Not all early human societies were small scale egalitarian bands

By | February 8, 2021

Manvir Singh writes:

The Harvard Kalahari Project propelled the !Kung into anthropological stardom. By 1976, researchers on the team had published more than 100 academic articles, on topics as varied as infant care, trance healing, and blood pressure. The research sparked more interest, which drew in more anthropologists, which produced more research. In a video for the Annual Review of Anthropology in 2012, DeVore speculated that there was no culture ‘outside the West that has as much fine-grained data on it’. In the same video, his Harvard colleague Peter Ellison said:

It’s not hard to appreciate why the !Kung San became such a paradigm within anthropology. They were hunter-gatherers for so many people and for so many generations. There was no other study that came close to that richness of detail.

Through research on the !Kung and similar hunter-gatherers, anthropologists now have a clear picture of what society looked like for most of our species’ history. We were mobile. We were egalitarian. We shared. We lived in small bands composed mostly of kin. We had few possessions and weak notions of property. Slavery was unknown. Then, 10,000 years ago: a rupture. The world warmed. Sea levels rose. We started to settle. We domesticated plants and animals. We invented inequality and slavery. Property intensified. War intensified. Societies became larger and more complex. Strangers became neighbours. We built courts. We built governments. We built monuments and bureaucracies and moralistic gods and every other instrument of power exercised in service of order and oppression. Prehistory ended. History began.

This is more than just a theory of prehistory. It’s the modern, scientific origin myth. Yes, we live in mega-societies with property and slavery and inequality but, at heart, we are mobile, egalitarian hunter-gatherers, wired for small groups and sharing. According to the evolutionary social scientist Peter Turchin, this view is ‘so standard that it is rarely formulated in explicit terms’. The archaeologist David Wengrow and the late anthropologist David Graeber described it as ‘the foundation of all contemporary debate on inequality’. This view serves as a narrative of human nature, a symbol of our capacity to establish good societies, and a reminder of just how far we have strayed in the past 10,000 years.

It’s also probably wrong. [Continue reading…]

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