Authoritarianism in an Evolutionary Context
Having been free, how did humans acquire brutal authoritarian leaders?
Posted September 21, 2022 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
Our ancestors mostly lived in small hunter-gatherer communities. Such societies are egalitarian and lack real authority figures. In contemporary societies, power is concentrated at the top, Why did we accept inequality and unfairness?
Cutting Down Tall Poppies
Nomadic hunter-gatherer societies had minimal personal property because they were limited to what they could carry from one temporary encampment to the next. This meant that everyone was equivalently wealthy and equivalently poor.
Some status differences were present but these were minor. A head man, or head woman, was the only kind of political leadership but their time was largely devoted to solving petty interpersonal disputes. Otherwise, skilled hunters were admired and attracted more women as extramarital partners.
Even the best hunter behaved with exaggerated modesty and disparaged his achievement following a successful hunt. Hunter-gatherer communities were hostile to braggarts. If anyone sought to elevate themselves above the others they could expect to be mocked, disparaged, and humiliated. Self-deprecation was a way of disarming such hostility.
The stark inequality one finds in most urban societies was not a feature of life among nomadic hunter-gatherers. Where did it come from?
The Birth of Inequality
The earliest farmers in Europe had a status system. Men who occupied fertile land had better grave goods and were more attractive to women (1). Marked social status differences were present much earlier among some paleolithic hunter-gatherers,
The archaeological site at Dolni Vestonice, in the Czech Republic, offers a glimpse into the lives of mammoth hunters some thirty thousand years ago. These hunters lived in village settlements and were part of the Gravettian art tradition that flourished throughout Western Europe. This had Venus figurines depicting corpulent women.
In addition to mammoth hunts, the people of Dolni Vestonice wove nets that were likely used for communal hunting of small mammals. This was a complex society in terms of its material products, including barbed arrows, and oil lamps, in addition to fine jewelry and figurines.
They also had status differences. Some individuals were buried with more pomp than others. High-status individuals, such as shamans, were decorated with red ocher and had valuable grave goods, such as fox fur.
Status distinctions seemingly emerged when hunter-gatherers transitioned from a nomadic way of life to living in permanent homes. Survival under brutally cold winter conditions may have depended on staying close to a warm fire in an enclosed space.
Once people settled on farms, there was a potential for creating more wealth in the form of stored cereals. With irrigated agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, in the Middle East, societies became increasingly stratified. Vital irrigation canals were built, maintained, and controlled, by a central government.
Most of the population was no longer needed for agricultural work and made their way into cities, as laborers, merchants, civil servants, craftspeople, soldiers, priests, or members of the ruling elite. Many were also enslaved, becoming merchandise in an era of expanding trade along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Authoritarian Leaders in the Bronze Age
Soldiers and military equipment were carried by boats and by oxcarts, just as trade goods were. Despotic kings used these transport systems to mobilize their armies and project power over areas larger than their own city-states.
The first major regional monarch was the Semitic king, Sargon the Great, who used military power to establish his rule over much of Mesopotamia around 4,385 years ago (2). His era was followed by a series of despotic expansionist regimes, including the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Persians. This period revealed just how nasty civilized societies can be and demonstrated just how far we had gone from the peaceful communities of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
That the Bronze Age was a period of intensified warfare will surprise no one who reads Homer. whose epics are drenched in gore. Bronze-Age warfare was conducted in a period when cities were rich prizes, particularly if near mineral resources of fertile land.
In an era of storable wealth, then, as now, much of that wealth was stashed in cities. In their urban fortresses, elites defended themselves and their prestige goods. Wealth took many forms, including physical structures, such as defensible walls, food stored in granaries, fine palaces, and valuable objects such as artwork, jewels, coins, and precious metals. In Mesopotamia, city-states frequently went to war over water resources.
The Will of the People
Bronze-Age despots were motivated by money and power. They operated according to the law of the jungle: Might makes right. In addition to military power, and material wealth, they controlled religious institutions. Under the Ziggurat system in Mesopotamia, the ruling elite occupied religious complexes and used the temples for administrative purposes, such as distributing food during a famine. It took thousands of years before the yoke of despotic, authoritarian, power could be cast off, as described in a future post.
1 Bentley, R. A., Bickle, P., Fibiger, L., Nowell, G. M., Dale, C. W., Hedges, R. E. M., et al. (2012). Community differentiation and kinship among Europe's first farmers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(24), 9326-9330. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1113710100
2 Fagan, B. M., and Durrani, N. (2017). World prehistory: a brief introduction. New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis.