Foursomes and so on

Steven Mithen

  • The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery and Empire by Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus
    Harvard, 631 pp, £29.95, May 2012, ISBN 978 0 674 06469 0

By the time I’d read no more than a third of The Creation of Inequality I would have willingly knelt before the authors to touch my nose against their knees and announce: ‘I eat your excrement ten times.’ That’s how commoners on the Polynesian island of Tikopia in 1929 would have addressed their chiefs, as originally documented by the anthropologist Raymond Firth. Having read about such encounters in Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus’s book I am left in no doubt that they are the archaeological and anthropological chiefs of social evolution to whom I must show the utmost deference. And so should everyone else, for this is a work of profound importance.

Flannery first gained status in his hunter-gatherer band of archaeologists for the work he edited in 1976, The Early Mesoamerican Village, which presented its key arguments in the form of a dialogue between three fictional but recognisable characters, the ‘Real Mesoamerican Archaeologist’, the ‘Great Synthesiser’ and the ‘Sceptical Graduate Student’. The book established him as one of the standard bearers of what was then termed the ‘New Archaeology’, and as a writer of both intelligence and wit. He used the same device in 1982, in a short article called ‘The Golden Marshalltown: A Parable for Archaeology of the 1980s’; the conversation there, between a ‘Born-Again Philosopher’, a ‘Child of the 1970s’ and an ‘Old Timer’, told me – as a new graduate – a great deal more about archaeological theory and the profession than I had learned as an undergraduate. Flannery’s Guilá Naquitz, published in 1985, was about a small cave site in the Oaxaca Valley in Mexico that had reputedly taken six weeks to excavate and 18 years to analyse. It described fieldwork in an exotic location, and used meticulous data analysis and interpretation to show how even the tiniest charred seed can help us to understand the most momentous change in human society, the transition from hunter-gatherering to farming. It seemed to me the archaeological ideal. As soon as I had the opportunity – in 2003 – I made a pilgrimage to Guilá Naquitz to see where the great man had excavated those seeds from its dirt floor.

Joyce Marcus is as distinguished in her own right as Flannery, but has become especially prominent through their joint publications, so that ‘Flannery and Marcus’ now form a single entity, as in ‘Crick and Watson’ or ‘Morecambe and Wise’. Particularly notable are The Cloud People (1983), which they edited together, and Zapotec Civilisation (1996), both of which blend archaeological and anthropological evidence to explore long-term social evolution in the Oaxaca Valley. The term ‘social evolution’ is here used quite differently from the way biologists use it to refer to the consequences of the various social behaviours displayed by individuals interacting within a single community. Anthropologists are concerned with the bigger picture: how and why did egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies transform into the diverse range of recent and present-day societies that feature such enormous levels of inequality?

So it was both exciting and daunting to open The Creation of Inequality, a huge volume that provides a global survey and interpretation of social evolution from huntergatherer societies to empires. Described as a book for the general reader, it avoids fanciful literary devices and chapters full of theory in favour of a data-rich narrative that yields insights into a multitude of societies in the recent and prehistoric past. The book takes in Africa, the Americas, the Near East and the Pacific, though it isn’t a truly global study: Europe, China and much of South and South-East Asia are absent. It is divided into four sections that deal broadly with hunter-gatherers, ranked societies, hereditary chiefdoms and monarchies, topped off by a final short chapter with the title ‘Updating Rousseau’. Flannery and Marcus note in their preface that Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality among Men (1754) took less than a hundred pages to argue that to understand inequality we must go back to the earliest times, to humanity’s ‘state of nature’. But then Rousseau didn’t have anything like as much archaeological data to draw on as we do, and had no more than a few anecdotal accounts of people living traditional, non-Western lifestyles. Today, we have a vast archive of anthropological studies to combine with the archaeological evidence.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in