The Invention of Society

on August 8, 2009

Primate studies suggest that the first modern humans would have lived in small bands of some two dozen individuals in which relationships among the women were central to the structure of the group. The men may have been dominant, but their own status would have been largely dependent on that of their mothers.

At some very early point, however, all that changed. Even the simplest and most archaic present-day societies tend to have bewilderingly complex kinship structures, where every individual is expected to conform to an elaborate set of rules that govern their relationships with every other member of the group.

In these societies, there are not only rigid guidelines for such matters as who can marry whom but even prescriptions for how each individual is to address every other individual, depending on their biological relationship and relative status. Modern vestiges of this sort of system — such as the use of titles and honorifics, or the choice between last name, first name, and nickname — represent only a pale shadow of what it was like at its peak of elaboration.

In addition to participating in a spectrum of socially-defined relationships, each individual in these societies also passes through a series of different statuses in course of their lifetime — child, adult, spouse, parent, elder — generally by means of formal transitions that may involve elaborate and often grueling rites of passage.

Nothing about this extravagant structure of statuses and relationships is hard-wired into the human psyche, and none of it is self-evident. That means it had to be invented at some point by people with an idea of what they were trying to accomplish.

When that invention occurred, it would have marked the first radical alteration in human life from the natural to the artificial — a transition that would have been even more dramatic and wrenching than such recent equivalents as the urban revolution or the industrial revolution.

My guess is that the development of formal kinship systems was well underway between around 100,000 and 70,000 years ago, at a time when the transformative vision I have previously outlined was already at its peak.

During that period, the newer vision would have learned a great deal from the older one. The idea of rites of passage, for example, seems to be the result of applying a transformative philosophical outlook to the practical problem of getting people to accept and identify with a sequence of fluctuating identities.

The result was a set of almost mathematical algorithms for transformation, designed to impose socially-established procedures and outcomes upon what had previously been unstructured biological processes.

From the modern point of view, there is a regrettable loss of personal flexibility in adopting that sort of system — but from the perspective of the time, it would have represented a crucial victory over a previous condition of powerlessness and anxiety.

Life was not easy 100,000 years ago. Our earliest ancestors were at the mercy of diseases, accidents and injuries, natural disasters, and big scary predators — and the gift of self-awareness which they had received only served to make them more acutely conscious of just how precariously situated they were.

The mysteries of birth and death, growth and decay, eating and being eaten were for them as much a matter of terror as of wonder. Anything that made them feel secure, in control of their own destinies, and able to act effectively in the world was a highly positive advance.

The invention of social roles and rituals which served to redefine and master the processes of nature would have been a significant step in that direction. And if something was lost in the way of mystery and awe for a time, it was never permanently surrendered.


A listing of all my posts on deep prehistory can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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One Response to “The Invention of Society”

  1. Gus says:

    “Hard wired”
    I think you should temper your statement: “Nothing . . . hard wired.” in light of the well established evidence that humans, like canines and other higher mammals, are hard wired for dominance/subservience.

    A lot of baggage comes with awareness.

    I’m working on getting a transcript of a typical Omani greeting, which can go on for a full minute with both parties talking rapidly in counterpoint.

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