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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 in 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.

The input from social anthropology: Egalitarianism and the Origins of Inequality

Camilla Power, Morna Finnegan and Hilary Callan:

"Over the past two decades, there has been a focus on the role of egalitarianism in the emergence of distinctively human society. Surprisingly, in an area where social anthropologists would be well placed to contribute (cf Barnard 2010), to date, it has been evolutionary psychologists and anthropologists who have paid most attention to this issue. David Erdal and Andy Whiten (1994, 1996,Whiten and Erdal 2012), working in an evolutionary psychology framework, viewed typical immediate-return hunter-gatherer egalitarianism as a puzzle to be explained from the perspective of Machiavellian ape-like ancestors. Their intriguing dialectical account of counter-dominance behaviours emerging out of an increasingly Machiavellian ability to form alliances belies the common social science perception of reductionist bias in evolutionary ‘rational maximizer’ models. Erdal and Whiten made scholarly use of hunter-gatherer ethnography in supporting their arguments, and engaged in lively debates with evolutionary anthropologist Christopher Boehm whose Hierarchy in the Forest (1999) proposed a more collective model of ‘reverse dominance’. Boehm, observing that weapons were a great leveller, argued that egalitarianism of both reproduction and status would promote effects of group selection in human cultural evolution. While having plenty to say about differing strategies of male and female chimpanzees, when it came to hunter-gatherer ethnography, he said nothing about gender. With a focus on weaponry, dominance and aggression as a male reproductive problem, this implied predominantly male strategic solutions. Wengrow and Graeber (2015) note Boehm’s work on the political complexity of strategies for resisting domination among humans compared with nonhuman primates, but criticize him for assuming that early humans were egalitarian for thousands of generations before hierarchy emerged some 5000 years ago. They ask: ‘Why …should our species’ engrained capacity for political complexity have been held in suspense for the greater part of human (pre)history? Sociobiology poses the question, but offers no clear answers’ (2015:3). We respond that sociobiology offers a direct answer with its focus on differential strategies and reproductive trade-offs between the sexes, especially as brain sizes reached their maximum when we became modern humans from 200,000 to 100,000 years ago.

The egalitarianism that counts from an evolutionary standpoint is equality in reproductive success. Mothers of very large-brained, costly offspring had increasing motives to share chances of reproduction more equally among males so that more men would invest in offspring; both mothers and investing men should resist any form of dominance that allowed male harem monopoly of female fertility. To meet the material female costs as brain sizes maximized in early modern humans, we can predict the greatest degree of reproductive levelling among males. Female ‘reverse dominance’ strategies – disregarded by either Boehm or Wengrow and Graeber, but echoed in Ardener’s ethnography – can be located here.

Wengrow and Graeber contest the contrast of hunter-gatherer egalitarianism to agro-pastoralist hierarchy. They argue that the Upper Paleolithic landscape of ritual burials in particular can be decoded in terms of a deliberate and conscious ritual switching between modes of hierarchical and more egalitarian organization, aligned with seasonal changes in social morphology (cf Mauss and Beuchat 1979). They are at pains to demolish an evolutionist picture of a ‘childhood of man’. In making their intriguing argument for political complexity in the Upper Paleolithic, they critically examine Renfrew’s ‘sapient paradox’. This is the Eurocentric perspective that humans appear to be ‘anatomically modern’ Homo sapiens by 200,000–150,000 years ago, yet not ‘all there’ culturally until the last 50,000 years. There is now broad consensus (d’Errico and Stringer 2011) that symbolic culture appears consistently from South to North Africa and into the Middle East over 100,000 years ago, with evidence from sites like Pinnacle Point and Border Cave extending that back to the time period of modern human emergence (Watts 2014). Convincing evidence of ritual activity stretches back even before modern humans into the southern African Fauresmith over 500,000–300,000 years ago(Watts, Chazan and Wilkins 2016). The more we see of the African record, the more the sapient paradox dissolves. The parsimonious view is that archaic human ancestors in Africa were on the cutting edge; humans became ‘modern’ in Africa, anatomically and behaviourally, all-singing, all-dancing, speaking, laughing, healing, bodies and minds in step. In fact, the paradox could switch the other way: ritual performance among late archaic populations precedes, and may foster the evolution of, modern bodies (see Low on bodily practice as source of human cognition in Chapter 9 of this volume).The perspective of the sapient paradox could suggest that humans are less interesting, not fully cultural or complex enough until they become unequal. This then runs the risk of relegating the African MSA, where seasonality factors would not be so decisive as in Ice Age Eurasia, to the stage of ‘childhood of man’. If Wengrow and Graeber’s model of conscious alternation of ‘moral, legal and ritual organization’ of society is to be applied to human cognitive origins, we need to situate their picture of seasonal social morphology of the Upper Paleolithic in a wider evolutionary context. We are not likely to understand the Upper Palaeolithic without also understanding what happened in Africa with the origins of symbolism. Wengrow and Graeber refer to Bloch’s (2008) framework of transactional vs. transcendental social relations. Whereas all other apes are trapped in a transactional world, humans create a transcendental social world by collectively imagining social roles that extend in space and time beyond the individual. Wengrow and Graeber’s social dynamic of regular political reversal could help explain how this transition came about."