The Origin of Hierarchical Societies

The establishment of agricultural dominance in the economy led to the decrease of ecological dependence of evolving communities on the environment. Under these conditions, preservation of the previous diversity of blood and kinship relations was impossible, and the earliest civilized societies, which had similarly productive economy, had to adopt similar blood and kinship relations, and social structures in general. Representatives of early civilizations lived in permanent towns, the structure of which served as a means to regulate their lives. Settled urban communities differed from the primitive village communities by a great limitation of their choice of action, which was almost entirely dictated by the structure of urban lifestyle (Ames, 2007). The early bearers of civilization differed from the primitive communal societies predisposed to migration by the fact that their urban lifestyle in some ways resembled living in captivity (in fact, in the conditions of limiting the freedom of choice: binding to the same place, repetitive activities, degradation of stereotyped behavior associated with hunting and gathering) and “outright punitive conditions” (Braun, 1995, p. 95).

It is known from the observations of primates, that they consider any restriction of their freedom-totally regardless of the presence of food-as an unproductive desert habitat, and start behaving in accordance with John Crook’s law, i.e. begin to compete for food (despite the fact that there is enough food for everyone) and form the patrilineal hierarchical structures of society. Primates, in this case, are responding due the lack of a permanent free access to sources of food, which is really equivalent to the conditions of low productivity habitat, or habitat in which access to food is limited by predators (for example, the baboons is in savanna).

Human behavior during the transition to life in the early cities faced a similar problem and it is considered that the typical blood and kinship relations in an urban civilization would be patrilineal, and city social structure would gain hierarchical features. That is exactly what happened in early civilizations. In everyday life, in Egypt, Sumer and Elam, matriliny was eliminated (if its existence is admitted, for example, in Elam). Besides, history does not know any matriarchal civilization. In addition, the social organization of civilized societies became quite hierarchical and focused on transformation into a class society.

At first glance it might seem that the hierarchical structure of early civilized society was a successful invention to regulate the economic and general social relations. Such function of a hierarchical social structure actually existed, but the explanation of the genesis of the social hierarchy due to these needs is unhistorical. In fact, there is no evidence to suggest that the hierarchy social organization is the innovation of a civilized era, since there are analogues of the elementary units of the hierarchical community in primates in habitats where food production is complicated by the presence of predators and in captivity. Consequently, the primitive people in the relevant environmental conditions could develop early hierarchical organization even before civilization.

In order that aggregative hierarchical groups of human ancestors could benefit from a more or less peaceful coexistence with a reasonable restriction of competition, a biological distribution of innate ability to lead had to develop, so that the number of leaders was somewhat larger than the number of groups (a small surplus provides an advantageous evolutionary competition to identify the strongest and most able ones).

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This means that most of the males were deprived of the ability to lead, but not entirely. This is normal for modern society as well. Those who are better able to obey retain some ability to lead. In situation without a leader, their group will not become a non-hierarchical group – a leader will appear among them. In other words: every soldier carries a marshal’s baton in his knapsack. This can be tested in rats or humans, anyway, because the flexible nature of this long-developed principle has demonstrated its viability. The instinct of obedience is significantly represented in the character of most people, enabling them without too much pain to obey the leaders and to fulfill their social and biological function. If nature had not provided the majority of people with the instinct for obedience, the form of the hierarchical structure of society would be quite different, and entirely without this instinct there would be no society at all.

Stable hierarchical structures in society show that people inherited from ancestors the statistical distribution of innate parameters that characterize the capacity for leadership and obedience. For example, for thousands of years, the structure of the army units has been based on division of the mass army into groups of 10-15 people, which roughly corresponds to the number of groups in many primates.

The process of growth of the hierarchies beyond this average size was not developed by nature. Even when there is a herd of a larger size, it consists of small groups and is not under totalitarian control. It appears that the union of groups, tribes and nations improves survival. Since the hierarchical structure of large organizations was not developed by evolution, people had to come up with the structure themselves and learn how to manage such groups even when culture was just beginning to develop. Naturally, they took advantage of templates, prepared by evolution for small groups, and created a strong single hierarchy, despite the fact that these templates were not designed for large organizations.

An important feature of a hierarchical society is that everything unnatural for the society is maintained by violence. It’s a matter of fact, that a great deal of violence is needed to maintain stability of vast associations of people, such as empires. Apparently, people were forcibly compelled to strengthen their natural ability to obey.

A leader of a hierarchical society had to possess certain features. According to Eric Wolf (1999), they include the innate power of an individual (e.g., physical power or compelling personality) that allows direct interpersonal supremacy, (2) talent to impose one’s will through social relations, (3) tactical or organizational authority, and (4) structural power, attained via settings and domains, mainly the ability to organize and distribute energy flows and labor (p. 5).

Archaeologists can evaluate whether a ruler was successful or not by the analysis of burials, which play a significant role in archaeological methods for establishing the ranking of the ancient society. According to Kenneth Ames (2007), “an individual’s treatment at death will directly or indirectly reflect his or her status in life or that of the group, and so a burial population should reflect the status organization of the living, ancient society” (p. 490).

Thus, one of the main measures of high status and successfulness of the leader is the energy supplied in the mortuary ritual. For instance, the royal burial ground at Anyang, the last capital of the Shang dynasty of northern China (c. 1300 BC), consists of thirteen shaft tombs in a giant pit with a wooden tomb at the bottom. Near the graves there are 1,200 other vaults with the remains of people sacrificed during the mortuary ritual. This is a strong evidence of a successful ruler. Even after death he preserved control over labor (construction of the graves) and over the lives of people (human sacrifices). Other evidences may include not the mortuary rituals, but different colossal constructions (e.g. the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids, etc.). But tombs of the rulers possess the largest influence upon people. Example of it can be the legends accompanying the opening of Alexander the Great’s tomb, or the places of burial of Genghis Khan, Timur, etc.

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