24. From headman to Big Man: the rise of distribution


Just like today in small tribal societies such as the !Kung San and the Semai, in the past reciprocity was long the only form of exchange practiced in egalitarian band- and village people. Among more agricultural populations, another way to give and take arose with the seasonal feasts among the bands. When wild seeds ripened and game was abundant, neighboring bands gathered on a special place, each bringing an abundant stock of food and beverage in baskets and bags, for a days long festival of dancing and singing and the ritual renewal of group identity. A well-known archaeological example of such a festival place is the famous Gobekli Tepe site.

Gobekli Tepe, East-Turkey: a huge hill full of sanctuaries, built from large outhacked sandstone pilars, dated some 9000 years BC

At such occasions, no longer the headman alone could be responsible for the abundant stock of food and beverage: each family had to help with contribution of food and beverage. The headman now functioned as the administrator of the stock.

When agriculture became the prime source of food, saving this stock became a permanent and institutionalized necessity: a stored surplus to overcome bad harvests. The headman-redistributor became the Big Man: a prestigious figure with a storage building to whom each family turned over his surplus on preservable food such as wild cereals, nuts and sweet potatoes, yams or taro. Only on places where such products could be harvested or cultivated, could redistribution emerge and with it the role of the Big Man. This is why even today we won’t find Big Man figures in Aboriginal tribes: in Australia, there were little to none preservable and storable products to cultivate.

Full agriculture leads easily to overpopulation stress. A situation of overpopulation happens to apply to our next of kin, too: the chimpanzees. It is interesting to look back for a moment to apes here, as they represent the most primitive component of our nature. For most of our evolution time, we lived rather like the peaceful bonobos. But when suffering from overpopulation stress, we live more like (less peaceful) chimpanzees.

Do chimpanzees have Big Men? Normally in chimp groups the alpha males change every four years. But Frans de Waal mentions one interesting case.[1] One alpha man managed to remain in charge twelve years, manipulating his rivals by redistributing surplus food. Even when he was not the successful hunter himself, he distributed the coveted prey. The largest morsels were for the most serious competitors, and for himself he took little or nothing. Chimpanzees are political animals.

Back to our own species: the Big Man became a prestigious figure. Even when he had to work harder and to reserve smaller and less desirable portions for himself, the headman-distributor was compensated with admiration and prestige. Every woman was proud to become his wife, and he was good enough to embrace many of them. Every boy’s ambition was to become a Big Man. For who has the say over the redistribution, has the power at his grasp. The council of the eldest remained an institute to be taken into account, but the growing power of the Big Man and his guard, especially when he functioned as headman in wars, made this institute by slow stages into an applause machine.

A classical anthropological study of Big Man is the late Douglas Oliver’s The Pacific Islands (1951). He studied the Siuai, a village people living on one of the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. In the Siuai language, the big man was known as the mumi. Organizing great feasts and publicly demonstrating the tribe’s (and his own) prosperity by giving things away was the essence of mumihood. Therefore, great mumis consumed less meat and other delicacies than ordinary men. The Solomon Islands saying is: “The giver of the feast takes the bones and the stale cakes; the meat and the fat go to the others.”

As long as those Big Man societies lived in peace, there was little inducement to change anything. But the combination of seaworthy canoes and restless, energetic young men enticed to visit other settlements and islands, to trade, exploration and raiding. The great mumi consumed less and gave much, gaining prestige and adoration. His ongoing effort helped to increase production: the mumi and his followers initiated agrarian methods and improvements such as dams and canals. All this augmented his prestige. His (again, restless and energetic) sons inherited this prestige and adoration without having to establish it by modest and self-sacrificing behavior. Their young followers weren’t content with ‘bones and stale cakes’ either. It were these young men who manned the canoes, and it depended on the defensive force of the visited settlement whether it became a trade visit or a raid.

An exceptional form of Big Man-ship came to exist among the Kwakiutl and other Pacific Northwest Coastal Indians 2000 years ago. They were not yet horticulturists and yet they knew Big Men. The cause was environmental: this population lived in an exceptional rich biotope. There was plenty of food; the staple food was salmon. Six or seven times each year rich schools of salmons swam up into the rivers for spawning upstream, and one could catch them even by hand. When the technique of drying fish made it possible to keep it in store, this led to a kind of ‘mumihood’: chiefs who boosted production to arrange ever more splendid and wasteful feasts (potlaches) for other tribes.

Kwakiutl chiefs also became war leaders who by boasting and potlatches recruited men from neighboring tribes to fight alongside them on trading and raiding expeditions. The Tobriand chiefs were equally war lords. Anthropologist Malinowski stated that they conducted systematic and relentless wars, venturing across the open ocean in their canoes to trade or to fight with islands over a hundred miles away.[2]

What was the root cause of this propensity to warfare, universal among horticultural and early agricultural societies? Especially societies that had seaworthy canoes or riding horses? Two million years long our ancestral groups lived in peace with each other, so making war is not an inherited property. However, when we discussed “Human nature” we already saw that good was “what is conducive for the survival”. Picking fruits and other food is good. Hunting other animals is good. For the AMHs who were living in evermore larger groups and who were confronted with a situation of overpopulation,[3] other groups were not human. Humans were people of their own tribe only: people with which one could communicate. ‘Inuit’ means ‘human’. ‘Yanomamö’ means ‘human’. People with another language weren’t really humans: they couldn’t even talk properly. When Early Human groups met each other, it was a reason to feast: they knew each other and there were relationships. But when AMHs were confronted with a group of strangers, fighting and murdering was good, because only one group could live from the territory.

Raiding another group was good. The winner of the confrontation seized the survival means of the looser. In situations of overpopulation, raiding is good – but dangerous too. The young Jane Goodall was the first to discover that chimpanzees raid each others’ groups. Chimpanzees patrol into another group’s territory very quietly, hoping to meet a single foraging man and to kill him. When they repeatedly succeed in doing so, the other group is weakened so much that they can take over all its women. In The Fierce People about the Yanomamö we can read that these people behaved in a very similar way.[4]

An important factor in the propensity to warfare were the young men. The !Kung were alert for high aspirations of young men and had their methods to “cool his heart and make him gentle.” The Mehinacu and other Amazon tribes invested much time and effort in long and extensive initiation ceremonies during which the young men were ‘tamed’ and integrated in the males’ world. The Yanomamö lived under such an overpopulation stress that they had no time left for initiation rituals, and consequently they had a serious problem with their young men. The problem was worsened by the fact that most men had more wives, which caused a women shortage: in many tribal societies, finding women is a motive for raiding[5]. Generally, in most cases it were the young men who manned the canoes and were eager to kill and to become a man.

The root of all this evil is that the victims are not seen as fellow people by the slayers. Or perhaps the root is that we believe what we like to believe. Power corrupts. When we are in power, it is easier to believe that our victim is not a fellow human but some kind of weed. For raiders such as the young horse-riding Mongols or seafaring Vikings, villages of unarmed farmers were a sort of fruit that they only had to gather.

It is the raiding that has been the motivation to develop counter-measures in the form of religious structures (monotheism) and political actions (subduing ‘wild’ tribes), both aiming at the restoration of social order in the interest of trade and prosperity. This is what we mean by ‘civilization’ as a historical process.

[1] He told it at a lecture that I attended

[2] The Trobriand Islands, 1915

[3] Even the American northwest coast Indians (Kwakiutl et al.), still being hunters and gatherers, arrived in an overpopulation situation, due to the richness and abundance of their territories, populated by some hundred tribes. It led to sedentism, trade, warfare, social stratification. Perhaps the potlaches were a means to avoid and reduce wars between the tribes. The population never reached the phase of city states and empires because it lacked cereals. (James Deetz, The First Americans, Time/Life, 1973)

[4]Strong villages should take advantage of weaker villages and coerce them out of women; to prevent this, the members of all villages should therefore behave as if they were strong. Thus, the military threat creates a situation in which intervillage alliance is desirable, but at the same time spawns a military ideology that inhibits the formation of such alliances: allies need but cannot trust each other. They are obliged to behave aggressively in order to display their respective strengths. Alliances between villages involve casual trading, mutual feasting, and finally the exchange of women. The most intimate allies are those who, in addition to trading and feasting, exchange women. Alliances with trade and feasting but without proceeding to woman-exchange, are weak alliances. Nevertheless they serve to limit the degree of war. The Yanomamö tend to avoid attacking those villages with which they trade and feast, and rarely accuse each other of practicing harmful magic. Allies bound to each other by ‘affine’ (marriages-bound) kinship ties, are more interdependent: are under obligation to exchange women.” Napoleon Chagnon The Fierce People (NY 1983) p. 147

[5] Remember the ‘rape of the Sabine women’, an episode in the legendary history of Rome

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