Farewell to the 'Childhood of Man'

Cover of NorthThis was first published on the now-retired polarcosmology.com website, a companion site for the book North: The Rise & Fall of the Polar Cosmos by Gyrus – an epic, animism-infused history of cosmology. Check out more information, or buy from Strange Attractor Press.

It was a packed, energised gathering of the Radical Anthropology Group this evening, in a stuffy room in the UCL Department of Anthropology near Euston in London. Host Chris Knight introduced it as the most exciting event in the group’s near-40-year history. Co-presented by anthropologist David Graeber, noted for his involvement in the Occupy Movement and his timely bestseller Debt, and archaeologist David Wengrow, the talk promised to put some perhaps final nails in the coffin of an idea that has infused thinking about prehistory for centuries: the idea that humans started out naive, in simple societies, and gained sophistication as societies grew bigger and more complex.

Graeber and Wengrow have just published a paper in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute titled ‘Farewell to the “childhood of man”: ritual, seasonality, and the origins of inequality’. In it, they argue that in considering the evolution of societies, we’ve been constantly placing ourselves before a false dichotomy when we ask: is this or that society egalitarian or hierarchical? Even trying to locate a society along an axis between these opposites is misleading. In making this argument, Graeber and Wengrow delve into the history of anthropology itself, attempting to bring it into dialogue with archaeology (always an interesting project), and uncovering some observations that have been neglected along the way. In this sense, it’s interesting that there’s a kind of parallel between their take on the history of anthropology, and their take on the history of the species. In both cases, a false linear ‘evolutionary’ perspective has clouded the fact that we’ve probably missed a lot of early sophistication.

Pierre Clastres (1934-1977)

For me the most familiar reference point in their history of neglected anthropology was Pierre Clastres, a French anthropologist whose anarchist beliefs apparently led him to being thrown out of Claude Lévi-Strauss’ blessed academic circle. Clastres did fieldwork among Amazonian Indians which led him to his theory of ‘Society against the State’ (very influential on the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari). He argued that many Indian societies, far from being ignorant of the State and social stratification like some Rousseauian ‘noble savages’, were actually perfectly aware of these things, and consciously shaped their societies to combat their manifestation. (‘Combat’ being the operative word; Clastres believed that constant violent skirmishing between tribes acted as a dispersive, centrifugal force to prevent larger social units forming in which chiefs and a centripetal State might take hold.)

Now, the exact nature of this ‘primitive’ awareness of the non-existent State has always been something of a mystery in studying Clastres’ work. Sure, maybe in South America there’s some residual memory of Incan civilisation. But what about before civilisation? Can this ethnographic theory be used to project backwards into prehistory?

Robert Lowie, 1883–1957

Graeber argues that Clastres’ work owes much to that of a sidelined early modern anthropologist, Robert Lowie (who apparently used to joke about his walrus-like appearance by lying down on the desk at the front of his lectures). Lowie made similar arguments to Clastres, about conscious knowledge of hierarchies among hunter-gatherers. However, for reasons related to his concentration on Amazonian Indians, Clastres missed a crucial point in Lowie’s work. Lowie highlighted the fact that among many foragers, such as the Eskimos in the Arctic, egalitarianism and hierarchy exist within the same society at once, cycling from one to another through seasonal social gatherings and dispersals. Based on social responses to seasonal variations in the weather, and patterns in the migration of hunted animals, not to mention the very human urge to sometimes hang out with a lot of people and sometimes to get the hell away from them, foraging societies often create and then dismantle hierarchical arrangements on a year-by-year basis.

There seems to have been some confusion about exactly what the pattern was. Does hierarchy arise during gatherings? This would tally with sociologist Émile Durkheim’s famous idea that ‘the gods’ were a kind of primitive hypothesis personifying the emergent forces that social complexity brought about. People sensed the dynamics changing as they lived more closely in greater numbers, and attributed these new ‘transcendent’ dynamics to organised supernatural forces that bound society together. Religion and cosmology thus function as naive mystifications of social forces. Graeber detailed ethnographic examples where some kind of ‘police force’ arises during tribal gatherings, enforcing the etiquette and social expectations of the event, but returning to being everyday people when it’s all over.

But sometimes, the gatherings are occasions for the subversion of social order — as is well known in civilised festivals such as the Roman Saturnalia. Thus, the evidence seemed to be confusing, and the idea of seasonal variations in social order was neglected. After the ’60s, the dominant view became that ‘simple’ egalitarian hunter-gatherers were superseded by ‘complex’ hierarchical hunter-gatherers as a prelude to farming and civilisation.

Graeber and Wengrow argue that the evidence isn’t confusing: it’s simply that hunter-gatherers are far more politically sophisticated and experimental than we’ve realised. Many different variations, and variations on variations, have been tried over the vast spans of time that hunter-gatherers have existed (over 200,000 years, compared to the 12,000 or so years we know agriculture has been around). Clastres was right: people were never naive, and resistance to the formation of hierarchies is a significant part of our heritage. However, seasonal variations in social structures mean that hierarchies may never have been a ghostly object of resistance. They have probably been at least a temporary factor throughout our long history.1 Sometimes they functioned, in this temporary guise, to facilitate socially positive events — though experience of their oppressive possibilities usually encouraged societies to keep them in check, and prevent them from becoming fixed.

How does this analysis change our sense of the human story? In its simplest form, it moves the debate from ‘how and when did hierarchy arise?’ to ‘how and when did we get stuck in the hierarchical mode?’. But this is merely the first stage in what Graeber and Wengrow promise is a larger project, which will include analysis of the persistence of egalitarianism among early civilisations, usually considered to be ‘after the fall’ into hierarchy. As such, their work is a fascinating and valuable development of what the study of history can offer modern liberatory politics. We certainly need something more to go on than ‘things work better in small groups’.

The was some good discussion after the talk. Camilla Power and Chris Knight were eager to draw the focus away from the evidence for behavioural modernity in Palaeolithic Europe (e.g. painted caves, Venus figurines, rich burials), and draw the focus back to human origins in Africa. Their work, elaborated in Knight’s worthwhile book Blood Relations, actually has interesting parallels with Graeber and Wengrow’s arguments in that they too look at cyclical variations in power — but based on lunar cycles rather than seasons, and focusing on the role of sex and gender in political power. However, while Graeber and Wengrow acknowledged that sex and gender are important aspects that they’ve not managed to take on board in their work, they insisted that their focus on the well-known European evidence wasn’t Eurocentrism — it just happens to be where we have most evidence. This may be due to accidents of preservation, and the materials used, though it’s likely also to be heavily conditioned by the fact that more archaeological work has taken place in Europe. They believe the European and West Asian Upper Palaeolithic evidence — due to the intensity of the seasonal changes at the end of the last Ice Age — gives us a vivid picture of what was probably happening at a lot of other times in a lot of other places. Many famous sites, such as the cave art in France and various burials in Siberia, appear to coincide with seasonal bottlenecks in the migration patterns of herd animals, making it likely these cultural artefacts were an expression not of societies merely complexifying and stratifying linearly over time, but also of societies aggregating for feasts, then dispersing, and altering their structures for various reasons along the way.

The amazing megalithic temple of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey (pictured above) is another case in point. There is no evidence at all that the people who built this impressive structure were farmers. And some of the evidence suggests that the structures sometimes had a very short lifespan before they were filled in. Graeber and Wengrow suggested this was congruent with periodic hierarchy, and speculated on what archaeology may never be able to tell us. More advanced technology is enabling us to discover more about the perishable wooden monuments that co-existed alongside famed structures like Stonehenge. Perhaps there were many wooden antecedents of what we find now at Göbekli Tepe, occasional upwellings of social complexity that would then scatter when the party turned sour.

How does all this reflect on the narrative of North, and my ideas on the history of cosmology and social structures? Certainly it’s a welcome underlining of the narrative nature of the book, the fact that my attempt to tell a story often (and hopefully consciously) simplified the infinite complexities of human history. I leaned to a certain extent on the ‘simple’ egalitarian versus ‘complex’ hierarchical hunter-gatherer model,2 but shortly before I finished writing I sensed the shakiness of this support. Rather than rewrite and further complexify an already unwieldy story, I dropped in periodic reminders such as: ‘Claiming it [hierarchy] (or egalitarianism) as “natural” is a lazy appeal to the kind of need for hard-wired certainty which is typical of the polar cosmos. Culture is our nature, in all its messy contingency’.3

That said, alongside the essential increase in detail and subtlety provided by arguments like Graeber and Wengrow’s, and despite the inspirational exceptions to oppressive civilised order that we know of and have yet to unearth, there remains something important about the idea that we got stuck at some point in the last ten millennia. Not immovably stuck, for sure, but stuck to an extent that is significant in comparison with the fluidity of cultural styles we are beginning to see in hunter-gatherer life.

For me this stuckness relates intimately to the symbolic role of the pole star in the narrative of North. The immobility of the celestial pole is its key attribute, and along with its apparent loftiness and centrality, this furnishes a rich complex of associations with stability, power, order and immortality. It’s a seductive complex, but one that suddenly loses much of its glamour when one follows the associations to notions of rigidity and stagnancy. The preponderance of centralised domination in civilisation appears as a stolid interruption in the long human flow of political flexibility.

Of course, the significance of seasonality in Graeber and Wengrow’s ideas immediately makes the cosmologically-inclined mind wonder about associations between seasonal variations in society and seasonal astronomical phenomena — not to mention the role of creating and controlling calendars in manipulating social power. I’m sure there’s some interesting research projects there. But Graeber emphasised the fact that, as with the lack of correspondence between gathering/dispersal and hierarchy/egalitarianism, there appears to be no correspondence between particular seasons and social structures — apart from the fact of variation. All the more reason, I would suggest, that in instances where nascent elites sought to prolong a temporary hierarchy past its ‘best before’ date for their own benefit, manipulation of cosmological facts, and their consolidation into a systematic ordered whole, would have been crucial in such a historical coup. The polar cosmos, as a generalised image of concentric cosmic order, would have needed significant efforts of construction and perpetuation in order to symbolically bolster any politico-religious hierarchy, and naturalise its grip on power.

But historical narratives such as this, however useful they are for grasping general tendencies and orienting ourselves among the dizzying cascades of historical evidence, always have to be complexified and loosened, so they don’t become another form of stuckness. Graeber and Wengrow’s work is invaluable in this effort to dismantle simple images, and promises much more to come.