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Hunter-Gatherers’ Egalitarianism

Robert Bellah:

"The earliest humans, hunter-gatherers, were often remarkably egalitarian. But our history as a species did not begin with this “Eden” (we will see how we need to qualify that analogy in a minute), but with primate ancestors who were anything but egalitarian: our nearest primate relatives, the chimpanzees, live in strongly hierarchal bands dominated by alpha males who attempt to maintain sole sexual access to the females of the group and keep both other males and females in subservience to them.

What accounts for the difference between primate bands and hunter-gatherer egalitarians? The absence of a disposition for dominance? Not likely. In Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior, anthropologist Christopher Boehm argues that we share with chimpanzees and bonobos a tendency toward despotism. Yet nomadic hunter-gatherers have nevertheless been uniformly egalitarian, seemingly for thousands if not millions of years. Boehm explains this seeming contradiction with the claim that hunter-gatherers have “reverse dominance hierarchies”: the adult males in the society form a general coalition to prevent any one of their number, alone or with a few allies, from dominating the others. Male egalitarianism is not necessarily extended to females—the degree to which females are subject to male despotism varies, even among hunter-gatherers. But the reverse dominance hierarchy prevents the monopolization of females by dominant males. This makes possible the heterosexual nuclear family as we know it, based on (relatively) stable cross-gender pair bonding and mutual nurturance of children by parents, precisely what is missing in our closest primate relatives.

Egalitarianism is thus itself a form of dominance, the dominance of what Rousseau would have called the general will over the will of each. The hunter-gatherer band is not, then, the family enlarged; rather it is the precondition for the family as we know it.

Boehm identifies “moral community” and “the deliberate use of social sanctioning to enforce political equality among fully adult males” as the two components of egalitarian social control. I would add ritual as the common expression of the moral community without which the process of sanctioning would make no sense." (


The Historical Origins of Inequality

(Turchin discusses the book by Robert Bellah. Religion in Human Evolution (see: Religion and Equality in Human Evolution, which refers to Boehm's Hierarchy of the Forest)

Peter Turchin:

"The main message of Boehm’s book is that equality does not simply happen because hunter-gatherers are poor and cannot accumulate much wealth. On the contrary, Boehm argues that equality requires active maintenance. People living in small-scale societies possess numerous norms and institutions designed to control ‘upstarts,’ those individuals who attempt to dominate others in order to control an unfair share of resources. The sanctions deployed against upstarts range from gossip and ridicule to ostracism and, ultimately, assassination. As Bellah concurs, Boehm does a very good job in describing how this system of escalating sanctions works in small-scale societies, although “he is perhaps less good at what I think is equally necessary, that is, the strong pull of social solidarity, especially as expressed in ritual, that rewards renunciation of dominance with a sense of full social acceptance” (p. 177). This sounds like an interesting idea, although it is not further developed in Bellah’s book.

Given such fierce preference for equality, how did it happen that humans allowed inequality to develop? Small-scale societies of hunter-gatherers were integrated by faceto- face sociality. Such a diffuse, non-centralized social organization was well-suited to maintaining egalitarian ethos. However, the invention of agriculture c.10,000 years ago enabled evolution of large-scale societies. Once the size of cooperating group increased beyond 100–200 people, even gigantic human brains were overwhelmed by the computational demands of face-to-face sociality (Dunbar and Shultz 2007). The solution that social evolution found was hierarchical organization, with large human groups integrated by chains of command. A member of a hierarchically organized group needs to have face-to-face interactions with only a few individuals: a superior and several subordinates. The group size grows by adding additional hierarchical levels; a process that has no physical limit. The great downside of hierarchical organization, however, is that it inevitably leads to inequality. Thus, the side-effect of selection for greater societal size was the U-turn in the evolution of egalitarianism (Turchin 2011).

More specifically, Bellah proposes the following scenario. “An increasing agricultural surplus allows larger groups to form – groups beyond the face-to-face bands of hunter-gatherers – and the age-old techniques of dealing with upstarts are harder to apply in such larger-scale societies. But the opening wedge for a successful upstart is most often militarization. … In a situation of endemic warfare, the successful warrior emanates a sense of mana or charisma, and can use it to establish a following. … It is when the outstanding warrior can mobilize a band of followers that he can challenge the old egalitarianism and, as a successful upstart, free the disposition to dominate from the controls previously placed on it” (p. 261). I think this is just about right, but I would add that the primary selection pressure for the evolution of large-scale societies is endemic warfare itself (as the French military proverb goes, “God is on the side of big battalions”). Additionally, the state of endemic warfare selects for more effective (which means centralized) military organizations. Under such conditions, emergence of centralized hierarchies becomes virtually inevitable. In other words, large-scale warfare and large-scale sociality coevolve. As Charles Tilly famously remarked, “War made state and states made war” (Tilly 1975).

However, while highly effective on the battlefield, a centralized military hierarchy has drawbacks as a general way of organizing societies. A society cannot really be held together by force alone. Additionally, great inequities resulting from rapacious military chiefs and their retinues alienate large segments of the population. As a result, early despotic chiefdoms and archaic states were very fragile and frequently did not outlast their founders.

At this point Bellah makes a very useful distinction between dominance (or despotism) and hierarchy, with hierarchy defined as “legitimate authority” (p. 178). In order to ensure a greater degree of permanence, large-scale societies needed to make the transition from the domination by military chiefs to “a new form of authority, of legitimate hierarchy … which involves a new relation between gods and humans, a new way of organizing society, one that finds a significant place for the disposition to nurture as well as the disposition to dominate” (p. 261). In other words, the central argument in Bellah’s book is that a major driver in the evolution of religion was the need to reconcile the tension between the need for hierarchy and the need for legitimacy and equity. A major stride in this direction was made during the Axial Age (800–200 BCE), and making this argument constitutes the core of Religion in Human Evolution.

Historical trajectories of agrarian human societies, thus, went through two phases that Bellah calls ‘archaic’ and ‘axial’ (this should not be taken as fixed ‘stages’ of social development). The first, archaic phase was characterized by enormous fusion of power in the person of the ruler (p. 207). Archaic states invariably were characterized by some sort of divine kingship, and usually practiced human sacrifice on a massive scale, both indicators of extreme forms of inequality. During this phase we also observe the appearance of ‘gods,’ who are distinguished from other powerful supernatural beings in that they are worshipped (p. 189). ‘Worship’ suggests that the relationship between humans and supernatural beings also became much more unequal during this phase of human evolution.

The archaic states (and chiefdoms) persisted through several millennia (first chiefdoms appeared in the Middle East roughly 7.5 thousand years ago, and first archaic states date from c.5,000 years ago). The typical pattern was that or recurrent rise and collapse, or cycling between less and more complex forms of social organization: chiefdoms/complex chiefdoms and complex chiefdoms/archaic states (Anderson 1996; Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997). Then, something happened during the first millennium BCE, which resulted in the rise of qualitatively new forms of social organization – the larger and more durable axial empires that employed new forms of legitimation of political power. One aspect of this change was the first appearance of a universally egalitarian ethic, which was largely due to the emergence of “prophet-like figures who, at great peril to themselves, held the existing power structures to a moral standard that they clearly did not meet” (p. 573).

Bellah connects these developments to the “legitimation crisis of the early state” (an idea due to Jürgen Habermas), which became especially acute in the axial age (p. 574). Bellah calls these prophet-like figures, who passed harsh judgments on existing social and political conditions, “renouncers.” Examples include the Buddha, Hebrew prophets, Plato and Aristotle, and the Daoists (pp. 574–575). It is important to note that these renouncers were not isolated voices and enjoyed a certain degree of social support. “It seems apparent that some degree of unease about the state of the world must have been relatively widespread, even among the elite” (p. 575)

Why did the legitimation crisis of the early state become particularly acute during the axial age (middle of the first millennium BCE)? Bellah does not provide a clear answer. In his discussion of Ancient Israel he appeals to destabilizing social consequences of considerable economic growth during the eighth century BCE (p. 301). More frequently, however, he invokes not economic, but military factors. For example, he suggests that wide-spread use of iron was “more important in increasing the efficiency of warfare than in transforming the means of production” (p. 269).

I believe that the latter emphasis is the correct one."

Source: Peter Turchin. Religion and Empire in the Axial Age. Invited Article for Religion, Brain & Behavior.