Cultural Differentiation In Non-Agricultural Societies

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Chapter 5 of The Dawn Of Everything By David Graeber and David Wengrow examines cultural differentiation between the peoples of Northern California and the peoples of the Pacific Northwest (the “PNW”) in the centuries before the arrival of White people. They argue that societies define themselves by opposition to other nearby societies. This they call schismatogenesis, a term I discuss here. They use the term culture areas to describe areas where inhabitants share a similar culture.

Cultural differentiation is the process by which the culture of a group of people evolves over time to be less like their neighbors. For example, the people of Northern California did not adopt agriculture, even though they were aware of the practice through contacts with nearby people who grew maize, squash and beans. They themselves grew tobacco and a few other crops, and the lands they occupied would easily have supported the practice. Similarly, they did not adopt a fishing life, as their neighbors to the north did. This process extends to things that have obvious utility. One group of Alaskans refused to adopt Inuit kayaks, while the Inuit refused to adopt their neighbor’s snowshoe technology.

The authors do not offer an explicit definition of culture, but generally it means such things as “… characteristic customs, aesthetic styles, ways of obtaining and preparing food, and forms of social organization.” P. 171. It also includes concepts of the sacred, and moral structures including ideas about how humans should live.

The dividing line between the Northern Californians and the PNW is approximately at the Klamath River which flows from southern Oregon through northern California out to the Pacific. The authors prefer to think of the Californians nearest to this border as living in a shatter zone, where the two main culture areas meet. This area evolved its own culture, radically different from its neighbors to the North and somewhat different from its neighbors to the South and East.

The cultural differences between these two groups are profound, perhaps in part because they evolved over several thousand years. The PNWs lived on salmon and other fish. They were experts at wood carving; their totem poles and war canoes are magnificent. They were boastful and status-hungry. The staple foods of Northern Californians were tree products, nuts and acorns. They were hard-working, self-reliant and abstemious. They were obsessed with money. Their decorations were primarily textiles and basketry. The differences go on and on.

One central difference is that the PNW raided other tribes for slaves who were put to work so that chiefs and nobles were able to live indolently. The Northern Californians rejected slavery, presumably because they believed in self-sufficiency, and living off the sweat of other people would be an affront to their honor.

The authors attribute this to intentional choices by each group. We are not people who keep slaves says one group. We are not people who work like dogs to make porridge says the other.

The authors say that cultural differentiation is a dominant theme in the history of human societies:

Ever since Mesolithic times, the broad tendency has been for human beings to further subdivide, coming up with endless new ways to distinguish themselves from their neighbours. P. 166.

The authors believe that we do this differentiation intentionally; that we think about the ways we are not like others, and that we emphasize and expand on those differences. Over time this leads to vastly different cultures. The effects are both significant, as slave-holding, and seemingly trivial, as the use of chopsticks instead of forks.

The last section of Chapter 5 lays out three conclusions.

a) The authors recognize that there isn’t just one cause for cultural differentiation. Economic constraints encourage or even necessitate certain choices. Language structures might play a role. But also, human agency (“the preferred term, currently, for what used to be called ‘free will’” p. 206) plays a part. In a book primarily about human freedom, it seems reasonable to give human agency a bigger role than others might suggest.


Slavery, we’ve argued, became commonplace on the Northwest Coast largely because an ambitious aristocracy found itself unable to reduce its free subjects to a dependable workforce. The ensuing violence seems to have spread until those in what we’ve been calling the ‘shatter zone’ of northern California gradually found themselves obliged to create institutions capable of insulating them from it, or at least its worst extremes. A schismogenetic process ensued, whereby coastal peoples came to define themselves increasingly against each other. P. 207.

Then they draw the broader conclusion that slavery is a perversion of domestic life, the opposite of care, nurture and love that characterizes the home.

c) They say that hierarchy and equality emerge simultaneously. The Northern Californians practiced a form of equality where status was solely the outcome of living in a certain way. The PNW had a hierarchy based on treasures and hereditary titles. The two groupings emerged together.


It does seem that people want to find markers to distinguish themselves from other people and at the same time connect themselves to their group more tightly. This is a plausible explanation for the Alaskan groups who refused to adopt kayaks and snowshoes despite their utility. Maybe we can see it in the anti-vaxxers who risk a sickening disease and even death rather than separate themselves in any way from their political comrades. The need for connection overwhelms the rational consideration of the evidence, maybe?

Maybe we can see it in the Protestant Reformation. In Northern Europe the religious revolution begun by Martin Luther was a way for people to separate themselves from the corruption and greed of the institutional Catholic Church which was increasingly obvious and oppressive. The schismatics claimed to be returning to true Christianity.

At the same time, elites saw the utility in using the fervor of rejection of the Temporal Power of the Vatican as a way to strengthen their own positions as the leaders of rising nation-states.

The authors use language that suggests something like town meetings to make decisions about adopting cultural changes. But it seems likely to me that a good bit of this kind of separation is driven by the preferences of elites. For example, Northern Californian elites show themselves through their accumulation of wealth by individuals. At death, wealth was destroyed, not passed to the next generation. These elites argue against slavery, and encourage others to work hard themselves, to be self-sufficient like the elites. This would provide a psychological boost to these elites and justify their choices.

On the other side, the PNW elites are identified by their hereditary wealth and titles, their prowess at war, and their their largesse in the potlatch. They use their own status and the glory of war to encourage the behaviors that benefit them materially.

I’m surprised that the authors don’t identify the elites as a major driver in this kind of differentiation. We’ll see this more clearly in future chapters.

19 replies
  1. Epicurus says:

    I recently read a book “Otherlands” by Thomas Halliday. The book is a history of the earth in sixteen chapters and goes back some 550 million years. It includes the hows and whys of the five mass extinctions (known) on Earth. The last chapter, an epilogue, is terrific and relates today’s climate issues to the whys of some of those extinctions. There will be a sixth extinction and probably more when all is said and done. As Stephen Jay Gould once said, humanity is at the end of a branch and there is nothing beyond that branch. I would recommend the book to anyone.

    It’s pure stream of consciousness of course why I would reference the book above. Why? for this article alone. The PNWs in Mr. Walker’s referenced book have been obliterated many times in the past ten thousand years. They are about to be obliterated again. The PNW culture will start anew in some differentiated form even if it is part of the US and Canada. I have no idea which elitist idea lead the way.

  2. Wapiti says:

    Having grown up in California and living now in the PNW, this chapter really made me think. I was aware (generally) of the two different indigenous cultures, but never thought of how they might choose cultural signifiers because of neighboring cultures. Another point was that both of these cultures (PNW/California) apparently had multiple language groups, and the culture seems more driven by locale than by language group.

  3. d4v1d says:

    I recently did some proto-linguistic research on the eastern woodlands nations of my own area and something similar played out here both within the larger Algonquian cultural family, and with Iroquois to the west – from which they were shielded by a well-placed mountain range. It is difficult to get much past the event horizon of the arrival of the Europeans as it is the latter who had the written languages (their own) used to record what was told them in entirely different tongues from completely different life experience. Interestingly, vestiges of these ancient animosities occasionally reveal themselves intramurally.

    P.S. The isolate tribe Trump sought to deny existence – the Wâpânaak (Wampanoag) – have a major linguistic reconstruction project going. They were adjacent to, but not themselves, a tribe of the Massachueset.

  4. darms says:

    i apologize in advance, totally OT., stupid me, though, i dared to think this topic important and whether you agree or not i accept your decision. i feel forced to ask this as decades ago at ACTV i met mr. alex jones and to say i was not impressed is an understatement. however i do believe in free speech but do we need to draw a line and if so where do we draw it? – free speech is one thing but where does “infowars” fit in? Does truth mean anything when evaluating speech? On a personal basis? On a community basis and is that a reasonable thing to do in the first place? Talked w/a friend last PM wrt ironic-dumb suggestions unwittingly mentioned to stupid friends who stupidly proceeded to enact same to disastrous consequences for said sf…

  5. Jenny says:

    Thank you Ed.

    “Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization.”
    Mahatma Ghandi

  6. Lika2know says:

    I just finished reading The Dawn of Everything and wholeheartedly recommend it to all curios folks. It upends assumptions that have too long gone unchallenged and the interpretations they fostered.

    I would like to supplement Ed’s version with the challenge to the assumption that this sort of differentiation happened once and in the form observed by first external observers.

    If there is anything I took away from The Dawn of Everything it is we must abandon ideas of “stages” and that our set of mechanisms to run a society necessarily are better than what emerged after 12,000 years along the Klamath River or among the at least 300,000 indigenous people living in what we call California today, speaking over 100 languages:dialects.

    Other overdue debunking in The Dawn of Everything is that there was no “agricultural revolution.”

    I can’t recommend it enough, but recommend to get the hardback.

  7. JimR says:

    This piece brings to my mind George Monbiot’s TeD talk, “The new political story that could change everything”, at . Monbiot offers optimism that “bonding networks “ which become evermore intransigent can be spanned with “bridging networks” that can get beyond current impasses. Another thought that comes to my mind is the Bedouin proverb… roughly me against my brothers, me and my brothers against our cousins, all of us against outsiders. What if all of us, including outsiders, were threatened by space aliens? Wouldn’t all the differences be put aside to fight the larger threat? Environmentalists tell us that we’re now facing an existential threat as serious as space aliens.

    • Silly but True says:

      I will both date myself and also observe the cynic in me says that either “V” with its human collaborators, or “Alien Nation” with humankinds’ unity in our exploitation of the aliens, and their acceptance of our exploitation, are likely the real world models for such a situation.

  8. gmoke says:

    Slavery follows different rules around the world. This is from Kautilya’s Arthashastra, a manual of governance from around 300 BCE:

    “Employing a slave to carry the dead or to sweep ordure, or the leavings of food; keeping a slave naked; or hurting or abusing him; or violating (the chastity of) a female slave shall cause the forfeiture of the value paid for him or her….

    “…. When a man has connection with a nurse or pledged female slave against her will, he shall be punished with the first amercement; a stranger doing the same shall be punished with the middlemost amercement. When a man commits or helps another to commit rape with a girl or a female slave pledged to him, he shall not only forfeit the purchase value, but also pay a certain amount of money (sulka) to her and a fine of twice the amount (of sulka to the Government)….

    “When a child is begotten on a female slave by her master, both the child and its mother shall at once be recognized as free. If for the sake of subsistence, the mother has to remain in her bondage, her brother and sister shall be liberated.”

    It seems in at least some parts of ancient India, slaves had rights far beyond the USAmerican chattel slavery where slaves were not even persons before the law.

    • Ed Walker says:

      There’s a brief discussion of slavery in the PNW and Northern California in Chapter 5 which I mostly skipped over. The customs varied among the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, and indeed around the world. American slavery followed the harshest versions.

      • Tom-1812 says:

        In her 2015 book, “Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution”, American historian Kathleen DuVal describes how the Spanish in their New World empire provided enslaved people with a path to freedom. “For at least five hundred years, the Spanish had awarded wages, bounties, and–for extraordinary service–freedom to slaves who performed military service for the crown.”

        Professor DuVal also describes how enslaved people in the Thirteen Colonies tried to use the Spanish example to their advantage during the Revolution, writing how ” … in one of their petitions, Massachusetts slaves shamed their white neighbors by pointing out that “even the Spaniards, who have not those sublime ideas of freedom that English men have,” grant certain rights to slaves, including the right of self-purchase and of having one day per week to work for themselves, in which they could earn money toward freedom.”

        • gmoke says:

          The British offered freedom to all slaves who agreed to fight for them against the colonists in the Revolutionary War. Of course, in actions like Yorktown, they were given the most dangerous jobs and probably sustained more casualties than “regular” soldiers.

  9. KennyG says:

    Having lived all my life in a closey warm community here in aus, living an growing up with the tru people of this land I ventured out into the land of the unexpected! PNG! How this has changed my life!
    Little be known to me, my wife now is a beautiful lady who is the matron of her health center!

  10. wetzel says:

    Thank you for this post. I had not seen the idea of cultural differentiation discussed in this way before. It’s wonderfully enriching to think of the indigenous tribal cultures of the Northwest differentiating across geographical barriers. It makes an analogy to sympatric speciation in evolutionary study, but here it would be cultural ‘memes’ instead of genes.

    I think the authors are applying an evolutionary model, anyway, in how they are looking to make a descriptive conceptual vocabulary to underlie the process of ‘schismatogenesis’. It seems like evolutionary biology is providing the paradigmatic approach, for structuring the analysis, though that might be an artifact of the empiricism of the authors. I think it’s useful to think of how ‘differentiation occurs’ and so there must be various ways in which differentiation improves the ‘fitness’ of the society.

    For my part, I always go back to a couple of courses I had thirty years ago where it puffs me up to think I had a famous guy as a professor. I can’t help but think violence is what would destroy the tribe. Not the violence of war but the violence inside the tribe, the cycles of retribution and revenge, rivalry and competition, so neighbor serves a sacrificial role. A neighbor is a surrogate victim. An Other.

    ‘Stranger’ and ‘devil’ will often be the same word in tribal societies. It works the other way too. In English ‘kindness’ and ‘king’ comes from the same Anglo-Saxon root as ‘kin’ – cyne (family or tribe), cynedom (tribal domain ‘kingdom’). So differentiation has a function in sacrificial violence. Sacrificial violence is violence that is a catharsis, a return to totemic degree. Cultural differentiation is like a premise to marriage nuptials, defining who can participate, to religious identity and burial customs so it seems to me that this process happening between neighboring tribes goes to very root of ‘the sacred’, so the analysis I guess feels a bit too prosaic to me here, I guess. It feels too modern and rational, too much like common sense, but I’m a little bit schizophrenic, so what do I know? Making a claim on this kind of subject is like going out onto a limb and sawing it off.

    • Ed Walker says:

      Interesting speculations.

      I also think the authors have a kind of evolutionary approach to this subject matter. They certainly don’t think there is a goal beyond human interests (short- or long-term) in any of the changes they describe. They are careful not to attribute the source of change to any single aspect of human interests, and assume that each social group changes to suit itself.

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