Digression: Government from the Paleolithic to Philadelphia
Page 54: Band-Level Society
This, then, was our true state of nature… how we lived for tens of thousands of years, almost all of human history. No kingdoms, no towns, no farms… No “peoples” or tribes or clans… Those narratives wouldn’t be told until fairly recently. Until then, we organized in simple
Band family walking along grassland.
of anywhere from 50 to 150 people.
Lone group in a vast desert plain.
Each band would have been entirely self-sufficient…
As if we have any choice!
Who else are we gonna rely on?
Cave art of a hunt.
Living off the land, foraging for whatever fruits and veg were in season, catching fish and small game…
CAVE ART CHEERLEADER
Hunting big game, too!
Communal campfire with a chef roasting something.
…and naturally, sharing everything.
Selfishness is not a survival skill.
One for all, and all for one!
This is my family. The people who’ve loved and cared for me since the moment I was born.
Whoa… it’s difficult to even think of myself as a distinct individual. My identity is “we” not “me”.
Loving family group
I imagine they couldn’t have had much privacy…
Be… apart? From… we?
Why would anyone do that?
(Not much loneliness, either.)
Oh yes, give me more stuff to lug around from campfire to campfire.
Who’d want to be burdened by belongings?
Hunter at the cookout.
Anyway, what stuff we do have we share.
For example, I killed that deer…
But it’s our deer, not mine.
That doesn’t feel unfair to me — providing for us all feels awesome!
People in wide open nature.
They certainly hadn’t come up with a narrative like real estate.
Own… the land?
Next you’ll say we can own the sea or the stars.
Dumbest think I ever heard.
People camped in winter near volcanic lake.
That makes sense, as (with rare exceptions) stone-age humans were nomadic. Always on the move, foraging for food within a “home territory” that could be dozens or hundreds of square miles in size (depending on the local terrain).
Should we move camp with the next sunrise? Or the next season?
Who can say? Nothing’s written in stone! (Ha ha! Get it?)
Nope. What’s “written?”
Fishing village huts on stilts.
(Those who found a spot with plentiful year-round resources might settle down in semi-permanent camps.)
Map of human migration
Bands couldn’t grow much bigger than 150 people. In groups larger than that, we simply can’t know everyone intimately, and cooperation breaks down. At normal population growth rates, a new band would probably bud off every 40 years on average. At that rate, if a new band simply strolled to a new territory just over the horizon, humans could have spread from Sinai to Sichuan in only 10,000 years.
Which is what we did!
MULTIPLE MIGRATIONS There wasn’t one single march across the globe. Several waves eventually filled Europe by about 45,000 years ago.
OUT OF AFRICA 70,000 – 60,000 years ago (after an ice age peak that nearly wiped us out.)
FIRST EXPLORERS crossed to Yemen, and were living in Australia by 50,000 years ago.
SECOND WAVE One migration reached the Levant 60,000 years ago, and was populating China by 50,000 years ago.
TRAFFIC JAM Impassable glaciers in the Yukon blocked the Americas until a big melt, whereupon we flooded south, reaching the Andes 14,000 years ago.
INTERBREEDING Along the way, we mostly displaced the Neanderthals, Denisovans, and other archaic human species. They were all extinct by 45,000 years ago. But they weren’t opposed to having sex with us. Depending on where you’re from, you probably have a little archaic DNA. (But only from archaic males, it seems. Our mitochondrial DNA, inherited from mothers only, is strictly sapiens.)
SIS AND AVERAGE JOE
Before we get to how we governed ourselves, a few caveats are in order:
First, we had no one single way of life.
Millions of us had filled every environment, throughout every continent except Antarctica.
Customs may not have varied much from one band to the next, but globally we must have had hundreds of distinct languages and cultures, if not thousands.
If modern experience is any guide, local norms, narratives, and taboos probably varied more than the geography.
But we can’t draw too much analogy to modern ways of life. How modern humans think — even modern hunter-gatherers — would be utterly alien to our ancestors in Paleolithic band society.
We live in a world of our own making, and we’ve been making it very different in the most recent five or ten thousand years.
And tribal society is one of those recent inventions. Contrary to popular belief, tribal ways are not our default state of nature.
Also, it would be a mistake to paint too rosy a picture. This wasn’t a perfect Eden by any stretch of the imagination.
Nature is harsh! Even a minor accident could’ve killed you.
Plus, everywhere we went, animals rapidly went extinct — it’s estimated that half of all large species died out during this period.
We either hunted them to extinction, or they couldn’t adapt to the havoc we wreaked on the ecosystem.
And as for our own handicapped or infirm?
We weren’t demons. but we weren’t angels, either. We were just human.
Oh, ignore those little things, dear. I’m sure they’re harmless.
People crossing a creek across a log.
So how was band society structured?
Life was fluid, not fixed.
You could come, you could go…
You could off in a temporary party, rejoin later…
Whatever you did, it was up to you.
Warning label: The Surgeon General has determined that this image may cause diabetes and/or nausea, and has deleted it in the interests of public health.
But that said, the members of a band were generally family members who knew each other intimately.
You spent your life surrounded by people you loved, who loved you, and who were 100% on your team.
Family hiking, singing “The Bear Went over the Mountain”
You were all tightly bonded by a lifetime of shared experiences, shared dangers, shared secrets… walking together, working together, eating together… doing practically everything together… It instilled a sense of unity, that you were all one.
We found solidarity in synchrony.
Teen girls, and teen boys.
You were family, but not the independent entity we think of as “the family.” Family, kinship, lineage, bloodline… those were more narratives we wouldn’t need to invent for a while.
Your family was these people — right here, right now.
And when we girls hit our teens, we get the urge to move out! And find adventure!!
…in a new band!!!
One where the boys aren’t our brothers?
If you make a “boy band” joke, so help me…
We boys, on the other hand, tend to stay with the band we’re born into.
At puberty, our brains dump tons of risk-aversion!
And good judgment.
(Oh hush, Dad) We can’t hide behind Mommy’s skirts any more. We’ll be joining the adults in protecting this band. We gotta start getting some skills!
“Three is a magic number” family.
The modern “nuclear family” wasn’t a natural unit of society. Even marriage wouldn’t be invented for quite some time.
Instead, our biology seems to be set up for “serial monogamy.”
I’ll probably breastfeed this little girl until she’s around four years old.
Until then, my hormones will suppress ovulation, so I likely won’t have another baby in the meantime.
During that time, she’ll be in almost constant contact with another human. If she were to be my herself, her hormones will make her suffer great distress!
We’ll stay together while she’s a baby.
My hormones kick in, too, and I’ll have a strong drive to care for them both during these early years.
Couple waving to small child being welcomed by the whole band.
Once kids are no longer toddlers, the whole band shares the job of raising all the children…
Yeah! It takes a village to raise a child.
What’s a “village”?
Dad and Mom embracing new partners.
…Which is not only great for the kids, but it also frees us to move on to new partners, if we so desire.
That’s good for genetic diversity in our smallish population!
(And no pressure to remain in bad relationships? That’s good for everybody else’s sanity)
[Coincidentally, most divorces nowadays come after 4 years of marriage, and during peak child-bearing years.]
Couple with “what’s wrong with you?” body language.
MAN AND WOMAN
Care for multiple “wives” and infants at the same time? One is plenty, thanks!
Share a “husband”? So I only get half of his help raising my baby? Are you out of your mind?
Since everybody shares everything else, it’s not like I’d need to attach myself to a better provider.
And with no social hierarchy, I’m not looking to “marry up.”
No “up” to marry into!
Hang on, what was that about “no social hierarchy”?
We’re still talking about people, right?
That’s an important point: Compared to our modern world, early human society was astonishingly
Nobody could have had higher rank or privilege.
No chiefs, no commoners. No wealthy, no workers.
No priests, peasants, or slaves.
Man, woman, warrior, elderly person, all equals
Fisherman with string of fish and a shark on the end
I may be the best at catching fish (and telling fish stories), but that doesn’t make me better than anybody else.
It can be hard for use to think this way now, but being equals couldn’t have been about you.
Equality isn’t something I’m entitled to.
It’s not about me deserving the same treatment as her.
MOM WITH TANTRUM TODDLER
Our equality is the absence of entitlements. Each of us has our own free will, our own “agency.”
Giving orders? Or insisting that others treat me a certain way? That would mean putting my interests above their agency.
That’s the opposite of cooperation.
Not a survival skill.
More stick figures.
So they couldn’t have had any conception of individual rights. After all, you don’t need protection from powers-that-be restricting your freedom when such powers don’t exist.
Nobody has the “right” to free speech. We just speak freely.
And you’re not entitled to be treated other than how people decide to treat you.
GUY EATING DRUMSTICK
So nobody has the “right” to be given a share of the food. We just, y’know… share.
GUY WITH CLUB
You don’t even have a “right” to life. We don’t have to protect you if you give us good reason not to.
Group of people getting ready to move out.
When it comes to politics, then, it should be no surprise that important decisions could only have been reached by consensus.
As equals, nobody had the power to command you to do anything against your will (and using force to compel you would have been intolerably uncooperative). Which also means that a democratic majority vote could never work! Because that means forcing minority voters to do what the majority wanted. Not an option.
Politics therefore meant finding solutions that everyone would freely consent to.
“Consent” doesn’t necessarily mean I want to do this. It doesn’t even mean I prefer this option.
Don’t confuse “consent” with “affirmative agreement.”
GIRL HEFTING A SACK
All it means is we don’t actively oppose the idea.
It’s the difference between saying “fine… whatever…” and “heck yeah!”
Sure, I may feel social pressure to go along with the decision.
But what I do is still up to me. Nobody took away my freedom to say “no.” Nobody forced me to come along against my will.
All right, let’s get a move on.
New band budding off
If a disagreement was big enough, nobody was stopping your side from splitting off and going your own way as a new band.
No hard feelings!
Of course not!
It’d take more than this to undo a lifetime of love and affection.
Not to mention, it’s hard for conflict to escalate when you can move away instead.
Traders on a boat visiting people by a river.
As equals, you’d expect that every adult would have had an equal voice in group decisions.
Hey, if I have to live with the consequences, then you’re damn right I’ve got a say in what happens!
That goes without saying.
I’m only here to trade with your band (check out these shells!) but I say you ought to-
No offense, but who asked you?
No skin in our game? No say in how we play it.
[Being self-sufficient and all that, trade between bands would have been minimal. But there’s evidence that tools, weapons, and trinkets got traded across long distances.]
Hunters driving caribou off a cliff into waiting archers.
Cooperation between bands was probably routine, albeit temporary.
We can go a while without seeing anyone but our own band, but we can usually rely on our neighbors if need be.
Um, whose idea was it to stand here?
They are our friends and cousins. Their women are our daughters and sisters.
We face similar challenges, share similar cultures.
So we can double or triple our numbers for a common purpose, like a big hunt or celebration.
But large numbers of people are unwieldy.
Once we’ve done what we joined up to do, we’ll dis-band back into our self-sufficient, self-regulating bands.