In this final post in a series about tribal gift economics I am going to examine what happens as the tribe grows large enough to become a chiefdom before marching on towards statehood.
Big men are not big enough
As horticultural technologies develop, people are able to live in ever denser populations. Big man tribes start morphing into chiefdoms somewhere around the thousand people mark. The difference between the two lies in the social power of the leaders.
Big men have a lot of social influence, people follow them because they have proven their ability to provide and they trust them. However, they are not seen as special, they usually still perform all the tasks that other members of the tribe do and they loose their position simply because they can no longer demonstrate their ability to provide. They are called upon to settle disputes and they benefit from their position by being given the best of the crop and also the ability to support multiple wives. However, they cannot command their fellow tribesmen (it is usually the men) to fight for them and the only people who work for them will be family.
Chiefs are special. They are often elevated to the position of a god or the messenger of the gods. They don't carry out menial tasks - it is sometimes forbidden to even touch them. They receive the best food that is produced and for the first time are likely to employ a few aids who are not kin. They also can be called upon to settle disputes, however, as with big men, they cannot command men to fight for them.
The birth of the gods
It is likely that gods were invented due to the move towards a one-to-many communications network. The simplest of egalitarian tribes, such as the Pirahã, don't have gods. They don't even understand the concept. They have spirits, the landscape is alive with spirit - both good and bad - but it is not above them. I suspect this is because they have a largely flat social structure and as a result the concept of mighty beings above them simply does not occur to or interest them. As the population density increases the social hierarchy becomes more pronounced, making it a much smaller and relevant step for the concept of gods to emerge. (I haven't found any direct evidence for this, if anyone is aware of a book or study that addresses this question I would love to read it).
The beginnings of social heirarchy
The reason for this increasing power of the chief is explained by the nature of the communications network. As the population density increases, all the local villages fall under the power of a single bigman, making it harder to choose a different one. This necessitates a change in how the leader is chosen - usually with violence. Also, with a larger population operating under the same leader, a greater social hierarchy can emerge with those at the bottom being a long way below those at the top
Whilst the bigman tribe could be considered to be a few-to-many social structure, as bigmen only exist in competition with others, a chiefdom tribe is more accurately described as a one-to-many structure. This change is not caused by any specific communications technology, but by the increasing population density which was enabled by inventions such as the plough.
As I will explore in the next post, this tendency of technology increasing the population density of a tribe continues into the age of the state, however, along the way there is another critical communications development - writing.
A command economy
Reciprocal gift economies begin to break down when multiple bigmen are replaced by a single chief, and a new system of exchanging and distributing resources is needed. The increased social heirarchy allows for a command economy to start to emerge. Essentially this involves the chief taking any additional food and other resources and redistributing as he sees fit. This personal food mountain allows the chief to start supporting some members of the tribe in specialist roles, freeing them for the first time from having to produce their own food. We will look at the command economy in more depth once chiefdoms have matured into empires. First we need to explore how writing makes a command economy possible.
Some closing notes on tribal economics.
- Throughout this series I have presented social development in tribes as if it happens in a globally uniform pattern along a single axis. This is a simplification. I have presented it this way to highlight the very real trend of a changing communications network from many-to-many into one-to-many. In reality there are many exceptions and a lot of variation, such as tribes that become chiefdoms with relatively little technology simply because their environment is naturally abundant and so provides for a dense enough a population.
- The different roles of men and women in tribal times makes for interesting reading but it appears not to be directly relevant to how the economic system changes from many-to-many to one-to-many, so I have omitted it. Big men and chiefs are nearly always men, and women are often subjugated, a situation that sadly did not really start to change until the suffragette movement. A topic I will explore at a later date as it is pertinent to free market economics.
Harris, Marvin. (1974) Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches
Mauss, Marcel. (1954) The Gift
Nolan, Patrick and Lenski, Gerhard. (2009) Human Societies : An Introduction to Macrosociology, Eleventh Edition
- Wright, Robert. (2001) Nonzero