states seems to coincide with a climatic transition. The final dessication of the Sahara desert and the end of the “Green Sahara” period coincides with the formation of the Egyptian state circa 3100BC. Southern Mesopotamia seems to have been unified at around the same time, although the first true Mesopotamian “empire” under Sargon uniting northern and southern Mesopotamia formed later in around 2700BC. A climate anomaly called the Piora Oscillation has been identified by climate scientists at around this time, although its cause is unknown–possibly a volcanic eruption.

How would climate change have spurred the formation of large states? In several ways: 1) An increased need to provide for the general welfare due to cascading crop failures of subsistence farms and loss of arable pasturelands 2.) Increased external conflicts spurred by more intensive competition between polities over a shrinking pool of resources, and 3.) Internal conflicts caused by climate refugees migrating into already occupied areas, spurring a greater need for conflict resolution, suppression of violence,and formal laws, and 4.) Farm failures would have put the unfortunates in debt to the fortunate and lucky, increasing debt slavery and the amounts of labor and control commanded by elites. This command over labor would have spurred the state to form.

A change in climate would have rapidly reduced the carrying capacity of the land. Dust bowl conditions caused by climate change would have led to numerous “climate refugees”–farmers whose subsistence lands had failed, or herders no longer able to find pasturage–migrating into the remaining agricultural areas to seek work. The only way such welfare could be provisioned was through the storehouses of powerful redistibutive elites. This would have further increased their political power. The people now fed through the rulers’ “generosity” would have been “in debt” to him, allowing him to command increasingly larger pools of labor This could be used for handicraft production, construction, or even warfare. The story of Joseph and his brothers in the Bible is illustrative here – perhaps the source of Hebrew slavery was debt slavery caused by famine?

The archaeologist Frank Hole has found numerous villages throughout Northern Mesopotamia which were apparently prosperous for hundred of years and then suddenly abandoned seemingly overnight. He believes this was due to climate change. He argues that the people from these villages became migrants into more prosperous areas, and that these climate refugees became the first “internal proletariat” who built and maintained the canals, city walls, and temples, all under the careful management of the priestly bureaucracy and scribes.

Yale University archaeologist Frank Hole believes that …”the landless and destitute,” … fled their traditional villages when the rain failed. He believes that they became a labor pool that could be mobilized to transform the village-based agricultural system of the ‘Ubaid farmer into a much more productive system under the aegis of growing cities. The same laborers, fed on public rations, could also build temples, city walls, and other public works. All this labor was carried out in the name of the gods, who controlled the fate of humankind and the malevolent forces of the cosmos. The villiages had coalesced into cities, each surrounded by brilliant green tracks of densely cultivated farmland in a brown and yellow landscape.(LS:)

Climate change would also have spurred the potential for increased interpersonal violence, and the need to tamp it down. As unrelated families and clans were forced into circumscribed areas due to a reduction in carrying capacity, the old tribal systems of conflict resolution would have failed in the face of rising numbers. Informal standards of behavior that worked at tribe or village level would no longer have sufficed. This would have spurred  the need for more formal lawgiving, and that is exactly what we see. Informal tribal systems were replaced with formal laws given by the rulers, often claiming sanction from the gods themselves.

Most early kings are associated with lawgiving in some form. The Law Code of Hammurabi is the most famous, but his was not the first law code.  It was preceded by The Law code of Urukagina and the Law code of Ur-Nammu. These codes are specifically attributed to rulers, typically under the tutelage of a deity. The Hammurabi basalt stele famously depicts him receiving the laws from the sun god Shamash (intestingly, legal ocdes at this time first begin to regulate sexual, in additional to social, behavior). Moses, of course, recived the twelve tablets of the law directly from God himself atop Mount Sinai  according to the Old Testament. The Salic Law (Lex Salicus) was first compiled by the Frankish King Clovis. Rulers and lawgiving have always gone hand-in-hand; Napoleon considered his reform of the French legal code an achievement on par with (if not above) his military conquests, and even today our power elite is dominated by lawyers.

In addition, most ancient cultures developed a concept of “order” emerging from primordial chaos, and the maintenance of that divine order on earth was the responsibility of the ruler. Often, this order was seen as a reflection of cosmic order on the earth. To the extent that that ruler was able to maintain such an order and to contain “misrule” he was seen as earning the divine sanction of the gods. For example, the Egyptians had their concept of Ma’at, and the Chinese developed the “Mandate of Heaven,” to justify centralized rule in the person of the emperor.

Of course, laws are useless without someone to enforce them.  Warlords, who were initially appointed to conduct external warfare, may have become the enforcers of internal warfare as well, or what we now call the police. Those who controlled this internal warfare become the de-facto rulers of the society by combining external warfare with internal law enforcement (Wittfogel’s “internal and external bureaus of plunder”).

External conflicts over shrinking resources would have also led to increasing conflicts between polities. In Mesopotamia, increasing diplomatic conflicts over canals and farmlands are well attested to in the historical record. Often times, these conflicts escalated into “hot wars” in which one city and its resources would be absorbed into another. The winner of such a conflict would get the vanquished polity’s resources, soldiers and tax base, given them an advantage in any future conflicts. This would have kicked off autocatyltic process in which “the big fish ate the little fish,” as advantages to larger scales would have become ever greater. (see The Law of Cumulative Advantage, below) For example, the numerous farming villages along the Nile River were eventually absorbed into three major polities by 3000BC : Naqada, This (Abydos), and Hierakonoplis. Eventually, one of these three (Hierakonopolis) conquers the other two, and the leader of this polity becomes the ruler of the Egyptian state (Dynasty 0). A similar process occurs in Mesopotamia as certain larger, more powerful city states “gobble up” other states, eventually resulting in Sargon’s Akkadian empire.

As resources became increasingly under the control of elites due to climate change, control over these resources would have also led to political centralization. A vivid example is provided by  a movie called “The Age of Consequences” which examines the climate devastation of modern-day Syria:

It starts by examining the history of Syrian civil war, which undoubtedly is rooted in centuries o[f] conflict, yet accelerated by a severe three-year drought in the mid-2000s which forced 1.5 million people from the agricultural countryside into major cities.

“A bunch of unemployed young men in a major city is not a recipe for stability,” says Brig. Gen. Stephen Curry, of the U.S. Marine Corps.

Today, Syria is the headquarters for the Islamic State, and they’re using resource scarcity to their advantage, the movie explains. With less water, extremists leverage the resource to take over local populations, as seen with ISIS’ withholding of water storage facilities in Syria.

“Water becomes an instrument of war,” he says.

So, what’s often called the “welfare/warfare state” is not a recent invention at all, but rather the very reason for state formation in the first place!

Ironically, it is also climate which is increasingly being indicted in the collapse of ancient states. For example, the 4.2 Kiloyear BP event is implicated in the fall of both Sargon’s Akkadian Dynasty and the end of the Old Kingdom in Egypt. Rather than just runaway population growth, it seems to be a rapid decline in the carrying capacity caused by climate changes (drought, etc.) that is associated with state failure and a reduction in social complexity throughout history.

The Role of Bronze – The onset of the Bronze Age would have led to two other critical factors for state formation: 1.) Increasingly complex and specialized techniques of warfare and the need to provide “high-tech” weaponry such as bronze swords, armor and chariots, and 2.) Increased requirements for trade, and 3.) Elite control of the trading networks and critical resources to smelt and work bronze, such as mines and smiths.

As noted above, the earliest states seem to have been born in a climate of persistent warfare. With the rise of states come walls around cities, indicating that warfare was ratcheted up a significant degree. Walls around cities only appear in the archaeological record with the early Bronze Age, indicating increased warfare (Jericho is the exception, and many archaeologists believe its walls were a form of flood control) This was the same time that bronze weapons and tools became widespread in use, supplanting bronze’s earlier use in ritual or prestige goods of little practical value.

Warfare at the Bronze-Age level was an order of magnitude more complex than the small-scale tribal battles and skirmishes which preceded it. Societies which could uses bronze weapons and armor would have been able to easily overrun cultures which could not utilize this resource. And, obviously, effective warfare requires a clear top-down hierarchy and formal chain of command. Societies which could mage this level of organization would become predominant, but this would obviously lead to a much more extreme “ranking” system, and larger bureaucracies to manage large-scale warfare. It would have also led to greater coercive power in the hands of elites. The organizers of warfare became the secular ruling class, claiming legitimacy by cultivating ties to the priesthood.

We see in Mesopotamian bas-reliefs massive siege engines built to conquer walled cities. We also see graphic depictions of whole populations being put to the sword. All of these are signs of increasing complexity and state capacity. Warlords who could deploy bronze weapons and armor, and provision the large armies required during this period, would have been the first kings and emperors. Most likely, what eventually became the “palace” began as a prominent household which had workmen attached who were able to work bronze and forge weapons and armor, and who could also organize the massive resources it took to conduct large-scale Bronze Age warfare.

Unlike iron, which is fairly evenly distributed throughout the earth’s crust, the key resources for bronze–copper and tin–are fairly concentrated in very specific and far-flung, geographical areas. This meant that the control of the mines and trade routes for bronze may have played a role in the centralization of power in the hands of elites. In most instances, rulers retained control over critical resources such as mines. In others, the bronze trade was carried out under the aegis of the ruling caste:

Archaeologists have suggested a theory linking the use of bronze to political centralization. Copper and tin are both scarce and need to be traded, their supplies can be monopolized, and so can trade. This seems to have created both the incentive and the opportunity to concentrate power and develop urban centers, for example in Knossos in Crete which was the core of Minoan Greece. While the Greek Bronze Age cities were destroyed around 1200 BCE and some, like Mycenae, never re-emerged, many, such as Athens re-emerged on the same spot so the early centralization of the Bronze Age may have left a path dependent legacy.

Later on, war chariots would have been added to the mix. In the Near East, horses first appeared in battle not as cavalry, but as chariots. Although the exact date and location of horse domestication his unknown, it is though that were first domesticated by the Botai people of Central Asia somewhere around 3200BC. By 2000BC they had found their way to the Near east, but the people there would not have known how to ride them, instead using them to pull  mobile war platforms.

Horses require an enormous amount of land to feed and pasture, meaning that throughout history, only the very rich (i.e. those who controlled large tracts of land) could afford to provision them. Due to their critical role in ancient warfare, this meant that only the rich could practically project force, and thus effectively became society’s ruling class. The connection between horse ownership and the ruling class is an old one extending back thousands of years. From the Roman equites class to the medieval knights, to the Mongols, horse ownership has always been intimately connected with wealth and political power in agrarian societies. Even today, the word for gentleman in most European languages is the same as that for horseman (caballero, chevalier, etc.). As horses became critical to warfare, this would also have empowered significantly wealthy households to acquire enough power to establish state capacity through violence.

What I suspect is that the arrival of mature Bronze technology caused an escalation in the complexity as well as the intensity and urgency, of warfare. Only societies that could manufacture and deploy bronze weapons and armor in battle could expect to survive in this new world. This led to much more social complexity and hierarchical leadership. As such warlords became the new leaders, their specialization in the techniques of violence and coercion allowed states to be much more aggressive and despotic. This was the beginning of the vast empires and conquests of the old world.

The Law of Cumulative Advantage: – Barry Kemp, in his book Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization, proposes a theory of state formation that ties many of the above threads together. It is based on what is known as The Law of Cumulative advantage, or sometimes as the Matthew Effect:

The arise of leading elites happened in fact in various regions and therefore we theorize a situation that the author compares with the game of ‘Monopoly’.

All the players begin to play from a similar point , but when, for combination of chances (environmental and local factors) and personal decisions, they come into contact and conflict with each other, the initial equality begins to tremble until the equilibrium falls : this in turn distorts “the whole subsequent progress of the game. It has a knock-on effect out of all proportion to its original importance… We can imagine thousands of games proceeding simultaneously, with winners promoted to join a progression of increasingly select games ” (note that each player involves a time-scale of many generations).

The ‘victory’ of a small agricultural village over its neighbours takes it on a path towards an higher level of prosperity and power, because the winner can take the wealth of the defeated through taxes; furthermore a ‘multiplier effect’ caused by the interaction of different factors (religion, symbols of power, technology, population, war, elites’ building and tombs, trade routes control and others) increases the size of the village and that of the territory it controls.

” Two factors determine how far and how fast along this path particular communities journey… The natural resource base, the potential for accumulating pockets of surplus commodities which form the basis of power … and the creative power of imagination to fashion a distinctive ideology which through a wealth of symbol and ritual commands widespread respect “.

Kemp discusses 3 ‘foundations of ideology’: the local tradition, the containment of unrule and architecture as political statement.

‘Local tradition’ is all the complex of beliefs and symbols displayed by the elites to reinforce their right to rule. Many of these (some myths, traditions, religious beliefs, symbols of power) became part of the dynastic culture, while others disappeared.

“Containment of the unrule” is the concept which creates the ‘need for kingship’: the mythical golden age where and when ‘maat’ ruled is continuously menaced by the forces of chaos. The divine king is the only power that can make maat prevail over chaos. The ‘Architecture as political statement’ is another complex concept: a number of symbolic (religious, political,social) and also psychological factors are linked with (monumental) architecture; the meaning of ‘palace facade’ enclosure walls and of buildings within them (mounds) and other monuments lies in the sphere of the religious beliefs (think about the Djoser’s complex symbols), but it also has an heavy impact on the minds of the ruled masses, astonished by the elites’ display of richness.

Such a ‘conspicuous consumption’ of wealth for building larger and larger tombs reinforces the right to reign and augments the authority of the leaders over the submitted classes which marvel at the creations of their rulers (made by their own hands).

http://xoomer.virgilio.it/francescoraf/hesyra/synthesis.htm

This “Law of Cumulative Advantage” not only provides an explanation for the centralization of states, but also for the escalating gap between the rich and the poor that resulted in permanent ruling classes and caste systems.

Conclusion

I suspect that any one of the above factors were necessary, but not sufficient, for the formation of early states and large empires (because many places had a handful of these factors, but only the cradles of pristine states had all of them in effect simultaneously). In other words, where all of these functions arrive, you get a perfect “cocktail” that leads to the formation of kingdoms and proto-states out of earlier centralized chiefdoms, with hereditary kingship, hierarchy, formalized offices and aristocracy, standing armies and military specialists, industrial arts, long-distance trade, taxes, universal written laws and courts, large-scale construction and infrastructure projects, and a literate bureaucracy. Construction, art, writing and music become much more prominent and built from non-perishable materials.

Once these states form, the rest just falls into place:

Once pristine states have formed in a given region, secondary states begin to develop under a variety of special conditions. Some secondary states form as a matter of defense against the predatory inroads made by their more advanced neighbors; others develop as a result of attempts to capture control over strategic trade routes and the increased volume of goods in transit which usually accompanies the growth of states in any region. Still others form as part of an attempt by nomadic peoples living on the margin of a state to plunder its wealth.

States found in relatively low-density, unimpacted regions must always be examined with these possibilities in mind before concluding that intensification and reproductive pressures did not cause the evolution of the region’s pristine states. For example, low-density pastoralist people–Turks, Mongols, Huns, Manchus and Arabs–have repeatedly developed states, but only by preying upon the preexisting Chinese, Hindu, roman, and Byzantine empires. In West Africa secondary states developed as a result of Moslem and European attempts to control the slave, gold, and ivory trades, while in southern Africa the Zulu developed a state in the nineteenth century to meet the military threat posed by Ducth colonialists invading their homeland.(C&K 121-122)

Marvin Harris ends his chapter on the formation of pristine states with a meditation on the power of creeping normalcy:

What I find most remarkable about the evolution of pristine states is that it occurred as the result of an unconscious process: the participants in this enormous transformation seem not to have known what they were creating. By imperceptable shifts in the redistributive balance from one generation to the next, the human species bound itself over to a form of social life in which the many debased themselves on behalf of the exaltation of the few. To paraphrase Malcolm Webb, at the beginning of the lengthy process no one could foresee the end result. “Tribal egalitarianism would gradually vanish even as it was being appended, without awareness of the nature of the change, and the final achievement of absolute control would at that point seem merely a minor alteration of established custom. The consolidation of governmental power would have taken place as a series of natural, beneficial, and only slightly (if at all) extra-legal responses to current conditions, with each new acquisition of state power representing only a small departure from contemporary practice.” By the time the remnants of the old council finally sank into impotence before the rising power of the king, no one would remember the time when the king had only been a glorified [big man] whose exalted status rested on the charity of his friends and relatives… (C&K: 122)

Next: summary and concluding remarks.

C&K: Marvin Harris, Cannibals and Kings.
OPO: Francis Fukuyama,The Origins of Political Order.
FON: Paul Colinvaux, The Fates of Nations.
LAW: Piotr Steinkeller, Michael Hudson (eds.), Labor in the Ancient World.
P&P: William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples.

The Feasting Theory – Part 3 – The Origin of Agriculture

ag2

Not only does feasting explain the rise of hierarchy in various cultures, it also provides a good narrative about how domestication came to replace big game hunting and foraging as humans primary survival strategy.

1. What is domestication?

It might be helpful to briefly consider what domestication is. Simply put, everything that helps a plant or animal survive in the wild tends to disappear, which is how we can tell them apart from their wild counterparts (the ones which aren’t extinct, anyway). Characteristics that would be ‘disadvantageous’ to survival, but ‘advantageous’ to humans, can only survive with active human intervention. This is how archeologists can tell from the archaeological record that certain plants and animals are being subject to artificial selection by humans, rather than just being gathered or hunted from the wild.

For example, the things that help a grass propagate its seeds are reversed in domestication: the seeds are heavier, and they are more resistant to “shattering”— breaking off the stalk. Naturally, when a grass tends to ripen, it wants to spread its seeds far and wide. These mutations would harm any plant trying to survive in the wild, but from the human standpoint they are highly desirable. Similarly, animals become smaller, weaker and more docile as a result of artificial selection, because such animals are easier to manage. In the wild, it’s doubtful that such genes would propagate of their own accord. So archaeologists look for the telltale signs to determine the origin of domestication—plumper seeds, tougher rachis (the part that holds the seeds onto the stalk), and smaller bones in the case of animals. The pattern of bones is also a clue – herders tend to slaughter males disproportionately and keep the females for breeding (and later, milking).

Other changes took place as well. Grass seeds tend to require certain stimuli, such as light or heat in order to germinate, to ensure that they only sprout under favorable conditions. If they do not find these conditions they will go dormant. This was bad for farmers, however, who want seeds to germinate immediately after sewing during planting season. The seeds which grew right away were favored, so seeds which suppressed dormancy were propagated, and seeds that went dormant were not. Similarly, seeds tend to germinate and ripen at different times of the year as a survival mechanism, but farmers want to sew and harvest all the seeds all at the same time. This favored a reduction of variation in the growing time window. This was bad from the plant’s point of view, since an entire crop could fail if conditions were not right.  But it is much more convenient for human growers. Another end result is that genetic diversity as drastically reduced, another telltale difference between domesticated and wild varieties of both plants and animals.

After you collect wheat, you have to thresh it, which is separating the wheat from the chaff. Chaff is a dry husk, or hull surrounding the grain that needs to be removed during processing. This is accomplished by milling or pounding. The grains are then tossed into the air, allowing the lighter chaff to blow away (called winnowing). Some seeds have a mutation which caused the chaff to separate more easily, making the wheat easier to process. After threshing, seeds with the chaff still attached would have been discarded, propagating the mutation for the “self threshing” variety.

An Edibale History of Humanity by Tom Standage, Chapter One: The Invention of Farming (Washington Post)

Due to this intense selection pressure, cereal grains became domesticated over the course of as little as 200 years. A similar process took place for all sorts of vegetables— the ones which had traits most convenient for human farmers became propagated by them causing genetic changes which resulted in domesticated cereals, legumes, pulses, sedges, fruits, and so forth. Due to these mutations, such plants became utterly dependent upon us to propagate them. In essence, domesticated plants and animals became a co-dependent species with us–we are now the “vehicle” they use to propagate themselves. Take away humans and these mutant varieties would quickly go extinct. A vast field of wheat or corn could never exist in nature; it can only be sustained by human activity.

What this means is that not only did we domesticate wheat, but wheat domesticated us. And by doing so, these cereal grains made themselves the most “successful” plant species on the planet. Humanity’s staple crops – wheat, rice, and maize – are grown all over the world in millions of tons. We have wiped out entire ecosystems with the plow and planted monocrops of grains that are useful to us in their place. We have altered the face of the planet to suit one particular species—us. What this also means is that there are less and less resources for other animals, leading to mass extinctions. It is worth noting that mass extinction is what kicked off this cycle in the first place.

Evidence from the bones and teeth of ancient skeletons shows that more and more of the diet was proved by these cereal grains over time. Their diets are higher in carbohydrates than hunter gathers, indicating a shift to more plant foods and less meat. The natural sugars in grains also cause teeth to rot. Neolithic skeletons show signs of repetitive labor, arthritis, inflammation, dental caries–a whole host of ailments. It’s clear that grass seeds, probably harvested initially for beer brewing, eventually became the primary food source for a growing population of low-status individuals.

Wheat, it turns out, is a terrible thing to base a human diet around. These plants produce a number of semi-toxic “anti-nutrients” in their seeds to discourage them from being eaten by predators, as Mark Sisson explains:

Living things generally do not want to be consumed by other living things. Being digested, for the most part, tends to interrupt survival, procreation, propagation of the species – you know, standard stuff that fauna and flora consider pretty important. To avoid said consumption, living things employ various self defense mechanisms…Plants, though, are passive organisms without the ability to move, think, and react (for the most part). They must employ different tactics to ensure propagation, and they generally have to rely on outside forces to spread their seed. And so various methods are “devised” to dissuade consumption long enough for the seed to get to where it’s going. Nuts have those tough shells, and grains have the toxic anti-nutrients, lectins, gluten, and phytates…

Lectins…bind to insulin receptors, attack the stomach lining of insects, bind to human intestinal lining, and they seemingly cause leptin resistance. And leptin resistance predicts a “worsening of the features of the metabolic syndrome independently of obesity”…

Gluten, found in wheat, rye, and barley, is a composite of the proteins gliadin and glutenin. Around 1% of the population are celiacs, people who are completely and utterly intolerant of any gluten. In celiacs, any gluten in the diet can be disastrous… compromised calcium and vitamin D3 levels, hyperparathyroidism, bone defects…

Phytates…make minerals bio-unavailable, thus rendering null and void the last, remaining argument for cereal grain consumption.

…Is there a good reason for anyone (with access to meat, fruit, and vegetables, that is) to rely on cereal grains for a significant portion of their caloric intake? The answer is unequivocally, undeniably no. We do not need grains to survive, let alone thrive. In fact, they are naturally selected to ward off pests, whether they be insects or hominids. I suggest we take the hint and stop eating them.

Also, the protein in grains is incomplete. A complete protein is one that contains all nine essential amino acids. These amino acids are used to construct proteins that the body needs to build healthy bones, skin, hair, muscles, etc. Animal-based proteins (from meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, fish, shellfish, etc.) are complete proteins. Vegetable based proteins from beans, grains, legumes and vegetables are not (except for soy and quinoa).

Incomplete proteins can be combined with other incomplete proteins to form complete proteins–beans and rice, for example. However, if one does not have this proper mix of complimentary foods, or enough meat, getting only incomplete proteins impairs health and the body’s ability to grow and repair itself naturally. This leads to the phenomenon of malnourished grain farmers.

Grain also does not have enough essential vitamins on its own. Essential vitamins that the body cannot produce internally need to be consumed in the diet to remain healthy, mainly through plant foods. One common example is vitamin C. Humans, unlike most animals, cannot produce vitamin C in their livers, indicating that we probably got enough of it in our ancestral diet. If we do not get enough vitamin C, we get a disease called scurvy, with all sort of health problems including hair and teeth falling out. Other vitamins need to be consumed through plant foods as well – vitamins A, B-complex, K, etc.

As populations increased, the masses increasingly had to rely on cheap grains to keep them alive. As farmers increasingly focused on grains, they had to get other sources of nutrition from elsewhere if they could. Such farmers often lacked access to sufficient meat or vegetables. The food producing class increasingly became dependent upon grains, and hence became increasingly malnourished. “Man cannot live by bread alone” as the Bible says, and it is very true.

As grains formed a greater and greater part of the human diet in these parts of the world, we see a dramatic decline in health. This is most directly observed in the skeletons. Basically, as we made more and more people, grains were the only food source abundant enough to feed the large masses  of people. What began as a supplementary food source became the only thing that kept most people alive, as it still is today.

2. The Rise of Agriculture

It’s been known by anthropologists since at least the 1960’s that the transition to agriculture was profoundly detrimental to overall human health and well-being. Rather than an improvement as formerly thought, they discovered that it led to worse health, more work, more crowding, more conflict, and the spread of contagious diseases. Higher populations caused greater competition for limited resources, and hence engendered increasing warfare and interpersonal violence (and the need for specialists in violence to control both). Mark Nathan Cohen writes in “The Food Crisis in Prehistory:”

“If agriculture provided neither better diet, nor greater dietary reliability, nor greater ease in the food quest; if it did not of itself confer the capability of sedentism, but conversely provided a poorer diet, less reliably, at equal or greater labor costs; why did anyone become a farmer? According to Lee (1968), Bushmen, who like other contemporary hunting and gathering groups know all about planting seeds, argue that this would be foolish since there is so much wild food available to harvest.” p. 39

It’s also plagued by an intractable chicken-and-egg problem. It used to be thought that runaway population growth caused the need to intensify food production and thus led to the creation of settled agriculture. But this leads to an obvious contradiction, since agriculture is what causes runaway population growth in the first place! Besides, hunters-and-gatherers managed to maintain their population under the resource base for hundreds of thousands of years, even millions if we consider prehuman ancestors. Many hunters-and-gatherers still do so today. Why would population suddenly race ahead of the food supply?

Most previous theories concerning the rise of settled agriculture centered around two major themes:

1.) Overpopulation. This has been a common theme: that the increasing population pressure drove an intensification of previously unknown or little-used techniques into full-blown agriculture, and with the growing populations that resulted, hunting and gathering was no longer a viable way of life. As agriculture scaled up into expansionist agrarian empires, they just displaced all other modes of life. This thesis was argued by Mark Nathan Cohen. He writes: “…population growth and population pressure are essentially ubiquitous in the archaeological record and can readily be perceived as leading to economic and technological growth culminating in the origins of agriculture.”

The problem with this is the above question. Why, after countless millennia of successful foraging lifestyles would this suddenly be abandoned? What would account for such explosive population growth, especially as the large megafauna were disappearing?

2.) Climate. The climate argument has become increasingly common in recent times. This theory was first proposed by V. Gordon Childe in his “Oasis Theory.” He argued that as the climate became cooler and drier, population centers concentrated near available water supplies, and the subsequent density, combined with the abundance of wild cereals growing near water, led to experiments in cultivation.

Childe coined the term “Fertile Crescent” to describe this geographical area. Later, Robert Braidwood made a similar argument, instead looking to the “Hilly Flanks” of the Zagros Mountains as the origin of domestication. Others argued that the stable and wet climate of the incoming Holocene era at the end of the Ice Age simply made agriculture a viable possibility for the first time; in other words, we were always going to do agriculture, it’s just that the climate was too unstable for it to be a viable replacement for hunting and gathering before the Holocene.

Lately, climate research has focused specifically on a period called the Younger Dryas, during which societies all over the world appear to have independently made the the switch to permanent settlements and domesticated cereal grain cultivation. This was a period of a much cooler and drier climate conditions around the world from about 11,500 – 9,500 B.C. It is thought that this period of climatic stress coming after the abundance of the warm centuries caused people to take up agriculture to cope with shortages resulting from the deteriorating climate conditions.

The Younger Dryas climate anomaly was thought to have been caused by the rapid collapse of the Laurentide Ice Sheet spilling water into the North Atlantic and shutting down the thermohaline circulation that warms Northern Europe and Western Asia. More recent research has pointed to a comet impact as the primary cause.

Hayden disagrees with both of these these as causes. Instead, he claims it was abundance, not scarcity, that allowed for the experimental behaviors that led to full-time settled agriculture. A period of climatic change and food stress would be the worst possible time to transition to a highly experimental, unreliable, and highly variable source of food such as cultivation of grains, he argues. Rather, people would most likely fall back to a lower level of population in such a situation.

“The most common explanations for the social changes emerging from domestication involve chains of causality in which environmental and population pressures led to crises that forced people to adopt cultivation and participate in complex societies, which then enabled specialization and technological advances, empowering these groups to dominate others. However, the high risks, lower returns, and nutritional disadvantages of cultivation do not seem to support exclusively subsistence-oriented explanations of domestication. Moreover, a link between population pressure and domestication or cultivation is far from certain. The assertion that sedentism produces complex societies is also problematic, since some hunter-gatherers became sedentary without developing social complexity, and conversely, there are highly mobile societies, such as pastoral nomads, that have developed chiefdoms and even empires.”

The feasting model solves several of the above problems. It solves the chicken-and-egg conundrum by proposing that human social behaviors led to the production of reliable surpluses first, with population growth resulting thereby. The need to generate greater and greater surpluses for feasting led to intensification, not some sort of pressing environmental need. T. Douglas Price writes:

But what caused the adoption of agriculture? Population, climate change, and circumscription are impossible to indict as immediate causes of change. More people per se do not dictate the adoption of agriculture; how are mouths to feed directly translated into the cropping of hard-grained cereals? The consequences and conditions…suggest that human populations were pulled into the adoption of farming rather than pushed. Answers to such questions about the transition to agriculture clearly have more to do with internal social relations than with external events involving climate and the growth of human population. (FSI: 144)

In an examination of the origins of agriculture Barbara Bender argued that “the enquiry into agricultural origins is not, therefore, about intensification per se, not about increased productivity, but about increased production and about why increased demands are made on the economy.” Bender pointed out that food production was a question of commitment and social relations, about alliance structures and the individuals operating within such structures, not about technology or demography. Bender was among the first to point out that leadership, alliance, and exchange gave rise to a need for surplus production. (FSE: 145)

The people who occupied the Levantine corridor and Near East during the early Holocene are referred to as Natufians by archaeologists, after a cave where their settlements were discovered. The time period immediately prior to the Neolithic is called the Late Paleolithic, or the Epipaleolithic. Hayden et. al. make the case that the inhabitants of the Levant in the Natufian period were very similar to the complex foragers of the West Coast areas of North America:

All of these indications of feasting (large hearths, surpluses, dense faunal remains, high cost serving and processing vessels, prestige items, special locations) conform to what we know ethnographically about other complex  hunter-gatherers such as those in California, the North American Northwest Interior, and the Northwest Coast who characteristically engaged in feasting utilizing shells as feasting gifts for social and political purposes as well as sometimes serving valued foods in prestigiously carved bowls. While there may still be reluctance in some circles to use ethnographic parallels to interpret Paleolithic or Epipaleolithic contexts, the Natufian is often referred to as “the best known example of a complex hunter-gatherer society in southwest Asia.”

We are persuaded that the case is strong for viewing the major Late Epipaleolithic communities of the Near East as complex hunter/gatherers similar in fundamental ways to ethnographic groups in California and the Northwest Interior. To iterate, these similarities included: sometimes large community sizes, high population densities, seasonal or more pronounced degrees of sedentism, exploitation of rich resources, private ownership, wealth items, storage practices, burial practices, and socioeconomic differentiation at the transegalitarian (not chiefdom or stratified) level…the large sedentary Natufian communities communities are associated with “the development of exchange systems based on principles other than generalized reciprocity, non-kinship-based status distinctions, and the development of more complex organizational systems than typically occur under hunter-gatherers. [R.] Kelly concurs that increased sedentism implies a relatively rich resource base and storage, which would have loosened the cultural constraints on self-interested pursuits, allowed aggrandizing individuals to obtain benefits for themselves, and eventually develop inequalities.

All these effects are hallmarks of transegalitarian complex hunter-gatherers. Sharing networks could be expected to have become restricted, and economically based strategies for reproduction and survival would have become predominant, espcially the use of surpluses in feasts. Thus, it appears that in the Late Epipaleolithic, there were well-established contexts and motivations for producing surplus-demanding, labor intensive beverages like nut oils and brewed liquids.
(WWBiN: 137138 – emphasis in original)

First evidence of farming in Mideast 23,000 years ago (Science Daily)

Population boom preceded early farming (Science Daily)

This leads to the following observations:

• Rather than inequality being a result of agriculture, it was actually a cause. Transegalitarian societies even before the Neolithic Revolution already had levels of social stratification and hierarchy, as we’ve already seen. The need to repay elites during feasting events motivated people to work harder and to use intensified growing and breeding techniques that eventually gave rise  to fully-fledged domestication.

• Rather than agriculture leading to sedentism, sendentism leads to agriculture. Rather than a nomadic existence, complex foragers and horticulturalists had enough abundance to settle down in one place for long periods of time long before domestication. The abundance of wild plant foods  allowed people to settle down in the ancient Near East while still maintaining a primarily hunting/fishing and gathering lifestyle centered on figs, nuts, gazelle and seafood, supplemented with beans, seeds and legumes. For example, during the warming period, the Levantine corridor was a woodland covered with oak and pistachio forests, separated by grasslands where abundant herds of wild gazelles roamed.

• Rather than large-scale communal labor and occupational specialization being a result of agriculture, large amounts of cooperative labor for building feasting and religious complexes and other tasks would have been long present prior to the rise of agriculture, with feasting as a motivator for the summoning and command of labor pools, and the demand for prestige goods. Long-distance trading networks maintained by elites would have been present prior to agriculture.The discovery of Göbekli Tepe, a large stone monument built prior to domestication appears to confirm this idea. Clearly, a society which could construct such a structure was far more complex than autonomous groups of small foraging bands.

Remarkably, similar patterns of collective work and the role of feasting and psychological inducements as a means of compelling individuals to contribute their labor toward communal building projects may be discerned already at Göbekli Tepe, a monumental ceremonial center in south-eastern Turkey, which dates to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A and B (10,000-8,000 B.C.),. The builders of this cultic center were disparate groups of hunter-gathers, who, over a period of many generations, were drawn periodically from a wide geographical area to participate in repeated construction work. As recently argued by Oliver Dietrich and his co-authors, a prerequisite for the long life of the ceremonial center and its complex symbolic system “must have been an extensive network of supra-regional contacts sustained on a regular basis. For the large amount of quarrying, stone-carving and construction work required to build a monumental sanctuary like Göbekli Tepe, there had to be a means of bringing together groups from different areas and organizing communal work. An answer on how this was achieved lies in the widespread evidence for extensive feasting, including the consumption of—most likely alcoholic—beverages, in the PPN archaeological record.” In view of the patently religious character of that center, it is virtually certain that the feasts that took place at Göbekli Tepe, and the various festive activities (such as dancing and musical performances) that undoubtedly were associated with them, has a “strong cultic significance.” Because of this, what motivated the builders of Göbekli Tepe to contribute their labor likely was not just the expectation of free food and drink. An equally (if not more) important motivation in that respect must have been the possibility of participating in Göbekli’s cultic rituals and, through that, of coming into direct contact with the divine world—or, in other words, of partaking in a profound religious experience. (LAW: 202-203)

In fact, many people posit an Anatolian origin for domestication. The earliest evidence of domesticated einkorn wheat is found there, close to the similar cultic structure of Nevalı Çori. Evidence also points to the domestication of grapes, goats and cattle in the same region.

wade_graphic_600

Animal domestication is older than previously thought (Mathilda’s Anthropology Blog)

All this causes Hayden to argue that agriculture could only arise in conditions of abundance, rather than being an adaptation to declining resources or population pressure:

“The social competition model proposes that a wealth rather than a dearth of resources enabled people to engage in high risk production activities such as cultivation and domestication. In this scenario, a failure of food production for feasts could not affect basic subsistence, but success would provide important sociopolitical advantages. Neolithic domesticates are proposed, in part, to have been used as costly status symbols, helping to bring an end to egalitarianism largely via feasting.”

It was the need to generate greater and greater surpluses for feasts, argues Hayden, that caused people to intensify their production of certain particularly palatable or desirable foodstuffs, and thus provided the real impetus for domestication of plants and animals.

“Since individuals were vying with each other to acquire mates or allies using surplus production, there could never be enough food produced. Lower-ranked individuals could always be expected to try to produce more in order to improve their chances of obtaining better allies or partners, no matter what the absolute level of production was…”

I expect the first evidence of domestication to appear in complex hunter gatherer societies organized at the Reciprocator level.in the Near East, Cauvin has argued that domestication was not a function of ecological pressures, but of social changes. He notes, for example, that the bull became an important symbolic animal before it was domesticated. Both of these observations fit well with the model of feasting that is being proposed here since feasting is expected to develop under conditions of surplus and involve difficult-to-procure animals like bulls that could be used as symbols of bravery, power and prowess.

This is a new dimension of food demand and production that is simply lacking among egalitarian foragers. It first appears among the complex hunter-gatherers that emerged at the end of the Pleistocene, *prior* to the domestication of plants and animals…transegalitarian feasting based on the production of surpluses is a new, powerful force that relentlessly produces food production to its maximum limit under favorable technological and environmental conditions. Feasting and other characteristics of complex hunter-gatherers (increased sedentism, storage, socioeconomic inequalities, prestige goods) are well documented in the Natufian culture of the Near East and in the Jomon culture of Japan, while good cases can be made for similar developments in China, and northeastern North America.

I argue that domestication is not simply the ultimate end product of incremental population growth over the span of 2 million years, or of gradual improvements in human intelligence, or other cumulative changes. Rather, domestication was one element of a constellation of entirely new traits that emerged rather abruptly with the appearance of complex hunter-gatherers involving economically based competition and the conversion of economic surpluses into other desirable goods, debts, and services. Underlying all these developments were the new strategies adopted by transegalitarian societies to reduce risks involving subsistence, reproduction, and conflicts. The strategies with the most far-reaching consequences were storage and feasting, and under favorable conditions, these strategies repeatedly resulted in domestication in many places in the world in order to meet the inherently escalating demands for more staples and more prestige foods (and ordinary foods) used in feasts.

More recently, Hayden has argued that the need to throw competitive feasts would have led to the cultivation of certain favored foods, such as wild cereal grains. Cultivation of cereal grains (wheat, barley, millet, rice, sorghum, maize) has always been linked with civilization. Yet, such foods are universally considered “unpalatable” by hunter gatherers; in other words, such foods were exploited on occasion, but only if there was nothing else available. Plus, they would have taken a lot more work to process. Why would hunter-gathers, facing extreme conditions, have gone through all the extra work necessary to procure foods that they by-and-large did not like to eat, rather than just reducing their numbers as they had always done in times past?

Hayden has endorsed the idea, advanced by many others, that cereal grains were first cultivated as a “luxury” food, and they would have been used primarily for brewing the alcoholic beverages, which were central to Neolithic feasting. This would explain why hunter-gatherers, who considered such foods unpalatable, would not have bothered much with them: the simply didn’t have the equipment or sedentism necessary to turn them into alcohol, unlike complex foragers:

…all experimental, ethnographic, and comparative observations…have tended to support an important role for grains in brewing for feasts. We thus endorse the earlier suggestions made by Sauer, Braidwood, Katz and Voigt, McGovern, and others to the effect that increasing demands for brewing beer was likely a major motivating factor for cultivating and domesticating cereals in the Near East. Similar arguments might also be advanced for breadmaking…We conclude that feasting and brewing very likely provided a key link between increasing “complexity” and the adoption of cereal cultivation….(WWBiN:142)

“… Epipaleolithic populations exploited and then cultivated cereals, not primarily for food but to brew alcohol for use in competitive feasting…. In this view, aggrandizing individuals used alcohol to attract people to feasts and then to manipulate them to acquire political power via reciprocal feasting debts. This ‘alcohol model’ when combined with feasting models explicitly addresses the co-occurrence of two key Neolithic phenomena – cereal agriculture and social inequality – and is supported by a range of archaeological and ethnographic data…”

Hayden has recently argued that foods that contained, or could be converted into, psychoactive substances, would have especially been the main focus of the competitive feasting menu for social reasons:

“Extensive archaeological evidence shows that a significant portion of the effort of early cultivators globally was probably directed to the production of psychoactive substances (PAS), including the use of cereals, poppies, coca, sugar cane, tobacco, and cannabis. We propose a model involving PAS in two phases of Neolithication. First, people were attracted to PAS, and accorded them prestige because of their rewarding, mood-altering properties. Second, as cultivation enabled PAS use to become widespread and regular, the power of PAS to influence social behavior helped to create and reinforce complex social structures by inducing acceptance of crowded conditions, heirarchical power, and regular, hard work for others.…feasting and brewing very likely provided a key link between increasing “complexity” and the adoption of cereal cultivation.”

Psychoactive substances (PAS) would have made living in the newly developing agricultural societies, with their long hours of toil, overcrowding, lack of sanitation, rigid laws, and hierarchy, more tolerable. Even today, we see the widespread use of alcohol to cope with living in dense, crowded, hierarchical, urbanized societies, and as a social lubricant allowing communication with unrelated strangers (“liquid courage”). We also see the widespread consumption of numerous “comfort foods” such as breads, cereals and sugars, essential components of today’s processed foods (and hence widespread obesity). Such foods also help to make “civilization” more tolerable.

A number of people have pointed out the connection between the widespread use of stimulants (tea, coffee, tobacco) and the early Industrial Revolution, particularly in regards to its brutally long working hours (alcohol consumption, interestingly, became suppressed for the first time). More recently, the use of opioids is epidemic, and cannabis is increasingly being used to take the edge off modern societies where social mobility is gone, working hours ever longer, and working conditions are ever more dull and alienating. In fact, we could argue that antidepressants are merely the latest continuation of this long-term trend: the development of psychoactive substances (PAS) to make living in the type of profoundly unnatural society which allows Tripe-A personalities to flourish tolerable for the rest of us:

Mood-altering PAS stimulate brain reward pathways. They are highly prized and sought for effects such as amicability, reduction of stress, and feelings of liberation. They are widely used in many cultures, and they have been major trade goods throughout history and prehistory. Psychoactive substances were not the only products of early cultivators, but they were typically the most highly valued and were given religious and social significance. Even today, the majority of adult humans regularly use PAS derived from early domesticates including alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, chocolate, and sugars.

Ancient users may not have perceived these as drugs in the modern sense but simply as desirable, good tasting, good feeling foods. In early modern times, PAS played a facilitating role in global colonization, used first to entice indigenous peoples into labor arrangements, and then to reward individuals for labor and production outputs. The effects of PAS upon mood and motivation are critical: “Habitual users tend to develop psychological or physiological dependency on them and, in turn, on the trader or merchant who provides them,”

[…]

Psychoactive substance use does not represent merely a problematic behavior indulged in by a minority; rather it is an important and routine shaper of behavior for the vast majority of post-Neolithic humans. Is this mere coincidence, or is there a causal link between widespread adoption of mood altering PAS and the emergence of Neolithic cultures? PAS induce pro-social behavior and conformity to social constraints, and reduce scalar, work, and status-related stress. Thus, PAS should promote tolerance of larger, more impersonal social structures and the behaviors required of individuals participating in them. They provide substitute rewards in the present that facilitate commitments to work for uncertain future rewards, and they are used to elicit appropriate emotional responses during work. Over the millennia, sociopolitical and economic organizers have promoted their use by workers.

Interestingly, the use of psychedelics appears to have been suppressed in hierarchical societies (as they still are). I speculate that the reason for this is because one way chiefs and high priests gained power was by claiming to be the representatives of the gods on earth, or being able to communicate with the ancestors. In traditional tribal cultures, this role is consigned to the shaman, often aided by various psychoactive substances. If such substances were widespread, they might allow “ordinary” people to commune with the gods and ancestors directly, undermining any supernatural claims to power on the part of the elites. This recourse to spiritual power has been used by leaders throughout history. Research indicates that the regular use of psychedelics causes personality changes that would be highly undesirable from the standpoint of elites (openness, resistance to authority, questioning belief systems, etc.), and thus they were suppressed in early civilizations, as they still are today.

Parenthetically, cereal cultivation wasn’t the first alteration of the environment to favor special foods. It appears that the earliest residents of the Near East during the Holocene may have been practicing “forest gardening” long before the cultivation of wild grasses. The earliest evidence of domestication actually comes not from grains, but from figs and broad beans:

Some Ancient Farmers Grew Fava Beans Before They Grew Grains (NPR)

Tamed 11,400 Years Ago, Figs Were Likely First Domesticated Crop (Science Daily)

3. The Younger Dryas

Most likely climate did indeed play a role in plant domestication. It was not to cope with a diminishing food supply, however. Rather, it was to maintain access to the favored foods for feasting in the face of changing climatic conditions. The fact that climate played a role is attested to by the fact that the transition to agriculture occurred more-or-less simultaneously all across the world during the Younger Dryas, which would be difficult to explain with just “cultural” explanations:

The most striking fact about early agriculture, however, is precisely that it is such a universal event. Slightly more than 10,000 years ago, virtually all men lived on wild foods. By 2,000 years ago the overwhelming majority of people lived on farming. In the four million year history of Homo sapiens, the spread of agriculture was accomplished in about 8,000 years. As Charles Reed pointed out at a recent symposium on agricultural origins, the problem is not just to account for the beginnings of agriculture, but to account for the fact that so many human populations made this economic transition in so short a time.(FCP: 5-6)

To understand how this may have happened, we need to consult the work of the Russian scientist Nicolai Vavilov.

Vavilov traveled the world to find the places where cultivated plants had their greatest natural genetic diversity. He discovered eight major “centers of domestication” around the world. During times of warmer, wetter, climates, the plants in these areas would expand their range, only to contract during periods of cooler, drier weather. Spencer Wells explains this phenomenon in his book Pandora’s Seed:

In his extraordinarily influential work on domesticated plants, [Nikolai] Vavilov described many primary centers of plant domestication. One was the Fertile Crescent…other major centers were in China, Mesoamerica, and the Andes of South America. A wide range of places, but all are similar in one way: they are all mountainous regions.

Why not coastal areas or prairies? Primarily because mountains serve as so-called refugia of biological diversity–places where species continue to thrive when the surrounding plains are too dry to sustain them, due to climatic shifts such as those that have occurred frequently throughout the past few million years. Because mountains draw more rainfall, they serve as relatively safe havens in times of climatic stress, so they are the places where genetic diversity is typically the highest. And high genetic diversity allows for the development of advantageous traits that can be selected for by humans, including seed retention and other characteristics that suit species use as food crops.

Humans can’t live easily in high mountains–we tend to prefer lowlands for climatic reasons–but plants advance and retreat, “breathing” in and out of the lowlands during wetter and drier phases. This provides us our first clue as to why domestication happened in all of these places at the same time.

Mesoamerica, for instance, has given us many crops that are indispensable components for the modern diet: corn tomatoes, beans, chiles, chocolate, vanilla, squash, pineapples, avocados, and pumpkins. Many were domesticated in the region of present-day Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, which has a rugged, mountainous terrain that has served to fragment human populations, resulting in a tremendous amount of cultural and linguistic diversity to match its biological horn of plenty. Corn is far and way the most important Oaxacan crop, and evidence shows that it has been cultivated since around 10,000 years ago. There is some debate about corn’s botanical ancestor–its closest wild relative, teosinte, is so different in form that many scientists find it difficult to believe that one developed from the other–but not about its geographical origin.

…Similarly, rice seems to have been domesticated first in the mountains of southern China and northern India, where its wild ancestor Oryza rufipogon still grows. …hunter-gatherers living on the Yangtze River in central China were eating rice around 13,000 years ago. With the onset of the Younger Dryas and the cooler temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere, however, the rice phytoliths disappear from the archaeological record, reappearing only around 11,000 years ago, when warmer and wetter conditions returned–and judging from changes in the phytoliths, these appear to have been cultivated. It seems that during the Younger Dryas the rice retreated back to a more hospitable environment, and humans–as in the Middle East and the mountain valleys of Oaxaca–were forced to start planting it to keep the grain in their diet.

Thus, in the centers of domestication for the three main crops around the world, we see a similar interaction between hunter-gatherers and their local grains. Intensive foraging at the end of the last ice age, coupled with warmer, wetter conditions, led to specialized gathering of particular plant species and an increase in population. The onset of the Younger Dryas created a crisis in food supply, which forced these sedentary foragers to start cultivating grains that had previously been plentiful in the wild. The combination of a demographic expansion followed by a climatic stress probably explains why we see the development of agriculture independently at the same time around the world. Cultivating food allowed these populations to survive the cold snap of the Younger Dryas, and when favorable conditions returned, agriculture was ready to take off. All that was needed was one final step: domestication. (PS: 42-46)

The only part missing from Dr. Wells’ account above is that the ultimate reason for the harvesting of these plants was to maintain and expand the Neolithic feasting complex, especially to procure the plants required to produce psychoactive substances desired for such feasts.:

“Feasts are essential in traditional societies for creating debts, for creating factions, for creating bonds between people, for creating political power, for creating support networks, and all of this is essential for developing more complex kinds of societies,” Hayden explained. “Feasts are reciprocal — if I invite you to my feast, you have the obligation to invite me to yours. If I give you something like a pig or a pot of beer, you’re obligated to do the same for me or even more.”

“In traditional feasts throughout the world, there are three ingredients that are almost universally present,” he said. “One is meat. The second is some kind of cereal grain, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, in the form of breads or porridge or the like. The third is alcohol, and because you need surplus grain to put into it, as well as time and effort, it’s produced almost only in traditional societies for special occasions to impress guests, make them happy, and alter their attitudes favorably toward hosts.”

The brewing of alcohol seems to have been a very early development linked with initial domestication, seen during Neolithic times in China, the Sudan, the first pottery in Greece and possibly with the first use of maize. Hayden said circumstantial evidence for brewing has been seen in the Natufian, in that all the technology needed to make it is there — cultivated yeast, grindstones, vessels for brewing and fire-cracked rocks as signs of the heating needed to prepare the mash.

“We still don’t have the smoking gun for brewing in the Natufian, with beer residues in the bottom of stone cups or anything like that,” Hayden said. “But hopefully people will start looking for that — people haven’t yet.”

Beer Lubricated the Rise of Civilization, Study Suggests (Live Science)

So what happened may have been a scenario something like this:

• The onset of the Holocene causes a “broad spectrum revolution” of abundant wild plant foods, centered around the eight “founder crops” in the ancient Near East, and different grains elsewhere (millet, rice, maize, sorghum, etc.).

• The landbase was rich enough to tolerate the much more intensive cultivation of these crops, leading to sedentism, and then, to feasting. Long-term storable surpluses kick off the conditions for the Neolithic feasting complex. Ritual centers begin to be constructed.

• Triple-A personalities start to throw giant feasts to gain power and prestige. The need to participate in these feasts causes the founder crops, and others, to be more intensively harvested and probably cultivated in garden plots, in order to pay back the loans of the aggrandizers and remain in the feasting circle. At first meat is still obtained primarily through hunting, fishing and trapping. Such early “abundance” attracts more and more followers. Psychoactive and addictive substances are cultivated to provide the impetus for participation in this work-intensive, highly unnatural lifestyle. The people who refused to go along with this are, by and large, not our ancestors.

• This snowball accelerated for a few thousand years, until the changing climatic conditions of the Younger Dryas caused the desirable plants to “retreat” back to their mountain refugia. The oak and pistachio forests disappear, along with the wild gazelle herds. Many villages are abandoned.

• In order to keep the feasting complex going, aggrandizers in the Levant and elsewhere convince people to adopt intensive cultivation methods of wild plant crops leading to domestication, and hence, agriculture. To cope with the disappearance of wild animal herds, they began to “manage” certain favored herds, protecting them and periodically culling them. This eventually leads to domestication, first of wild sheep and goats, and then later of cattle, pigs, and other animals.

• By the time the 1,200 year Younger Dryas period ends, locations all over the world had switched over from wild collection of plant foods and hunting to intensive growing of cereals and animal husbandry as their primary mode of production, never to look back. Crops were now dependent on human labor, rather than natural conditions, and people had now committed themselves to a life of unremitting hard work and toil (“by the sweat of they brow…”). With the return of warmer and more hospitable conditions after the Younger Dryas period, cultivation takes off big-time.

About a thousand years into the Holocene there was a veritable explosion in agricultural settlement throughout South-West Asia and beyond to the west and east. Communities based on mixed farming can now be identified from Cyprus, south-central Anatolia, and the Levant eastwards across the Zagros and possibly into the Iranian plateau as well…the principle new characteristic in the composition of these settlements was the construction of substantial square or rectangular dwellings, often with stone foundations and walls made of either tauf or pise (mud on a withy frame, baked in the sun) or mud-brick…the floors were often plastered with a mortar made by mixing burnt and pounded limestone with water, especially of buildings that seem likely to have been of higher status. Storage pits, silos, and hearths are common, invariably within the house. It seems certain that the household was now the primary unit of production and consumption. (ARP: 137-138)

• Cultures that switched over to the new lifestyle and “worked harder,” had many more offspring, who took over more and more land, displacing hunter-gathers and others who “ran away” from the oppressive, overcrowded conditions of incipient civilization. Hunter-gathers ended up occupying the marginal areas unsuitable for crops and animal husbandry. Workaholism genes propagate through the population, and aggrandiers become more and more reproductively successful. We know that sometime after the introduction of agriculture, only one man reproduced for every 17 women.

• Population growth explodes, and the natural environment is degraded, preventing any return to the easier, more genial conditions of hunting and gathering. Cultures all over the world incorporate a lost “golden age” into their mythology, when life was simpler and better for the average person.

• The “Neolithic Garden Cultures” eventually settle in the great river valleys of the world— the Nile River Valley, Mesopotamia, the Indus River Valley, and the Yellow River Valley. They abandon shifting cultivation and begin to grow domesticated crops year-round, thanks to the alluvial soil deposits caused by annual flooding. “Mixed” farming of plants and animals emerges. Population density explodes. To control floods and expand the water supply, they construct vast canal systems and embankments. This sets the stage for civilization, states, empires, and for onset of recorded history. This process also occurs separately in the Americas on a somewhat later timeline.

• And intensification just keeps going, ushering the Malthusian feedback loop, which pretty much explains all of human history up until the last couple of hundred years or so:

…the adoption of food production exemplifies what is termed an autocatalytic process—one that catalyzes itself in a positive feedback cycle, going faster and faster once it has started. A gradual rise in population densities impelled people to obtain more food, by rewarding those who unconsciously took steps toward producing it. Once people began to produce food and become sedentary, they could shorten the birth spacing and produce still more people, requiring still more food. This bidirectional link between food production and population density explains the paradox that food production, while increasing the quantity of edible calories per acre, left the food producers less well nourished than the hunter gatherers whom they succeeded. That paradox developed because human population densities rose slightly more steeply than did the availability of food.

Taken together, these… factors help us understand why the transition to food production in the Fertile Crescent began around 8500 B.C., not around 18,500 or 28,500 B.C. At the latter two dates hunting-gathering was still much more rewarding than incipient food production, because wild mammals were still abundant; wild cereals were not yet abundant; people had not yet developed the inventions necessary for collecting, processing, and storing cereals efficiently; and human population densities were not yet high enough for a large premium to be placed on extracting more calories per acre. (GGS: 111-112)

How did domesticated agriculture contribute to incipient state formation? That’s what we’ll be talking about next time.

PS: Spencer Wells, Pandora’s Seed

GGS: Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel

ARP: Graeme Barker, The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory

WWBiN: Brain Hayden, Neil Canuel & Jennifer Shanse, What Was Brewing in the Natufian? An Archaeological Assessment of Brewing Technology in the Epipaleolithic. The Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 2013.

FCP: Mark Nathan Cohen, The Food Crisis in Prehistory.

LIW: Labor in the Ancient World. Edited by Piotr Steinkeller, Michael Hudson.