The Sophistication Of Forager Societies

Posts on The Dawn Of Everything: Link
Posts on Pierre Bourdieu and Symbolic Violence: link
Posts trying to cope with the absurd state of political discourse: link
Posts on Freedom and Equality. link

Chapter 4 of The Dawn Of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow dispels myths about hunter-gatherer societies, the normal state for humans until the last few thousand years. The standard image is that these were small bands who roamed about looking for nuts and berries and killing small game. They were egalitarian in the sense that wealth and power were shared among all the mature members of the group. Then they discovered farming and began to develop civilization, hierarchies and bureaucracies.

Evidence of Sophistication

The authors have a more interesting story. For most of human history humans were foragers, hunter-gatherers. But they weren’t all roaming around. They lived in coastal plains, along rivers, and in fertile woodlands, mostly settled, but moving about from time to time. We don’t have any direct evidence of their lives or social structures, but we can speculate based on tools and other archaeological evidence.

We do know that they were travelers. There is evidence that some of them covered great distances at least once in a while to gather stones, shells, different foods. We also know they gathered together in relatively large numbers once or twice a year to build immense structures for unknown reasons. They transported huge stones over great distances,and moved enormous amounts of dirt in what had to be a coordinated effort That implies a lot more organization and planning than the simple-minded myth suggests.

One example I’ve actually seen is the Carnac Alignments, near Carnac in Brittany. Large stones were transported from far away and arranged in neat lines in increasing heights over about two kilometers from North to South. At the South end there is a circle of stones about 50 feet in diameter, each about 20 feet high, close together. Here’s a blog post by my fellow traveler with lots of pictures and description. There are similar sites all across Europe. No one has a clue why our ancestors thought doing this was a good idea.

Forager societies built enormous earthworks at sites around the world. One of the largest is at Poverty Point, Louisiana. There are a number of very large mounds, the significance of which is unclear. The authors think the construction relied on sophisticated geometrical knowledge. There are somewhat similar mound sites in Ohio.

Hunter-Gatherer Egalitarianism

The authors think we can gain insight into these early cultures by looking at ethnographic studies dating back to the earliest European newcomers, as well as studies of African, Australian and other forager societies that persisted into the 20th C.

The usual story about forager societies is that they are egalitarian in most respects. One theory is the simple idea that there is no property so everyone is equal. This ties neatly into the rest of the standard story of the evolution that Brought human beings to the present. Before farming was invented, it was very difficult to create the kinds of surpluses of material goods and food considered necessary for a complex society.

That doesn’t explain how our ancestors journeyed across the US Southeast to build those enormous mounds at Poverty Point. They must have been able to feed themselves, even without organized farming. Similarly, how did the Carnac culture get the food and shelter needed for the transport and construction of their site? Obviously there was enough food and material for shelter during travel and construction and return travel.

There was also some kind of organization sufficient to keep the construction going. It may not have been run by authoritarians. Perhaps it was consensual, or short-term hierarchies were created. We don’t know. But it’s a lot more than we attribute to forager societies in the usual telling.

Another idea about egalitarianism is that people insisted on personal autonomy.

What matters to Montagnais-Naskapi women, for instance, is not so much whether men and women are seen to be of equal status but whether women are, individually or collectively, able to live their lives and make their own decisions without male interference. P. 130.

This is egalitarian in the sense of personal liberty, personal freedom. It begins with the freedom from other people bossing one around.

Most people today also believe they live in free societies (indeed, they often insist that, politically at least, this is what is most important about their societies), but the freedoms which form the moral basis of a nation like the United States are, largely, formal freedoms. American citizens have the right to travel wherever they like – provided, of course, they have the money for transport and accommodation. They are from ever having to obey the arbitrary orders of superiors – unless, of course, they have to get a job. In this sense, it is almost possible to say the Wendat had play chiefs and real freedoms, while most of us today have to make do with real chiefs and play freedoms. P. 130-1; fn omitted.

The Origin Of Property Rights

At the end of Chapter 4, the authors offer a theory to explain the origin of private property. They say that our ancestors as far back as we know had only one type of property not shared in common: sacred objects and knowledge. These things are set apart from all others. In European culture private property is held against the whole world. No one is allowed to interfere with one’s ownership of private property. In that sense, the authors see a connection to the sacred.

…[W]e take this absolute, sacred quality in private property as a paradigm for all human rights and freedoms. ,,, Just as every man’s home is his castle, so your right not to be killed, tortured or arbitrarily imprisoned rests on the idea that you own your own body, just as you own your chattels and possessions, and legally have the right to exclude others from your land, or house, or car, and so on. P. 159; fn omitted.


1. I shortened the discussion of the sacred on the ground that ethnographic data won’t translate back to our distant ancestors. The fact is that I don’t think much of the connection between the sacred and private property.

2. The idea of autonomy seems fairly close to Elizabeth Anderson’s ideas of freedom, which I have discussed in several posts in this series; see also links above.

3. The authors are looking for an explanation of how we got stuck in the present set of hierarchical arrangements dominated by a small number of people.

Ruling classes are simply those who have organized society in such a way that they can extract the lion’s share of that surplus for themselves, whether through tribute, slavery, feudal dues or manipulating ostensibly free-market arrangements. P. 128.

They also observe that a strong sense of personal freedom, of personal autonomy, seems to be the dominant trait of most hunter-gatherer societies. So, another way of defining the “stuck” problem might be ask how we acquiesced to our loss of personal freedom.

I don’t think we can find an answer to the author’s question in their book. I think we need a broader look. I wrote several posts at FireDogLake about Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: here and here. I think these help us get at the problem.

Maybe we’re stuck beause the ruling classes benefit are focused on preventing change that might inconvenience them and have arranged social structures that make that easy for them.

37 replies
  1. RJB says:

    Most of the discussions of this book highlight the role of freedom in foraging societies. Do the authors also address the question of obligation? By this I mean: do they trace changes in views about the obligation one person has to another, or to society more broadly? In many modern societies, such obligations are quite limited, both by law and custom: we have obligations to care for children, to live up to some (but not all) of our promises, and to obey the law, but we don’t have obligations to help those in need, to be a good steward of the environment, etc. I imagine the small scale of forager societies makes such obligations loom much larger.

    • Ed Walker says:

      There isn’t an express discussion of obligation; that doesn’t seem to be a feature of these societies. Instead, they are structured without much emphasis on private property, so that material goods are distributed in accordance with group norms. As to obligations of service, it appears that everyone contributes to production of needed material goods.

      Knowledge seems to be shared as well, not just in the small group but in the larger context of the regular gatherings, where apparently information is shared among all the members of the larger groups.

      And just to be clear, this isn’t based on anything we actually know for certain about our distant ancestors, but on ethnographic studies and reports of European contacts with indigenous people in the Americas, Australia, Africa and Indonesia.

    • stancat says:

      The authors do give some treatment to the value ancient peoples placed on reciprocity and hospitality in contrast to the values of today. The personal freedom to leave one social group and look for another was dependent on the expectation that one would be welcomed upon arriving in a new place.

  2. MattyG says:

    Civilization has fed itself *inspite* of farming is another way to look at it. I’ve read that of all known forms of culture foragers spend the fewest hours in a day taking care of the essentials. Some 4 hours as compared to 12 or more for us moderns – and all the tireless running around just to have an hour or two off…

    All that liesure time. All those “stay at home” parents and familiy groups that grow together. All that time in the day to allow people to run and organize their own and their own groups life – rather than run themselves ragged every day collapsing in bed all to let some other person they don’t even know *really* manage their affairs.

    Farming and the culture that followed flourished because it sucked all the time out of the day to live for yourself. Well, those that were granted the free time floursihed at least.

  3. BobCon says:

    The stuck vs. unstuck issue is a nice way to look at human history because I think just about the biggest evolutionary development in the human mind was the gigantic leap in how unstuck it is.

    Contrary to what most (not all, to be fair) evolutionary psychologists propose, the human mind is remarkable for how few inherent behaviors we have. The path of human mental evolution is minimizing mental traits, not creating them, in order to maximize our adaptabilty and reliance on non-fixed thinking.

    I think it helps explain the tendency of a lot of evolutionary psychology to overlap with reactionary thinking because both are pretty desperate to make a case for the stuck quality of the human mind. Again, there are some evolutionary psychologists who shun the more deterministic mindset of the bulk of the field, but many aren’t much different from Charles Murray in declaring human brains somehow establish a certain type of order that is a stuck quality as opposed to arbitrary construction.

    • Ed Walker says:

      I think this is right. I’ve seen the cave art in the Dordogne Valley in France, and I am certain that these people were just like me (only much better artists). The sites are accurate, thoughtful, playful, inventive, and adapted to the materials at hand.

      The authors say that as soon as we were human we started doing human things. I think so too.

      • MattyG says:

        I agree with that as well. The emergence of cultural artifacts is a signal of like-brained people. So at minimum 50k BCE.

        I visted Cro Magnon cliff and cave dwellings in France as a kid too. This was back when those sorts of sites were still very (surprisingly) accessible – you just sort of wandered around with the occasional ankle high rope to deliniate areas. It was spectacular and left a mark on me to this day.

  4. Salishan says:

    An example of hunter-gatherers who were not travelers are the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest. The resources available were so plentiful that fixed village sites were inhabited for long periods of time by groups who communally “owned” the fishing and hunting sites. In some areas, resources were so abundant that feasts were held to raise the prestige of the chief, with great numbers of gifts given to the elite of other clans or tribes. Society was not egalitarian, as slaves were as much a part of village as the chiefs. Raiding for slaves, especially by the Haida, was a constant practice. The limited amount of time surviving hunter gatherer groups spend getting sustenance may attribute to the quality of their resource base; and also to their continued existence as hunter-gatherers.

  5. Bobster33 says:

    I tend to subscribe to Ken Wilber’s concept of orders of consciousness and evolution. In his Brief History of Everything, he speaks of mankind’s evolution from a second order construct of tribalism (level 2) to powerful dictator (level 3) to systemic control (religion/level 4) to rational (level 5). As humanity progressed from the basic tribal structure and began agriculture, humanity also progressed on an internal order of consciousness development. The external advancement of technology (agriculture) created an internal advancement of consciousness.

    Using Ken’s model, humanity begins at birth (level 1 survival mode) and progresses to higher levels. Not everyone progresses to more advanced levels. Progression requires the intellect and the time to develop the skill set of a higher level of consciousness. Trump supporters tend to be stuck in level 3 (power) or 4 (religion). People who hate Trump (level 5 and higher) often cannot understand why people fall for such idiots like Trump. Trump supporters do not have a sufficient skill set to rationally evaluate someone like Trump. Watch any Daily Show clip when they interview Trump supporters. You will see this in action.

    If we want to evolve to a higher level, we need time to develop the skill set, teachers to guide us and the resources to practice the skill set. Conversely the Republican party is in fact preventing higher levels of development because that keeps the status quo. By reducing the level of abundance in people, people have to work harder within the given system and have less time to advance to a higher skill set, less resources to practice the new skill set, etc.

    Ken’s frame work builds upon the framework of Maslow in Hierarchy of Needs and Beck’s Spiral Dynamics by showing there is both an internal development within individuals/society and an external advancement in societal development. And as an evolutionary progression, not all steps are a giant leap forward. There is always a reactionary group that tries to curtail that evolution. The fossil records provide numerous examples of what happens to those species that fail to advance.

    I now await Rayne’s wrath for exceeding 100 words.

    • Rayne says:

      First, I cut the comments under Ed’s posts slack for length provided they engage with the material and aren’t trolling or drivel. You did fine.

      Second, emergence isn’t even across a society but those at lower levels can be dragged forward and upward. It requires consciousness of this need and process, though, and there are not yet enough people as a percentage of the population who operate at that level to plan and implement such effort. We’re also at risk of being pulled backward; 9/11 was a particularly obvious example of people shocked back into their lower levels of emergence (i.e., down to Maslow’s physiological and safety/security levels from higher levels). 2020 Election and January 6 are also events which may reset levels along with the Russo-Ukraine war and its fallout.

      May I suggest Changes of Mind: A Holonomic Theory of the Evolution of Consciousness by Jenny Wade/SUNY? Wade cross-mapped different theories of consciousness while explaining each one individually. It’s been an effective translator for me between Cowan+Beck and Wilber as well as Jung.

      • Ewan says:

        Any recommendations for a very literary 12 year old? My daughter is very interested in psychology and philosophy. She reads all sorts of things. I think she would thoroughly enjoy reading accessible books on the topic at hand.

        • Rayne says:

          If she has polymathic interests, I’d offer what I read my own kids (both polymaths) — Jared Diamond’s ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ (1997) and ‘Collapse’ (2004). My kids loved Collapse which I read to them as a bedtime story of sorts (it’s what we did in the great white north where broadcast TV was limited to one channel and internet was nonexistent); they were 7 and 12 at the time. We still talk about it years later. But ‘Guns’ is better read first before ‘Collapse’ even if ‘Guns’ is meatier. If you offer these, caution her these texts and the author have been criticized; she should go into these with eyes open looking for faults with the logic. That’s part of the review process, and part of scientific process. Diamond posits theory and we should question it. New theory should be formulated and subjected to review. These texts are an excellent to that end and I think a smart tween can handle them.

          One other text I’d recommend in between these two which I believe a smart tween could handle: William Calvin’s ‘A Brain for All Seasons’ (2002). Looking back, it’s rather amazing how this small semi-epistolary tome sets up a reader for rethinking ‘Guns’ while preparing them for ‘Collapse’. At the time Calvin received less criticism about his theory of emergent brain size than his concerns about the breakdown of the Atlantic Ocean’s thermohaline circulation. If your daughter reads this text and does any research on the internet in tandem about the changes to the Atlantic ocean over the last 20 years, she’ll come to her own conclusions as to Calvin’s concerns.

          • SAO says:

            Guns, Germs and Steel is great to read with the Little House books. Wilder shows the micro view while Diamond the macro. The Little House in the Big Woods (Wisconsin) starts with their house being a day’s ride from the nearest neighbor and ends with the Ingalls leaving because all around you could hear the ringing of axes and the woods were thin of game. (I’m pretty sure fur was their source of cash).

            • Rayne says:

              Oh yeah. Little House parallels my mother’s family’s story – French who came to New France, became woodsmen, then farmers, then blue collar workers and business owners, and now scattered everywhere but no woodsmen or farmers left among them.

              ADDER: I forgot along with woodsmen there were family members who had the coureurs des bois concession to carry goods across what would become Canada and ferry furs back to the east coast for shipment to France. At least they left some woods and game behind north of the border before they emigrated to Michigan Territory and U.S. to become farmers.

            • Artemesia says:

              The thing I always take away from the Little House books is their unremitting sexism. Pa moves his family into difficult challenging frontier lands and builds a house and becomes part of a community but as soon as things are comfortable for his family he uproots them to do it again in a further wilderness. It was so punishing for his family to be constantly uprooted at his whims.

              • SAO says:

                Read the biography of Wilder. Pa basically failed over and over. That’s why they moved. That said, homesteading was hard and people didn’t get rich at it.

        • Epicurus says:

          Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann: she should try to understand where she is already hard-wired.

    • MattyG says:

      What are the time scales in Ken Wilbur’s model? Agricuture has existing as a mainstay for only a few thousand years – no earlier than the end of the last Ice Age – since the retreat of the ice sheets about 10-12,000 years ago. And that’s about the extent of civilization proper. But anatomically modern humans roamed at least 50,000 year before then, and earlier forbears have left evidence of culture 100,000’s before that. These foragers plied the land orders of magnitude longer than moderns. Do Wilbur’s categories stretch that deep into antiquity or do they reflect aspects of modern post Ice Age consciousness?

      I’ve found Davis Lewis-Williams books on ancient consciousness – like The Mind In The Cave – to be a very interesting look at the emergence of the human mind.

      • Bobster33 says:

        IIRC, Ken’s model begins at/around the agricultural revolution. One curious aspect is that Ken breaks the agricultural revolution into two parts, the horticultural and the machine based agriculture. In the horticultural aspect, agriculture was done by one person, one tool, one bag of seeds. In the second phase of the agricultural revolution, machinery (the plow) elevated the production levels. That second phase changed societies from men/women having nearly equal rights into patriarchal societies.

        Regardless, I have your book on my reading list.

    • stancat says:

      I think you will find that one of the authors’ main goals was specifically to attack the assumptions underlying the kind of models for describing human evolution that you describe.

  6. Padfoot says:

    Thanks, I just reserved downloadable audio version of book from my library. Sounds interesting.

  7. DrFunguy says:

    I suppose forager is a slight improvement on hunter gatherer for patronizing, colonialist anthropology-speak. Neither captures the widespread and sophisticated agriculture that was practiced around the world prior to european colonization. This is due to several factors: first, European colonizers had a narrow concept of agriculture (requiring e.g. plowed fields with crops in neat rows or something similar) and secondly, most anthropologists were/are male and they tend to discount women’s work which often included various kinds of cultivation in addition to foraging.
    For example, the colonizers of the area near what is now Victoria, BC, Canada failed to recognize the food production of the camas prairies that were managed for centuries for camas tubers and streambank clover. Wapato was cultivated in gardens on the banks of the Fraser 3800 years BP. Select berry plants were propagated in forest gardens, some persist if you know where to look. See Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge for a deep dive into west coast ethnobotany. Western science has an overly narrow view of agriculture which has led to a overly simplified notion of ‘progress’ from ‘hunter-gatherer’ to agrarian. We need to find ways to look at this that don’t rely on discounting the knowledge of First Nations and other outdated notions.
    Apologies for the slight tangent, I have said enough.

    • Ed Walker says:

      Greaber and Wengrow agree with you. Our ancestors were very clever about minimizing work, and were experts at encouraging the growth of the plants they wanted, as well as fish and shellfish.

      • Tom says:

        I imagine that had a lot to do with their generally subsistence level of existence when full bellies depended so much upon the luck of the hunt and vagaries in the weather as it affected their crops. They were forced to become efficiency experts and their apparently leisurely lifestyle may have become necessary in order to conserve calories.

      • DrFunguy says:

        Speaking of fish. I live near what can only be described as a monumental collection of fish traps. Over 1000 years old, hundreds of structures each on the order of 40 m long, line Comox Harbor, on the Salish Sea. Yet another example of prehistoric large scale food production systems, Until recently ignored by the archaeological community.

  8. Drew says:

    In my reading of Wengrow & Graeber, the gist of their argument was that there were MANY different ways that people organized themselves, among the foraging peoples as well as among agricultural peoples: some foragers were *very* hierarchical & others egalitarian.

    Also the place of sacral organization in societies & civilizations varied widely. Having a background both in religious studies and in theology [and the ability to explain the distinction until we’re all asleep] I see Graeber & Wengrow as having a very moderate view on this issue, neither satisfactory to the partisans of religion/religions nor to strict secularist/modernists, but carefully attentive to what has happened and does happen in human societies. Fact is, there are many big civilizations where the centralization was centered around temples. It’s confusing to secularists and to modern fundamentalists because the temples engaged in lots of activities that in our society are detached from “religion” per se–i.e. they organized economic activity, recorded transactions, debts, punishments, etc–but this is more because modern society have reduced the scope and definition of religion than that this is in any way unusual. Humans place themselves in relation to the universe, as Graeber puts it, and this involves both the things we call sacred: prayers, sacrifices, mythology/realms beyond the earthly, etc; things that moderns regard in the border-lands, ethics, social-family organization, laws/legal codes etc as well as things we think of as secular–governance, trade, economy, slavery etc.

    The library where I was director owned Sumerian tablets more than 3000 years old. Those tablets were produced in a division of the temple at Sumer where the workers were all priests. Their job was writing in cuneiform on clay tablets. Mythological and legal texts were included, but the vast majority of these tablets were what we would call business records: debts, credits, complaints about the quality of materials delivered, allocation of laborers & slaves, as well as what people did on festivals and other times. All of this was seen as the same realm–what people did. Secular/Sacred would have been a puzzling distinction.

    In fact that distinction would have been puzzling to almost all non-modern, non-western societies, whether Lakota or Pacific Northwest peoples (who were VERY different from one another in organization & mythology btw) or ancient Chinese or Indian or African or Mesoamerican cultures. The extent to which cultures or civilizations were centralized, and the role in which worship vs warrior vs commercial activities played varied widely. I think Wengrow & Graeber do a good job of describing this–neither looking to a lens of “religion” to describe everything nor discounting when activities couldn’t be understood without appreciating their sacral aspect.

    • Ed Walker says:

      This seems right to me. Discussion point 1 was intended to be limited to the connection they try to draw with current definitions of private property.

      Greaber and Wengrow’s avoidance of the word religion was obvious and welcome. We have little or no information about the Mesolithic and hardly any about the neolithic; we know very little until we get written texts. I’m trying to follow them in my description sections in not attributing our current vocabulary to the lives of people we can’t know much about.

      • Drew says:

        I do like their use of ethnography to demonstrate that our default assumptions about cultures we have no verbal records for aren’t that good. Anticipating ancients to think and behave like we moderns would, faced with similar situations isn’t avoiding speculation-it’s avoiding appreciation of the differences that are there. There is more evidence for ethnography of pre-Columbian American cultures that developed apart from eurasian influence – and many of them left behind archaeological/artifactual evidence that resembles those much older cultures. The great thing is their argument that civilizations don’t follow single patterns/trajectories of development. (I loved their observation that the theory that the ultimate and logical culmination of human organization is the nation-state was developed by German historians/political theorists at the very time that Bismark was uniting Germany into a nation state! Not to mention, I might add, that this is the same academic environment that theorized scientific racism and philosophical/ethical rationale for colonialism .)

      • skua says:

        ” long been conventionally held that Australia is the only continent where the entire Indigenous population maintained a single kind of adaptation—hunting and gathering—into modern times. …” – Enc. Britt.

        I’m puzzled by the repeated seeming dismisal of a wealth of ethnographic studies of neolithic cultures that exist/ed and the (to me) very obvious opportunity to examine them as examples of pre-modern cultures.

        e.g. “shortened the discussion of the sacred on the ground that ethnographic data won’t translate back to our distant ancestors”, & “We have little or no information about the Mesolithic and hardly any about the neolithic”.

        • skua says:

          I’ve misused terminology above.
          Neolithic applies to Western Europe.
          AIUI the cultures indigenous to Australia had diversity in types of horti / aqua culture, mammal foodsource management, hunting, gathering and trading over a period of 65,000 to 30,000 years.

    • SAO says:

      I was reading a book about Vikings and an important issue early on was that the Vikings were pagans and Christian countries viewed them as a threat. They did raid monasteries and churches, because that’s where the money was. But, the author described the an early Christian group expanding into territory bordering the Vikings. They plznted a church. The interesting thing was that the church was an authority of government where there was no other government, so it settled disputes between neighbors, etc. The kind of petty stuff that needs a neutral authority. Having one almost certainly makes life more peaceful, allowing people to build prosperity.

      So, Christianity made life better because churches provided some useful functions of government, which the Norse Gods lacked.

  9. Jon says:

    As much as I admire the interpretation, I’m not sure the evidence supports the perspective.

    [Welcome back to emptywheel. SECOND REQUEST: Please use a more differentiated username when you comment next as we have several community members named “Jon” or “Jonathan.” (See first request.) Thanks. /~Rayne]

  10. d4v1d says:

    I am re-reading a 1939 book by H. E. Jacob, “Six Thousand Years of Bread,” a history of civilization through the lens of cereal grains. In it, is a solution to the riddle posed by Ed Walker (and the two Davids)

    They must have been able to feed themselves, even without organized farming.

    Indeed – a fast growing grain that requires no agricultural tools other than a stick: maize.

    Another great post by Ed. It’s been too long since the last one.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      “Organized” is doing a lot of work there. It takes place at many levels of sophistication. Good luck domesticating or growing maize with just a stick. It also wasn’t available outside of southern Mexico for most of the time frame we’re discussing here.

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