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Brief Synopsis of Parts I and II of Lifelines From Our Past



Part I. Kinship Societies


Stavrianos emphasizes two breakthroughs in the course of human evolution where incipient humans moved decisively past other animals. The first was in the use of technology to manipulate the physical environment. Humans may not be the only animals to use tools, but humans (or even pre-homo sapiens) rapidly outpaced other animals in the variety and sophistication of the technology they employed. The second great breakthrough was in the development of social organizations which surpassed in flexibility and complexity those of other animals. Both breakthroughs were products of the human brain. Some evidence of the course of these developments can be seen at the various stages of human evolution. But the final breakthroughs occurred after the appearance of homo sapiens sapiens.

For more than 95% of its existence homo sapiens sapiens lived exclusively in small kinship-based groups. For almost all of that time, humans lived by hunting and gathering. All members of the group shared access to food and resources. Cooperation and communal sharing were characteristic of this type of society. Since resources in a given area were eventually used up, these hunter/gatherer bands were compelled to leave nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyles as they followed the food. This kind of lifestyle made the accumulation of material goods impractical and thus acted somewhat as a brake on the development of certain kinds of crafts.

The benefits of these early human communities were several. The strong sense of community fostered by ties of kinship, the relative equality of its members, and the cooperative nature of such societies gave humans “the original affluent society.” Tensions were few, competition for resources was not an issue (at least within a band), communal sharing assured the survival of even the weak or sick, the work necessary to survive was relatively light (Stavrianos cites estimates of 15-20 hours per week) which left lots of time for social activities, and early hunter/gatherers lived in relative equilibrium with each other and with the environment. Of course, kinship groups did have weaknesses. For optimal success, they required low population densities. And because these were small groups, they ultimately had difficulty with larger societies.

These nomadic kinship groups had only a limited impact on the environment. They lacked both the technology and the scale to do severe damage to the natural world around them. Stavrianos believes this kind of society had a reverential attitude towards nature of which they were a part.

Equality was (is) a feature of this kind of community. The relative status’ of men and women is much more equal than in later tributary societies, although there was even here a gender-based division of labor. Relative material equality among its members was the norm. With the sharing of food and other goods necessary for survival, and with relatively few possessions and no individual land ownership there was no social divisions based on wealth. However, there could be social differences based on prestige.

Finally, while kinship groups devoted little time and few resources to warfare- there simply was no need, the actual level of aggression or nonaggression of any given band was a response to its circumstances. The proclivity towards violence of an individual or group, like many aspects of human nature, is at least partially determined by the local society or culture.


Part II. Tributary Societies.


For a hundred thousand years or more, humans lived exclusively in nomadic kinship groups rarely numbering more than about 60 persons.  However, around 10,000 years ago two long-term trends came together. According to Stavrianos, the population had reached the limit of support possible from the existing hunting/gathering lifestyle. At the same time the end of the last Ice Age and the gradual melting of the glaciers had led to rising seas around the world. As a result much low-lying land inhabited by humans and animals for thousands of years was lost. The inhabitants were now forced into land already lived on by other people. Consequently human groups were compelled to find more effective ways to exploit resources. One example was slash-and-burn agriculture. The most important innovations, however, came with the domestication of plants and animals shortly after 10,000 B.C. . The Agricultural Revolution made possible much larger populations and sedentary communities. It also gave rise to new technological developments, such as pottery and weaving.   Ultimately the kinship group form of social organization was unable to meet the needs of larger populations and agriculture. But this was not the case immediately. The peasant farming village of the early Agricultural Revolution remained a community based largely on kinship and with a similar communal focus as the earlier nomadic groups. In fact, in many ways agricultural villages will continue to bear many similarities to the earliest kinship-based societies throughout the rest of human history.

Eventually, however, new population pressures gave impetus to revolutionary social changes in order to increase the community’s ability to maximize its exploitation of local resources.  The new social organization was the tributary society in which a large part of the production of cultivators and artisans was taken as tribute to support new elites. These new elites, for example priests or kings, performed various kinds of management and security functions. In Stavrianos’s words “The state also functioned as an integrative mechanism that provided protection, security, facilities for settling disputes, and access to sustenance in return for loyal acceptance of the status quo.” Despite the inequity on which these societies were built, they survived from the third millennium B.C. until the modern period. As the author points out, we can find significant elements of some of these societies surviving even today. “In the final analysis, the tributary state prevailed for five millennia from Mesopotamian times until the advent of capitalism in early modern times because it worked . . . “

All early civilizations then were tributary states. While each had its own style, one basic similarity outweighed all the differences: “cultivators lacked free access to nature’s bounty enjoyed by hunter/gatherers and to communal tribal fields enjoyed by earlier villagers.”

The superior productivity of tributary societies also led to more and more complexly organized societies.  It also supported high culture. Of course high and low culture coexisted in societies.

Characteristics of low culture: 1) Peasants accumulated a great deal of information on plants and animals; 2) peasants considered working hard a virtue; 3) peasants possessed a strong desire to own property; 4) village life had a communal nature.

Characteristics of societies with high culture: 1) all based on tribute; 2) all possessed bureaucracies ‘that collected tribute, dispensed justice, administered the country, and staffed ecclesiastical structures’; 3) all had cities which served as the residence of the ruling elite and the “focal point of institutionalized political authority”;” all maintained armed forces; 4) all had monumental architecture; 5) most were based on “sacred books” (which were used as a means of social control?)

Stavrianos sees tributary societies as being an “ambivalent development” in human history.  Tributary societies upset the pre-existing balance between man and the environment (Example: early deforestation) resulting from the larger population, the greater scale of human activity, and new technologies. At the same time, the attitude of these societies towards nature was different from that of kinship groups. From this point on, nature was viewed as a resource to be tamed and used to meet human needs. Gender relations also changed with the advent of tributary societies. In short, the status of women declined. In tributary societies, men dominated society, including women.  Likewise, the lives of “cultivators and artisans” got harder. They worked longer hours than did the earlier hunter/gatherers while suffering more from malnutrition and starvation than before. Poverty became a social status as well. All the while the producers in society were largely controlled by the ruling elite.  Why then were these kinds of societies tolerated? Stavrianos suggests three factors: institutional coercion, psychological manipulation, and direct military force. Finally, tributary states provided the means and incentives for mass warfare. The author nonetheless emphasizes both resilience and the durability of this form of society, and of several tributary civilizations.