BEFORE MARKET ORDERS
The first Homo sapiens lived in Africa over 190,000 years before present (BP), according to the fossil record (Trinkaus 2005; Cann and Wilson 2003). The archaeological record indicates that humans spread across the globe conquering new and extreme environments in small mobile groups that hunted, fished, and gathered wild plants. The Pleistocene, the geological epoch of this period—often referred to as the Ice Age—was much cooler and wetter than today but also experienced more dramatic shifts in worldwide temperature (Farrand 1990). The archaeological record shows no strong evidence for sedentism, division of labor, or long-distance trade in the Pleistocene, and in some places no evidence for such shows up until much later.
A notion of individual ownership of items seems to be innate to the human condition; even the most ancient burials contain goods that are presumed to be owned by the deceased. But for the purposes here, property should be conceived of as ownership or authority over a particular landscape. Remains of dwellings are rarely found from the Pleistocene. An extraordinary shelter at the site of Mal’ta in Siberia from thirty thousand years ago indicates that Ice Age peoples sometimes used mammoth bones to fasten their shelters, presumably with leather coverings, in the frigid tundra (Klein 1971; Vasil’ev 1993). Most shelters would likely have been made from organic material (wood, reed, grass, leather) that have not survived. The food and trash remains (middens) from this period indicate that camp sites were not occupied year-round (Feder 2014, 170-83). There are very few cemeteries from this period (Feder 2014, 180; Wengrow and Graeber 2015)—cemeteries require that families/groups return to a special place for burial. As such, cemeteries are usually interpreted as a sign of sedentism/territorialism because they are a marked place on the landscape that a particular group has claimed for their ancestors (Kelly 1992). The archaeological record therefore shows little to no evidence for sedentism/territorialism, and therefore conceptions of property ownership, for the majority of human history.
In these migrating family groups, there is little evidence for specialized labor. While there are slight variations in stone tool manufacture and use between groups, the basic tool kit remains the same. Both men and women are found with stone tools and there are no significant differences in health between the sexes observed skeletally (Holt and Formicola 2008). Burials themselves generally contain grave goods that are presumed to be tools of the deceased, but there is no elaboration of tombs and only rarely special treatment made to individuals, though exceptions exist (e.g., Pettitt and Bader 2000). While objects of art have been found in the Pleistocene (e.g., “Venus” figurines [Dixson and Dixson 2011; Soffer, Adovasio, and Hyland 2000]), there is not enough evidence to suggest that an individual in the group would have been primarily occupied by anything other than resource/food acquisition.
Resource acquisition in the Pleistocene was from the local environment. The remains of stone tools, the most common archaeological evidence, are almost exclusively from local sources (Feder 2014, 177). Food items are also exclusively from the local environment; there is very little evidence of food storage (Ingold 1983; Whelan et al. 2013), with no ceramics and no evidence for domesticated plants until ten thousand years ago, at the earliest. There is little evidence for sustained, regular long-distance trade in the Ice Age.
These Pleistocene patterns remained fairly unchanged in many areas of the world until the advent of colonialism. Very few long-distance foraging societies remain today (Kelly 1995). Ethnographic studies of foraging peoples, however, can provide limited analogy into the sociopolitical structures that archaeologists would expect to see in the Pleistocene (Binford 1967, 2001). In these societies, individual bands are led by elders who gain their status through their knowledge and works for the group. These leaders, however, do not experience a significant improvement in their condition relative to the groups. Within mobile hunting-fishing-gathering societies, boasting or showboating is heavily discouraged or even tabooed (Lee 1969; Henrich et al. 2001). This does not mean that inherent inequalities are completely absent from egalitarian foraging groups (Speth 1990).
Around ten thousand years ago, the patterns from the Pleistocene suddenly changed in what archaeologists call the Neolithic revolution. As will be expounded on below, the advent of the Holocene, our current geological epoch, brought warmer and more stable climates worldwide. Population densities started to rise in fertile river valleys, and new archaeological traditions indicate increased social complexity. The patterns seen in the Neolithic revolution are not observed at the same chronological point worldwide; rather, transitions into more complex political and economic situations seem to be predicated by individual situations of population pressure, landscape productivity, and climatic stability. Multiple subsistence strategies are observed in this transition from mobile egalitarianism to inherited leadership positions; while agricultural regimes regularly receive more attention as a stark contrast to prior lifeways, archaeological consensus is now coalescing around the phenomenon of complex hunting-fishing-gathering lifeways as predicating the hierarchical, sedentary, complex societies that now dominate the globe
(Arnold et al. 2015). Before illustrating three archaeological examples of transitions in complexity, I first describe the theoretical underpinnings to feasting regimes.