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How Equality Slipped Away

Anthropologists estimate that humans have been around for about 300,000 years. For about 290,000 of those years, there was relative equality in status for everyone. Sure, these small hunter-gatherer groups listened to the wisdom of elders and made allowances for children, but they didn't have chiefs or rulers or wealthy people that bossed the rest around. It didn't take all that long for human society to separate people into the haves and the have-nots, whether we are talking about wealth, power, or status. So what happened?

There are two developments in mobile forager cultures that tend to set the stage for the establishment of inequality. One such scaffold to inequality was the emergence of clan structure. Clans have a strong corporate identity, built around real or mythical genealogical connection, reinforced by demanding initiation rites and intense collective activities. They become central to an individual’s social identity. Individuals see themselves, and are seen by others, primarily through their clan identity. They expect and get social support mostly within their clan, as the anthropologist Raymond C Kelly writes in Warless Societies and the Origin of War (2000). Once storage and farming emerged, incipient elites used clan membership to mobilise social and material support.

The second development was the emergence of a quasi-elite based on the control of information, which created a hierarchy of prestige and esteem, rather than wealth and power. This was originally based on subsistence skills. Forager life depends on very high levels of expertise in navigation, tracking, plant identification, animal behaviour, and artisan skills. The genuinely expert attract deference and respect in return for generously sharing their knowledge, as the evolutionary biologist Joseph Henrich argues in The Secret of Our Success (2015). As the social anthropologist Jerome Lewis has shown, this economy of information can include story and music, and the same can be true of its ritual and normative life. Indeed, there might be a fusion of ritual with subsistence information, if ritual narratives are used as a vehicle for encoding important but rarely used spatial and navigational information. There’s some suggestion of this fusion in Australian Aboriginal songlines, and the idea is expanded from Australia and defended in detail by the orality scholar Lynne Kelly in Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies (2015). So there can be expertise and deference not just in subsistence skills, but also with regards to religion and ritual.

So the elites tended to rise based on who you know or what you know. But none of that would have led to the world we live in if it weren't for one crucial development: agriculture. Read how these forces came together to produce stratified societies at Aeon. -via Damn Interesting

(Image credit: David Hawgood)


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I'm no an Anthropologist and I don't play one on TV. But from what I have seen on nature shows it seems like just about all animals have equality issues. Apes have a boss ape and kill other apes' kids. Same kind of thing for lions and tigers. I don't understand how anthropologists can say with any certainty that humans are the one group of animals that don't develop a hierarchy until they figure out how to store grain. Now if the story was - we have had equality issues for 1 million years and it got way worse when we figured out how to store grain... OK, that I can buy.
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