Egalitarian Societies of the Past

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Introduction This essay had two purposes. The first one is to show that the original social form of existence of Homo Sapience was egalitarian. This fact is well-known among the specialists in the field of archeology and anthropology but not to the general public. Furthermore, it will show how the egalitarianism, as the social and […]


This essay had two purposes. The first one is to show that the original social form of existence of Homo Sapience was egalitarian. This fact is well-known among the specialists in the field of archeology and anthropology but not to the general public. Furthermore, it will show how the egalitarianism, as the social and economic system continued for over 40 thousand years without any interruption.  It is important to realize that it proved to be much more robust and stable than the following period of stratification which lasted at most only 5,000 to 6,000 years. To do that we provide a systematic overview of the egalitarian Paleolithic and Neolithic societies.

The second reason, equally important, is to show that egalitarianism does not have to be just an object of nostalgia for the good old days. This essay is supposed to provide a base and inspiration for the proposal of re-introduction of the egalitarian socioeconomic system in the context of our modern civilization, technology, and culture. It will be presented in the forthcoming essay: “Egalitarian society now.”

The beginning

When and where the first human societies began to arise is a matter of the continuing dispute and changing views. Until recently, according to the widely accepted theories, the Home Sapience as a species appeared around 70,000 years ago. However, again and again, this date is pushed back. In early 2017 in North America were discovered human remains 100,000 years old but, only two months later, while re-examining a skull found in the Moroccan sub-Saharan region, it was discovered that this skull should be dated as 300, 000 years old.

The theory stipulating that Homo Sapience as a species existed much longer makes much more sense than the earlier hypothesis dating the appearance of the human society to around 45, 000 years ago. It is difficult to believe given the fact that such chef d’oeuvre like the cave paintings from Chauvet, France could be created only 3,000 years later. Also to think that the primitive Neanderthal man produced these paintings is equally absurd – their artistic and spiritual expression indicates that they were produced by Homo Sapiens. These paintings are not only an artistic accomplishment but also the product of a technologically sophisticated society whose members were able to produce paints, brushes, and torches because the caves were completely dark.

The egalitarian society of Homo Sapience continued until the Neolithic era in the form of so-called hunters/gatherers. This name describes their primary occupation: to survive members of this society were collecting meat, skin, and entrails of the prey abandoned of big carnivores and edible plants. The latter may explain why such animals like lions, leopards and tigers could be viewed as benefactors and enshrined in the early animistic religion and portrayed as a frequent theme in cave paintings. Only later on, humans learned to hunt themselves. They also were gathering a variety of wild edible plants, mushrooms, etc. – the cultivation of plants and agriculture appeared much later.

Coming back to the cave paintings, we should note that they portrayed mostly animals – there are only a few portraying plants or humans. It may indicate that these paintings had a spiritual dimension because by painting the herbivores (horses, dears, etc.) the artists attempted to express their gratitude, while lions, tigers, bears, etc. were painted to appease them and prevent to attack them.  A similar attitude towards animals is present in some indigenous societies (for example in North America).

Technology and dwellings

However, the art would not be sufficient promote the progress of Homo Sapience. It was the development of technology which is one of the most significant human accomplishments. Among the earliest inventions, the first place occupies the invention the usage of fire and hunting implements.  By the discovery that a stone or a piece of wood can be thrown at a relatively long distance to hit the desired target, the humans were able to elevate themselves from the status of scavengers to hunters. Before such invention, the hunting was very limited because the human had no proper physical qualities (speed, nails, teeth) to approach and kill a larger or faster animal directly.

The equally significant accomplishment was the discovery that fire could be ignited by rubbing together two pieces of wood or by a spark produced by striking a piece of flint with another one. It was accompanied by a discovery how to maintain the fire once it has been ignited. The fire had multiple usages: first, as the protection from attacks of dangerous animals which feared it. Second, the fire was used to keep the furless humans warm in a cold cave or cold open space. It also made possible to lite dark caves and to harden the tips of wooden weapons. Later on, the fire was used for the production of pottery and hardening the clay bricks. Last but not least, the fire was used to smelt gold and copper – another significant breakthrough in human development near the end of the Neolithic era.

Another important discovery was making baskets woven from reads and flexible branches (as continue until now). They were used as containers for collecting and storing berries, wild grains, etc. For storing water and other liquids at first, the humans were utilizing containers carved in wood and also gourds made of the stomachs of hunted animals.

The wood was unquestionably a universal material used from the beginning of human society until now. To hunt and fish the wood was used as a material to produce javelins, spears, harpoons, and, finally bows and arrows. As we already have mentioned, wood was used for igniting and maintaining fire as well as for making torches to lite the dark caves. Later on, it was used for making houses and other buildings.

But all the wooden objects could not be produced without the stone knives and axes. The usage of the stone tools lasted for several thousand years until at the end of the Neolithic period when they were replaced by made of metal: copper, bronze and, later on, iron.

After being invented, the ceramics and wooden and stone tools needed only incremental development and improvements, but the human dwellings underwent more significant changes. In general, these earliest shelters served as protection from the wind, cold and dangerous animals.  At first, the humans lived in caves and very primitive shelters made of wooden branches and reeds. Later on, caves became less used as shelters while gaining a new use as places for displaying of graphical art and, most likely, for some religious ceremonies. But since caves are innately unmovable while the humans followed migrating herbivores to hunt them and resort to a nomadic lifestyle, the caves became of little use.  The impermanent shelters became more convenient:  they could be easily constructed while abandoning them was psychologically easier than structures harder to make.

Later on, wood became the primary building material and is used even now.  Houses made of wood offered the flexibility of design permitting construction of the two levels structures discovered, for example, in archeological sites of the Trypillia Cucutani civilization. Later on, in some areas like in  Mesopotamia and Fertile Crescent houses were made of sun-dried mud brick. Usage of the fired clay brick, stone,  cement, and others came later, past Neolithic era.

Structure of society

Now we will focus on the social structure of the Paleolithic humans. The knowledge about it comes from two sources: first, the archeology which investigates unearthed bones, graves, foundations of more permanent human dwellings and buildings for social and religious ceremonies and also all sort of man-made objects.

The second source is a combination of archeology, anthropology, and ethnography. The anthropology and ethnography investigate some native societies which preserved the ancient traditions which are used as models for making theories about the original Neolithic and Paleolithic societies. For example, some native tribes in the North America like Iroquois – aboriginals from Amazonia, Australia, sub-Sahara and central Africa like Pygmies seem to preserve the thousands-year-old traditions.

The archeological and anthropological evidence indicates that the early human society consisted of small groups similar to extended families. The group lifestyle was necessary for obvious reasons – the individuals or even small families had practically no chance to survive and continue.   At present, more and more archeo-anthropologists agree that these groups were matrilineal . (A comment: matrilineal structure must not be confused with matriarchate, which according to the current views never existed.) It means that the identity of a child was determined by the child’s mother since that was apparent while the origin of the father was uncertain, the mother principle was predominant. It had several implications, but the most important one was that, while the roles of man and woman were different, they had the equal social status.

According to commonly agreed anthropological theories supported by archeological finds, these groups were purely egalitarian  – no evidence of stratification could be found. Though these groups had leaders, they had no particularly privileged position. This fact is inferred because there is no archeological evidence of big and ornamented graves nor big foundation of individual houses which would suggest as belonging to leaders.

In many existing native societies, the leader is elected by the whole tribe by consensus of all members rather than being chosen only by a subgroup within the tribe, nor he assumed the leadership position by his strength, prowess, wealth, etc. Furthermore, if the elected leader (as a rule man)  has not fulfilled his function properly, it can be called in front of the whole group, where women play an important role, to answer their concerns. If he is not able to satisfy the group he has to leave his position.

Moreover, according to the theory of reverse domination stipulates that that so-called “big man” – that is a man who attempted to acquire a specially elevated position within the group and dominate others – is quickly singled out and put in his place by … ridiculing. Also, there is no evidence that leadership is hereditary.

Since in some aboriginal societies the selection of a leader requires consensus and selection of a leader and it takes place within various aboriginal groups which are entirely separate and have nothing to do with each other – it highly likely that the Paleolithic and Neolithic societies were doing it is similar manner. To summarize we can assume that the leadership, though prestigious, was just one of many social positions and nothing more than that– the leader was not more important than, let’s say, a pottery maker.

The consensus is also used while making other important decisions concerning the whole group by discussing the matter until everybody unanimously has agreed with the result. Similarly, as in the case of election of the leader, it is relatively safe to stipulate, that this critically important custom is preserved until now. For a model, we may look at some North American native nations, for example on Vancouver Island. There, if a member broke an important tribal law, he/she is called in front of the council of elders, and his/her case is discussed until everyone without exception is satisfied with the verdict.

Family structure

As we mentioned already the family relations were based on the matrilineality. The whole group can be viewed as an extended family where the children during their infancy are taken care by their mothers but, later on, by the entire group.  During the Neolithic era, the idea of fatherhood was introduced, and father was charged with additional duties as well as he received special privileges relating to raising the child.  However, the indisputable fact that the whole group participated in raising the children, some anthropologists argue, is the reason why humans had developed so fast – the cognitive capacities, curiosity, and creativity of the children was increasing faster while they were receiving more diversified input than when they interacted only with a small family.

That leads us to the issue of division of duties. As we mentioned earlier the earliest human societies gained their sustenance from gathering wild fruits, roots, berries, grains,  mushrooms, etc. and the meat of animals killed by large predators. Gathering the edible plants was the prerogative of women. At first, this gathering, particularly of small items like berries, was inefficient but it changed dramatically when humans created woven baskets which could be used to carry the collected foods to the place where resided the rest of the group. The men also were gathering but usually the remains of animals killed and left by big carnivores. It was the duty of men since doing it could be quite dangerous.

After inventing the hunting implements the early social groups went beyond just gathering and began to hunt. Since they did not have sufficiently large teeth nor nails, to hunt, they developed and used hunting tools like knives, spears, axes, etc. Later on, people created more sophisticated and efficient tools like bows and arrows, javelins and slingshots. This technology gave humans a significant advantage: they could kill or immobilize the hunted animals without necessity coming into direct contact with them what was not only difficult but also could be dangerous.

The hunting was, as a rule, a collective endeavor in which participated only men. However, there existed alternative methods in which participated the whole tribe including women. This form of hunting continues among Pygmies: everybody participates in the so-called net hunting. However, with a few exceptions, we can assume that in the majority of cases gathering was relegated to women while hunting to men. It was natural: a man was faster and stronger while woman more meticulous and could sustain extensive effort better than man.

Before we conclude the topic of gathering and hunting, we should emphasize that the collected foods, independently of its nature, were delivered to the place where the rest of the group was abiding and shared among its members  – the idea of individual property has not yet appeared.

It is important to remember that in these early societies, both Paleolithic and Neolithic, the fact that human male though physically stronger, and genetically inheriting the tendency towards domination, has not used its superiority to dominate women. It is particularly striking if we realize that their direct predecessors, the ape-like hominids, were patriarchal where the leading male-dominated the rest. Also, not only hominids but all known primates, except bonobos, have a strict social hierarchy: the single male rules the group.  Also, he has the exclusive right to all female and dominates other males. Among these animals, we may observe clearly, the strict, brutal patriarchate without religious, moral and social overlays.

Seeing all of that, the matrilineality and lack social and gender stratification among the earliest Homo Sapience is astonishing. It means that neither men nor secular nor religious leaders, in spite of their superior position, had no special privileges. What is even more astonishing that this egalitarian social system lasted for at least 45 thousand years until the end of the Neolithic era. It indicates that it was extremely durable – all stratified systems which succeeded these egalitarian societies lasted just less than 5 thousand years.

In the Paleolithic and Neolithic period, human society has not been stagnant is it often portrayed and unfortunately believed. To the contrary, during this period have taken place several gigantic revolutions in lifestyle, technology, art, and views of the world. This egalitarian social structure is responsible for the amazingly fast development of Homo Sapience in all of these domains.

To make it more apparent, we will discuss in more details some of a few major accomplishment of our predecessors beyond those already mentioned. One of them is the creation and use of the articulated language. This invention became possible not only due to the flexibility of human tongue and voice box but also because of their desire to communicate. Certain forms of language already existed among some animals, but the ability to articulate and communicate, the possibility to express and describe the feelings, emotions, and beliefs is strictly human.

The creation of ideas and capacity to express them via articulated language made possible to map the surrounding phenomenal world onto a network of concepts. Due to this ability, the early Homo Sapience discovered and developed spirituality and science.  For example, they worshiped the Great Goddes – a symbol of femininity and fertility. They invented arithmetic – otherwise, it would be impossible to divide and share food and other materials justly. Later on, when there arose a need to divide the agrarian land, the geometry had to be created.

We already mentioned the skills and artistic depth of the cave paintings of the early Paleolithic people. But they went further by creating ways of combining art with language in the form of symbolic Vinca script (undeciphered untill now). It has been discovered while investigating the late Neolithic, so-called, Danube cultures. Vincs script has spread as far as Ukraine and was used by people of the Trypillia-Cucutani civilization. As a matter of interest, it is contemporary with Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Beyond writing, during this period humans developed many alternative means of symbolic communication via sound. They produced: drum, flute, horn, and various string instruments to create music – both secular and religious – as well as establishing the long-distance communications.

It is obvious that they also developed an array of facial and body expression to communicate their emotions and feelings beginning with the most important:  the smile. Thanks to smile people were able to communicate its friendly attitude which could lead to the exchange of words and even to cooperation.

Arrival of agriculture

Around the end of the Upper Paleolithic and beginning of the Neolithic era, gigantic changes appeared on the horizon of the human race. The most important were the introduction of agriculture and domestication of animals. Most likely at the beginning, agriculture was developed on a small scale, but it was sufficient for some tribes to settle down and cultivate various plants in the proximity of their dwellings. In the beginning, crops were utilized only as a source of food – primarily grains, edible leaves and roots. Later on, near the end Paleolithic era, humans began to use certain plants like linen and hemp as a material for the production of woven clothing.

The agricultural work was a collective endeavor and crops were shared among members of a group, so the egalitarian principles were preserved.  According to the older anthropological theories, the arrival of agriculture caused the introduction of private property of land and the end of egalitarianism (Marx and Engels). However, our present knowledge about various Neolithic agrarian societies, particularly Trypillia Cucutani, disproves that.

The first domesticated animal most likely was the dog.  It was used for protection of humans and also were helping them during hunting. Later on, during the agrarian era dogs were also used for the protection of other domesticated herbivores like goat, sheep and cow. Also during the same period, the second animal has been domesticated – the cat. The motivation for that, most likely, came from the need to protected the harvested and stored crops, mainly grains from mice, rats and other vermin.

At more or less the same time the larger grazing herbivores like goats, sheep, and cows as well as pigs have been domesticated. Originally they were used for milk, meat and leather but later on, oxen and donkeys were used beasts of burden. Presence of the small number of such animals had not caused any significant changes. However, the introduction of large herds brought humanity to another form of social structure – the pastoral nomads.

Since the grazing herbivores were consuming their food relatively quickly, the owners had to move them onto a new pasture land. Consequences of that were enormous which we will briefly discuss later on.

As a result, the hunting lost its important role and became only an additional way of gaining food. Gathering also lost its original meaning but continued in a more organized manner as collecting crops.

The agriculture and domestication of animals had the profound impact on the lifestyle of human society. Social groups for which the main source of food came from agriculture became sedentary while those, based on animal husbandry of grazing animals became nomadic. It was necessary because, as we already mentioned, such animals like cows, goats and sheep continually needed to be moved from the old pastures to new ones. That had profound social and political consequences: the pastoral people began fighting for pasture land, became aggressive and assertive. Since the men were involved in these conflicts, most likely, they not only directed their aggression to the competing tribes but assumed the aggressively- dominant position to women of their own. As a result, the patriarchate society has been born.

It is important to be aware that, in the beginning, both agriculture and animal husbandry were based on collative cooperation: crops, meat and milk, etc. were shared among members of the group. The concept of private property was limited to items of personal use. Later on, in some societies like Trypillia Cucutani, the individual dwellings appear to be privately owned.   Only later on, past the Neolith, land and animals became the object of private ownership.

During Paleolithic and Neolithic era, the relations between human groups were usually peaceful and cooperative. However it was not a rule: there is archeological evidence of, so called, massacres when one tribe attacked another – damaged the skeletons provide the evidence of violent death. Nevertheless, it must emphasize that these conflicts were rare and wars, in the post-egalitarian sense, were unknown: there no archeological evidence of the existence of weapons specifically designed to kill other humans.


When agricultural people embraced the sedentary lifestyle, their simple dwellings were replaced by more solid and permanent. They were constructing various types of fairly sophisticated, wooden houses for extended families, for example, longhouses in Central and Western Europe. The longhouses constructed for cohousing continued for a long time until recently: the North American native tribes of Iroquois have utilized their version of longhouses. In this context, cohousing meant that the whole group – the extended family – occupied the same building.

Also during Neolithic era, humans learned how to build houses made of sun-dried mud and clay bricks.  Such buildings were constructed for cohousing and individual family dwellings. Examples can be found in the Middle East of the form courtyard houses (made of sun-dried brick). The surface of some of them was reaching up 600m2 (including the court). All of that took place in the period of 6,000 to 3,000 BC.

The excellent examples of the sophisticated individual houses belong to the civilization of Trypillia Cucutani in Ukraine and Romania. Their structure and construction material varied – one of the most interesting ones were two floors wooden frame houses, with walls filled with such materials as clay and straw an excellent insulation material.

These Neolithic houses were not built in isolation. The house formed the conglomerates called settlements consisting of usually of several unites. However, in Trypillia Cucutani the number of units reached thousands.  They were arranged in various ways:  random fashion (courtyard houses),  in the form the rectangular grid (longhouses) or several circular rings (Trypillia Cucutani).

The reason behind this early “urbanism” was the need of living in proximity of each other. That had several advantages like protections against wild animals and small marauding bands of outcasts, easiness of cooperation and also social integration very important while raising children.

The culture of such settlements reached the highest level of refinement among various egalitarian societies – among retrieved objects at the excavation sights were found not only tools and weapons but highly ornamented pottery, figurines of the religious character, children toys and even gold made jewelry.

The Neolithic societies were more complex than their predecessors the hunter-gatherers. However, they continued the egalitarian structure. While examining many types of the settlements, nothing points out an existence of any form inequality –the size of the foundation of houses was uniform, and the only larger buildings seemed to be used for secular and religious gathering. Also, graves seem to point out towards egalitarianism – none are larger and more ornate than others.

At the same, it is clear that these settlements needed some form of coordination which was not necessary for the Paleolithic hunters and gatherers. For example, the implementation of regular layout of houses has to be done systematically. Consequently, there must exist a well-established mechanism for collective decision-making.

That leads us to the issue of decision-making in general and leadership. Since Vinca script remains undeciphered and no other written documents describing this culture can be found we have no first-hand evidence of the mechanism of leadership in the Danube and Trypillia Cucutani civilization,  nor the longhouse and courthouse settlements. TheTrypillia Cucutani, Danube, and courtyard houses civilizations disappeared without leaving contemporary descendants. Fortunately, the longhouse society of the Iroquois provides some insight into the issue of leadership and decision-making in which the unanimous consensus is the rule. Since the way of electing a leader and making decisions were very important to and most likely continued without changes, we may speculate that the consensus was the universal form used in not only Paleolithic but also Neolithic the egalitarian societies.

End of egalitarianism

There are several reasons why the Neolithic egalitarian societies were destroyed. As it was mentioned above some individual groups of hunter-gatherers became settled as the agrarians while others, became the pastoral nomads.  As the result, in both cases, more food became available and the population expanded

Because of that, the old structure of independent, egalitarian groups or settlements became inadequate because the Neolithic people did not know how to organize these groups into larger egalitarian entities. Consequently, the stratified hierarchy was introduced.

It has happened for a variety of reasons depending on the nature of society. In the pastoral societies, where conflicts and wars were frequent the old method of unanimous decision-making often was not fast enough for the quickly changing war conditions leaders assumed more and more power. After the war, they did not want to give it up as well as the elevated social status. Gradually the hierarchic, inheritable leadership became a standard. The old egalitarian format of leadership was eventually abandoned and later on even forgotten. At that time also took place the destruction of matrilineal structure replaced by the brutal patriarchate.

With the growth of their power, some nomadic tribes began to attack not only other nomads competing for pasture land but also the agricultural societies which became the frequent target of their greed and desire to dominate. As a result, in spite of being innately peaceful,  the agricultural societies were forced to organize a defense against invaders. To survive the hierarchy of permanent leadership took place. Similarly like among the nomads the leadership became hereditary passing from the father to one of his sons. Consequently, similarly as in the pastoral societies, the leaders of the agrarians began to acquire special privileges and elevated social status. As a result, egalitarianism was gradually abandoned. However, in spite of that and the fact that these leaders, as a rule, were men, in the agricultural societies, the matrilineality and equal status of women continued.

Together with the stratification based on hierarchical leadership there arose another form of stratification based on the hierarchy of wealth. Both grazing animals and agricultural land easily render itself to become private property.  Consequently, owners of larger pieces of land were able to store the excess of harvested crops, Furthermore,  when for some reason, the crops became scares, the small owners, to survive were trading their land for food and worked for the richer.

The analogous situation took place in the pastoral societies. The owners of larger herds had a definite advantage over the small one because when for some reason, for example, a prolonged drought, the herbivores had nothing to graze on some of them were slaughtered. As a result, even when the calamities ended the remaining herd was too small to survive, and their owners ended up as workers of the owner of large herds.

The third cause of stratification was the introduction of a new technology of smelting copper, bronze and, later on, iron. It created an opportunity of making better tools and weaponry than those made of wood, stone or bones. It contributed, however,  not only to the growth and prosperity of the society but also to conduct the large scale of wars. As a result, the military leaders were acquiring more and more power. Also, the proprietors of mines providing the raw material for the smelting of the copper and bronze acquired more riches, power and elevated social status.

Due to all these reasons, the “pure” egalitarianism disappeared but, in spite of that, for more than two thousand years, in the agrarian societies, the equal social status of men and women has been preserved. The religion continued to center on the main deity in these civilizations that the Great Goddess. Examples of such societies are the Indus Valley civilization in India (3300 to 1300 BC), the Minoan “culture of palaces” in Create (2600 to 1100 BC) or the Neolithic China.

Furthermore, the rulers of these societies, though being hereditary and often acquiring the great riches and power, were not too autocratic and cruel. Also, there is no evidence of slavery. Eventually, however, in such countries as  China, Egypt and Mesopotamia the rulers became progressively more and more authoritarian, the large-scale war ensued, and slavery appeared to become the accepted social norm. However, the patriarchal domination has not been introduced.

It changed when the pastoral people such as Semites in the Middle East, Kurgan civilization from the steppes of southern Russia and various nomads from central Asia, spread out far and wide. They invaded Middle East, Europe, the whole North and middle India and attempted to conquer China. At that time the last remnants of original egalitarianism the equal status of women and men disappeared. On its place was introduced the complete  stratification, based on patriarchal superiority and slavery which was added to the already existing stratification based on power of leadership and wealth.

The transition to the new  social order was not smooth and painless. This period marked by cruelty, rape and all sorts of violence is very little know because the new rulers carefully removed most of the traces of the old egalitarianism and particularly matrilineal society. We can only detect in some myths and legends, for example, in Greek mythology and Bible.

At present, the only traces of the egalitarian or semi egalitarian social forms are preserved among some aboriginal societies, particularly in the North and South America, Australia and in remote places in sub-Sahara region.  However, even these scares remnants are quickly disappearing destroyed by the ruthless capitalistic globalism.