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by Kent Flannery & Joyce Marcus

Why do some societies have masters and slaves, nobles and commoners, wealthy plutocrats and sharecroppers? Plato believed that some men were born with souls of gold, while others had souls of silver or bronze. Rousseau believed that our innate inequalities were limited to strength, intelligence, and dexterity. If man was born free, he asked, why do we see him everywhere in chains? The story begins some 120,000 to 60,000 years ago, when our hunter-gatherer ancestors spread from their African homeland into the Near East, Europe, and Asia. Thirty thousand years ago they had eliminated the Neanderthals, their most closely related competitors. Taking advantage of lower Ice Age sea levels, they colonized Australia and crossed the Bering Straits to America.

Anthropological studies reveal that hunter-gatherers usually work hard to keep their society egalitarian. Typical of their social logic is the premise that generosity is a virtue, while hoarding is selfish. Gifts build social networks and should be reciprocated.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the archaeological record of the late Ice Age shows few hints of a social hierarchy. It appears, however, that some Ice Age societies – for example, the mammoth hunters of the Great Russian plain – lived in large multifamily groups who probably believed that they were related by common descent.
Living in large descent groups changed the social logic of some hunter-gatherers. It created an “us vs. them” mentality, converting conflict from individual homicide to intergroup raiding. In addition, the obligation to treat all individuals as equals did not necessarily extend to individuals in rival multifamily groups. Ethnocentricity was endemic among our ancestors, and many descent groups believed themselves more generous (and hence more virtuous) than their neighbors. The germ of inequality can be seen in this informal “hierarchy of virtue.”

Perhaps the most dramatic change in social logic took place some 7000 years ago in the watersheds of the Euphrates, Nile, and Tigris. It involved acceptance of the premise that some families belonged to a natural aristocracy, whose privileges flowed from the spirit world and could be inherited by their offspring. Near Samarra on the Tigris, Iraqi archaeologists discovered children buried with alabaster statuettes. At sites west of Mosul, other children lay buried with stone maceheads, necklaces of volcanic glass, and elegant stone goblets. Since none had lived long enough to earn such valuables, their social status must have been inherited.

Something similar happened 3000 years ago in Mexico’s Oaxaca Valley. The valley’s population tripled, with 50 percent of its citizens concentrated in one chiefly village. Families of high rank artificially deformed their children’s heads to make their aristocracy clear, and when their heirs died young, they were buried with objects carved to reflect their supernatural connections. At one cemetery, about 13 percent of adult men were given special bundle burials; there were hints that some of these high-ranking men were polygamous, since several were accompanied by the exhumed and reburied remains of multiple women.

Anthropologists have pointed out several routes by which ambitious families can achieve aristocracy. In some societies, emerging wealth and power are attributed to an innate surplus of supernatural life-force. In others, one highly motivated descent group co-opts ritual and political roles, until it becomes the only group from which leaders are recruited. In still others, aggression and valor in combat imbue emerging male leaders with an aura of supernatural invulnerability.

One of the most widespread means of creating inequality, however, was debt slavery. Under certain conditions, the premise that gifts must be reciprocated could be extended as follows: since your group finds itself unable to reciprocate my group’s generosity, we can oblige you to work off your debt as servants.
One thousand years ago on British Columbia’s Fraser Plateau, there came a time when small, economically vulnerable households seem to have been absorbed into larger and more successful households, perhaps in menial roles. By the time European eyewitnesses reached the British Columbia coast, they found Native American societies whose large plank houses had separate areas for hereditary nobles, commoners, and slaves.

To be sure, the commoners in many traditional societies resisted inequality any way they could. The Kachin of Myanmar and the Angami Naga of India’s Assam region oscillated between equality and inequality for years, periodically overthrowing their hereditary leaders. Even during periods when chiefly families ruled Angami villages, there were blood feuds between high-ranking brothers and cousins.

Under certain conditions, such elite competition could lead to the creation of a kingdom. After centuries of conflict among rival chiefs, one rival might gain an advantage that allowed him to subdue the others. His victories converted the losers’ territories into the provinces of a larger political unit, elevating the victor from chief to king. European eyewitnesses saw this process take place among the historic Hawaiians, the Zulu, the Asante of Ghana, and the Merina of Madagascar.

Now that archaeologists know what to look for, they can see that the first kingdoms in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Mexico, the Maya region, and the Andes arose in similar ways. The end product was usually a class- or caste-based society in which nobles and commoners played by different rules.

Not every ancient society, however, allowed inequality to emerge. Some worked out socially acceptable ways for talented people to achieve positions of prestige, while still preventing the creation of hereditary nobles. These societies balanced personal ambition with the public good, and a frequent outcome was long-term stability in the archaeological record.

We can point to many Native American cases. The Tewa of New Mexico, for example, allowed certain individuals to become “Made People” by working their way up through eight ritual societies, each requiring demonstrations of civic leadership. The Mandan of North Dakota ascended a ladder of ritual societies, eleven for men and seven for women. Even society’s most respected leader, however, could not refuse to share his accumulated valuables with his kin.
In the course of our study, we discovered that most egalitarian societies displayed striking tolerance. Nowhere was this clearer than in the diversity of “traditional” marriage arrangements, six or seven types in North America alone. For the Eskimo of central and eastern Canada, marriage could involve one man and one woman; one man and two women; one woman and two men; or a foursome in which two hunters became lifelong partners and shared their wives.

Many Plains Indians based their life plan on a vision from the spirit world. Some men took one wife, others two. The visions of some young men, however, foretold that they would dress and live as women. Called “two-spirit” people, these men were seen as having close ties to the spirit world, and might become the second wife in a polygamous marriage. Perhaps 100 Native American societies had such transgendered men, and a third as many had women who dressed and lived as men. Some of the latter, known as “manly-hearted” women, set up housekeeping with another woman.

In these societies (unlike today’s predjudiced-riddled western equivalents – Ed) both transgendered individuals and same-sex marriages were accepted as part of nature’s plan. Neither was seen as threatening to monogamy or the institution of the family. This contrasts with some of the more stratified and authoritarian ancient kingdoms, whose governments intervened in commoners’ lives. Nobles in Mesopotamia’s Sumerian state were allowed to practice polygamy, but a cuneiform tablet from the ancient city of Lagash suggests that commoner women who tried it would be stoned.

Like Rousseau before us, we found no evidence that royalty or oligarchy were supported by Natural Law. Our ancestors simply created them by changing the logic of society one premise at a time. Over the course of millennia, the simple ethnocentrism of Stone Age society escalated to encompass the intolerance, ethnic cleansing, and aggressive nation-building we see in today’s world.

We were impressed, however, by the number of societies that had chosen a different path. At a crucial point in their development, they returned to an earlier social logic and reduced inequality. What often resulted was a society with no one of aristocratic birth, no vast accumulations of wealth, and no bequeathing of privilege to undeserving children. Its principal hierarchy was one of virtue, and it was led by individuals who, for the most part, gave generously while asking only for respect.