We Became Human By Becoming Equal

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"Anthropologists and archaeologists since have now constructed an entirely serviceable account of the origins of human inequality. Key figures here are Kent Flannery, Joyce Marcus and James C. Scott. ... Over the past forty years, the scientific revolution has been remarkable, and there has been an enormous flowering of research in the field of human evolution. There are now many amazing new studies of non-human primates and primate behavior, new archaeology of early humans and new ethnographies of near contemporary hunter-gatherers. Thanks to chemical microanalyses, DNA sampling, radiocarbon dating and patient archaeology in humble homes, we have learned a great deal about the people who lived in pre-class and then early class societies. Among our heroes are the extensive publications of the readable Christopher Boehm, Frans de Waal, R. Brian Ferguson, Sarah Hrdy, Martin Jones and Laura Rival. This work is transforming the study of human evolution and human history. And the starting point may come as a surprise. It now seems that we became human by becoming equal. This is a remarkable and precious insight. But it is an insight that strikes at the very foundation of Graeber and Wengrow’s account."

- Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale [1]


Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale:

New Evolutionary Theory and the Human Adaptation

"Anthropologists and archaeologists since have now constructed an entirely serviceable account of the origins of human inequality. Key figures here are Kent Flannery, Joyce Marcus and James C. Scott whose work we discuss below.

Unfortunately, Graeber and Wengrow fail to engage with the enormous body of new scholarship on human evolution. In ignoring these new studies, Graeber and Wengrow have set themselves against a careful, and now extremely well-documented, arguments about comparative primate evolution and the human adaptation. Their problem is that this material would upend their assertion that there was no ‘original’ human society, and make their arguments about choice seem rather silly.

Graeber and Wengrow do not deny that humans once lived by hunting and gathering. But they are deeply uninterested in the environment and the material bases of human existence. And they do deny that these societies were necessarily equal.

The first step in their argument is to say that human evolution is all in the past, and we cannot know what happened then. Everything is speculation. But this is simply not true.

Over the past forty years, the scientific revolution has been remarkable, and there has been an enormous flowering of research in the field of human evolution. There are now many amazing new studies of non-human primates and primate behavior, new archaeology of early humans and new ethnographies of near contemporary hunter-gatherers.

Thanks to chemical microanalyses, DNA sampling, radiocarbon dating and patient archaeology in humble homes, we have learned a great deal about the people who lived in pre-class and then early class societies. Among our heroes are the extensive publications of the readable Christopher Boehm, Frans de Waal, R. Brian Ferguson, Sarah Hrdy, Martin Jones and Laura Rival.

This work is transforming the study of human evolution and human history. And the starting point may come as a surprise. It now seems that we became human by becoming equal. This is a remarkable and precious insight. But it is an insight that strikes at the very foundation of Graeber and Wengrow’s account. A Brief Summary of the Human Adaption

Dozens of long-term field research projects with different apes and monkeys now show, for each species, how a particular complex adaptation allows them to survive in a particular environment. That adaptation includes the details of how their staple diets, their alternative diets in bad times, their brains, hands, feet, stomachs, teeth, genitals, grunts, songs, dominance relationships, sharing relationships, child rearing, aggression, loving, grooming and group structure fit together.3 That is the baseline, and it is our method for understanding human evolution as well.

Over time, several parts of a new adaptation came together to produce modern humans. The short story is that early humans were puny primates. To survive, they had to learn to share meat and vegetables, to share childcare and to share sexual joy. To do this, they had to discipline would-be bullies and transcend the dominance hierarchies of their primate ancestors. And for at least 200,000 years, they lived in egalitarian societies where men and women were equal too. Some Details

In a bit more detail, the picture goes like this. The line who would be human invented digging sticks to get at tubers buried underground. Some men became ambush hunters of big animals where kills depended on speed, endurance and weapons. We know this from the changes in teeth, arms and legs, but also from the pattern of fossil injuries and the diet and bones found in caves, and from how surviving contemporary hunters hunted big game.

The breakthrough that separated the human line from all competing predators was a combined diet, and food cooked with fire. This meant they needed to use far less calories for digestion. As Richard Wrangham argues, those extra calories were able to serve growing brains.

Ambush hunting was unreliable, and a hunter might only make one big kill in a month. The human line changed their social organization to cope. The food was shared among the whole group at the home base. This change meant that everyone has regular meat, but on meatless days hunters can fall back on tubers and other fruits and vegetables.

Our primate ancestors and early humans seem to have managed these changes is two ways. First, to ensure that everyone got a share of the good food, they found ways to limit competition among the hunters and to discipline potential bullies.

Second, they invented new styles of child rearing. The feminist primatologist Sarah Hrdy has written extensively about patterns of primate infanticide, and, in a key change in gender relations, how mothers came to trust other women, and men, to look after their young children. Another change is that, alone among primates, human beings of both sexes typically live past the age of female menopause. The evolutionary advantage appears to be partly that the expertise of the old is valuable, but also that they provide child-care.

These and an array of other differences meant that humans can multiply faster than other apes. And at certain periods, they were able to spread quickly across the world.

This early history squares with the kinds of societies anthropologists have reported from groups of near contemporary hunter gatherers all over the world.4 In these societies no one has power over anyone else. Key to this is the absence of wealth or surplus.

People move regularly. No one owns more than they can carry, with a child on the other hip. Bands are not bounded. People change groups all the time, and everyone has real or fictive kin in several other bands. When tension builds over food, sex or anything else, someone moves. This means neither women nor men are trapped, and in these societies, there is no regular patterns of gendered inequality. And the ability to restrain bullies is an another important pattern among recent hunter-gatherers.

We see this from the anthropologists’ accounts. But there is also the evidence from the anatomical changes from our ape ancestors. The large male canines used for fighting other males have disappeared, as have great differences in size. Human males are about 15% larger than females. Comparison with other primates suggests that this means some male domination, but not much.

Male genitals have changed in many ways. Among primates, and many other species, the size of testicles indicates how exclusive sexual partnerships are. Human testicle size falls in the middle range, suggesting customary forms of monogamy modified by affairs.

The changes in the human penis are many, and wondrous. Cormier and Jones argue in their aptly titled book The Domesticated Penis, that all these changes are the result of mate selection by female choice.

The changes in female sexuality are even more marked. In other primates, females have sex only when ovulating. Female humans have sex year-round. This means they can have more sex, but it means that the ratio between sexually active males and females is one to one. In other apes and primates, it varies from 2 to 1 to 40 to 1. That suggests it was easier to create pair bonding and gender equality.

The primatologist and anthropologist Christopher Boehm has presented the last piece of the puzzle, in a key article and two influential books. Boehm argues that the equality and sharing among hunter and gatherer bands was culturally and consciously achieved.

He says that we retain our ape heritage which encourages us to submit, to compete and to dominate. But for humans to survive we had to agree consciously together to repress the jealousy, aggression and selfishness which welled up in us, and we had to repress selfishness in others.

Boehm’s ideas are now widely accepted. All of this is not because people are naturally egalitarian or nonviolent. It is because we have that potential within us, and its opposite. But we understood that we had to share and be egalitarian to survive.

Boehm’s theory also fits with our big brains. Scientists long assumed they had to do with hands, hunting, weapons and tools. But with all other primates the best predictor of brain size is the size of the group.

Among most primates standing in a dominance hierarchy depends on the ability to build alliances in a complex and constantly shifting political world. And the chance for males to reproduce depends on their standing in that hierarchy. Social intelligence is critical. In a group of ten, there are 45 different relationships to keep track of. In a group of 20 there are 190 different relationships. In a village of 200–you do the math.

And perhaps, with people, the ability to restrain bullies, to live in equality and to share was the crucial achievement of our social intelligence. The brains that can be used to compete can be used to cooperate.

In Sum

In sum, the work of scholars in many fields makes it possible to put forward a coherent picture of a human adaption to a particular ecological niche evolved over two million years and led to the emergence of humans some 200,000 years ago.

The Advent of Agriculture

The transformation from equality to hierarchy, and from gender equality to marked gender inequality, is generally associated with farming, and this presents Graeber and Wengrow with considerable problems. Because of their interest in choice, they seem determined to avoid materialist arguments or consider the ways the environment conditions and limits the choices people have.

Agriculture was invented independently in many places in the world, beginning about 12,000 years ago. Hunter-gatherers shared their food, and no one could own more than they could carry. But farmers settled and became invested in their fields and crops. This created a potential for some people to seize more than their share of the food.

Over time, groups of thugs and bullies could come together and become lords. They did this in many ways: theft and pillage, rent, sharecropping, hiring labour, tax, tribute and tithes. Whatever form this took, such class inequality was always dependent on organized violence. And this is what the class struggle has been about until very recently: who worked the land and who got the food.

Farmers were vulnerable as hunters were not. They were tied to their land, to the work they had put in to clear and irrigate the fields, and to the stores of crops. Hunter-gatherers could leave. Farmers could not.

However, Graeber and Wengrow set their faces against this narrative–that farmers were able to produce and store a surplus and that made possible class society, exploitation, the state and, as it happens, gendered inequality as well–and they do so again in the face of remarkable new archaeological and other material.

Flannery and Marcus. In 2012, the archaeologists Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus published a brilliant book on The Creation of Inequality. They trace the ways that agriculture has led to inequality in many different parts of the world.

But they insist the association was not automatic. Agriculture made class possible, but many farmers lived in egalitarian societies. In some places the gap between the invention of farming and the invention of class was measured in centuries and in some places in thousands of years.

Flannery and Marcus also show, through careful examples, that where local thugs or lords did seize power, like as not they were later overthrown. In many towns and cities, elites appear in the archaeological record, then disappear for decades, the appear again. In effect, the class struggle never stops.5

James C. Scott. Flannery and Marcus’s magnificent comparative study, was anticipated in the work of Edmund Leach in his 1954 book, Political Systems of Highland Burma which radically changed anthropology, and latterly, in the work of the anarchist political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott.6 In 2009, Scott published The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. It covered centuries across the whole region.

Scott is concerned with the multitudes of rice farmers in the kingdoms of the plains who did run away to the hills. There they reinvented themselves as new ethnic groups of ‘slash and burn’ shifting cultivators. Some of them created smaller class societies, and some lived without class. All of them had to resist continuous slaving and military raids from the kingdoms and states below.

Technology. In some ways Graeber and Wengrow build on the work of Leach, Scott, Flannery and Marcus. Wengrow, after all, has been part of the changes in archaeology which Flannery and Marcus are summarizing. And the influence of Scott is everywhere in The Dawn of Everything.

But Graeber and Wengrow do not like the links the other authors make between technology and environment, on the one hand, and economic and political change.

Flannery, Marcus and Scott are very careful to say that technology and environment do not determine change. They make change possible. Equally, the invention of grain agriculture did not automatically lead to class inequality or the state. But it made those changes possible.

Class Relations and the Class Struggle. The change in technology and environment set the stage for a class struggle. And the result of that class struggle determined whether equality and inequality triumphed. Graeber and Wengrow ignore this crucial point. Instead, they constantly take issue with the crude form of stages theory that makes such changes immediate and inevitable.

This allergy to ecological thinking is probably one of the things behind their refusal to deal with the new literature on human evolution.

All of that literature tries to understand how the animals who became humanity built a social adaptation to the environment they inhabited, the bodies they had, the competing predators, the technology they could invent, and the ways they made their livelihood. As it happens, they built egalitarian societies in order to cope with that ecology and those circumstances. That was not an inevitable result. But it was an adaptation.

Graeber and Wengrow, on the other hand, are not materialists. For them, thinking about ecology and technology threatens to make the choices and revolution they want impossible. This is why, for example, they are not happy with Scott’s book on ancient Mesopotamia, because it emphasizes the material reasons why grain agriculture in particular led to inequality.

This is not a trivial matter. The climate crisis we face now brings into sharp relief the question of how humanity might change society to adapt to a new technology and a new environment. Any politics of equality or human survival must now be profoundly materialist.

The Absence of Gender.

We have seen that Graeber and Wengrow have little interest in the environment and the material bases of human existence.

In the same way, they observe an almost religious avoidance of the concept of class, discussions of class relations and class struggle. Graeber certainly, and presumably Wengrow, have an understanding of class relationships and class struggle. They know what class does, and, indeed, which class they are from, but cannot, or will not, treat class relations as a motor of social change.

Just as striking is Graeber and Wengrow’s lack of interest in the social construction of gender. In passing they reproduce a near-Bachofen of matriarchy in Minoan Crete, on the one hand, and on the other, they include a scattering of patriarchal stereotypes in which women are nurturing and men are bullies.

Because they hold that inequality has always been with us, Graeber and Wengrow have next to nothing to say about the origins of gendered inequality among humans.

There are basically three schools of thought about the evolution of gendered relations. First there are the evolutionary psychologists whose arguments are deeply conservative. Jared Diamond, Napoleon Chagnon and Steven Pinker argue that inequality, violence and competition are fundamental to human nature. They say this is because men are programmed by evolution to compete with other men so the strongest can dominate women and father more children. This is regrettable, Pinker says, and luckily Western Civilization has partly tamed such primitive feelings.

The great biologist, and trans activist, Joan Roughgarden, has rightly described these ideas as ‘thinly disguised rape narratives’. These arguments are indeed repellant, and surely were rejected by Graeber and Wengrow for this reason alone.

For a very long time, a second school of thought held sway among feminist anthropologists. This too essentialized differences between women and men, and accepted some form of inequality between women and men as a given in every society.

The third option is the one to which we subscribe. There is a striking feature of the historical, anthropological and archaeological record. In almost every case, where people lived in economically and politically equal societies, women and men too were equal. And wherever there have been class societies with economic inequality, there too men have dominated women.

The question that has obsessed us is: Why?

Graeber and Wengrow do not address this question. They have no explanation for sexism, nor are they interested in how or why gender relations change. But they are not sexists. They mention instances of the oppression of women many times, but in passing. It is just not central to their concerns. So what seems to us a striking congruence, is for them a mirage.

Complex Foragers

In their determination to downplay the connections between farming, class inequality and the emergence of states, a key part of Graeber and Wengrow’s account focuses on groups of hunter-gatherers who did have class inequality, warfare and even slavery. Archaeologists call them ‘complex hunters and gatherers’ or ‘complex foragers.’

Graeber and Wengrow take these people as evidence that prehistoric people could be either stateless and egalitarian, or violent and unequal. That is not what the evidence shows. 7

The classic examples are the Kwakiutl, studied by Franz Boas, and their neighbors on the west coast of Canada and on the Columbia and Frazer Rivers. The rivers and the coast saw enormous salmon runs. Whoever controlled a limited number of choke points and fishing sites could amass an enormous surplus. The Galles on the Columbia River is an example. There were days when a small group of people could catch 100,000 pounds of salmon.

That was exceptional. There was variation from site to site. But across the coast and the rivers, the better the stocks of salmon, the more class inequality is revealed in the archaeology and written accounts. Inequalities of wealth were often extreme. These people also had complex military technology, with great war canoes that carried large numbers of warriors and required many months for several men to make.

In effect, these people were trapped by fishing places, just as farmers were trapped by their fields. And like farmers, storage was essential to these salmon fishers. For a long way back in the archaeological record, examination of their bones and teeth shows that between 40% and 60% of their annual diet came from salmon. The fish ran for only a few weeks, so that most of that diet must have come from dried salmon.

Just as with farmers, environmental constraints and new technologies were opening the possibility of class society. None of this process is visible in The Dawn of Everything. Instead, we get the standard account of the Kwakiutl for undergraduates fifty years ago, as the people of the wasteful, greedy potlatch feasts. This account ignores the great amount of scholarship since.

We now know that those chaotic feasts were a celebration of traditional life managed by a ruling class who were desperately trying to hang onto their power, among people who had lost five-sixths of their population to smallpox and syphilis, who had been conquered and then overrun by gold prospectors, and whose potlatch feasts were eventually forbidden by the Canadian government. A deeply material tragedy is recounted as irrational farce.8

The fisherfolk of the west coast were not the only ‘complex foragers.’ There are other examples around the world. But it is notable how few there were. Moreover, archaeologists have found none older than 7,000 years before present, and no evidence of warfare before 14,000 years ago.

The small number and recent origin of complex foragers may be a matter of technology. Certainly, the Chumash along the coast of California did not develop inequality and warfare before 600 CE when they learned to build large ocean-going plank canoes, which enabled them to hunt large marine mammals and dominate the coastal villages militarily.9 Graeber and Wengrow ignore the Chumash, taking instead the example of the less well understood Yurok further inland.

They do choose a third example of ‘complex foragers’, the Calusa of southern Florida. In one sense, these too were fisherfolk with ruling chiefs, warriors, class inequality, slavery, expensive war canoes and a reliance on fishing for sea mammals, alligators and large fish.

Graeber and Wengrow describe the Calusa as ‘a non-agricultural people’. But as they acknowledge, the Calusa fisherfolk were the dominant group in a much larger polity. All the other groups were farmers, and they paid tribute to the Calusa rulers of large amounts of food, gold and enslaved European and African captives. That food enabled the Calusa elite, and 300 full-time warriors, to live without working.10 Being Against the State

Following Flannery and Marcus, Scott, et al., for us, the central political struggle in all class societies until recently was over who worked the land and who got the food. Graeber and Wengrow see things differently. For them the central issue is power, and the central enemy is the state. This leads them to ignore class in several ways. This is not because they are anarchists. Most anarchists have always been able to hold class and power in focus simultaneously.

But the omissions in The Dawn are important. Graeber and Wengrow seem so keen to push an argument in favor of consensual, participatory assemblies that they leave us with a series of puzzles. Four brief examples can illustrate the problem.

The authors are not interested in the rise of class inequality in villages that so often precedes states in cities, and they dismiss the literature. Nor are they interested in small kingdoms, lordships and baronies. As long as there are no large, centralized states, it’s OK. We have seen some the twists and turns this created in their account of the complex foragers. These reappear in a number of other examples.

The Indus. They point, quite rightly, to the astonishing and important example on the ancient city of Mohenjo-Daro on the Indus, where about 40,000 people lived without class inequality or a state.

They then suggest, as do the Hindutva historians, that Mohenjo-Daro was in fact organized along South Asian caste lines. But, Graeber and Wengrow say, these were egalitarian caste lines. Initially the mind boggles, but what they mean is that caste inequality without kings is acceptable.11

Natchez. They consistently minimize the power of traditional kingships. The native kingdom of Natchez on the Mississippi is a good example. Graeber and Wengrow say that the power and vicious cruelty of the sun king did not extend beyond his village. Yet, in fact Natchez was a major regional force in the slave trade servicing white planters.12

Human Sacrifice. Graeber and Wengrow rightly emphasize the important fact that cruel public festivals of human sacrifice are found in early states around the world. Dozens or hundreds were sacrificed, often war captives, young women or the poor.

They are rightly outraged. But they also feel that the aim of these sacrifices was to terrify their enemies, the people of other states. We think, by contrast, that the main aim was to terrify the actual audience for the bloodshed, the subjects of the cruel local state.

Indeed, this is probably why such cruelty is characteristic of the early history of each state. That was the time when the legitimacy of the state was still weak, and terror most needed. That’s also probably why the spectacular public sacrifices disappear as state power is consolidated, though warfare and enemies continue.

Assemblies. The assemblies themselves are an important final example. Graeber and Wengrow point quite rightly to the power of city assemblies in kingdoms and states in ancient Mesopotamia. They say that this is evidence that kings were not all powerful. In this they are right. You would have to be very naïve to believe that the class struggle stopped in those kingdoms.

But then Graeber and Wengrow make a leap. They suggest that those city assemblies resembled the assemblies of Occupy and other social justice movements, with participatory democracy.

There is no evidence for this one way or another for any form of participatory democracy in ancient Mesopotamia. But we do have enormous evidence for city-wide and national assemblies in other class societies. All of them were dominated by the richer men and by powerful families. In ancient Sparta, landowners dominated. The same was true in the Roman senate. And with King John and the Barons. And until very recently the voters for every parliament in Europe were limited to the rich.

This myopia is important. Like many others, we understand kingdoms and states as the way that dominant classes in unequal societies come together to consolidate and enforce the rules. In The Dawn, that process is invisible."