Interdisciplinary Social Sciences’s Updates

No Free Lunch: The Links Between Agriculture and Despotism

Image courtesy of MorgueFile / Edouardo | Article Link | by Simon Powers

For hundreds of thousands of years humans lived in hunter-gatherer societies, eating wild plants and animals. Inequality in these groups is thought to have been very low, with evidence suggesting food and other resources were shared equally between all individuals. In fact, in the hunter-gatherer societies that still exist today we see that all individuals have a say in group decision making. Although some individuals may act as leaders in the sense of guiding discussions, they cannot force others to follow them.

But it seems that with the beginning of agriculture around 10,000 years ago, this changed. An elite class began to monopolize resources and were able to command the labor of others to do things, such as build monuments in their honor. So how was it that egalitarian societies, where all men were equal, transitioned into hierarchical societies where despots reigned?

In recent years archaeologists have tended to focus on the means by which would-be leaders could coerce other individuals into following them (so-called theories of agency). But while leaders probably did coerce their followers once they were in power, it is difficult to see how they could do so at the outset.