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.

Anthropologists in the 19th and 20th centuries sought to follow Rousseau’s directive. Lewis Henry Morgan wrote the first landmark work, Ancient Society (1877), in which he defined three stages of social evolution: ‘savagery’, ‘barbarism’ and ‘civilisation’; the second was Evolution and Culture (1960), edited by Elmen Service and Marshall Sahlins, which posited four stages: ‘bands’, ‘tribes’, ‘chiefdoms’ and ‘states’. Flannery and Marcus set out to address two of the criticisms made of these earlier works: first, that they imposed the anthropological present onto the archaeological past, preventing us from recognising types of social organisation that did not survive into the historically documented world; second, that the model of successive stages of social evolution carries with it the idea of inevitable progress from past to present.

Flannery and Marcus note that archaeology and anthropology have always had an uneasy relationship but that they work best when they work together: the former too often lacks detail, being subject to the vagaries of preservation and uncertain chronology, while the latter can’t show how social processes play out over the long term. The Creation of Inequality alternates its focus between the two disciplines, interpreting scant prehistoric remains with insights gained from the study of documented societies, which has shown that they are not static ethnographic entities but are in a process of long-term change. Flannery and Marcus demonstrate that there is no inevitability about the course of social evolution; indeed, across the world at the start of the 20th century, societies in which leadership was based on achievement were more common than those based on inheritance, the transition to ranked and hereditary societies having been either infrequent or unsustained.

Flannery and Marcus begin fifteen thousand years ago, a time when everyone lived as hunter-gatherers. This seems rather arbitrary, being roughly halfway between two globally relevant environmental markers: the last glacial maximum 21,000 years ago and the dramatic global warming that marked the shift to the Holocene 11,600 years ago. Although they don’t say so, I suspect that Flannery and Marcus’s choice reflects their view that there is no environmental determinant of the pattern of social evolution; neither is it possible to predict types of social organisation and levels of inequality on the basis of population densities and subsistence strategies alone, although these impose constraints on which types might come about and be sustained. The comparison between the rates at which ranked societies appeared in the Near East and Mexico following domestication of their respective wild plants is especially illuminating: in Mexico, the rate was much slower because of the larger number of genetic changes required to turn teosinte into maize than the Near East’s wild wheat into einkorn, but remarkably similar ranked societies ultimately arose in both regions.

Turning to ‘egalitarian’ hunter-gatherers, Flannery and Marcus stress various factors: the role of humour, teasing and ridicule as levelling mechanisms; how influence is won not by bullying but through generosity, modesty and diplomacy; how language and intelligence serve – and most probably evolved – to promote social networking; the absolute imperative to share. They remark how strikingly the urge to maintain egalitarianism contrasts with the jostling for power in chimpanzee societies. The explanation, they suggest, is that while apes put sex first, followed by food and then defence, the order for humans is food, defence and then sex, with marriage acting as a food-getting partnership rather than a hormone-driven sexual liaison. This is why marriage was always a flexible institution: one man one woman; two men one woman; two women one man; foursomes and so on. That said, hunter-gatherer egalitarianism is rather a sham. Flannery and Marcus argue that even the most egalitarian of them had a dominance hierarchy as clear-cut as that in any ape society. The difference is that for humans, the alpha elite were invisible supernatural beings, far too powerful to be overthrown, while the betas were ancestors who did the bidding of the alphas. No ‘egalitarian’ hunter-gatherer was ever more than a gamma in the social hierarchy.

All societies, Flannery and Marcus argue, have their own social logic, a set of explicit or implicit rules of social behaviour that archaeologists or anthropologists must grasp if they are to understand how societies function or change. Social evolution occurs only through a change in social logic. Throughout the book there are statements of what the authors believe to be the social logic of the societies they explore, ranging from hunter-gatherers to the Aztecs. (Some of us might want to avoid the term ‘social logic’ and simply use ‘culture’ instead, in the sense of an array of implicit mental precepts.)

A key development among some groups of prehistoric hunter-gatherers, requiring a change in their social logic, was the adoption of clans or lineages, each of which had its own particular relationship to a cosmology shared by the community as a whole. The presence of clans did not in itself create inequality but it changed social dynamics, thanks to the common principle of ‘social substitutability’: if someone from Clan A killed someone in Clan B, then revenge could be obtained by killing any member of Clan A, whether or not they were directly involved in the original crime. (Our urban gangs will be delighted to learn they are maintaining ancient traditions.) Ambitious clans, or individuals within clans, secured power by manipulating cosmologies to claim a closer relationship with the supernatural elite than the one enjoyed by other clans or clan leaders. Flannery and Marcus argue that this phenomenon has been pervasive throughout human history, reaching an extreme with the Egyptian pharaohs, who claimed divine status. Such manipulation wasn’t so difficult when cosmologies were passed on by word of mouth, since they could easily be modified to maintain their consistency with developments in other areas of knowledge, including technology. Not so today: Flannery and Marcus blame the printing press for the current antagonism between science and religion. Had sacred propositions continued to be transmitted orally rather than being fixed in print they would have been gradually remoulded to render them compatible with the scientific thought of Galileo and Darwin.

It wasn’t only cosmologies that were manipulated to create inequality. In their study of three documented hunter-gatherer societies from North-West America, often referred to as ‘affluent foragers’ because of their extraordinary wealth of resources, Flannery and Marcus explain how mechanisms traditionally used to maintain equality were abused so as to do exactly the opposite. Among the Tlingit, feasts and gift-giving were employed on a scale such that the recipients were simply unable to return the favours on an equivalent scale and were forced into debt slavery.

Such manipulations notwithstanding, hereditary prestige and power were rarely the result. The vast majority of communities remained ‘achievement-based’. In Part Two of The Creation of Inequality, Flannery and Marcus provide a rich set of anthropological and archaeological case studies, ranging across the world and through time, from precolonial highland New Guinea to the Neolithic of the Near East, and from the Central Andes of Peru to the Pueblo societies of the American South-West. Similar patterns of social interaction and settlement organisation have repeatedly arisen in such societies, irrespective of environment and economy. There is material evidence of achievement-based societies in the form of buildings dedicated to hold clan-based rituals, referred to as men’s houses, which have benches for sleeping or sitting, curated skulls, skeletal remains and sunken floors.

Structures of this type appear to be a consistent marker: once you know what to look for, you can identify men’s houses in the archaeological records of the Near East, Egypt, the Americas and Africa and confidently infer that they too had been achievement-based societies. But the specific relationship between the men’s house and the source of achieved inequality was variable: in some cases (among the Ao Naga of Assam, for instance) the co-members of one’s house provided a ready means of support if you were an ambitious individual seeking to accumulate wealth and influence; in others (the Mountain Ok of New Guinea) simply being allowed into the men’s house constituted a source of prestige; elsewhere (the Siuai of the Solomon Islands) the existence of a house reflected the presence of a man who could afford to build it.

Warfare and raiding between such societies were commonplace, the acquisition of enemies’ heads being a means to acquire more ‘life-force’. The Marind warriors of New Guinea, for instance, often returned from raids with their canoes brimful with the heads of their enemies. But there, as elsewhere in the world, such practices were banned by the colonial powers, so that groups were forced to adopt competitive feasting and exchange in their place – not nearly as satisfying.

In Part Three, Flannery and Marcus show how some societies made inequality hereditary. But sustaining a newly established hereditary principle isn’t easy, and even in the relatively short time-frame of the anthropological record, one can see how societies such as the Kachin of Burma have cycled between achievement-based and heredity-based inequality. Flannery and Marcus suggest that such oscillations were common in the pre-industrial world – a warning to any archaeologist who assumes a single direction for social change. They give further guidance to archaeologists by suggesting that, while men’s houses are a sign that leadership was based on achievement, the construction of temples indicates a shift to hereditary leadership: members of a clan would use a men’s house to communicate with their spirits and gods, but a temple was where such beings were thought to reside, and there a chief had privileged access to their wishes for the mortal world.

Flannery and Marcus draw on work done in Polynesia by Irving Goldman to describe three sources of chiefly power: mana, ‘an odourless, colourless, invisible, supernatural energy that pervades people and things’; tohunga, or expertise, as exhibited in diplomacy, ritual or craftsmanship; and toa, bravery and toughness, as demonstrated in warfare. These are common to many societies, if not universal, but vary in their relative importance and are especially potent when found in combination. That said, there is an astonishing diversity of human societies; Flannery and Marcus describe one with hereditary aristocrats but no chiefs, and show how prehistoric sites such as Caral in the Peruvian highlands (c.4500 years ago) fail to fit into established patterns, with seemingly contradictory lines of evidence about levels of inequality. Their accounts of the Kachin (Burma), Avatip (Papua New Guinea), Bemba (Zambia) and South Pacific (Western Samoa, Tonga) draw on and reinterpret classic studies, translating dense and somewhat arcane anthropological accounts into lively stories of social competition and change. For me, though, their great achievement is to use these to interpret archaeological remains, the better to understand social change in prehistoric communities, most notably in Mesopotamia, with its long stratified sequences covering thousands of years. They compare the spread of Halaf polychrome pottery to that of Tlingit and Haida crests (North America), Quimbaya goldwork (Colombia) and decorated vessels in Mexico, arguing that all of these were products of technical expertise that had become appropriate gifts for chiefly families; they also show how the sources of power in ancient Mesopotamia fall into the tripartite schema Goldman developed for Polynesia.

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The fourth part of Flannery and Marcus’s magnum opus concerns inequality in kingdoms and empires. It starts out like a DIY manual: ‘How to Create a Kingdom’. The answer is provided by way of four detailed case studies: the Hawaiians, the Zulu, the Hunza (in today’s Pakistan) and the Merina (Madagascar). The trick is not to grow your own ranked society but to take over your neighbours’, thereby creating a kingdom via forced unification. This was never easy: typically, it would take generations of competition between aggressive leaders before one of them succeeded in gaining overall control. But when this did happen it could be rapid: Shaka, the great Zulu war leader, took only 12 years – a period of time invisible to archaeologists – to go from being the illegitimate son of a minor chief to king of the Zulu. He was a brilliant military strategist and brutally defeated his enemies, turning thirty chiefly societies into the provinces of a single kingdom. (He was also a mummy’s boy: when his mother died in 1827 he ordered that for one year no crops should be grown and no cows milked, and that no married couples should have sex; he then executed seven thousand of his subjects who didn’t appear to be grieving sufficiently.)

Flannery and Marcus go on to explore the formation of three kingdoms in the New World: the Zapotec State in Oaxaca, the Moche State in Peru and the Calakmul Kingdom in the Mayan lowlands. They find that these too came about through the forced unification of rival societies. With barely a pause, they sweep back to the Old World for a study of kingdom formation in Ancient Egypt, where the archaeological evidence is again interpreted with frequent references to elsewhere: there are comparisons between Egypt’s pyramids and those of the Moche in Peru, between its kings and Hawaiian chiefs, and between its high priests and those of the Zapotec state. Ancient Egypt, whose pharaohs claimed divine status, had one of the highest levels of inequality among the first generation kingdoms.

In their penultimate chapter, Flannery and Marcus explore the formation of second, third, fourth and fifth generation kingdoms, and then empires, formed when one kingdom took control of others. Here the story goes back two thousand years to Teotihuacan, one of Mexico’s earliest and largest cities, and leads to the Aztecs, who survived until the Spanish arrived in 1519, by way of a succession of kingdoms in the Peruvian Andes, from the Wari to the Inca, another victim of the conquistadors. Three themes are prominent in these final cases: first, how each generation of kingdoms or empires learned from its predecessors; second, how the subjugation of one kingdom by another to create an empire resulted in yet another source of inequality; and third, how the ancient hunter-gatherer ethic of generosity still had a role to play in social evolution, used as a last resort by some kings and emperors to get what they wanted.

Rather than seeking human universals or the ‘laws’ of social change, as the New Archaeologists once did, Flannery and Marcus are repeatedly ‘reminded’ of one society by another, or ‘struck by’ similarities, having ‘suspicions’ and ‘impressions’ of what might have happened in the past. In their final chapter they come clean and explain how their study demonstrates that there are five or six ways of organising a people which work so well that strikingly similar societies have repeatedly arisen in different parts of the world at different times in human history. This is a big book in every sense: six hundred pages of unrelenting description and interpretation of archaeological data and anthropological observations; big ideas about the process of social change and human nature; near-global coverage from ice age hunter-gatherers to the formation of empires in the 19th century. To have put some order into all this data, and to have drawn out the cross-cultural patterns and recurrent long-term processes, is a deeply impressive achievement.