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.

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.

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.

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.

It takes about an hour for a snowflake to fall from a cloud.

The richest 10% hold 76% of the wealth.

The world’s 25 largest defense budgets

A Wyoming Resident’s Vote for Senator is 68 Times as Influential as a Californian’s.

The cost of U.S. healthcare is 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.

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.

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.

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.

Air pollution kills more people than malaria and HIV/Aids combined.

Nearly one in every 200 children in the world is a refugee

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.

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.

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.

Nearly 80% of the nitrogen found in human tissues originated from the Haber-Bosch process in which artificial ammonia is produced.

In in the 1970s professional 10 pin bowlers made twice as much as NFL players.

Out-of-pocket [medical] expenses dragged 11.2 million people into poverty in 2015.

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.

Hippo ranching almost came to America.

Just 3% of American adults own half of guns in the US.

When Julius Caesar died he left today’s equivalent of about $270 to each and every Roman citizen.

San Francisco has less than one-tenth Bangkok’s population but six times as many homeless people.

Racial wage gaps were larger in 2015 than they were in 1979.

Tuberculosis caused 20% of all human deaths in the Western world between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.

Law enforcement officers beat their significant other at nearly double the national average.

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.

Police make more arrests for marijuana possession alone than for all violent crimes combined.

Payday loan facilities outnumber Taco Bell and McDonald’s 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.

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.

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.

1 in 6 adults in the US take antidepressants and sedatives.

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 (

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.

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.

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…”

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).

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.


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


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.


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 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.

The Feasting Theory – Part Two

Read Part 1

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

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

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

1. Despot Societies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corporate Kin Groups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Reciprocator (Leadership) Societies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Entreprenuerial Societies

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

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

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

Michael Dietler describes the nature of the Entrepreneurial feast:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Chiefdoms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


5. Archaeological Indicators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Feasting Theory

1. Prologue

Powerful, selfish, aggrandizing individuals on the top of society work night and day to produce a surplus with which they lure everyone else into debt. Those debts must be paid back with interest. In order to pay back the interest on the debt, everyone else in the society is forced to work harder and longer. The need to pay back loans with interest necessitates a system of constant growth. As the debts are paid back, the elites plow the capital and the interest back into even more surplus production and more loans to keep everyone else indebted to them, forcing another ratcheting up of the system. In the end, the environment is stripped bare and people end up working harder than ever in an effort to pay back the interest on loans, and a feedback loop is created of surplus, debt, interest, growth, and intensification.

Sound familiar?

Am I describing the modern capitalist economy? The modern money system? No, I’m describing the economy in prehistory.

2. The Dawn of Feasting

Early archaeologists used to depict all humans prior to the introduction of agriculture as small, nomadic hunter-gatherer bands numbering between 20 – 150 individuals moving about following the seasonal cycles of plants and animals. They owned no private property, had few possessions, cultivated no crops, had no art, mathematics, writing or literature, and constructed nothing more complex that the odd humpy, when they weren’t living in a cave, that is. Most significantly, they had no government and no social hierarchy.

As anthropologists went around the world studying various cultures, they realized that this simplistic narrative was not entirely accurate. They were amazed to find many examples all over the world of societies which practiced no agriculture, and yet nonetheless had permanent and semi-permanent settlements, made complex works of art and other objects, had rich oral traditions, possessed certain rudimentary forms of “property rights,” used sophisticated tools, constructed large monuments and temples of wood and stone, and, most significantly, had a complex hierarchy and leadership structure bordering on “government.” There are many subtleties, but anthropologists broadly characterized these societies as “complex hunter-gatherers” (or complex foragers , or sometimes “affluent foragers”), and “horticulturalists.” Furthermore, they distinguished between “immediate return” and “delayed return” hunter gatherers.

Immediate-return hunter-gatherers are what most people imagine when they use the term – they simply live off the fat of the land. Delayed-return hunter-gatherers still get most of their food from hunting and collecting plant foods, yet they make “investments” in their environment such as planting seeds, cultivating certain crops, burning underbrush, protecting favored herds from predators, breeding animals, and a host of other behaviors that will lead to increased returns of food at a later date, yet do not qualify as “agriculture” as we commonly define it. Delayed return hunter-gatherers also store food.

Complex hunter-gatherers typically concentrate on one superabundant food source that allows them to remain in one location. The classic example is the fishing cultures of the Pacific Northwest coast of North America which relied on abundant salmon runs as their principle food source. Key differences between complex foragers and simple hunter-gatherers include (taken from this source):

  • Mobility: Complex hunter-gatherers live in the same place for most of the year, or even for longer periods, in contrast to generalized hunter-gatherers who stay in one place for shorter periods and move around a lot.
  • Economy: Complex hunter-gatherers subsistence involves a large amount of food storage, whereas simple hunter-gatherers usually consume their food as soon as they harvest it. For example, among Northwest Coast populations, storage involved both meat and fish desiccation as well as creating social bonds that allowed them to have access to resources from other environments.
  • Households: Complex hunter-gatherers don’t live in small and mobile camps, but in long-term, organized households and villages. These are also clearly visible archaeologically. On the Northwest Coast, households were shared by 30 to 100 people.
  • Resources: Complex hunter-gatherers do not harvest only what is available around them, they focus on gathering specific and very productive food products and combining them with other, secondary resources. For example, in the Northwest Coast subsistence was based on salmon, but also other fish and mollusks and in smaller amounts on the forest products. Furthermore, salmon processing through desiccation involved the work of many people at the same time.
  • Technology: Both generalized and complex hunter-gatherers tend to have sophisticated tools. Complex hunter-gatherers don’t need to have light and portable objects, therefore they can invest more energy in larger and specialized tools to fish, hunt, harvest. Northwest Coast populations, for example, constructed large boats and canoes, nets, spears and harpoons, carving tools and desiccation devices.
  • Population: In North America, complex hunter-gatherers had larger populations than small size agricultural villages. Northwest Coast had among the highest population rate of North America. Villages size spanned between 100 and more than 2000 people.
  • Social hierarchy: complex hunter-gatherers had social hierarchies, and even inherited leadership. These positions included prestige, social status, and sometimes power. Northwest Coast populations had two social classes: slaves and free people. Free people were divided into chiefs and elite, a lower noble group, and commoners, who were free people with no titles and therefore with no access to leadership positions. Slaves were mostly war captives. Gender was also an important social category. Noble women had often high rank status. Finally, social status was expressed through material and immaterial elements, such as luxury goods, jewels, rich textiles, but also feasts and ceremonies.

Horticultural (or Gardening) societies are ones which cultivate certain key or desirable food resources which provide the bulk of their calories in small garden plots. They often breed certain animals for food, such as pigs or chickens. They sometimes store food, or use surplus food to feed to their animals as a form of storage (in New Guinea, excess yams are used to fatten pigs which are subsequently used for food). These garden plots and animal pens mean that such societies are usually at least semi-stationary, often occupying “home bases” throughout much of the year. Horticultural societies can be defined as:

A horticultural society is a social system based on horticulture, a mode of production in which digging sticks are used to cultivate small gardens. This type of society emerged around 7000 BC in Asia and it was the first type of society to actually grow their own food rather than simply gather existing food and hunt animals. As a result, the accumulation of food and goods was possible and with it, a more complex division of labor, more substantial dwellings, and a small amount of trade.

Examples of the above were found by anthropologists in places like the Pacific Northwest coast, the New Guinea highlands, certain other parts of North America and Southwest Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Pacific Islands and Melanesia. By studying these societies, anthropologists gained key insights into how hierarchy, leadership, and government slowly emerged from egalitarian nomadic foraging bands.

One of them is archaeologist Brian Hayden of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada. His work centered around one of the world’s major complex foraging societies: the salmon fishing cultures of the Pacific Northwest. These were cultures which practiced no agrarian farming, and yet had a rich, complex culture, with various levels of chiefs, rank stratification, permanent villages, and even slaves. Hayden wondered how societies transformed from ones where everything was once accessible to all and hierarchy minimal, to ones in which key resources were under the exclusive control of individuals and families, and people became ranked from birth.

Hayden characterizes societies undergoing this transition as transegalitarian societies. There are societies where there is a clear ranking of individuals, yet there are no “formal” offices or any kind of institutional “government.” Leadership is by consensus on an ad-hoc basis rather than coercion and cannot be inherited. Anthropologists recognized that these societies were the bridge between Paleolithic hunter-gatherers and the complex states most of live under today.

Transegalitarian hunter-gathers, also known as complex hunter-gatherers, have been defined as those hunter-gatherer societies that display some degree of socioeconomic inequality, follow a sedentary or semisedentary settlement pattern with permanent dwellings grouped in relatively dense settlements, and exhibit socioeconomic inequality through the use of prestige goods or other such measures. Many groups also possess methods for storing surplus foods. (PRP: 125)

It is now thought that a number of human societies in certain resource-rich and favorable locations prior to the Neolithic Revolution can be thought of in the above terms rather than as simply “immediate return” or simple hunter-gathers. Archaeologists refer to a “broad spectrum revolution” in human prehistory where we began relying more on plant foods that could be harvested, processed, and stored, rather than exclusively on big-game hunting. For example, nuts and seeds could be shelled, pounded, soaked and stored in pits; salmon could be smoked. In fact, granaries actually predate agriculture, indicating that food storage goes back a long way. It is thought that this emphasis on plant foods was an adaptation to the changing climate at the end of the Last Glacial Maximum (Ice Age), when the great herds disappeared or moved north, the megafauna died off due to a changing climate or perhaps human predation (most likely a bit of both) and carbon in the atmosphere was increasing, spurring the growth of plants. Plant foods were just easier to get, so that’s what we focused on  (even though they were much more work to process).

In such complex societies where the food production could be steadily increased through individual and cooperative effort and stored for long periods of time, people no longer had to worry about absolute scarcity; they could instead produce a fairly reliable surplus. This surplus was used as a way for certain individuals to gain power and prestige, and snowball that into hereditary leadership positions and hierarchical social rank as the society grew and became larger and more complex. This explains how societies where everything was once held in common were transformed into ones where key resources were “owned” by certain individuals and families, and decision-making become confined to prominent elites rather than being determined by group consensus. It is important to recognize that such changes took place over very long stretches of time, sometimes thousands of years.

In the Pleistocene, humans and their immediate ancestors made their living primarily as big-game hunters. The hunting of large mammals required extraordinary coordination and teamwork which is only possible with a social group species. But why cooperate in the hunt if some alpha is just going to keep all the meat for himself? Hoarding and autocratic control would undermine the cooperation necessary for successful group hunting. Therefore, equal sharing of the kill prevailed, and overt hierarchy was suppressed, as Christopher Boehm, author of Hierarchy in the Forest explains:

People started hunting large ungulates, or hoofed mammals. They were very dedicated to hunting, and it was an important part of their subsistence…my theory is that you cannot have alpha males if you are going to have a hunting team that shares the meat fairly evenhandedly, so that the entire team stays nourished. In order to get meat divided within a band of people who are by nature pretty hierarchical, you have to basically stomp on hierarchy and get it out of the way…My hypothesis is that when they started large game hunting, they had to start really punishing alpha males and holding them down. That set up a selection pressure in the sense that, if you couldn’t control your alpha tendencies, you were going to get killed or run out of the group, which was about the same as getting killed. Therefore, self-control became an important feature for individuals who were reproductively successful. And self-control translates into conscience.

Boehm calls this “a conspiracy of the weak to dominate the strong.” Under this system, aggressive bullies would not be tolerated. They would be ganged up on and rejected by the group, or otherwise humiliated. One way to accomplish this is through gossip; another is through ridicule, and both were likely deployed on a regular basis, as they still are today, in fact. Notice how the antics and foibles of today’s celebrities and politicians provide grist for thousands of media outlets and comedians. The “social brain hypothesis” posits that navigating the complex world of social interactions was what drove human intelligence, and by extension, brain growth, which roughly doubled during the Pleistocene. Large amounts of meat would have provided the raw material for such growth, and quite possibly, fire would have freed up scarce bioenergetic resources. Cooked food would have unlocked more energy from food allowing our teeth, jaws and guts to shrink, allowing our skulls to expand and more food energy to be dedicated to brain growth.

By contrast, in societies where everyone was assured a minimal food supply in good times and bad, and the landbase could tolerate more intensive growing/breeding efforts, the old social restrictions against excess accumulation were lifted and the requirement to share with the rest of the tribe were relaxed. In places where “individual effort” and “hard work” could bring forth fairly reliable food surpluses without damaging the resource base, it was determined that this increase would belong to the person or persons who produced it in the interest of “fairness.” This was the beginning of intensification and private property.

“Under conditions where resources become significantly more abundant, more dependable, and less vulnerable to overexploitation than in generalized hunter-gatherer communities (due to a new extractive and/or storage technology combined with favorable productive environments), it is no longer critical to share all resources since most domestic groups can be assured of adequate food under normal conditions. In contrast to egalitarian hunter-gatherer communities where even the most determined efforts to procure food could often meet with limited success, resources in transegalitarian communities could be had easily enough in normal times so that lack of food was due more to laziness than bad luck.”

“Under these conditions families began to produce food exclusively for themsleves and claim ownership rights over the food they produced and stored. Direct ownership over procured food became especially important where extra effort was required to properly prepare foods for long-term storage and where there was a need to conserve stored foods for use during lean seasons. One’s self-interest dictated that the effort spent to obtain food (where everyone could satisfy their own needs) should primarily benefit oneself. Direct ownership was essential to prevent excessive “mooching,” a pervasive emic theme in many transegalitarian ethnographies…”(FOI)

This is in stark contrast to simple foraging societies where:

“Economic surpluses  are limited or inconsequential or unreliable. The uncertainties of success in hunting and gathering render sharing necessary for survival. For similar reasons, there is no restricted access to resources, no competition over resources, and no accumulation of wealth.”(FOI)

Anthropologists have noted that nearly every culture across the world throws regular feasts. Moreover, such behavior goes very far back in history:

A huge ancient settlement used by the people who built Stonehenge has been found, archaeologists have said.

Excavations at Durrington Walls, near the legendary Salisbury Plain monument, uncovered remains of ancient houses. People seem to have occupied the sites seasonally, using them for ritual feasting and funeral ceremonies. In ancient times, this settlement would have housed hundreds of people, making it the largest Neolithic village ever found in Britain.

Professor Parker Pearson …thinks the settlement was probably not lived in all year round. Instead, he believes, Stonehenge and Durrington formed a religious complex used for funerary rituals. He believes it drew Neolithic people from all over the region, who came for massive feasts in the midwinter, where prodigious quantities of food were consumed. The bones were then tossed on the floors of the houses. “The rubbish isn’t your average domestic debris. There’s a lack of craft-working equipment for cleaning animal hides and no evidence for crop-processing,” he said. “The animal bones are being thrown away half-eaten. It’s what we call a feasting assemblage. This is where they went to party – you could say it was the first free festival.”

Stonehenge builders’ houses found (BBC)

It began with the excavation of an oval grave pit in the cave floor. Next, a layer of objects was cached between large stones, including seashells, a broken basalt palette, red ochre, chalk, and several complete tortoise shells. These were covered by a layer of sediment containing ashes, and garbage composed of flint and animal bones. About halfway through the ritual, the woman was laid inside the pit in a child-bearing position, and special items including many more tortoise shells were placed on top of and around her. This was followed by another layer of filling and limestones of various sizes that were placed directly on the body. The ritual concluded with the sealing of the grave with a large, heavy stone.

A wide range of activities took place in preparation for the funerary event. This included the collection of materials required for grave construction, and the capture and preparation of animals for the feast, particularly the 86 tortoises, which must have been time-consuming. “The significant pre-planning implies that there was a defined ‘to do’ list, and a working plan of ritual actions and their order,” said Prof. Grosman.

Reconstruction of 12,000 year old funeral feast brings ancient burial rituals to life (Science Daily)

With abundant and reliable surpluses, throwing large feasts became a way to convert those surpluses into wider social food-sharing networks that would act as hedges against periodic shortages in one particular geographic area. In other words, it was an early form of risk-pooling (or insurance). Such feasts also acted as bonding events where people would reaffirm their connections to the gods and to each other through ritual, song, and dance. At such feasting events, marriages would be arranged, goods would be exchanged, and military alliances would be sealed, all under the watchful gaze of the gods and the ancestors:

“Once people began keeping and, where necessary, storing produce for themselves, it would have been natural to produce surpluses as hedges against periodic shortages or even to produce surpluses for minor exchange or gifts as had always been the practice among hunter-gatherers at a small scale to create alliances… Thus, it should be adaptive for most families to store somewhat more than needed on an annual basis but not so much that the extra surplus can never be used. This leaves many families with a regular overproduction of surplus in normal years. Can this unneeded surplus be used to further reduce risks? In order to do so, some means must be found that is capable of transforming food surpluses into other useful goods, services, debts, or relationships. I argue that the transegalitarian feasting complex constitutes the primary mechanism for doing this.”

Regular feasting was a thus a risk-reduction strategy that was possible in places with a suitable abundant resource base. In hunter-gatherer societies where food was not grown or stored, risk reduction strategies were much more limited. Your options were pretty much confined to simple food sharing, moving on to other locations, or expropriating the resources of other tribes through raiding. Feasting would have been an ideal strategy for complex foragers/horticulturalists because it would have differentiated those individuals and groups capable of producing large, reliable food surpluses from those who could not. This served as a way to ensure that only those who could could contribute were allowed into the ‘feasting circle,’ and exclude any outsiders and moochers, thus spurring continuously higher production which hedged against future shortages. Think Stone-Age potluck:

“Simple hunting and gathering bands overwhelmingly relied on sharing, territoriality, regional alliances, mobility, and the creation of enemies to cope with high-risk situations. Due to the overriding importance of the obligatory sharing of resources in most band societies…agriculture was incompatible with simple forager risk-reduction strategies…semiprivate ownership and storage had to be established before agriculture could be expected to develop.”

“…it is likely that with the emergence of complex hunting and gathering societies (where individual ownership of produce and resource areas was the norm), a number of new risk-reduction strategies developed while some previously used strategies underwent major transformations. The new strategies emphasized by complex hunter-gatherers included storage, manipulation of plants and animals (encompassing transplanting and cultivation, clam gardens, stocking of fish, and “fire-stick farming”), exchanges of wealth for food, improved subsistence procurement and extraction technologies, feasting, and possibly centralized redistribution. In place of reciprocal sharing, strategies such as the long-term storage of privately owned produce by individual families or kin groups provided the most reliable means to manage the variability in resource availability from day to day and from year to year. Those who could produce surpluses on a large enough scale could also acquire prestige items that could be exchanged for food in times of need (simple food exchange).”

“…private ownership of resources and produce were incompatible with community-wide obligatory sharing as a risk-reduction strategy. However, pooling risk through restricted reciprocal-sharing networks involved selected productive and reliable individuals would have been a very effective risk-reduction strategy. The result, I suggest, was the emergence of adaptive feasting-based “social safety networks” that pooled risks within certain segments of communities but demanded continuous surplus contributions from members.”

“Because feasting is repeated at regular intervals and because it demands surplus economic production and contributions, it is performance grounded and capable of easily and effectively eliminating freeloaders and cheaters. They are simply not invited to participate in subsequent events and are thus excluded from support networks. Undesirable noncontributors can be, and are, eliminated from the network even if they are kin. Thus, successful feasting dramatically reduces the risks surrounding food production, procreation, and survival in unstable and conflict-ridden environments but effectively ties this to being productive in subsistence and committed to contributing goods and labor to networking endeavors. Feasting establishes the personal ties upon which transegalitarian social safety networks are predicated.”

Such food-sharing networks would have been manipuated by elites or those with wider social connections, such as headmen or shamans. Therefore, food-sharing regional networks would also have played a role in contributing to inequality:

“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.”

“In addition to kinship networks, ritual continued to be used as a means of establishing or reinforcing close reciprocal cooperative bonds between members of different communities only involved elite and wealthy individuals. I suspect that such elite ritual organizations took the form of regional secret societies with costly membership fees and specialized facilities and paraphernalia (hence the regional archaeological ritual centers such as Gobeckli Tepe in Turkey and Kfar HaHoresh in the Levant). Ritual links to distant communities were probably not possible to establish from most nonelites due to the high costs involved.”

Hayden realized that such regular, ritual feasting events opened the door to certain highly-motivated individuals to come up with a way to use the surpluses created thereby as a means to gain higher rank and power.

“Once the egalitarian fetters (that were developed to deal with highly variable individual foraging success and recurring shortages) were relaxed under improved resource conditions, ambitious individuals must have realized that there were surpluses, or potential surpluses, capable of being generated within their communities that were going to waste. If they could but devise a means to manipulate community interests, these ambitious, accumulative aggrandizers could control some of the surplus and derive considerable benefit for themselves. The best and most highly motivated minds of an epoch began to scheme….”(FOI: 29)

“The primary problem that ambitious individuals would have faced when starting out in egalitarian communities would have been, first, how to get people to produce surpluses, i.e. to do more work than necessary for their own subsistence needs, and secondly, how to concentrate the benefits of those surpluses in the hands of the ambitious. I have called such ambitious individuals “accumulators”, while others have called them “aggrandizers”, or “acqusitors.” To accommodate all these terms, one might refer to these people as individuals with “Triple A” personalities.” (p FSQ: 131)

Hayden describes Triple-A personalities as:

“…any ambitious, enterprising, aggressive, accumulative individual who strives to become dominant in a community, especially be economic means. The term subsumes Great Men, Head Men, Big Men, elites, and chiefs.”

Every society has a certain portion of these people due to the natural range of human personality types:

“Any human population numbering more than 50-100 individuals will include some ambitious individuals who will aggressively strive to enhance their own self-interest over those of other community members. This is a simple given of variability in human psychology…Such individuals have always been a force to be reckoned with, in some cases being repressed, in some cases being channeled into noneconomic domains such as ritual competition, and in some cases being given greater freedom to compete. This is equivalent to the assumptions of others that a tendency toward inequality is inherent in all societies, and is only restrained or permitted free reign by a system of checks and balances reflecting economic conditions and the self-interest of other community members.”

Hayden points out that inequality thus develops not out of the addition of certain factors, but rather by the removal of them. That is, a tendency toward inequality is inherent in all societies due to the natural variation in personality described above, and it is only kept in check by group dynamics and social norms developed during the long period of big-game hunting. Once those systems of “checks and balances” were lifted, inequality starts to metastasize largely of its own accord, like a cancer. In other words, it is not something added to a society, but rather something taken away, that begins the snowballing path toward inequality. He writes: “Inequality….can therefore be explained best not as the development of any formal organization of ‘ranking’ or ‘stratification,’ but rather, as the inevitable result of the lifting of the constraints that produce strict egalitarianism.”

What Hayden realized is that these feasts were the main driver of the production of surpluses in complex foraging and horticultural societies, and that aggressive, aggrandizing, ambitious “Triple-A” individuals could use these feasts in various ways to manipulate the society around them by overproduction and getting everyone else in debt to them (feigning generosity), and then converting that debt into social power, or prestige. The evidence from anthropologists all over the world showed that the people who generated the greatest surplus production and entered into contractual debts through feasting were invariably the most important people in any transegalitarian society:

“In order to answer the question of how ambitious individuals starting off in egalitarian societies could transform excess production into personal power …I realized that ethnographic accounts of competitive feasts involving contractual debts provided an important key that has been largely neglected …. ”

“The key feature that I saw as important did not involve redistribution as a central mechanism, but rather debt (FSI: 24)…It is relatively clear how competitive feasts (versus other feast types) can generate power and how they appeal to the self-interest of supporters. The Entrepreneur/Big Man organizers benefit by establishing a wide network of contractual debt relationships that motivate people to produce and surrender surpluses that Entrepreneurs can disproportionately control. If successful, Entrepreneurs therefore exert more control over labor and also obtain direct material profits in the form of increases in wealth. The supporters hope to profit from their investments in feasts by promises from entrepreneurs of repayments with interest for their contributions, as well as increased influence in the affairs of the community through their close association with the aggrandizers of the community.”(FSI: p25)

“The bottom line of using feasts in the quest for wealth and power is (1) that people commit themselves to producing a surplus, (2) that the surplus is loaned out, (3) that lenders expect to benefit, and (4) that feast organizers expect to benefit even more.
The specific benefits or other details may vary, but these core features are probably constant. “(FSI: 47)

Feasts were given for a number of different reasons:

1. Economic feasts, which in turn can be broken down into competitive-producing feasts involving loans and interest in relation to food production, and “festive work-party feasts,” where organizers try to attract people (labor) to work for them on a one-time basis to accomplish a specific task that will benefit the organizers, such as gathering iron ore or smelting it.

2. Redistribution feasts, which seek to bond (or control) labor (people) to organizers on a more permanent basis than the festive work-party feast. In both cases material distributions are used to achieve the respective goals, although the quantities, value, and types of materials used are often quite different. Where control of labor is the key to wealth or military success, redistibutive feasts become highly competitive.

3. Diacritical feasts are used to create exclusive elite circles that exclude lower classes, display status and belonging of the participants, and engage in rank competition within the group. (FSQ: 128-129)

These different reasons for feasting and different levels of surplus production based on the environmental conditions lead Hayden to develop a continuum of societies from petty despots all the way up to hereditary chiefdoms to describe the gradual path toward permanent social stratification. As the resource base becomes more abundant, and hence the ability to produce surpluses ever greater, the aggrandizers develop new and more effective techniques and strategies to enhance their control over key resources, labor, and decision making. Anthropologists had long recognized these techniques, and had given various terms to the Triple-A personalities found within these groups: Great Men, Head Men and Big Men. Each one differed in the techniques they used to gain power and influence in their group, but they all had one thing in common–the desire for power. Hayden classifies these societies on a ladder from the least amount of surplus to the greatest: Despots, Reciprocators and Entrepreneurs.

“I will suggest that as the potential for surplus production increases, inequalities also progressively increases [sic] through Despot, Reciprocator, and finally entrepreneur types of organization…These are roughly equivalent to the social anthropological terms of Great Men (Despots), Head Men (Reciprocators), and Big Men (Entrepreneurs)…various kinds of public feasts constitute one of the most critical strategies at all three of these levels and have direct archaeological consequences.”(FSI: 25)

The techniques they used, and this ladder of inequality, is what we’ll be discussing next time.

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

FSQ: Food and the Status Quest: An Interdisciplinary Perspective. Pauline Wilson Wiessner, Polly Wiessner, Wulf Schiefenhövel

PRP: Prehistoric Rites of Passage: A Comparative Study of Transegalitarian Hunter–Gatherers. D’Ann Owens and Brian Hayden, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology Article NO. 16, 121 – 161 (1997)

When Did Voters Suddenly Start Caring?

It looks like I’ll be able to start the Feasting Theory posts just in time for Thanksgiving, which is serendipitous timing, at least for those of us in the United States, anyway.

For now I just want to write up a few concluding thoughts about the election before moving on. I’d like to respond to this from the latest Archdruid Report:

To judge by what I’ve heard [Trump voters] say, they want a less monomaniacally interventionist foreign policy and an end to the endless spiral of wars of choice in the Middle East; they want health insurance that provides reasonable benefits at a price they can afford; they want an end to trade agreements that ship American jobs overseas, and changes to immigration policy that stop the systematic importation of illegal immigrants by big corporate interests to drive down wages and benefits; and they want a means of choosing candidates that actually reflects the will of the people.

The fascinating thing is, of course, that these are things the Democratic Party used to offer. It wasn’t that long ago, in fact, that the Democratic Party made exactly these issues—opposition to reckless military adventurism, government programs that improved the standard of living of working class Americans, and a politics of transparency and integrity—central not only to its platform but to the legislation its congresspeople fought to get passed and its presidents signed into law. Back when that was the case, by the way, the Democratic Party was the majority party in this country, not only in Congress but also in terms of state governorships and legislatures. As the party backed away from offering those things, it lost its majority position. While correlation doesn’t prove causation, I think that in this case a definite case can be made.

Now, my recollection may be a bit hazy here, but that’s not how I recall it. I can’t speak to his part of the country in Appalachia, only to the Rust Belt where I live. But what I recall of those years during the 1980’s when Reagan was president and it seemed like a major factory was shutting down and locking its gates every other week, there WERE plenty of Democratic politicians who warned where such policies would lead. They truly were friends of unions (common in Milwaukee where unions were still strong), and were willing and able to stop the flight of factory jobs overseas and stand up for unions. There were plenty of op-eds in the newspapers here (there were a lot more newspapers back then) warning of the dangers of deindustrialization and globalization, and expressing concerns over the numerous devastated communities and wrecked urban areas as fallout from these policies. Many politicians repeatedly warned in their campaign literature and speeches that the effects of gloablization and unrestrained free trade would be a race to the bottom leaving wrecked communities and downward mobility in their wake. They were skeptical of the supposedly wonderful “service economy” touted by professional economists, and how “retraining” would solve all the messy problems such policies produced.

Do you know what happened to those politicians? They lost, that’s what happened.

The working classes, the same ones whose jobs were disappearing and communities were cratering, faithfully turned out election after election and threw every Democrat out of office that they could find. Not only that, but they actively despised the Democratic party, the party that was theoretically the only thing standing up for their interests in Congress and local statehouses.

Now, put yourself in the minds of Democratic party politicians during that period. Your whole purpose, and the historical purpose of your party, had always been championing the cause of the working class, and standing up for the little guy’s interests against those of the big bosses and financiers. And how did those working classes and little guys reward your concern for their well-being and advocacy for their issues?

By consistently turning up and voting against you, that’s how. Over and over and over again. This is what actually happened during the 1980’s.

So, you’ve got to wonder this: Why in hell would Democrats continue to advocate for a class of people that reliably and enthusiastically voted against them? That actively despised them?

They wouldn’t. During the Reagan years, when Democrats honestly did support the working class and trade unions, and the spirit of Roosevelt was still a guiding force within the party, there was very serious concern that the Democrats would not even survive as a party at all. So dramatic were their defeats, so catastrophic were their losses, so numerous were their failures, so deep was the antipathy of the white working classes towards them, that it was thought in many quarters that the Democratic party would cease to exist as an entity. Walter Mondale’s epic loss of 49 states was the catalyzing event here. And that was bookended by similarly catastrophic defeats of Carter and Dukakis. At the local and state levels, things weren’t looking much better, either.

So here’s how I recall the situation: The democrats didn’t abandon the working classes, the working classes abandoned the Democrats! And they did so primarily for reasons of racial grievance.

The Republicans were (and are) rabidly anti-worker and pro-wealth. And the working classes, the ones slowly being destroyed and ground into the dust by their policies, were their most fervent supporters. Vast swaths of the country became a de-facto one-party Republican state, and remain so today. Were were the concerns about these issues back then? Where was all the concern about deindustrialization back then, you know, when it was actually happening? Where was the concern about disastrous foreign wars and militarism during two Gulf Wars and the invasion of Afghanistan? About affordable heath care as premiums were rising with every passing year and employers were shedding responsibilities to their employees as fast as possible?

Looked at from that perspective, it’s easy to see why the majority of the Democratic Party abandoned the cause of the working class. Why keep advocating for a constituency that actively hates you and votes against you? That undermines you at every turn? That reliably and enthusiastically turns out to vote for your opponents? Furthermore, why would you do so when it puts your party at a serious fundraising disadvantage? With the enormous money advantage the Republicans got as being reliable handmaidens to the wealthy, the banks, and corporate interests, they could vastly outspend the Democrats and run television ads night and day convincing the working classes that the Democrats were their true enemy, regardless of any policy positions. And if there’s one reliable feature of Americans, they will do whatever the glowing box in the corner of the room tells them to do, even if it destroys them.

It was a recipe for party suicide.

So the Democrats did what I think was the completely rational and logical reaction. They stopped advocating for the working classes that hated them anyway. Instead, they adopted more wealth-friendly and banker-friendly positions, mitigated by a less rabidly simplistic anti-government philosophy. They embraced competent technocratic management as the same time as the Republicans were taken over by grifters and sociopaths. They embraced balanced budgets instead of the unrestricted looting promoted by the Republicans or generous social programs, shedding the old the “tax-and-spend” label. They played to the racial fears of the whites by taking up welfare “reform” and passing a series of “tough on crime” laws. They took the moderate positions abandoned by the Republican party during their takeover by the John-Bircher wing of the party. The Republicans had gotten into bed with Dixieland racists and the Religious Right as part of their electoral strategy during their rise under Reagan, so the Democrats could subsequently appeal to the more socially moderate sections of the country who were horrified by these extremist radicals. The tolerant areas of the country in urban areas that benefited under globalization, deregulation and tax cuts could now become a reliable source of campaign cash, offsetting the Chamber of Commerce money funneled to Republicans, closing the fundraising gap. Wall Street could now become a reliable source of money thanks to discarding the pro-working class polices that weren’t getting Democrats elected anyway.

They could become a less-extreme version of the Republicans. They could move to the abandoned middle.

And do you know what happened? They won! They started winning elections again, after more than a decade of humiliating defeats and wandering in the wilderness.

So what conclusions would you draw from this, dear reader? I’m guessing the same ones that the Democratic Party leaders did – that the old strategy of advocating for the interests of the working classes by being skeptical of globalization and deindustrialization was a bona-fide loser, and the new “third way” strategy of seeking the abandoned middle ground between business interests on the one hand and worker interests on the other based on running poll numbers was a clear winner. How can you blame the Democrats for doing what the cold, hard evidence told them to do? What should they have done, continue to lose over and over again like they did during the nineteen-eighties, like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football???

Why did “third-way” politicians take over the Democratic Party apparatus? Because they f*cking won, that’s why! Why did Democrats that advocated for the working classes lose power within the party? Because they lost! It’s just that simple. The leadership didn’t purge them, the voters did. The only reason that Bernie Sanders is still in in Congress at all is because he comes from a reliably left-wing state on the East Coast. If he had been a politician anywhere in the Heartland, his career would have been over a long time ago.

Want proof? Consider the Russ Feingold/Ron Johnson congressional race. Johnson, a wealthy businessman and “Tea Party” favorite, has been a reliable rubber-stamp for pro-corporate, anti-worker policies since day one. Plus he’s no longer an unknown entity, having served a full term in congress and shown his true colors. He’s not truly against offshoring, deindustrialition, tax evasion, foreign wars,or any of that stuff, as his voting record amply demonstrates. Feingold, by contrast, was one of the more leftist politicians in Congress–his signature issue was campaign finance reform (the McCain-Feingold bill); he was the only senator to vote against the USA PATRIOT act; and has repeatedly expressed concerns about the devastation that globalization has wrought in small communities all over Wisconsin. He has also been amenable to a single-payer health care plan in the past.

What happened? Wisconsinites voted to send Johnson back to Congress. How is that consistent with the supposed “We’re so concerned about wars/globalization/free trade/health care” narrative that supposedly led working-class voters to turn out and vote for Trump in Greer’s estimation?

Or consider Paul Ryan. This past election, Ryan was the standard-bearer for the “traditional” Republican values and their pro-corporate, anti-worker positions. Ryan ran as vice-president under Mitt Romney just four years ago, fully backing the standard Republican policies of deregulation, globalization, outsourcing, open borders, tax cuts for the rich, dismantling Medicare and Social Security, and all the rest of it.

Janesville (Ryan’s home district) is a small rural Wisconsin Rust Belt town that has been utterly decimated by factory closures over the years, particularly by General Motors. It’s also home to a large recently-arrived Hispanic community. Many populist politicians have run against Ryan over the years, pointing these facts out. Do you know what happened to them? They all lost! The overwhelmingly white residents of this devastated, hollowed-out Rust Belt community reliably choose to send Mitt Romney’s running mate back to congress over and over and over again. How exactly does that square with the alleged fact that Trump voters were so very concerned about job losses, immigration, and affordable heath care?

So when I hear that the working classes turned to Trump because of their concerns over globalization, or jobs, or war, or affordable health care, or falling incomes, I’ve got to wonder, where the hell have these people been for the last thirty-five years!!! Now, only now, long after the wreckage been assessed, are we told that people are suddenly concerned about the loss of factory jobs, affordable health care and other kitchen-table issues. These trends have been going on for the better part of the past four decades. Where they f*ck were these people then??? Why only now, do they suddenly start caring about these issues when an orange-haired reality TV star billionaire raises them? WTF? Are you kidding me???

So when they say, “race has nothing to do with it,” I kind-of roll my eyes. And when the Democrats are castigated for their “abandonment” of the working class, I have to wonder, too. If my recollection of the history above is correct, why wouldn’t the Democrats have abandoned the working class? Because, you see, when they DID advocate for working class interests, they were repeatedly and soundly defeated. And when they threw the working class under the bus just like Republicans, they stared winning again! What conclusion would you draw? The working classes actively turned to the right; the Democrats simply followed where the voters led. And yet, somehow, in this election, it’s their fault?

In other words, the working classes in this country spent decades voting for a party that actively wanted to destroy them, and now they bitch and moan that nobody is representing their interests? Who could have imagined? Seriously? Are you f*cking kidding me???

The same goes for war-mongering. Greer writes:

War isn’t an abstraction here in flyover country. Joining the military is very nearly the only option young people here have if they want a decent income, job training, and the prospect of a college education, and so most families have at least one relative or close friend on active duty.  People here respect the military, but the last two decades of wars of choice in the Middle East have done a remarkably good job of curing middle America of any fondness for military adventurism it might have had.

Gee, where was that concern over the past 36 years since Reagan’s election when the people in “flyover country” overwhelmingly sent Republicans to Congress and the White House over and over and over again? Where was all the concern about war casualties and body bags during the Republicans’ military escapades, from Grenada to Panama, to the first Gulf War? Let’s not forget who initiated all those wars of choice in the Middle East in the first place–the Republican president George W. Bush, who “defeated” Al Gore back in 2000 and who won reelection twice despite his almost total incompetence. Did those people vote for Gore because of their concern over military adventurism back then? Did they angrily show up to toss Bush out of office in 2004 after he revealed his true colors and embarked upon the most ambitious nation-building program in American history using American blood and treasure to do so?

No, they didn’t. Not even close. Plus, it’s common knowledge that military servicemen overwhelmingly vote Republican in every election. But now they’ve suddenly become pacifists? Really??? it’s interesting that only now, when a centrist Democrat is running for office, do they suddenly care about potential military conflicts, just as they suddenly care about outsourcing and the loss of well-paying factory jobs after not giving two shits over the better part of the past three decades.

The Obamacare Disaster…was nearly as influential as Clinton’s reckless militarism. Most of the people I know who voted for Trump make too much money to qualify for a significant federal subsidy, and too little to be able to cover the endlessly rising cost of insurance under the absurdly misnamed “Affordable Care Act.” They recalled, rather too clearly for the electoral prospects of the Democrats, how Obama assured them that the price of health insurance would go down, that they would be able to keep their existing plans and doctors, and so on through all the other broken promises that surrounded Obamacare before it took effect.

Ah, yes, Obamacare. Suddenly, suddenly, these people are also concerned about health care costs too, after two decades of steadily rising premiums and endemic medical cost-induced bankruptcies? Again, where the f*ck have these people been the past couple of decades? Perhaps they are unaware that the reason we ended up with Obamacare in the first place is because it was thought that only way to get any sort of reform through a bought-and-paid-for congress was to choose one that had been dreamed up in a right-wing thinktank and put into place by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts. Are these the same people who reliably destroy the career of anyone who dares advocate Canadian-style “socialized medicine”???

What have the Republicans historically done to make health care more accessible to the average worker over the years? I hear crickets chirping. This is also the party that fought tooth-and-nail against the introduction of Medicare, and is still trying to eviscerate the program through privatization and voucher schemes (championed by the aforementioned Mr. Paul Ryan). Yet now the working classes turned out en masse to pull the lever for a Republican due to their concern over the affordability of health care? WTF???

All of the working-class concerns Greer touted above were abandoned for a simple reason–because the politicians who advocated them were reliably and soundly trounced at the polls over the years by a white working class that was far more concerned with “values” and fighting “socialism” than policies that actually helped out them and their families. Now, we’re supposed to believe that THIS election cycle they suddenly started caring about the bread-and-butter issues that they’ve stubbornly ignored for countless prior election cycles?

Greer seems to think that a Bernie Sanders candidacy would have had a chance at winning. That suddenly, positions that had been the kiss of death for Democratic presidential candidates in decades prior (tax and spend!!!) would have succeeded this time.

Maybe. But consider me skeptical.

Trump won because of racism, all right, but not in the way that most people people think. After Civil Rights, the Republicans became an authoritarian white ethno-nationalist party. When that happened, the working classes reliably turned out to vote for a party whose policies were destroying them. But there’s the thing–they didn’t seem to mind that fact too much until this year! Now, suddenly, they supposedly care about these issues–war, globalism, immigration, offshoring and health care, but only because it’s a Republican who’s bringing them up. The Democrats who had the temerity to raise these same issues over the years (less and less as time went on)  were reliably and soundly rejected by these exact same voters for decades.

So I find parts of Greer’s explanation of Trump voters a little perplexing.

Seen in one light Trump’s victory isn’t all that surprising. I mentioned that today’s Republican Party is basically identical to the John Birch society (headquartered in Wisconsin, BTW). But there was one traditional Bircher position that stood out as an anomaly–the Birchers were historically very suspicious of free trade agreements and globalization, believing they undermined American sovereignty (in this, they were actually correct). So, really, Trump’s victory is finally bringing them fully into the Birch orbit. From the “Values” part of its Wikipedia entry:

The [John Birch Society]supports limited government and opposes wealth redistribution and economic interventionism. It opposes collectivism, totalitarianism, and communism. It opposes socialism as well, which it asserts is infiltrating U.S. governmental administration…The society opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, claiming it violated the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution …The society opposes “one world government”, and it has an immigration reduction view on immigration reform. It opposes the United Nations, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), and other free trade agreements. They argue the U.S. Constitution has been devalued in favor of political and economic globalization, and that this alleged trend is not accidental. …The society has been described as “ultraconservative”, “far right”, and “extremist”. Other sources consider the society part of the patriot movement…

Sound familiar?

Trump was also able to combine white working class racial grievance with a politically popularist Producerist platform (try saying that fast). In this, he was able to meld concerns of both the Left and Right. What do I mean by Producerist? Producerism is a political position that has a lot of advocates at the grass-roots level, but few in mainstream politics. Wikipedia defines it this way: “Producerism is an ideology which holds that those members of society engaged in the production of tangible wealth are of greater benefit to society than, for example, aristocrats who inherit their wealth and station.” I would, however, characterize it as the belief that there are “parasites” at both the top and bottom of society–Wall-Street and other “crony capitalist” tycoons at the top sucking money out of the productive economy through crooked financial deals and usury, and “lazy” blacks, immigrants, and other minorities at the bottom living large on the dole paid for by taxes on the productive (i.e. white) working classes.

I realized this again while reading the last post from the University of Wisconsin professor who went out (like a colonial official visiting the natives) to talk to rural voters to find out what they think. Recall that “hard work” was at the heart of their world view, and that they expressed hostility to *both* minorities and to educated professional like the professor, claiming that both seemed to be living well by hardly working at all (“why are you interviewing me, shouldn’t you be at work teaching, or something???). Note also that both of these demographics are overwhelmingly located in wealthy, multicultural, and Democratic-leaning urban areas far away from the communities devastated by offshoring, mass immigration, and financialization.

I’m not the first to figure this out, by the way. Michael Lind pointed this out a while ago, and here he’s cited in this piece:

…[Michael] Lind [adds] one important piece of historical context that helps explain Trump:

‘ Trump is no libertarian; quite the opposite. He is a classic populist of the right who peddles suspicion of foreigners—it’s no accident that he was the country’s leading “birther” raising questions about Barack Obama’s citizenship—combined with a kind of “producerism.” In populist ideology, society is divided not among rich and poor but among producers and parasites.’

‘Populists are suspicious of unearned wealth, including the interest charged by bankers who manipulate “other people’s money” (to use the phrase of Louis Brandeis). And populists the world over are hostile to the idle or undeserving poor who allegedly live on welfare at the expense of productive workers and capitalists. Populists tend to attribute the existence of large numbers of the idle rich and the idle poor to government corruption. In the words of the 1892 People’s Party platform: “From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.”’

From this perspective, Trump’s proposal to kill the carried interest tax exemption, and his scorn for the “hedge-fund guys” who benefit from it, makes perfect sense.

Now you might find it strange that a guy who’s made his fortune from real estate speculation and “brand management” poses as the champion of the horny-handed sons of toil as opposed to financial sector “parasites.” But then again, real estate is the great source of middle-class wealth for white Americans, and and the people who got lucky from being on the right side of various real estate bubbles are pretty heavily represented in the GOP rank-and-file, where contempt for the “losers” and “looters” who lost their shirts in the housing and financial collapses was the original impetus for the Tea Party Movement.

In any event, it’s a very good thing that outside some fever swamps, Americans don’t especially associate the financial sector with Jews. European producerists (or right-wing “populists,” if you will) in the last century rather conspicuously did, with lethal consequences. It seems Trump is satisfied with making immigrants and the politicians who speak Spanish to pander to them the personification of evil. But it should be clear his kind of politics involve fishing in all sorts of dark waters of resentment and bigotry.

Trump and Producerism (Washington Monthly)

Wikipedia also takes note of the Producerist rise in Europe and elsewhere:

Producerism has seen a contemporary revival, sparked by popular opposition to the machinations of globalized financial capital and large, politically connected corporations. Critics of producerism see a correlation between producerist views, and views that are antagonistic toward lower income people and immigrants, such as nativism. These critics see producerism as analogous to populism. Examples of politicians or groups that are cited by these critics include the Reform Party of the United States of America, Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, and Lou Dobbs, as well as Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, Björn Höcke in Germany and similar dissident politicians across Europe.

So, in summary, I find the ‘concerns’ of Trump voters a little hard to take at face value, given the way these people have consistently and overwhelmingly behaved over the past few decades, and whom they have supported at the ballot box, even when faced with viable alternatives. I suspect the ‘concerns’ Greer cites are little more than post-hoc emotional rationalizations for what they would have done anyway. And I suspect that even if (let’s be honest, when) these legitimate concerns are summarily thrown out the window, these exact same people will find new and different reasons to show up and vote in the next Republican into office, all while claiming the whole time that racial attitudes have nothing whatsoever to do with any of it.