Hello fellow kids!
And welcome back to What is Politics, and to the critique and correction of the first five chapters of David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything.
Today we’ll be covering the first half of Chapter 3: Unfreezing the Ice Age, where the authors try to argue that human beings did not begin as egalitarian hunter-gatherers by ignoring the first several hundred thousand years of human existence.
HIERARCHY: DEMOCRATIC VS DOMINANCE
The thesis question of this book, which the authors finally ask towards the end of this chapter, is how did human societies get “stuck” in dominance hierarchy, which today is how almost every society on earth is organized, where some people have more power, more wealth and more rights than others.
Now we already defined hierarchy a couple of episodes ago and talked about what that means in a political context – politics means decision making in groups, so a political hierarchy is one where people are ranked into different categories/classes according to different levels of decision making power. Kings over barons over serfs, owners over managers over workers, officers over enlisted soldiers, parents over children.
And the whole point of this book as I see it, even though the authors don’t say it explicitly – is to tell us that while it may seem like we’re stuck in hierarchy today, and like the circumstances of industrial civilization determine our social structure and all of the inequalities that go with it – it doesn’t have to be that way – human beings used to choose our own social structures in the past in all kinds of different conditions – and in fact, the very thing that makes us human is our ability to choose our own social structures. Therefore we can change our social structure once again if we can only remember that we have the power to do this. There is nothing about civilization that inherently forces us to be stuck in hierarchy – or at least not the kinds of hierarchies that we’ve been stuck with.
And while I agree with that last sentence – the ideas that’s it’s predicated on are a confused mess, which turns the whole book into a huge mess and which makes it harder for readers to actually know what to do in terms of getting unstuck from dominance hierarchy today.
Now maybe the main source of the mess in question, is that the authors don’t distinguish between a conventional hierarchy and a dominance hierarchy, and also that they seem to have no concept of how dominance hierarchy actually works.
A conventional or democratic hierarchy is where a group of people voluntarily organize into a hierarchy in order to achieve some goal. And while, like in every decision-making hierarchy, the people on top of the hierarchy have more decision-making power, the people at the bottom are still the ultimate deciders, in that the leadership position exists only because it serves their interests – and they can remove the person filling that position it if they’re not happy with their leadership service, and even remove the position entirely if they want to. And the terms of getting to be on top of a conventional hierarchy – like the degree of authority and responsibilities you might have, and the rewards you get – if any – are all ultimately determined by the people on the bottom.
A dominance hierarchy on the other hand, is something that people on the top impose on the people on the people below them because of differential bargaining power between the two sides. And if the people on the bottom tolerate the power imbalance, it’s because they don’t have any better options – like how you go to your job that you hate and you obey your dingus boss, because not going to that job will be worse in various ways than going to it.
For an example of a conventional hierarchy – even in the most hyper egalitarian hunter gatherer societies, who have no chiefs or authority figures – when there’s a hunting party, the hunters will often pick someone among them who has a lot of experience and good skills and instincts to be the party leader, and they’ll look to him for guidance and leadership on the hunt.
Not only do these hunting leaders not have any official authority, but the second that people don’t like what he’s doing they’ll either stop listening, or else never appoint him again, depending on the circumstances.
In that video I mentioned last time with the bro dude going hunting with the Hadza, the translators refer to one man called Sokolo as the “chief” but that’s a mis-translation from the translator who’s from a different more hierarchical ethnic group – Sokolo was just the hunting party leader – and any Hadza trying to pass himself off as a chief would get into enormous trouble with the rest of the community.
Now sometimes the lines might get blurry between a conventional and dominance hierarchy, and there’s a bit of a spectrum, which we can talk about more another time – but a good analogy to know which kind of hierarchy you’re dealing with is like the difference between Sadomasochism and sexual assault. On the surface they might look like the same thing – but the second someone says stop, and the other person doesn’t stop, then it becomes sexual assault.
So, by definition, when the authors ask “how did we get stuck” in hierarchy – what they’re talking about is dominance hierarchy not a democratic hierarchy, because you’re not stuck in a democratic hierarchy, you have entered into it on an equal footing with all the other members of that hierarchy, and you have an equal say with everyone else on determining how it will be shaped, and who gets to be in what position, and whether or not the hierarchy continues to exist at all.
Now one thing to note about dominance hierarchy is that since by its very nature, no one chooses to have it imposed on them – dominance hierarchy can only exist if there are certain conditions or circumstances that give some people a set of advantages which allow them to impose their dominance onto other people.
These sorts of conditions are things like – I have guns and you don’t, i’m an adult and you’re my child and you depend on me for food and shelter – or our economy depends on fishing, and my family got to this fishing spot first, and we’re numerous and strong enough to control it by force and you have no where else to get your fish, etc.
And so, by not distinguishing between conventional vs dominance hierarchies, and by not understanding that dominance hierarchy can only exist because of conditions and circumstances – the Dawn of Everything creates a lot of confusion when it comes to understanding why we got stuck in hierarchy and how we can get unstuck.
For example, starting in this chapter and the next chapter, they authors give us all of these examples of traditional societies that have conventional hierarchies – hierarchies by choice – like the Nambikwara chief who has no coercive authority, and who loses his position if people choose not to follow him – and then they point to societies which had seasonal dominance hierarchies like the the Inuit who had patriarchy but only in the winter – and then they say, ‘see – social structure is all a matter of choice, people used to move in and out of hierarchy all the time for expedience, and they used to disobey their chiefs if they didn’t like them – there’s no reason why people need to be stuck in hierarchy today!
But they’re totally missing the point that a hierarchy of expedience is a conventional hierarchy, while today we’re stuck in dominance hierarchy and not conventional hierarchy – and they’re completely oblivious to the fact that the people on the bottom rungs of those seasonal hierarchies, like inuit women in winter, were in fact stuck in those hierarchies, it’s just that the conditions that got them stuck – i.e. the conditions which gave men a bargaining power advantage over them – only lasted for a few months every year! As we’ll see later on in the chapter.
So despite the uplifting message of the book, and despite 700 pages of wonderful stories and history anecdotes and anthropological and archaeological facts, the authors never come anywhere near being able to answer their question of how we got stuck. They basically render themselves incapable of answering that question by focusing on discombobulated choices instead of about bargaining power and the conditions that give some people power advantages over others.
And this takes them to some really ridiculous places – like later in the book, they basically end up implying that maybe the reason why got stuck in hierarchy is because the whole world became a bunch of confused dumdums who confused violence for care and forgot that we can be free.
The worst part of this is that focusing on conscious choice instead of on changing the conditions that create power imbalances is exactly the opposite of the focus that we need if we’re going to be able to do anything about dominance hierarchy.
THE RECIPE FOR DOMINANCE HIERARCHY
Now before I get into the text of this chapter, I want to lay out the basic building blocks or ingredients of dominance hierarchy, it will be a lot easier to understand what’s happening in this book and more importantly what’s going on in he world around us.
So, the particular details of the road to dominance hierarchy will be different in every case – but the general path is always the same – the only way that you can get a dominance hierarchy is if two general conditions are met:
#1 is that some people are able to control access to resources that other people need in order to live.
and #2, which I ironically realized from reading this book – is that you also need for there to be no easy or preferable way for those people who don’t control the resources, to go off and go get decent alternative resources somewhere else.
Those are the ingredients of dominance hierarchy. That’s it, that’s all.
In any given situation, if you want to understand why there is a dominance hierarchy, and why it’s milder or harsher in one place than in another, then your task is just a matter of figuring out what the circumstances are which establish these two criteria. And if you want to reduce or get rid of that hierarchy, you need to figure out how you can change or moderate those circumstances.
So for an example of how these 2 criteria work, in our society, your boss tells you what to do all day and not the other way around, because he controls the salary that you need in order to eat. That’s criteria #1
But, if you could just go start a farm in your backyard and survive easily that way, and if you could easily save up and buy a 3D printers to make all the things you need, then you won’t want to waste time doing what your boss wants for much longer than it takes to save up to buy the printer and set up your farm. So if you could start a farm and get an amazing star trek 3d printer, criteria #2 wouldn’t be met, and the boss would need to provide you with conditions and rewards that are better and more interesting and more pleasant for you than the conditions of farming in your back yard and making stuff with your 3D printer, dramatically reducing the power imbalance between worker and owner, probably to the point where there’s it’s not profitable to hire you at all.
But you don’t have a farm in your backyard, or a good enough 3D printer, so criteria #2 is fulfilled, which is why you go to work.
Now when capitalism was getting started, people did have farms in their back yards. And they also had access to common lands that their animals could graze on and forests that they could hunt and fish in. So most people had no reason to subject themselves to being bossed around and abused by some asshole all day for peanuts just to enrich him and his ugly spoiled brat monster children. So you didn’t have criteria #1 or #2 to create a dominance hierarchy by capitalists, and those capitalists had trouble getting their enterprises of the ground.
But what the capitalists did have is a lot of wealth inequality versus the peasants, and they also had control over the state. And so, the capitalists via their influence over the government, did everything they could to take away these alternatives to employment servitude. They closed off and privatized formerly common lands, they made it illegal to hunt in certain forests, and fish in certain lakes, and they pulled all kinds of other shenanigans to make it harder and harder to survive by farming. As a result, formerly free farmers, were now forced to “choose” the labour market in order to survive.
So those are the criteria that give you hierarchy, but you also want to pay attention to specific conditions in order to understand the degree of dominance that people in power get to exert – i.e. how stuck you are.
Why do some people get paid really well at their jobs, and have decent working conditions, while other people get paid barely enough to not die, and have absolutely miserable humiliating working conditions? In capitalism, that will usually be a factor of market conditions. You might not have a star trek 3-D printer replicator, but maybe you do have a really rare work skill like an expertise in corporate tax law that’s worth a lot of money to wealthy employers. Or maybe there’s a labour shortage and you have 20 employers that want you to work for them and who have to compete for your service by offering you better wages and working conditions. So conditions 1 and 2 are still met – you still have to obey someone, but they’re not as dire – you have some degree of escape, at least from one employer to another.
But if you have 20 applicants competing for every job you’re qualified for, or if you have no savings, and you can’t afford to be unemployed for more than 3 days without getting evicted, or if you have diabetes and depend on your boss for health insurance – well then condition #2 is way tighter for you, and you will be much more stuck than a tax lawyer or trust fund diaper person.
OK, so now that we have a clear idea of what dominance hierarchy is about and how it works, let’s read the book:
CHAPTER 3 UNFREEZING THE ICE AGE
The authors begin the chapter telling us that
“accounts of ‘human origins’ play a similar role for us today as myth did for ancient Greeks or Polynesians, or the Dreamtime for indigenous Australians. … there actually was an age in which the lines between … human and animal were still indistinct; and when someone … [had] to light a fire, cook a meal or perform a marriage ceremony for the first time. We know these things happened, but we really don’t know how. It is very difficult to resist the temptation to make up stories about what might have happened … which … reflect our own fears, desires, obsessions and concerns. As a result, such distant times can become a vast canvas for the working out of our collective fantasies.”
And this is exactly right – ever since we realized that humans evolved from other species, the domain of human origins has been a hotly contested battlefield both in academia and in popular literature, with people projecting their political ideologies into the giant gaps in our knowledge – gaps which have been shrinking over time, leaving less and less room from speculation.
You basically had two camps, the right and the left. And remember that the right means those people who support particular hierarchies, while the left means those who want to reduce or eliminate those hierarchies. So unsurprisingly, thinkers on the left generally argued that humans had egalitarian origins and that therefore we are best suited to live in societies of relative equality, like Rousseau and later Marx and Engels and many hunter gatherer experts today – and then you had thinkers on the right who either believed that we had hierarchical or at least ultra competitive origins and are best suited to live in natural hierarchies, like Hobbes argued, and like others since then, like E.O. Wilson in the 80s or Jordan Peterson does today.
Another right wing argument that gains importance among people with anthropological knowledge was that even if we did have egalitarian origins, well that this was a bad thing – a state of childishness, and that we couldn’t reach our full potential without hierarchy – which is what the 18th century economist Turgot argued which Graeber and Wengrow highlight in chapter 2.
And, after having re-read this chapter and chapter 4 for this critique, I’m actually putting Graeber and Wengrow as unwittingly belonging in this Turgot camp of thinking that equality is for children. And I know peoples’ heads are going to explode, but you’ll see what I mean later on in this episode and when we cover chapter 4.
Anyhow, a more modern argument justifying hierarchy which Graeber and Wengrow point out in chapters 1 and 2, is the liberal synthesis cop-out idea that well, maybe we are ideally suited to equality, but it’s just not an achievable goal anymore because civilization is just too damned complicated and large. And the authors attribute this Rousseau, and they quote Jared Diamond articulating it quite explicitly in chapter 1 of the book. And even though Jared Diamond is kind of a liberal left type guy, and Rousseau is often seen as one of the founders of the left, this is a right wing argument because justifying hierarchy is by definition right wing.
So at various points in history one or another version of these left and right ideas was more popular or more prominent, and different variations on these themes appeared and evolved as new information and evidence came in, which constrained the limits of our imaginations and narrowed the spectrum of possible scenarios about our origins.
And today, in Dawn of Everything, Graeber and Wengrow are trying to position themselves above this fray by taking a weird postmodernish 3rd position where we have no particular origins. We sort of magically appear on earth with all sorts of social structures somehow, which I don’t think is even really possible – and which as Arnold Schroeder pointed out recently in the Fight Like an Animal podcast, is in and of itself is a very mythological idea (especially since it makes no actual sense). But I guess the point the authors are trying to get across, which does make more sense, is that when it comes to hierarchy or equality, our nature is to have no nature, the essence of being human is our ability to choose our social structures.
And like Arnold says, Graeber and Wengrow’s origin myth is that once upon a time we all had all of this agency and choice and we could and did assemble and dissemble ourselves into different levels hierarchy and equality because of expedience or theatre or play – as the authors put it in this chapter – but then humanity mysteriously fell into a state of becoming stuck in hierarchy, maybe because we all became dumbasses as the authors suggest later on. And so, the solution is that we need to remember our freedom in order to regain our freedom, as the authors circularly tell us in chapter 1.
Anyhow, after centuries of going back and forth between right and left wing visions of human origins, which waxed and waned in popularity with events like the rise and fall of french revolution, the rise of global colonialism, the rise of capitalism, the rise of socialism, the rise and degeneration of the soviet union, the rise and fall of fascism and the cold war – eventually, in the 1960s, a version of the left wing egalitarian origins theory basically won the debate, and has been the consensus or at least majority opinion among the relevant experts since that time, much to the chagrin of Graeber and Wengrow – or Graebgrow as Matt Christman is calling them in his review of the book – and if anyone has contact wth him, please let him know about this series – maybe send him a transcript! I feel like he’ll get a lot out of it.
Anyhow, this victory of egalitarian origins started with the Man the Hunter conference that I discussed in earlier episodes, which brought to the fore the existence of hyper egalitarian societies, all of whom practice the same specific type of immediate return nomadic hunting and gathering that our earliest ancestors are thought to have practiced. Since that time, it’s been assumed that Rousseau and Marx and Engels were basically right – our ancestors were indeed mostly either hyper-egalitarian like most immediate return foragers – or at least that they were relatively egalitarian like most other kinds of hunter gatherers that we know about.
And although this egalitarian origins vision has been challenged several times over the years, and it has evolved and changed in reaction to those critiques and to new discoveries in archeology and anthropology and also psychology – a new and evolving synthesis of egalitarian origins is still the dominant view today.
THE CURRENT SYNTHESIS
CHRISTOPHER BOEHM’S HIERARCHY IN THE FOREST
So now I’m going to explain what the current synthesis version of egalitarian origins is, and why most people with enough expertise to have an informed opinion believe in it, despite knowing all of the evidence that Graebgrow cite in this chapter as if to disprove it.
And this is really important for readers of Dawn of Everything, because Graeber and Wengrow attack the idea of egalitarian origins without ever explaining to us the logic behind it. And as a result it makes it seem like the people who believe in egalitarian origins are just stupid or in denial or something.
Now, our current understanding of what our original social structures were like in terms of presence or absence of dominance hierarchy, is largely a synthesis of the work of Christopher Boehm and Sarah Hrdy, plus some psychology and game theory research done over the last few decades, done on people from societies from around the world.
Christopher Boehm tells us that the Hobbes vs Rousseau debate about whether humans are innately cooperative or competitive is a red herring. The Rousseauian idea of humans as inherently good natured cooperative egalitarian smurfs and the hobbesian Gargamel view of human nature as selfish, competitive and hierarchical are not in conflict – they’re both correct.
We all have a tendency to want advantages over others, and therefore to be at the top of a dominance hierarchy – but we also innately hate being dominated and exploited by others and we will do what we can to prevent it if we can, which usually means teaming up with others to stop would-be dominators. It’s the conditions that we find ourselves in, that either give some people an advantage that they can use in their quest to dominate others – or else that give the advantage to the people who are trying to resist domination. And as it happens, the conditions that our earliest ancestors lived in were such that we were able to successfully form coalitions to resist domination – at least for a the first 95% of so of our existence, and the result was egalitarian societies where everyone has equal decision-making power.
One of the practical conditions of our earliest ancestors which allowed people resisting hierarchy to win the day of would be dominators was the invention of lethal projectile weapons by our homo erectus ancestors.
Once jimmy homo erectus invented lethal projectile weapons, it was no longer possible for alpha males to maintain the types of dominance hierarchies that we see in our chimpanzee and gorilla cousins today – because even the wimpiest pee-wee herman homo erectus cold just kill off the biggest macho man high T alpha man with a spear from a safe distance. An Boehm doesn’t mention it, but this would later on extend to poisons and poisoned projectile weapons, which could be used by women as well.
Graeber and Wengrow don’t mention it, but Boehm calls this process of killing off the alpha males and of banding together to prevent domination the “egalitarian revolution” – and this revolution is how Boehm believes that we became human beings. The physical features that we see in animals where men compete with eachother for dominance like males being a lot bigger than females, or like giant fangs or canines, or thick brow ridges to prevent our skulls from getting crushed from blows to the face – these traits fade out over the millenia and almost disappear by the time our modern ancestors appear on the scene 300,000 years ago. Basically, alpha male dominant types just kept getting themselves killed over and over, and people had to learn to cooperate on an egalitarian basis if they didn’t want to get merked by pissed off pee wees and womens.
And the climactic conditions in the paleolithic plus the conditions inherent to the types of hunting and gathering that people did in order to live in that era were such that there was just no way for a bully or more likely a coalition of bullies to succeed in their attempts for dominance for very long.
And these conditions favouring egalitarian social organization continued until after the advent of agriculture and the environmental conditions of the holocene which eventually in combination with other factors made it harder and harder to prevent domination and easier and easier for bullies to form coalitions with which to dominate their peers.
Boehm doesn’t go too deep into theorizing about the conditions that favoured egalitarianism, but he mentions various things which hunter-gatherer specialists discuss like the mobility of hunter gatherer groups in that period which means that people could easily escape any attempts at domination – criteria #2, and the instability of the palaeolithic climate which made it very hard for anyone to dominate any particular territory or hold on to any particular dominance formation for very long – criteria #1.
Now if Graeber and Wengrow actually wanted to disprove egalitarian origins for real, rather than just spin a narrative for a feel good propaganda book, they would have tried to argue that those conditions don’t actually lead to equality. This is what scholars who are against egalitarian origins do. But instead they chose to just leave out all of Boehm’s logic and then they act confused as to why he comes to the conclusions that he does – banking on readers’ not having read his book in order to make egalitarian origins seem foolish and incompatible with the archaeological record.
SARAH HRDY’S MOTHERS AND OTHERS
Meanwhile Sarah Hrdy’s work tells us that more than just not liking to be dominated, humans also do innately love cooperating and working together and are that we are hardwired to do so. Given how expensive it is in terms of calories and energy and time required to raise a human child until it can feed itself, human beings could not have survived as we did without cooperative child rearing. And unlike other great apes, humans don’t just enlist immediate family in childcare, but we also trust and cooperate with unrelated humans to help each-other with child care. Today we have public or for profit daycares depending on where you are, where unrelated strangers take care of our kids, but hunter gatherer camps are a lot like giant daycares with everyone as the staff helping with the little snooglers.
And the only way that we could cooperate on this level – before a wage economy – was by evolving all sorts of traits that could not likely have emerged in a very hierarchical or competitive society – traits like involuntary facial expressions that give away our feelings, or like the cooperative eye where the whites of your eyes are visible so everyone can see what we’re looking at, which other great apes don’t have, because they are constantly competing with eachother in various respects.
And Hrdy doesn’t mention this in her book, but people from the radical anthropology group that I always talk about like Camilla Power and Morna Finnegan have pointed out that many of these sorts of situations like caring for unrelated infants could not have likely happened if people were organized patrilocally – and that therefore this suggest matrilocal residence, which apparently Hrdy has agreed with, and in turn this means that our early ancestors at least were most likely gender egalitarian as well, contrary to what Boehm says in his work which is focuses on dudes killing eachother and takes male dominance for granted.
There are also a lot of other reasons to believe that we were egalitarian – for example, like I mentioned last time, the most hyper egalitarian societies that we know of from modern times practice the same kind of economy that most of our earliest ancestors are likely to have practiced – and the practical conditions of that type of economy usually favour political egalitarianism. There’s also evidence from the way that technology was spread out and trading networks and artifacts were distributed, and even mitochondrial DNA evidence that suggest matrilocal organization, which is often associated with political and gender egalitarianism.
Anyhow, all this stuff plus some psychology experiments which show that we like to dominate and not be dominated and we like to cooperate – more or less constitute the dominant egalitarian origins thesis that Graeber and Wengrow are trying to overturn in Dawn of Everything.
OK so back to the book. Graeber and Wengrow set the scene by telling us that humans today, for all of our superficial differences, are all basically the same animal with minor variations. Not only in terms of our looks, but also our behaviour – and they name some human universals like eyerolling as a sign of disdain, as well as the structural commonalities of all languages, and the universality of music and dance as features of all societies.
However, according to the authors
Rewind a few hundred millennia and all this was most definitely not the case.”
And they tell us that up until 40,000 BC or so, homo sapiens were sharing the earth and interacting with now extinct human cousins like the neanderthals and denisovians and smaller brained more ape-like homo naredi. And
“The result probably would have struck a modern observer as something more akin to a world inhabited by hobbits, giants and elves than anything we have direct experience of today, or in the more recent past.”
I like this description of the deep past, and I wonder if that’s the source of those types of legends about elves and dwarves and giants.
But, then they authors tell us that even though homo sapiens came up on the scene some 300,000 years ago or more, we can’t really have any idea what our ancestors were doing in terms of social organization until 260,000 years later in the upper palaeolithic.
“There’s only so much you can reconstruct from cranial remains and the occasional piece of knapped flint – which is basically all we have. Most of the time we don’t even really know what was going on below the neck, let alone with pigmentation, diet or anything else. … It seems reasonable to assume that behaviours like mating and child-rearing practices, the presence or absence of dominance hierarchies or forms of language and proto-language must have varied at least as much as physical types, and probably far more.”
OK, so in these 3 sentences we have two extremely questionable statements: First the idea that we don’t have the slightest idea what social organization was like, and then the idea that we can assume that there were lots of different types of social organization in terms of presence or absence of dominance hierarchies because people came in different shapes and sizes – which of course contradicts the first statement… Like either we can know something or else we’re just guessing – pick one…
Now, saying that we can’t possibly know what social organization was like before 40,000 years ago is like saying – ‘well, we can’t possibly know who murdered Colonel Mustard in the dining room, because all we have is some fingerprints on a candlestick and some blood and some mysterious hairs.’ Or ‘we can’t possibly know if there are other planets beyond our solar system because we can’t possibly see them with even the best telescopes.’ Like it’s true that we don’t have VHS videos of the palaeolithic, and this might make sense if you know nothing about forensics or spectral analysis, but we can actually figure out a lot and make decent assumption with what seems like scant evidence.
And the idea that it would be reasonable to assume that presence or absence of dominance hierarchies must have varied at least as much as physical types – that’s a really weird argument – how does that even follow – we never get any explanation or any theory of how hierarchy works or forms – we’re just expected to intuitively accept this bizarre craneometry logic. And it certainly doesn’t track with Boehm’s logic – whether you’re a goblin or hobbit or a homo erectus – if you have projectile weapons and you are doing nomadic foraging, we would expect egalitarianism. And as we’ll see, this argument about hobbits is actually the authors only real argument for the presence of dominance hierarchies in the palaeolithic!
But, first let’s tackle the idea that we can’t know what happened until 40,000 years ago:
If we just take one of the main sources that Graeber and Wengrow cite in this section – an article by Eleanor Scerri, called The North African Middle Stone Age and It’s Place in Recent Human Evolution cited in footnote 4 for this chapter – we can already see that this statement clearly isn’t true.
And the middle stone age aka the middle palaeolithic goes from about 280,000 to 50,000 years ago.
So let’s read some snippets from this article:
“Hunter-gatherers in the NAMSA were extremely seasonally mobile, had low overall population sizes, and followed increasingly complex and diversified subsistence and social practices. … sub- sistence strategies included the use of both large game … and small fauna such as birds, tortoises and mollusks …
Evidence for subsistence strategies other than animal consumption dates to the early NAMSA. At Saï Island, [people processed] siliceous and starchy plant materials. This constitutes some of earliest documented evidence for plant-processing behaviors …
Site use appears to reflect diverse activities, and longer-term occupations may have been seasonal… Together with raw-material transport distances of up to 200 km and shell “bead” transport over distances of 190 km, these data show that NAMSA populations were highly mobile. Significantly, these distances are comparable to those covered by ethnographically documented hunter-gatherers in arid regions. Like these modern groups, NAMSA populations may have practiced seasonal patterns of fragmentation and contraction to remaining water sources during dry seasons. Patterns of mobility may have been more localized in regions of greater resource abundance.
… It is likely that overall population size varied significantly with the arid-humid cycles of the Sahara, indirectly triggering social responses such as long-distance social networks.
The concurrent emergence of technological regionalization, extensive use of pigments, bone tools, and personal ornamentation in North and southern Africa, as well as the later culture efflorescence in East Africa, have been linked to possible isolation and increases in overall population size, triggered by environmental stability and amelioration.
Environmental risks such as strong seasonality and prolonged drought may have also provided the impetus for material culture diversification, as has been demonstrated.
OK so this isn’t riveting stuff, but in just this one article about one region of africa we have all of this information about what people were eating, about how mobile we were, about how we had symbolic culture, transported things for hundreds of miles, and had similar dispersal and congregation practices as modern hunter gatherers and a bunch of inferences about other behaviours.
The article doesn’t say much about social structure in regards to dominance hierarchy – but with all of that information there are a lot of inferences that anthropologists we can and do make based on the social structure of contemporary foragers practicing the same types of subsistence activities, and migration patterns etc. And there all sorts of other articles and book chapters that you can find talking about Pigment use and rituals, burials, how meat was cut and distributed, how technology was distributed etc which also tell us a lot about what was going on in this period.
There’s one article I found where the authors argue that we had egalitarian meat distribution in the middle palaeolithic based on the types of cut marks we find on ancient animal bones, though I honestly couldn’t follow their logic – and you even have articles figuring out that the main type of descent group in the Palaeolithic was likely matrilineal based on the way technology and religious artifacts are spread around and from mitochondrial DNA evidence.
Notice that in the article i just read from, the author keeps linking human behaviour and social organization to environmental conditions. Semi arid environments lead to small populations stretching over larger territories, high resource abundance often leads to less migration, large social networks are a response to varying humidity, migration patterns look like those of modern foragers who react to all of those conditions. And you’ll notice as you read Dawn of Everything that this sort of reasoning is almost totally absent from this book when it comes to dominance hierarchy. Except in a couple of places like this one that follows the part we just read:
“The only thing we can reasonably infer about social organization among our earliest ancestors is that it’s likely to have been extraordinarily diverse. Early humans inhabited a wide range of natural environments, from coastlands and tropical forest to mountains and savannah. They were far, far more physically diverse than humans are today; and presumably their social differences were even greater than their physical ones. In other words, there is no ‘original’ form of human society.”
OK, so they’re repeating their craneometry argument, but at least they’re adding a material argument to it – people had different weiner sizes AND we also inhabited a wide range of environments – that’s better – and it makes more sense – except that that’s not at all how material conditions work when it comes to dominance hierarchy – a particular natural environment doesn’t just automatically equal a particular social structure.
Again, note how they’re telling us that we can’t possibly know anything about social organization from the archaeological record – but then they’re also telling us with full confidence that we can somehow assume that there was a lot of social diversity, and that there was no original form of human society! Again, pick one, you can’t have it both ways!
So what’s wrong with assuming that humans must have had diverse social structures in terms of dominance hierarchies because we lived in diverse environments and had physical diversity? This seems intuitively reasonable – if you’re Homer Simpson and you don’t know anything about anthropology of human or even animal social structures.
But if you are an anthropologist who studies this stuff, and you’ve read some bo-ooks, then you know that the type of environment you live in and the size of your skull or weiner aren’t the relevant material conditions that determine social structure.
For example, the Mbuti pygmies are on average about 4 feet 6 inches tall and live in the central african lush rainforest. And they have almost the same exact same hyper egalitarian social structure and very similar values and cultural institutions as the big n tall montagnais naskapi foragers who lived in coniferous forests of quebec and Labrador in the 17th century. And also they have the same structure and similar values and institutions as the Kalahari bush people living in the nabimian desert. And also the same as other foragers living in the mountains of India, and the rainforests of Malaysia. Why are all these cultures who are physically so different and living in such different environments so far from eachother so similar in terms of social structure and other cultural traits? Doesn’t this show that the environment is irrelevant to social structure?
No, because when it comes to social structure – hiearchy vs equality – we’re looking for whether or not the existing conditions enable some people to control the resources that other people need in order to live, and whether or not there are any easy alternatives to those controlled resources. Living in a desert vs in a savannah or rainforest or artctic tundra aren’t what determines these things.
In the case of the societies I just mentioned, it’s what you do for a living in those different environments that ends up generating the conditions relevant to favouring egalitarianism. And those conditions end up being very similar despite the wildly different environments.
All of these groups do what is called immediate return nomadic foraging. And as we’ll see when we look at chapter 4, the practical realities of nomadic immediate return foraging usually generate conditions that result in societies with very high levels of freedom and equality because there’s no way for anyone to dominate the resources that other people need to live, and because it’s easy to escape any domination attempts – criterias 1 and 2 of the ingredients of dominance hierarchy.
Now the environment is in fact very important in the sense that the environment will determine what sorts of economic activities are possible in a given area and which types of economic activities are optimal – meaning you get the yummiest foods with the least effort. Immediate return big game focused foraging is thought to be one of the most efficient or optimal types of foraging, but you need for there to be a pretty low population density, and then you need enough availability of wild animals and foods that provide a balanced diet, or else you can’t practice that type of economy.
So for example it’s possible that the Ituri rainforest where the Mbuti people live would not have been possible to forage in, until the intrusion of Bantu farmers into the area, because the rainforest alone doesn’t provide enough edible carbohydrates to survive, so the Mbuti can only live as foragers in the forest because they obtain carbohydrates via special trade relationships with the Bantu.
Anyhow, the authors then go on to talk about how the sapient paradox isn’t really a paradox, which is correct and we don’t need to get into that, but then interestingly, as part of that discussion they use more materialist arguments in order to hypothesize about why there was a lot of cultural activity in europe as soon as homo sapiens first migrated there about 40,000 years ago:
“[it] may have something to do with climate and demography. To put it bluntly: with the movement of the ice sheets, human populations in Europe were living in harsher and more confined spaces than our species had encountered before. … We have to picture our ancestors moving between relatively enclosed environments, dispersing and gathering, tracking the seasonal movements of mammoth, bison and deer herds.
While the absolute number of people may still have been startlingly small,17 the density of human interactions seems to have radically increased, especially at certain times of year. And with this came remarkable bursts of cultural expression.18”
And unlike the nonsense about how presence or absence of dominance hierarchy must have varied a lot because people had different sizes of weiners, this is actually a solid assumption, and it’s something that we’ve seen happening throughout history and pre-history. The more people interact, the more art and technology flourish as people learn and build on top of the ideas of a larger numbers of people. That’s why art went from amazing 3 dimensional portraits and sculptures in ancient byzantine rome to weird 2 dimensional clunkerdunks in the middle ages and then exploded to Rembrandt level in the enlightenment era.
So when it comes to cultural flourishing, the authors have no problem with materialist arguments, but we’ll see as we go on that when it comes to dominance hierarchy, those same kinds of materialist explanations and ideas fly out the window – or rather get they get hidden under the rug.
So the next section is called “WHY EVEN VERY SOPHISTICATED RESEARCHERS STILL FIND WAYS TO CLING TO THE IDEA THAT SOCIAL INEQUALITY HAS AN ‘ORIGIN’”
Now this is an extremely weird title choice, because while I would have loved to see the authors explain why people believe in egalitarian origins theories, and then try to refute it – in fact they very glaringly do NOT do anything of the sort. Instead they just critique Christopher Boehm who I mentioned a few minutes ago for believing in egalitarian origins, and then they act like they’re puzzled by his beliefs, while straight up disappearing the part of his book where the he actually explains his reasoning!
So here the authors tell us that because we can’t possibly know what was happening for the first 2-400 thousand years of our existence – which as we’ve seen isn’t true true at all – that they’re just going to skip right ahead and start their inquiry about the original forms of human social structure at 40,000 years ago – what Chris Knight jokingly calls the Tea Time of Everything. Meanwhile, they’re going to ignore what’s going on the entire planet, including Africa where we were born as a species and where spent most of our existence, and they’re just going focus on what was going on in Europe during that time.
Now this is extreeeemely convenient, because Europe starting 40,000 years ago just happens to be when and where we find the most evidence of human organizational diversity and maybe the only place where we have any interesting hints of potentially non egalitarian societies. It also happens to be an extreme fringe environment where the ice caps went down deep into modern poland and germany – in other words an environment that is not particularly representative of what was going on in the rest of the world at that time, and an environment where we might expect to find unusual subsistence strategies and social structures.
Upper Palaeolithic Europe is extremely interesting and important – but it tells us almost nothing about what our earliest ancestors who lived in africa 300,000 years ago – were doing. Focusing on upper palaeolithic europe in order to get a sense of what our original human social structures were like is a bit like trying to understand was happening in Ancient Rome by looking at what people in the arctic circle were doing in the 19th century. Hmm, looks like the Ancient romans ate lots of seal blubber and lived in igloos and traded with coureur des bois dudes from New France. All of those scholars who keep saying that the ancient romans were a densely population civilization with writing and republican government are clearly wrong!
OK, so now that we’re ignoring the entire world except for the northern most fringes of human settlement, and we’re also ignoring the first 250 thousand years of our existence, Graeber and Wengrow think that they can now confidently argue that there is no origin to human inequality:
“As we will see in a moment, the societies that resulted in what archaeologists call the Upper Palaeolithic period (roughly 50,000–15,000 BC) – with their ‘princely’ burials and grand communal buildings – seem to completely defy our image of a world made up of tiny egalitarian forager bands.
The disconnect is so profound that some archaeologists have begun taking the opposite tack, describing Ice Age Europe as populated by ‘hierarchical’ or even ‘stratified’ societies. In this, they make common cause with evolutionary psychologists who insist that dominance behaviour is hardwired in our genes, so much so that the moment society goes beyond tiny bands, it must necessarily take the form of some ruling over others.
In just these three sentences we have all kinds of annoying distortions and fishy statements:
For one thing they make it sound like Upper Paleolithic europe is full of these burials when we have like 5 or 6 sets of them across a 35,000 year timespan. We have about 200 burial sites, and maybe 5 of them have interesting evidence of what looks like social hierarchy. Maybe there are more of them, but every article on this subject lists the same few sites over and over again. And the “grand communal buildings” that they talk about as if they were the twin towers, are very similar to the sorts of longhouses that the relatively egalitarian arctic Inuit hunter gatherers have been building in recent times.
Next, they insultingly make it sound like evolutionary psychologists are all right wingers who think dominance is our nature – which is a real slap in the face of all the important left wing evolutionary psychologists and people influenced by them, like Christopher Boehm or Sarah Hrdy.
And, the authors go on:
“Almost everyone who isn’t a Pleistocene archaeologist – that is, who is not forced to confront the evidence – simply ignores [these burials] and carries on exactly as they had before, writing as if hunter-gatherers can be assumed to have lived in a state of primordial innocence. As Christopher Boehm puts it, we seem doomed to play out an endless recycling of the war between ‘Hobbesian hawks and Rousseauian doves’: those who view humans as either innately hierarchical or innately egalitarian.”
Ugh the obnixious pinnochlios per sentence ratio is going off the charts – here you have 3 stinkers in two sentences this time.
First, no one in recent times ever says or even implies anything about primordial innocence. This is a hallucination – and i think also a projection by the authors who have some demented bugaboo where they where they think that anyone who talks about egalitarian societies is by definition seeing those societies as childish – which I think tells us way more about the authors views about equality than about the anthropology of egalitarian hunter gatherers which is nothing like that, except for maybe one book in the 1960s, The Forest People by Colin Turnbull, which I’ll take about later because I think it explains Graeber’s attitude towards egalitarianism. The more I read these chapters to prepare for these critiques the more I think that, much like Turgot, Graeber and Wengrow think that a state of true equality and freedom can only be a state of childishness – and they just hate the idea almost as much as any right winger does, if for different reasons. And we’ll see how they treat actual egalitarian socieites in chapter 4.
In reality, as we’ll see shortly, the egalitarian origins thesis, despite being a materialist argument, is at the same time, very much about conscious political action – like any good materialist thesis should be.
And these conscious actions include a lot of murder – like this is not at all some caricature of happy smurfs living together in giant mushroom houses that the authors seems to be stuck on.
Next, no one is ignoring this evidence, it’s been discussed a lot over the years and has challenged some of our previous assumptions. So today very few people now think that every single society was a hyper egalitarian immediate return society until 12,000 years ago, or that upper palaeolithic europe was all just immediate return hyper-egalitarian foragers.
But it doesn’t really change that much in terms of how we think social structure works or what we think our original social structures were like. The potentially hierarchical sites that we see in upper palaeolithic europe seem to be pretty exceptional, and seem to be limited to certain areas of europe – and they can reasonably be and usually are assumed to result from the extreme conditions of palaeolithic europe – and which I think is a precursor to what you see in the rest of the world later on as population density increases and climate changes everywhere making it harder to escape domination attempts.
More importantly, even those who are do interpret the evidence as pointing to hierarchy are always giving material explanations for it. For example Bryan Hayden who argues strongly for hiearchy in upper palaeolithic europe tells us
The fact that burials (especially those with substantial grave goods), cave art, portable prestige objects, and high site densities all tend to occur in the same restricted areas of Europe (such as the French Perigord and Charente) is a strong indication that there was something special about these locations favouring all these developments.
Finally, the passage I read where Graeber and Wengrow seem to imply that boehm is chastizing people for ignoring these burials because they’re stuck in a Rousseau vs Hobbes paradigm is pretty misleading – because Boehm actually doesn’t say anything about these palaeolithic burials in any work that I know of his. What Boehm is talking about there is the left right debates that I was referring to earlier which were going on from the late 1960s until Boehm’s 1999 book Hierarchy in the Forest – where people on the left and right were arguing about smurfs vs gargamel natured humans – a debate which Boehm’s book is largely responsible for having resolved – though there are always a few hobbesians out there desperately wanting the world to be a hellhole of selfishness and competition so this still does annoyingly still pop up in some texts.
And by the way, if you don’t know the smurfs, they’re a cartoon egalitarin communist society whose members all live in giant mushrooms, and their motto is “share an share alike” and they live under the benevolent guidance of papa smurf who wears a red hat and has a big white beard like karl marx and their enemy is this evil wizard gargamel who wants to enslave the smurfs and turn them into gold, much like capitalism wants to do to all of us.
So the authors continue:
“Boehm’s own work is revealing in this regard. An evolutionary anthropologist and a specialist in primate studies, he argues that while humans do have an instinctual tendency to engage in dominance-submissive behaviour, no doubt inherited from our simian ancestors, what makes societies distinctively human is our ability to make the conscious decision not to act that way.”
OoooK – so some people might find this nitpicky, but to me this is a partial stinker in that it’s just a terrible way of formulating what Boehm’s is trying to say, and I think it confuses more than it clarifies.
The way the authors put it, it implies that people choose not to engage in dominance submissive behaviour because they have good values like Papa Smurf – and the smurfs. We want a good egalitarian society and not a bad hierarchical society.
And Boehm does talk about intention – but at the sametime Boehm is kind of saying the opposite of this: he’s saying that many people do in fact choose to act like bullies, but in the context of most hunting and gathering societies, when someone acts like a bully or tries to hoard resources or power, the conditions are such that the people that he’s trying to dominate will be able to successfully team up to stop him and his allies from getting anywhere. This is what Boehm calls reverse dominance, but which other scholars have since called “counterdominance” which I think more accurately describes what’s going on there.
And Boehm’s project in Hierarchy in the Forest, is kind of the inverse of Graeber and Wengrow’s project:
Graeber and Wengrow are asking how did we get stuck in hierarchy when we used to always go back and forth between hierarchy and equality? But Boehm is asking how did we manage to get unstuck from hierarchy and manage to enjoy and maintain equality for 200,000 or so – in between when we were stuck in the ape like dominance hierarchies of our pre-human ancestors, and then the middle of the neolithic – Boehm points to 5,000 years ago – biblical times which – when egalitarian societies really started getting phased out en masse in favour of hierarchical ones.
And like most left wing anthropologists – except for Graeber and Wengrow – Boehm is explicitly thinking about these questions in order to figure out if we can learn something from this that we can apply to our own societies, so that we can have some measure of equality again in the future, which Boehm talks about explicitly in the introduction to his book.
the authors continue
“Carefully working through ethnographic accounts of existing egalitarian foraging bands in Africa, South America and Southeast Asia, Boehm identifies a whole panoply of tactics collectively employed to bring would-be … bullies down to earth – ridicule, shame, shunning (and … sometimes even outright assassination)19 – .. Even more strikingly, while the bullying behaviour might well be instinctual, counter-bullying is not: it’s a well-thought-out strategy, and forager societies who engage in it display what Boehm calls ‘actuarial intelligence’. That’s to say, they understand what their society might look like if they did things differently…
This is decent, but again it isn’t exactly right – bullying behaviour might be instinctive but it’s also quite conscious. Bullies in human societies form coalitions in order to achieve domination, just like the alphas in our great ape cousins do. Also, counterdominance is just as instinctive as dominance is – Boehm takes it for granted that people instinctively do not like to be bullied and that they’ll resist domination if they can. Instinct and consciousness work together.
Then in the next paragraph the authors tell us:
This, he concludes, is the essence of politics: the ability to reflect consciously on different directions one’s society could take, and to make explicit arguments why it should take one path rather than another.”
Wait what? Boehm does not conclude that or say that anywhere! Like maybe he would agree with that statement, I don’t know, but he certainly doesn’t make any proclamations or statements about anything like the essence of politics or whatever. This is Graeber and Wengrow making Boehm into a muppet and putting words into his mouth. And they do this a lot – we’ll see some weird confusing examples of this next episode.
So yes – Boehm talks a lot about conscious action – and he argues that egalitarianism isn’t just automatic, it requires people to actually be active in suppressing bullies in order achieve it – but his argument is ultimately a materialist one about about force and the balance of power, not about winning arguments about the direction society should take at some big all inclusive occupy meeting:
You have a set of conditions: one being biological – people inherenly don’t like to be dominated and some like dominating others, and you have material logictical cirmustances inherent to nomadic hunting and gathering and palaeolithic climate fluctuations that make it possible to effectively band together to prevent domination and that make it hard to dominate one another. And if we ended up in hierarchy later on, it’s because those conditions changed.
Anyhow, the authors continue
“This is a brilliant and important argument –
referring to the statement that the authors put into Boehms mouth that represents what they themselves think…
but, like so many authors, Boehm seems strangely reluctant to consider its full implications. Let’s do so now: If the very essence of our humanity consists of the fact that we are self-conscious political actors, and therefore capable of embracing a wide range of social arrangements,
something that boehm does not ever say
would that not mean that human beings should actually have explored a wide range of social arrangements over the greater part of our history?”
Well if you mean that human beings should have explored organizing ourselves into dominance hierarchies, then the answer is: of course not – because dominance hierarchy is not a choice, it’s an imposition! No on explores dominance hierarchy any more that one “explores” being sexually assaulted or beaten up or enslaved.
“In the end, confusingly, Boehm assumes that all human beings until very recently chose instead to follow exactly the same arrangements – we were strictly ‘egalitarian for thousands of generations before hierarchical societies began to appear’ – thereby casually tossing early humans back into the Garden of Eden once again. Only with the beginnings of agriculture, he suggests, did we all collectively flip back to hierarchy. Before 12,000 years ago, Boehm insists, humans were basically egalitarian, living in what he calls ‘societies of equals, and outside the family there were no dominators’.20
The authors are pretending to be confused, but there’s nothing confusing about this if you actually read Boehm’s book – which is really easy to read and I highly recommend doing so. It’s only confusing to the readers of Dawn of Everything, because Graeber and Wengrow, conveniently forgot tell us what Boehm’s logic and reasoning are – that conditions simply did not allow for domination beyond the family level.
This is like reviewing the Bible, and completely leaving out God, and then acting all confused about how the Jews crossed the red sea.
And Boehm never said that people were “strictly” egalitarian. For example he takes male dominance for granted, which I don’t agree with – but more importantly and more shockingly, the authors criticize boehm for thinking that humans didn’t explore a wide variety of social arrangements, when Boehm very clearly does believe that humans explored a wide variety of social arrangements – except that he assumes that they were all relatively egalitarian social arrangements.
In making his arguments about how palaeolithic societies maintained egalitarianism, Boehm discusses stories and examples from a whole range of different recent hunter gatherer societies – not just the hyper egalitarian immediate return foragers that I always talk about, but also all sorts of less egalitarian foragers who have gender inequality and gerontocracy and some times weak chieftainship positions – and he clearly assumes that these forms of hierarchies existed in the palaeolithic as well, but he lumps them all in to the category of “egalitarian” which is actually something I’ve criticized Graeber for doing in the past, because in hunter-gatherer studies, we generally reserve the term egalitarian for hyper egalitarian societies with gender equality and no leadership positions or gerontocracy.
Later in the book, Boehm goes on to point out that most societies on earth were still relatively egalitarian in this broad sense for several thousand years even after the advent of the Holocene and the adoption of agriculture by many societies. And as part of that discussion he list examples from a whole range of different agricultural and pastoralist societies who are relatively egalitarian but usually have male domination and gerontocracy – including tribally organized societies, and societies organized into confederations of thousands of pastoralist warriors, and even societies like navajo with chiefs who have very low authority.
Now if we assume that the authors actually read Hierarchy in the Forest – which we can’t actually assume because the standards of scholarship in humanities academia are shameful – they literally tell you in grad school not to read your books properly – but if we assume that they actually read this short, easy to read book, then the implications of what they’re saying are really astounding:
It means that for the authors, a broad range of different social arrangements, hyper egalitarian or with gerontocracy and male dominance and gerontocracy, small bands with no leadership positions, to weak chieftainships, to tribally organized large confederations of warriors, to pastoralists, to cereal farmers, to horticulturalists, nomadic to semi sedentary – all of this is not good enough for Graeber and Wengrow in terms of humans exploring potential forms of social organization.
Apparently for the authors, human beings are only exploring our full potential if we are also organizing ourselves into dominance hierarchies beyond just male dominance and gerontocracy – we need real hierarchies like the Pacific Northwest Coast hunter gatherers who had slaves and social classes and chiefs with economic power! And anyone who thinks that we were all relatively egalitarian is saying that we’re all a bunch of children with no agency. So says the anarchist anthropologist activist, sounding a lot like Turgot to my ears.
And this makes sense given Graeber’s pre-occupation in other parts of this book, and in other of his works with trying to project all of our current and past social institutions backwards and forwards in time. Graeber seems to hate the idea that societies were ever too different from one another.
According to Graeber, private property has always existed because the idea of the sacred is the root of private property which he says in chapter 4. He also thinks the state has always existed at least in our minds – i forget what his exact reasoning for this is but he says something like this in On Kings and I think Debt as well. And in Debt he explains that primitive communism exists today just as in the past, as expressed in family and friendship relations.
And in Dawn of Everything, Graeber asserts that dominance hierarchy always existed as well – like in On Kings where he and Marshal Sahlins pretend that even the most egalitarian societies see themselves as part of a cosmic hierarchy in their religious beliefs – which is total bullshit as I’ve discussed before. In Graeber’s ideology, we can’t be fully human unless we have all of the same institutions as always – including dominance hierarchies – anything less and we’re somehow less than human.
On the one hand I agree that being human means that we have the potential for all of these things and that the seeds or roots of these institutions exist through time – how could they not? And that’s actually a really brilliant and important insight from Graeber – if you don’t blow it up all out of proportion into this factually incorrect nonsense like what the authors do here and what Graeber does elsewhere.
Anyhow, they continue:
“So, according to Boehm, for about 200,000 years political animals all chose to live just one way; then, of course, they began to rush headlong into their chains, and ape-like dominance patterns re-emerged. The solution to the battle between ‘Hobbesian hawks and Rousseauian doves’ turns out to be: our genetic nature is Hobbesian, but our political history is pretty much exactly as described by Rousseau. The result? An odd insistence that for many tens of thousands of years, nothing happened. This is an unsettling conclusion, especially when we consider some of the actual archaeological evidence for the existence of ‘Palaeolithic politics’”
Again, not “nothing happened” – if you read Boehm, it’s implied that there were and still are constant power struggles – people repeatedly trying to get an edge over on others, and Boehm has a whole chapter just discussing example after example of people trying and failing to assert their dominance in egalitarian hunter gatherer societies, or else where they succeed for a time, but then eventually get disciplined and often executed. For example he talks about how sometimes an aggressive inuit man might succeed in dominating others and becoming something like a chief for awhile but that eventually the community would usually find a way to get rid of him.
So yes, lots of things happened in 200,000 years, but because of the conditions of nomadic hunting and gathering, most of the time no one would have been able to successfully dominate anyone else for very long.
And speaking of the relevant conditions to hierarchy or equality, in his 2012 Book, Moral Origins, Boehm makes a more specific case about why it would have been really difficult for any kind of hierarchical society beyond the level of male domination and some gerontocracy to take root in the palaeolithic.
The reason for this is because the temperature was fluctuating wildly throughout the palaeolithic. Not just in Europe but all over the world. Waters rising and falling within a generation or two, ice caps moving back and forth. Habitable territories expanding and contracting. Deserts growing and shrinking. Given these conditions it would have been extremely unlikely that you would be able to have societies with chiefs and commonners and nobilities and slaves, like you see in the Pacific Northwest Coast indians or the Calusa in Florida – nor would you be likely to find many larger scale settlements.
This is probably a big reason why homo sapiens is such a big brained jack of all trades species – for all of the extended 2 million year or so period of our evolution into homo sapiens, we lived in the crazy palaeolithic where our environments were changing every couple of generations and we had to change our subsistence strategies each time to adapt – which is what culture is all about.
You need a stable territory and a good amount of time in order to establish a proper stratified hierarchy. Like I mentioned in an earlier episode, it took 800 years for the Pacific Northwest Coast peoples to develop hierarchy – but in the Paleolithic an analogous society would have likely have had to move and shift their subsistence strategies something like 10 or 20 times over that period – and in squeeze times you might have a lot of competition and nowhere to escape to, but in times where habitable environments expanded you would have all sorts of places to expand and escape to. This is one of the reasons why many archaeologists and skeptical of claims of any kind of intergenerational hierarchy in upper palaeolithic europe.
I suspect that we were moving back and forth from hyperegalitarianism in growth times, to relative egalitarianism with some male dominance and gerontocracy like the Australians have in squeeze times and sometimes more hierarchy in exceptional circumstances – maybe like upper palaeolithic europe
This is why Boehm – and most people with knowledge – believe that we were mostly organized into small egalitarian bands for most of the palaeolithic – which the evidence seems to say as well until we get towards the end of the paleolithic where we start to see more semi sedentary foraging in various places around the world. But even if we were organized into small bands, they weren’t just isolated bands, these bands fissioning and fusing inside a web of enormous communities thousands of miles wide, as we’ll talk about in another episode, and which I believe Wengrow and Graeber talk about later in the book. And people in many places were surely agglomorating into larger groups seasonally as the authors will be talking about in this chapter. Even today every nomadic and semi nomadic society goes from smaller to larger camp sizes seasonally – which the authors forget to mention, they make it seem like changing social structure seasonally is some kind of lost art, forgotten or suppressed by anthropologists. Almost everyone changes structure seasonally, but that doesn’t always lead to changes in terms of dominance hierarchy.
Now the conditions that favoured equality changed significantly with the advent of the Holocene 12 000 years ago where the climate became much more stable. This made sedentary and semi sedentary living possible for much longer periods of time. And along with increased carbon in the atmosphere this made long term dependence on agriculture possible, both of which in turn make hierarchy much more possible by making criteria #1 possible – but these phenomena alone are not sufficient on their own to explain the explosion of hierarchy which happens when criteria #2 starts to get fulfilled more and more around the world, as we’ll discuss in the future.
Anyhow, the authors then tell us about the “rich” hunter-gather burials which we find across western Eurasia from the Dordogne to the Don, dating back from 34,000 years ago until 16,000 years ago. And the famous sites are Sunghir in northern Russia where there’s a corpse adorned with a garments made with fine beads that would have taken over 10,000 hours of labour to make and assemble, Dolní Věstonice which is in the modern Czechia, where you have a triple burial of three men with elaborate high ranking looking headdreses, you have a group of cave burials on the coast of Liguria near the border between italy and france, which includes one particularly lavish burial know as The Prince who has a staff and fancy accoutrements that others around him don’t have, and then the highly ornamented Lady of Saint-Germain-de-la-Rivière burial in the Dorgogne area.
“Such findings have completely altered the specialist view of human societies in prehistory. The pendulum has swung so far away from the old notion of egalitarian bands that some archaeologists now argue that, thousands of years before the origins of farming, human societies were already divided along lines of status, class and inherited power.
Now this is funny because since the beginning of the book they’ve been telling us that everyone today is still stuck in this egalitarian origins paradigm – but now they’re telling us that the pendulum has swung totally in the other direction and everyone today is arguing that the palaolithic was full of hierarchy?
Anyhow, the authors don’t mention this, but the burial sites that they listed, and that I listed here are basically all the examples that we have. So that’s four or five sites out of 200, over a 20k year time span. Surely we’ll find more things like this with time, but that’s not a lot of evidence, especially given that europe has been the most excavated place for the longest time of anywhere, and that those kinds of ornaments tend to survive better than graves of people who don’t have elaborate grave goods.
Again, discussion of these site did in fact make us revise some of our assumptions that we had in the 1960s and 70s about everyone being hyper egalitarian immediate return hunter gatherers until the holocene, but overall the picture is still basically the same and these finds make sense from a materialist perspective, given the extreme environment and difficult conditions that would be pushing people into unusual subsistence strategies.
The authors then go on to talk about monumental architecture in upper palaeolithic europe, but for some reason they start off by talking about Gobleki Tepe – which is a spectacular monumental architecture site in anatolia, and which is extra spectacular because it was probably built by semi-sedentary hunter gatherers, and archaeologists still can’t figure out exactly how they managed to do this.
But Gobleki Tepe has no place in this discussion – Goblecki tepe is about 11,500 years old, meaning that it was built in the holocene era, a couple of centuries after the climate had complete changed and stabilized, and not the pleistocene palaeolithic era where humanity emerged. So where the upper palaeolithic europe that the authors focus on tells us almost nothing about human origins, the early holocene tells us even less – it’s like being on a different planet. It’s like if you’re writing about traditional pre-european contact native american societies and you focus on all the amazing Casinos that you have on indian reservations today.
Also, as part of this discussion of monumental architecture, the authors talk about the mammoth houses in europe that were put together at some point between 25k and 12k years ago up in what was at the time an arctic type of environment spread across an area reaching from Kraków to Kiev.
Now as other critics have mentioned, calling this stuff monumental architecture is a huuuge stretch. Monumental architecture refers to giant constructions that take enormous amount of labour hours to build. Most mammoth houses were actually just like little cool looking igloo sized tents made from mammoth parts. There were some larger buildings that look like public assembly halls which the authors focus on, or else like multifamily homes – but these are similar to the types of structures that recent inuit populations had in winter which we’ll look next episode.
There is nothing at all like Gobleki Tepe, which has no analog whatsoever during the palaeolithic era, and the likes of which I think would have been impossible to achieve during the paleolithic.
The authors go on:
So what are we to make of all this evidence for stone temples, princely burials, mammoth monuments and bustling centres of trade and craft production, stretching back far into the Ice Age? … Unsurprisingly, perhaps, some have responded by completely abandoning the idea of an egalitarian Golden Age, concluding instead that this must have been a society dominated by powerful leaders, even dynasties – and, therefore, that self-aggrandizement and coercive power have always been the enduring forces behind human social evolution.
Again, no one has ever argued this as far as I know – the authors are just saying this to make themselves sound like even bigger wanna be rebels than they are. But anyhow they go on to say that this nonexistent theory isn’t right either, and then they reveal to us what I mentioned a few seconds ago:
“Evidence of institutional inequality in Ice Age societies, whether grand burials or monumental buildings, is sporadic. Richly costumed burials appear centuries, and often hundreds of miles, apart. Even if we put this down to the patchiness of the evidence, we still have to ask why the evidence is so patchy in the first place”
So after planting a wildly innacurate portrait of the european upper palaeolithic in your mind, now they finally tell us what I just told you, which is that all that stuff is actually quite exceptional.
And then later on in the chapter Graeber and Wengrow are going to point out that actually there’s a good chance that those hierarchical burials aren’t even very hierarchical at all, as they’re mostly individuals with really unusual physical characteristics and deformities – who often look like they were buried with those fancy ornaments because there was ritual significance placed on unusual people in many societies.
we’ll get back to that next time, but the next paragraph after the one i just read says
“after all, if any of these Ice Age ‘princes’ had behaved like, say, Bronze Age (let alone Renaissance Italian) princes, we’d also be finding all the usual trappings of centralized power: fortifications, storehouses, palaces. Instead, over tens of thousands of years, we see monuments and magnificent burials, but little else to indicate the growth of ranked societies, let alone anything remotely resembling ‘states’.
Say What?? no one has ever talked about palaeolithic states or anything anywhere approaching that. At most people think that maybe some these societies might have looked a little like the Pacific Northwest Chiefdoms with social classes – which are the most hierarchical types of hunter gatherers that we know of. States would have been completely impossible in the palaeolithic, as would things like palaces with fortifications. Even long term full time sedentary settlements were likely extremely rare to non-existent. If there were chiefs or authority figures in upper paleolithic they wouldn’t have had the option to behave like bronze age or renaissance princes! Their population densities were so low and they would have had no way to marshal the necessary resources among many other reasons!
I don’t even understand why they’re talking about this stuff – except that it looks like authors are basically trying to position themselves above the fray of a non-existent debate. Dumdums on one side think were were egalitarian foragers while dumdums on the other side think there were medieval states all over palaeolithic europe – but we know better… So much of this book is predicated on having an audience that doesn’t know anything about the subject matter that the authors are talking about.
Basically what Graeber and Wengrow have done so far in this chapter, is they start with a false premise – that anthropologists believe that every single society on earth was the exact same kind of egalitarian nomadic hunting and gathering society – and then they show us a bunch of exceptional stuff to disprove this nonexistent false premise, and then they pull it back after already painting the idea in your head.
By talking about monumental architecture, and states – even to refute states, they make it sound as if this means there was certainly some dominance hierarchy beyond the family level and that things are not at all as mainstream anthropologists say they are – yet they present zero evidence for this. All they show us is that there were some semi sedentary foragers in the most extreme environment on earth who gave ritual significance to physically unusual people, though maybe there was some hierarchy.
Remember that what they’re doing here is they’re trying to refute the idea of egalitarian origins and replace it with the idea that inequality has no origins, we were always just everything at the same time – everything except stuck. So far their biggest argument against egalitarian origins that they’ve presented is that we can assume that there must have been as much diversity in terms of absence and presence of dominance hierarchies because hobbits.
I could easily make a much better case for hierarchy in the palaeolithic if I wanted to:
Like, the same way that every hyper egalitarian culture we know practices immediate return hunting and gathering, I think all of the the very hierarchical foragers that we know about, like the Pacific Northwest Coast cultures or the Calusa in Florida or the Ainu in northern japan are all people whose economies depend on fishing, and the relationship between fishing economies and hierarchical systems is pretty well established – so much so that some researchers made a new category for them “hunter-gatherer fishers” and we’ll talk about that when we do chapter 5. And so, people have argued that societies who relied on fish in the palaeolithic would also have been structured hierarchically. To which other’s will reply – yeah but we have zero evidence for any type of hierarchy like this before 6000 years ago. And then the pro hierarchy people will point out that the reason we don’t have any evidence for this is because the sea levels rose significantly 6000 years so that we don’t have access to coastal arhcaeologocal sites of fishing people older than 6000 years old – they’re all under water – but if we did, we would surely find all sorts of palaeolithic societies structured like the Haida with chiefs nobility, commoners and slaves.
And then others will reply that this isn’t likely, because like I said before, the climate would have been changing too fast for this type of hierarchy to really take root – but the authors could easily have used this type of argument and left out the climate stuff like they’ve been leaving out all the inconvenient facts and ideas that complicate their narrative so far – except that they can’t make this argument, or any real argument at all because every argument for or against egalitarian origins equates social structure with economic activity which is exactly what they don’t want us to think about! Again, their real argument is not about egalitarian origins – trying to refute egalitarian origins is just incidental to their real message about how social structure is some kind of conscious choice.
So they got nah-thing.
I’ll put a couple of articles by people who disagree with egalitarian origins in the bibliography so you can see some of these arguments for yourselves, but the authors can’t make any of those arguments – or any arguments at all – because any argument for or against egalitarian origins is based on material conditions and economic activities which give some people advantages over others – exactly what the authors don’t want us to think about because it doesn’t fit their nonsensical narrative about choosing social structure.
Anyhow, the authors go on:
To understand why the early record of human social life is patterned in this strange, staccato fashion we first have to do away with some lingering preconceptions about ‘primitive’ mentalities.”
and then they obnoxiously title the next section ‘IN WHICH WE DISPOSE OF LINGERING ASSUMPTIONS THAT ‘PRIMITIVE’ FOLK WERE SOMEHOW INCAPABLE OF CONSCIOUS REFLECTION, AND DRAW ATTENTION TO THE HISTORICAL IMPORTANCE OF ECCENTRICITY’
In the last chapter, we suggested that the really insidious element of Rousseau’s legacy is not so much the idea of the ‘noble savage’ as that of the ‘stupid savage’. We may have got over the overt racism of most nineteenth-century Europeans, or at least we think we have, but it’s not unusual to find even very sophisticated contemporary thinkers who feel it’s more appropriate to compare ‘bands’ of hunter-gatherers with chimps or baboons than with anyone they’d ever be likely to meet.
Oof. So every part of this makes my blood boil. Again, they’re basically pretending that anthropology is still in the 1950s and once again, this is a huge insult to everyone working in these fields.
I’m sorry, but the stupid savage is the legacy of colonialism and capitalism – not of Rousseau. And while that legacy is still very much part of the popular imagination, it’s long gone from anthropology.
The authors go on to cite Yuval Harari -who remember is not an anthropologist – as an example – and they shit on him for comparing prehistoric foragers’ potentially warlike or peaceful dispositions to chimps vs bonobos, instead of to human biker gangs vs hippies. And they suggest that Harari is doing this because he thinks that hunter gatherers, like bonobos and chimps have no agency, hinting that it’s racist to make these comparisons.
Now I’m not a big fan of Harari – I find a lot of what he says in his Sapiens book to be even more obnoxious than the stuff that I’m criticizing in this book – but jesus christ – if what you’re talking about is humans’ innate dispositions and propensity towards war or peace, or towards hierarchy or equality – then of course you’re going to compare us to our closest animal relatives – bonobos who are largely peaceful and more egalitarian, and chimps, who are much more aggressive and hierarchical – instead of to other humans like bikers and hippies – which makes no fucking sense because the whole point is to compare humans in our original state – hunting and gathering, a so-called “state of nature” – to other species in their natural states…
The question is: when humans are in our natural state – outside of the influence of recently invented institutions and conditions which probably have a huge effect on our behaviour and social structures – are we more like chimps or more like bonobos – meaning are we inherently more prone to violence or to cooperation? Or, are violence and peace more a function of conditions than about our innate propensities to begin with? These are completely legitimate and very important questions – and comparing us to biker gangs and hippies would defeat the whole purpose of the comparison – it’s the same reason we always compare ourselves to wild chimpanzee and wild bonobos, and not chimpanzees and bonobos who live in zoos – unless we’re trying to make a point about how artificial conditions change our social structures and behaviour.
Insinuating that this is somehow racist, or infantilizing or insulting to humans is such sanctimonious counterproductive bullshit. It’s also just incredibly ignorant – because bonobos and chimps and other animals do very much have political agency!
For example, the instinct to dominate and act aggressively is just one small element of chimp hierarchy. Much like humans, chimps can’t actually establish themselves on top of a dominance hierarchy just based on these dumdum instincts. To become an alpha you also need to deliberately and carefully cultivate and form coalitions in order to successfully dominate the rest of the group – otherwise people would unite and repel chase you off.
In an upcoming episode I’m going to use chimpanzee politics as an analogy to explain what happened in terms of labour relations when McDonalds came to Sweden in the 1980s and tried to break the unions there. Is that comparison racist against american CEOs and Swedish unionized workers? If anything we should be making more comparisons to chimpanzees not less. We should compare bikers and hippies to chimps and bonobos, not to hunter gatherers!
The authors then ask:
“Perhaps the real question here is what it means to be a ‘self-conscious political actor’.
Yes I agree! What makes a political actor isn’t someone randomly making choices in a sensory deprivation tank virtual reality video game – it’s making choices under certain conditions that impose constraints and limitations on our choices, conditions that often make some choices much more likely than others, and sometimes almost certain as we’ll see when we do chapter 5.
OK, so that’s it for now – next time we’ll finish the rest of chapter 3 where they lecture us about the so-called primitive mentality – and then ironically, in order to counter the caricature that they paint of anthropologists as portraying traditional people as children with no agency, the authors end up painting a portrait of traditional people as superhuman schrooming space unicorns who have way more consciousness or agency than any human could possibly have.
And then if possible I’ll try to do chapters 4 and 5 in one episode because I can’t keep doing this book critique forever! But those are the most interesting chapters for me, so we’ll see what happens.
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Graeber & Wengrow 2021 – The Dawn of Everything
Graeber 2010 – Communism
David Graeber and Marshall Sahlins 2017 – On Kings
David Graeber 2011 – Debt
Christopher Boehm 1999 – Hierarchy in the Forest
Christopher Boehm 2012 – Moral Origins
Sarah Hrdy 2011 – Mothers and Others
Doron Shultziner et al 2009 – Causes and scope of political egalitarianism during the Last Glacial
Camilla Power, Morna Finnegan & Hilary Callan (eds) 2017 – Human Origins
Harrod et al 2020 – Social Structure predicts eye contact tolerance in nonhuman primates
Kobayashi Hiromi & Kohshima Shiro 2001 – Unique morphology of the human eye and its adaptive meaning: comparative studies on external morphology of the primate eye. Journal of Human Evolution (40) (5): 419-435.
HIERARCHY IN UPPER-PALAEOLITHIC EUROPE
Moreau (ed) 2020 – Social Inequality Before Farming?
(this is an anthology of papers from the latest big conference on this issue, several chapters are available online from the authors if you goorgle the title of the anthology and editor)
ANTI EGALITARIAN ORIGINS SCHOLARS
Singh & Glowacki 2021 – Human social organization during the Late Pleistocene
HUMAN CULTURE IN THE MIDDLE PALAEOLITHIC
Eleanor Scerri 2017, The North African Middle Stone Age and its place in recent human evolution, Evolutionary Anthropology 26
Stiner 2009 – Early Human Hunters Had Fewer Meat-sharing Rituals
Stiner et al 2009 – Cooperative hunting and meat sharing 400–200 kya at Qesem Cave, Israel
Behar et al 2008 – The Dawn of Human Matrilineal Diversity
Obhi et al 2014 – Power Changes How the Brain Responds to Others
Piff et al 2012 – Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior
Frank Marlowe 2004 – What Explains Hadza Food Sharing?
Frank Marlowe 2004 – Dictators and Ultimatum Games Among Hunter-Gatherers
CRITIQUE OF GRAEBER AND WENGROW’S MONUMENTAL ARCHITECTURE CLAIMS
Peter Turchin 2019 – An Anarchist View of Human Social Evolution
CRITIQUE OF GRAEBER AND WENGROW’S NEW ORIGIN MYTH
Arnold Schroeder 2021 – Fight Like an Animal Podcast ep. 38: Ethnogenesis pt. 4: Becoming a People in Terra Incognita