Before government, we lived in self-sufficient, self-regulating small bands.

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There are now 23 comments... what are your thoughts?
    • A pdf of that article with the figures and tables can be found here. But I find it less than compelling. If you ask me, Kanazawa tends to write so as to support his own daydreams, which can be alarmingly racist, and his conclusions strike me as neither rigorously tested nor substantially supported.

      His conclusions about polygamy in this article (more gratuitous than germane) are based on data from 20th-Century tribal cultures, which are actually a much more recent social structure, having more in common with classical Greeks than with the paleolithic band-level society. (We’ll be touching on that in the page after this one, btw.) And he analogizes from what he’s read about the social structures of gibbons and gorillas, which aren’t all that analogous to human social structure. Primates do not all share the same social patterns. If he was going to go down that road, he should instead have looked at the much more closely-related fission-fusion social structure of chimpanzees.

      There is a lot of fascinating research in this area lately, and I highly recommend hitting up Google Scholar to see what’s out there. I’m personally biased towards what’s being done in neuroscience, genomics, and anthropology, but it’s a truly interdisciplinary study with valuable input from all over.

      • “His conclusions about polygamy in this article (more gratuitous than germane) are based on data from 20th-Century tribal cultures, which are actually a much more recent social structure, having more in common with classical Greeks than with the paleolithic band-level society.” It actually is Germane, unfortunately for Kanazawa. If sexual exclusivity was the norm for both men and women in human pre-history, then having multiple wives at the same time is the evolutionary novel behavior. So it should be smart men who are more likely to have multiple mates at the same time. Not the other way around, like his data showed.

    • Speaking as a Liberal, I think that title already displays why Kanazawa’s words probably can’t be trusted, the title of that study SCREAMS biased.

  1. Kevin says

    It is funny to think about the elaborate sets of rules we build in an attempt to get the consensus small bands have. Sadly, the fight over limited resources are one of the roots of politics. Functionally Infinite land to expand into held that off for a long time. But at the end of the day we all just want things to work and to have some say in the things that matter to us specifically.

  2. jb says

    A book recommendation: The Old Way, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.Thomas lived with the Kalahari bushmen in the 1950’s, when they were still almost entirely unfamiliar with outsiders, and she makes a compelling argument that, of all known primitive peoples, the bushman way of life is the closest to the life our ancestors evolved to live over hundreds of thousands of years.

    What she has to say is similar in a lot of ways to how you have it here, but there are differences. For example, while marriages could dissolve, they often lasted a lifetime, and while they lasted they were taken quite seriously. The murder rate, while low compared to most known hunter-gatherer societies, would still have been considered seriously high in the modern West, and most of the violence involved jealous men killing other men over women. And while adults were always willing to keep an eye on other people’s children, they always retained a special bond with their own. But yes, the bushmen were almost militant about sharing and consensus and nobody being better than anybody else. Chimpanzee societies are ruled by cliques of bullies, but to paraphrase Robert Heinlein, a society where everybody has spears and poison arrows is a polite society.

    Thomas of course goes into far greater detail than I can possibly do here, and since you are interested in this sort of thing I strongly recommend the book.

  3. Mischugenah says

    I’ll admit the lack of social structure and egalitarian-ness are the hardest for me to wrap my mind around. The desire for power and control over others seems to be innate to our nature– have you ever watched a toddler trying to order their parents around? How would these bands avoid the strongest person just deciding they were in charge now?

    • I’m possibly anticipating Nathan’s next page, but as I suggested in my previous comment, the simple answer is that in a small society where everyone has access to weapons, bullies get killed.

      This even happens with chimpanzees sometimes, but people have language, and they can keep track of grievances and organize retaliation, so everybody wants to be liked. But the underlying hierarchical primate instincts are still there, waiting to reemerge if conditions change. One complaint I have with the comic above is that it makes band life look idyllic and effortless. But in reality there is always a fair amount of social anxiety, and norms such as sharing have to be enforced through bickering, gossip, and shaming. So the egalitarianism of hunter-gatherers is fragile, and doesn’t necessarily survive the transition to larger scale societies.

  4. mstone says

    I do look forward to seeing the next page.

    The past couple of pages have shown a pattern I’ve noticed in Utopian writings: “if we postulate the absence of opposing interests that could lead to serious conflict, and assume any situation which could lead to serious conflict can be avoided peacefully, humans self-regulate beautifully.”

    In contrast to that, and relevant to the time under discussion, I’d juxtapose osteological evidence from the human remains known as ‘Naia’ found in a subterranean cave in the Yucatan: the bones in her arm had been broken while she was alive, and the pattern of the injury is consistent with her arm being twisted behind her back. The remains are more than 12,000 years old, placing her lifetime before the development of modern social structures.

    Obviously the existence of such an injury doesn’t prove she was the victim of violence from another human, but suggests that such violence was at least possible. To feel comfortable excluding the possibility of such violence, I’d like to see an argument stronger than, “that just didn’t happen.”

    More generally, I’d like to see an argument that addresses the problem of information lag: acting in concert requires shared knowledge and consensus about what to do. It takes time to communicate, and more time to establish a consensus. Each person is exposed to a unique stream of experiences, and each has a unique stream of wants and needs. Even assuming people fundamentally want to work to advance everyone’s best interests, life happens faster than people can communicate and establish consensus.

    If we accept the possibility of short-term lack of knowledge/consensus, and the possibility that those can lead people to make incorrect decisions about what’s good for, or at least harmless to, other people, the problem of natural/emergent self-regulation becomes more difficult to solve.

    I realize social systems evolve, and that the most pathological forms will die out quickly, but I also know evolution can be harsh to individuals over the short term.

  5. David Argall says

    As others have said, you do have a tendency to treat as certain what is at best probable and at times what is just someone’s clever guess. A couple of points…
    Polygamy was likely less common in the good old days, but it was far from absent. The genetic “Eve” lived about 100,000 years before “Adam” [150,000 BC vs 50,000 BC as I recall], which is easiest to explain by assuming the ancient males were about as willing as their modern kin to jump anything that would hold still, and not limit themselves to one lass.
    The idea that marriages would break up when the child was 4 or so is probably just wrong. The more modern marriage often breaks up after that age because there is no child and the couple tries for better luck with different partners [usually without realizing the lack of a child is why one is getting bored with the old partner.]
    Also, nursing until age 4 may be a response to a full world. While there is lots of room, producing lots of kids is likely a better reproductive strategy. But once there was no longer new places for the tribe to move to, concentrating on a few superior children is likely better.

  6. Gregory Bogosian says

    In modern hunter-gatherer societies, sharing is selective. People share more with people who share with them than with those who don’t. In times of scarcity, sharing can stop all together. Either modern hunter-gatherers are different from our ancestors in this respect. Or sharing wasn’t as ubiquitous as you make it sound. (Link).

    • I think I’ve touched on this already, but modern hunter-gatherers are MODERN people living in a very different world, and it is a mistake to draw too many conclusions about paleolithic people from them. For one thing, modern hunter-gatherers tend to be tribal peoples, a way of life that wouldn’t be invented for tens of thousands of years. Their social environment and other realities are also significantly different. Differences pertinent to this discussion actually get mentioned in my outline for the next two pages, so I hope to flesh it out at least a bit.

  7. jb says

    It’s true that modern hunter-gatherers are, by definition, modern (which means in most cases that they have some level of contact with other more advanced peoples), and that most (but not all!) are tribal. But still, what else do we have? The archeological record doesn’t have much to say about the culture of our pre-Neolithic ancestors, so we really have only two sources of information about their way of life: extrapolation from the lives of modern hunter-gatherers; and hand waving speculation. I would weight the former more heavily than the latter!

  8. Gregory Bogosian says

    The point of polygamy isn’t so much economics as it is parasite mitigation. So our paleolithic ancestors would have been polygamous if they were at serious parasite risk. [link]

  9. JS says

    You commented the following passage to the previous comic:

    > I would caution, however, against concluding that we were able to speak with Neanderthals and Denisovans simply because we interbred with them. Archaic species don’t require words to have sex, and neither do humans. (Language can make it oh so much more enjoyable, but it’s not a prerequisite.) Archaic DNA isn’t found in the Y chromosome very much. That could indicate that Neanderthal males couldn’t produce viable offspring with Sapiens females. It could also indicate that choosy Sapiens females weren’t opting to mate with less-to-offer archaics, while male Sapiens were less discriminate in where they sowed their wild oats. The latter is plausible in any primate species, and the former certainly becomes more likely as the species diverged. If language had any role to play in the mixing of our species, I’d glibly propose it was the LACK of Neanderthals’ ability to whisper sweet nothings that played a role, rather than their having such an ability.

    Whereas in this comic, you write:

    > But [Neanderthals, Denisovans, and other archaic human species] 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).

    These seem to be directly contradictory? Which is in error?

  10. JS says

    On another topic to my previous comment, you claim that (all?) modern hunter-gatherers live a relatively modern life, more tribal than the egalitarian band-based described here. But at least National Geographic Magazine’s article on the Hadza ([link], not coincidentally one of my favourite articles I’ve ever read from it) in my opinion resemble the described band-based social structure very closely. They Hadza do have some collective identity and a shared language across neighbouring bands, but I would wager that the former is at least partially imposed on them from the outside (“those hunter-gatherer people in that area, we call them Hadza”), and has little effect on their usual life, and a shared language by bands inhabiting the same region is hardly surprising. On the other hand, their way of life is described as being free to come and go from the band, they hunt some prey alone but all the men group up for other kinds, like baboons, they share each kill among the whole band (the size of the band is mentioned as being limited by how many people a single medium-size food animal can feed). They also have basically no hierarchy, excepting increased respect to the senior members of the band, but not really a “chief” or such. The Hadza also generally practice serial monogamy, with few exceptions (one being the patriarch in the band NGM’s reporter stayed with, who had been with his “wife” their entire adult lives).

    Of course, it’s still credible and likely that most modern hunter-gatherers differ from this model more, including the Bushmen someone else commented on, with their more long-term pair-bonding and the jealousy and violence that causes, but there do seem to be at least some examples that have maintained the band-based model too.

  11. Kereth Midknight says

    Lest we go overstating the probable egalitarianism of ancient societies, bear in mind that many of the cognitive prerequisites described above only occur in other mammals with unstable social hierarchies (rats and chimps). While it may have been nothing quite as complex as formal government, things like laughter and embarrassment probably did not appear outside of a context in which there was some notion of social standing. Some members of the band were more likely important and more respected than others.

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