A Brief History Of Human Society

1.4m BC To 2015

II. Evolution Of Human Groups Into Settled Communities

Early human social groups developed cognitive resources and behavioural skills which allowed group size to increase from the maximum 30 or so individuals typical of primate groups to a limit of about 150 by the time of the arrival of homo sapiens, about 250,000 - 400,000 years ago. Or it may have been the other way around, that larger groups demanded greater skills; or a bit of both.

Robin Dunbar4 charts the growth in group size as primates gave way to early hominids, and calculates the percentage of time that would have been required to maintain social contacts through grooming until the point comes when language would have been required, and optimum social group size reached its expected modern level of about 150. 'Language' here means something close to modern speech; Dunbar describes a succession of intermediate phases between physical grooming and spoken language.

Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby5 describe the advantages that can be gained within the group through the ability to share information gained over the lifetime of individuals: 'there is an obvious advantage in being able to acquire such information about the world second-hand'.

The human way of life remained largely nomadic and based on hunter-gatherer groups until the invention of farming allowed permanent human settlements to form, and these eventually came to be substantially larger than 150 individuals.

The adoption of a settled way of life may or may not have been an adaptation driven by competition to survive. It may have been forced by climatic or population pressures, or adopted voluntarily, or was perhaps a result of competition between different human groups. Whatever the reasons for the origin of settlements, the adaptations needed for these larger groups to be successful included initially the development of a more sophisticated hierarchy, greater division of labour, and the strengthening of social structures such as marriage.

At some point during the transition from nomadic to settled existence, mythic cultural influences (controls, if you will) gave way to religion. The State and religion don't seem to have been adaptations driven by competition to survive against other species; instead, the competition was by now presumably between different human groups, at a cultural level. The adaptations needed for these now larger groups to be successful included the communication of information between generations (writing, books, schools) and the use of texts (the 10 Commandments again) to control large groups. This stage occupies the early parts of recorded history (it wouldn't exist for us if recording hadn't been possible!) including the Chinese, Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilizations.

This took of the order of 250,000 years to happen, and can loosely be characterized as 'cultural' change, contrasted with the preceding 'genetic' evolution of groupish social skills including the facility for language, moral structures, emotional complexity and expanded consciousness.

There is something to be learned from surviving Stone-Age tribal cultures as to how things might have been 10-30,000 years ago, although there are obvious dangers in generalizing from what happens to be true today to what may have been the case that long ago. On the other hand, all known primitive societies show a high degree of underlying cultural similarity.

Among primitive societies, division of labour seems to take place to a marked degree even within an area in which groups are in constant touch with one another, and even in the absence of environmental features to drive it. Groups which develop and practise different skills will inevitably need to trade with each other. The suggestion here is that the propensity to trade may be the cause rather than the result of division of labour, with the benefit being a more harmonious, or at least less bloodthirsty system of communal inter-group alliances.

Chagnon6 describes a system of villages in the Venezuelan rain forest which display highly developed division of labour between villages, based, he believes, on the need to maintain a stable pattern of political alliances between communities. Here we may see a modern reflection of the first origins of the modern city-state, and eventually of the nation-state; and it is based on the genetically hard-wired propensity of individuals to trade as members of their group.

Highly organized, settled communities clearly existed by 10,000 years ago based on archeological evidence, although we are limited as to how much we know about their cultures because writing was not invented until about 6,000 years ago. However, trade seems to have played a central role in their development.

It's clear that the use of pictorial symbols was a feature of trade in the pre-historic period. Clay tokens were used in Mesopotamia c. 8,500 BC as a means of describing and recording the contents of a shipment; and were gradually replaced by lists impressed on clay, using symbols which were a mixture of direct pictorial images (ten pictures of a stylized chicken = 10 chickens) and derivative (abbreviated?) symbols which can be viewed as the precursors of symbolic writing as such.

It is likely that the growing sophistication of the counting and recording systems used primarily in trade is linked to the emergence of major centres of population requiring large scale imports of food and other commodities. The need for accurate recording can also be tied to the emergence of a governing elite which needed and was able to tax the production and movements of goods.

Schmandt-Besserat7 describes the use of counters in recording economic data, and links the growing sophistication of the symbols used to the parallel development of social institutions, supposing that accounting may be related to the rise of an elite, when communities had grown beyond the possibility of egalitarian governance: 'The place of the complex tokens in the state bureaucracy, suggest that, from the beginning, accounting was the privilege of an elite and that the more the system became efficient and precise, the more power it wielded.' Dr Schmandt-Besserat also points to the occurrence of tokens among burial goods from 6,000 BC onwards.

Merlin Donald8 sees the development of the list (4th millennium BC) as a key feature in the development of the State: 'List arrangement can facilitate the sorting, summarizing and classifying of items and can reveal patterns otherwise not discernable. With the invention of visual lists, the newly created state could acquire, analyze and digest the information it needed to function.'

NB The use of the work 'state' to describe societies at such a period needs to be highly circumscribed. These societies may have employed slave labour and may have been repressive in religious terms; but the prevailing, collective, even egalitarian way of life inherited from history was not about to change for millennia to come. The State at that time had neither the desire nor the means to control the minutiae of human life.

By 2,000 BC, we begin to be able to describe the workings of nations such as Rome with greater confidence, and it is clear both that commercial life had a central role in the life of cities and that the state as such played little or no role in the supervision of daily human life, which was left to the ancient 'folkways' to administer.

Bertrand de Jouvenel9 insistently describes Rome, Greece, Sparta and other early civilisations as being ruled by councils of elders, being the heads of the aristocratic families (nothing democratic about it in a modern sense!), at least when they were not under the sway of an absolutist monarch, such as Alexander, or the early Roman kings. But even when there was a king, the council of elders (nobles, fathers, barons or the equivalent) held a balance, and maintained the traditional law. There is no sense in which the king was a law-giver during that period. 'The republic of old had no state apparatus. It needed no machinery for imposing the public will on all the citizens, who would have had none of such a thing.'

'How was a regime of this kind able to function at all?' asks de Jouvenel. 'Only by great moral cohesion and the inter-availability of private citizens for public office.' He stresses the importance of education in maintaining a cohesive body of citizens, but then says: 'The government of societies like this was, as has truly been said, the work of the folkways'.


4 Dunbar, R I M (1996) Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, Faber & Faber, London

5 Barkow, J H, Cosmides, L, and Tooby, J, (1992) The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture, OUP, New York

6 Chagnon, N (1983) Yanomamo, The Fierce People, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York

7 Schmandt-Besserat, D (1997) How Writing Came About, University of Texas Press, Austin

8 Donald, M (1991) Origins of the Modern Mind, Harvard University Press, USA

9 De Jouvenel, B (1948) On Power, tr J F Huntingdon, Hutchinson, London (originally published in French in 1945)