on 8 September 2015
This is a well researched book that traces the development of human societies from egalitarian hunter-gatherers to class divided, unequal societies such as monarchies.
Flannery and Marcus argue that the first human societies were ones dominated by generosity, sharing and altruism. These societies also had numerous internal checks to try and protect that egalitarian nature. For instance, Inuits have been shown to have used marked hunting arrows to determine who killed an animal. Other people's like the !Kung mixed up these arrows so no one really knew who had been the successful hunter. These two societies, and many other hunter-gatherer communities, used ridicule and humour to downplay success and prevent anyone gaining a position above others. While successful hunters were cherished, they were expected to downplay their skills and share the fruits of their victories.
These hunter-gatherers developed technology and skills and their social organisation developed as well. With the development of clan based societies, it was possible for inequality to appear. At first this could simply be the difference between someone who had skills or experience over those who didn't and so age appears to have been an early form of inequality or access to knowledge such as religious belief and practice. But with the rise of agriculture, the ability to store surplus food meant that "Big Men" could arise who could give others food because they had come to control the surplus. None of this was inevitable and the mechanisms by which inequality could arise are not always easy to discern.
All of this and much else contained within this book is welcome news to someone like myself, a Marxist, as it helps towards confirming the view that social inequality is not some natural or eternal condition of humanity but, rather, something which has developed and something which we have made ourselves.
I do have some quibbles, more like frustrations really, with parts of the book. I tend to think that the relationships that people enter into when producing the means of their existence is important in influencing the structures of the societies in which they live. Yet in this book that insight from Marxian thought could have helped explain apparent conundrums such as the native North American people who kept a store of food for `the poor' without any explanation of who the poor were or how they became poor or another example, again from North America, of slaves kept, it seems as no clear explanation is forthcoming, as trophies or status symbols by families who would also have access to the best fishing grounds with no indication whether the slaves were used as labour or not and if not, why not?
Quibbles aside, this book is a really valuable source for arguing that inequality is not a product of human nature.
on 27 August 2015
The book is very well researched. The problem is that I bought it for its social science title and I got an archeology book. Most of the book is fillled with accurate descriptions of archeological findings that are far too detailed for a social science book. The authors, two archeologists, rightly say that collaboration between archeologists and anthropologists can give great results. Then they proceed writing a book that is 90% archeologically oriented. The book is good, but if you are interested in inequality from a social point of view you can skip two thirds without losing anything.