SIX Big Man, Big Heart? The Political Role of Aggrandizers in Egalitarian and Transegalitarian Societies

Brian Hayden

Anthropological theories of elites (leaders) in traditional societies tend to focus on how elites can be viewed as helping the community at large. The origin of elites is cast in functionalist or communitarian terms (viewing societies as adaptive systems). A minority opinion argues that elites were not established by communities for the community benefit, but emerged as a result of manipulative strategies used by ambitious, exploitative individuals (aggrandizers). While the communitarian perspective may be appropriate for understanding simple hunter/gatherer communities, I argue that elites in complex hunter/gatherer communities and horticultural communities operate much more in accordance with aggrandizer principles, and that it is their pursuit of aggrandizer self-interests that really explains the initial emergence of elites. This occurs preferentially under conditions of resource abundance and involves a variety of strategies used to manipulate community opinions, values, surplus production, and surplus use.

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One of my main interests in archaeology has always been to understand the human behavior and social or political organization behind the artifacts that archaeologists dig up. I began by studying not only the stone tools and animal bones left by hunter and gatherers, but also the ethnographic accounts of their societies. I initially focused on hunters and gatherers because they were among the simplest and earliest human societies. Over the years, my perspectives on hunter/ gatherer community dynamics and individualism have changed. For the purposes of this colloquium, these topics can be dealt with best in the context of a discussion on the origins of socioeconomic complexity and the nature of early leaders as well as the motives that led them to take on leadership roles in their communities. To preface this discussion, I originally thought that institutionalized leadership, socioeconomic complexity, and inequalities among hunter/gatherers emerged in order to solve community problems and serve communal interests. I now think these developments were fundamentally due to the pursuit of individual interests by ambitious individuals. Above all, my current views have been shaped by my ethnoarchaeologi- cal work among Australian Aboriginals in the Western Desert, the Highland Maya in Mesoamerica, and the Hill Tribes of Thailand. In the following pages, I discuss some of the major factors that led me to adopt what I refer to as a “paleo-political ecology” model of cultural change.

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