Posts Tagged ‘Big Man’

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

25. The roots of democracy


Yams, sweet potatoes, taro and dried salmons are calorie-rich but perishable: they can be stored for only a few months. The first chiefdoms in history that evolved to states showed up in the Middle-East, where cereals could be harvested and be stored till the next year. Only on the places where wheat, rice and maize could be found and cultivated, states could evolve. In its wake, the free market democracy evolved that is gradually conquering the entire world. The first actual states, based on a wheat-economy, emerged in the Middle East.

Endowed with wild cereals and animal species suitable for domestication (sheep, goats, cattle and pigs), the Levant and the foothills of the Zagros Mountains (today’s Eastern Turkey) facilitated an early conversion to a more sedentary way of life. The climatic warming after 12,600 BC enticed foraging women to build ever more permanent huts near rich fields of wild wheat, to prevent that other foragers were earlier on the spot to harvest the food[1]. The women learned to store their seasonal yield, so that they could pound the grains with pestles on grinding stones during winter and spring time, producing flour for baking bread every day.

Natufian culture, about 12,000 BC until 9500 BC

The population of this region – named Natufians after the archaeological sites around Wadi al-Natuf – bloomed until a return of cold and dryness around 10,800 BC[2] caused famine, forcing most survivors to return to their ancestral nomadic way of life. Some women, trying to placate the Great Mother Earth (who had been so generous before and apparently had got angry now) by returning some of the best grains to special places. And see: the great Mother was grateful and produced more of this same quality wheat in the next season. This was the beginning of agriculture. Selecting the best grains for Mother Earth was the beginning of cultivation. In essence this attempt to influence the powers of nature was the first form of ‘sacrificing’ that in later times, when men took control over religion, would develop into more specific forms, involving altars, priests and temples.

When around 9,600 BC[3] a better climate returned, this initial grain-sowing ritual led to preparing fields for harvesting crops. This led to permanent villages with common storage facilities as a part of the common ritual building. The shaman, who we have to name ‘priest’ from now, and his assistants, administrated the distribution. Here we see the Priest, instead of a Big Man, as the distributor. But the basic rule is a similar one: he who has the say over the distribution, has the power at his grasp.

How did it work? When a family was not able to deliver the required quantum of the harvest to the temple, it received a survival quantum from the stored grain, on security of the property of its field. When in the next seasons the same family kept failing to meet its debt, then eventually the property of the field went over to the temple. From then on, that family was serf of the temple. This kind of process was the actual start of stratification between owners and serfs: the temple was rich, some people were rich, most people were poor.

The distribution administration required some way of registering the quantity that each farmer family had contributed to the Temple. How this was done in the Natufian Temples is unknown, but it had to be done to prevent free-riding. In the first Sumerian city-states, this need for administration would lead to the development of writing on clay tablets (around 3500 BC).

Peaceful as farmer-villages may be, they could not do without some kind of defensive force and a headman: there was always the threat to be raided by vagrant groups. Later on, growing differences in wealth between different settlements may also have fostered the rise of some kind of military force. The world of the Late Natufians developed into a free market, with extended trade routes of obsidian from Anatolia (today’s Turkey). In the Stone Age, volcanic obsidian was the most sought material for producing razor-sharp ‘knives’.[4] Other trade goods were shells from the Red Sea and exotic stones for making ornaments, cereal seeds, Dead Sea bitumen, lumber, hides, dogs, sheep.

Villages that profited from their location on trade routes or from their own production, became rich while others remained poor. Rich villages could feed more people. Producing trade goods led to division of labor (using specialist production workers).When a rich village needed more territory or a better water supply, it could take over and integrate poor villages and grow into a small town. When a poor village was unwilling to be integrated, the rich village had the greater military power to subdue and enslave the poor village by force. The leader of the military expeditions was the headman, the chief. And here we see the origins of the historical conflict between ‘church and state’: who is in charge, the High Priest or the Chief/Big Man/King? The Sumerian cities during the Uruk period were probably theocratic, headed by a priest-king (ensi), assisted by a council of elders.

Sumer was the first chiefdom that became a state. Situated in a rainless but swampy and flood-prone deltaic zone of the two river mouths, the fields of wheat and barley were dependent on irrigation works. The local farmer population had to furnish high taxes and free labor for this water infrastructure. Organizing this labour required an advanced administration. Sumerian cities were the first civilization to practice intensive, year-round agriculture, showing around 5000 BC the use of core agricultural techniques: large-scale intensive cultivation of land, mono-cropping, organized irrigation and labor division.

By 4350 BC, mud-brick structures with ramps and terraces called ziggurats, combining the function of fortress and temple, began to loom over the larger settlements. By 3500 BC there were streets, houses, temples, palaces, and fortifications in Uruk. Perhaps the definitive transition to a city state occurred in Uruk, or else in one of the other Sumerian cities such as Lagash, Eridu, Ur, or Nippur. All these had become flourishing independent kingdoms by 3200 BC, dividing their territories by canals and boundary stones. Each had a central temple dedicated to the city’s particular patron or goddess, and each city was administered by a priestly governor (ensi) or by a king (lugal, literally ‘Big Man’) who also was intimately tied to the city’s religious rites.

Frequent wars among Sumerian city-states boosted military technology. The first recorded war, pictured on the Stele of Vultures, between Lagash and Umma in 2525 BC, shows the king of Lagash leading an army consisting mostly of infantry. The infantrymen carry spears and leather or wicker shields, and wear copper helmets. They show a kind of phalanx formation, which requires training and discipline. This suggests that they were professional soldiers. On the Standard of Ur, from 2600 BC, the first chariots appear, pulled by onagers[5].


In Egypt, where just like in Sumer agriculture was dependent from regular flooding – in this case the predictable annual flood of the river Nile) the development of cities, administration and culture took a more or less similar course – with the difference that in Egypt, government and its power base became more centralized. The richest places were the few cities that could rely on two crops each year: thus Abydos, Memphis, and Thebes became the power centers of ancient Egyptian civilization. In ancient Egypt, the construction and maintenance of irrigation canals was a major endeavor of the pharaohs. The Old, Middle and New Kingdom each were periods in Egyptian history when strong central government flourished in times of ‘good Niles’ (ample yearly flooding), followed by periods of ‘bad Niles’: stagnation in economy, accompanied by social, military, and artistic decline.

Egypt, lacking forests, got its timber from what is Lebanon today. This trade gave rise to important city-states such as Ugarit, Byblos, Sidon and Tyre, that came to flourish as the Phoenician civilization. The Phoenicians traded in Lebanese wood, copper from Cyprus, and ever more goods from evermore regions, such as tin and silver from Spain. They also intermediated between the Hittite and the Egyptian empires, keeping them and the trade in peace (the beginning of diplomacy). This lasted until around 1200 BC: some of the last documents from Ugarit mention severe starvation in Anatolia. This induced migration from the Mediterrean and other regions. The so-called Sea Peoples embarked on piracy raids, causing the collapse of many cities and empires such as Ugarit, Mycene, and the Hittite empire. This marked the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age.


The influence of the commercial Phoenician civilization in the Mediterranean area has been immense. It created many trading factories, which in later times developed to cities themselves (see the map). One of the most important innovations was the Phoenician alphabet, mother of modern writing. When the Greeks adopted this alphabet, they just needed to add some signs for vowels. From the Greeks, alphabetic writing was brought to the rest of Europe, eventually leading the modern West-European and Russian alphabets.

It is astonishing that we have no scriptural legacy from any Phoenician town. Being traders, Phoenician people must have written a lot, but they didn’t share those writings outside their society. Very frustrating for us now, but this secretive behavior served these people well over the years[6], allowing their small and unarmed societies to survive among the military superpowers that surrounded them. Nevertheless, the Phoenicians were the far-ranging sea traders who went from society to society carrying discoveries, inventions, techniques, customs and many material objects from one to the other. They were important go-betweens, incorporating one of the positive characteristics of a free market situation. Other societies wrote frequently about the Phoenicians. Those many bits and pieces together give us an idea of this unique Phoenician ‘free market’ phase.

Less known than Sumer and Egypt, the Indus civilization was equally important, larger, and technologically more advanced. Also known as the ‘Harappa’-civilization, it

developed around 6500 BC in the fertile Indus valleys and flourished until about 1200 BC it collapsed by drought and a decline in trade with Egypt and Mesopotamia. It was first of all a trading

economy. Archaeologists have found over 1000 cities and settlements for this civilization; mayor ones were Harappa and Mohendjodaro in today’s Pakistan, and Mangalore and Lothal in

India. These cities show an astonishingly modern planning, architecture and technology: houses built with baked uniform bricks, two or more floors, bathrooms with water supply.

Archaeological finds do not indicate male dominance, belligerence, stratification, monotheism; idols or temples have not been found either.

These cities could not have thrived without schools and literacy. But till yet there is no script found or deciphered. Is it the same mystery as with the Phoenicians?

Harappa seals

These cities could not have been built and maintained without a central government: some kind of king or city council. But so far, no statue of a chief or commander has been found. The only ‘big man’-figure is a priestly statue (see above), so the government may have had a religious or sacral character. For the rest many male and female figures have been found representing activities (dance, music, painting), and fertility figurines.

Trade was important for the Harappan civilization due to its convenient location halfway between Sumer and Egypt on one side, and India and the Far East on the other side.

The town of Lothal had the most modern seaport facilities of that time. The Indus civilization must have had a stimulating cultural influence on other civilizations, but the only evidence for this are its many seals.[7] Official Harappa seals have been found in Sumer, Egypt and other places in the Bronze Age world. These seals were marked with the (not yet deciphered) Indus script writing, and inscribed with elegant portrayals of real and imagined animals (suggesting a symbolic or religious intent). No emperor or Big Man figure is found on these seals: this indicates a society without a centralized autocratic power. Perhaps they were used as a kind of money, but this is not clear yet. In Mesopotamia, it took until around 600 BC before the first money appeared.

The Harappan civilization was a bronze age civilization, and like many civilizations of that time (such as the Minoan, the Ugarit and the Hittite) it ended around 1200 BC. This was a time of change: the onset of the Iron Age, and of migrations such as of the Sea Peoples. The invention of iron melting-and-hammering has been attributed to the Hittites of Anatolia, but recent research has found iron working in the Ganges Valley around 2000 BC, and 1200 BC in Africa. Sure is that around 1200 BC steel[8], as a stronger, lighter, and cheaper material, replaced bronze for tools and weapons all over the civilized world.

Another important change at this time was the transition from iconic script to alphabetic script, an invention which made it possible to write down every spoken word without having to make new icons for every word. The oldest alphabetic script stems from Ugarit , a Canaanite city-state which around 1300 BC was one of the centers of the literate Bronze Age world. It was an important link in the sea trade between Egypt, Cyprus, Creta, and the Cyclades. The town was burned around 1190 BC by pirates. Perhaps this catastrophe accidentally baked the writing tablets in the archives of the merchant-king, the temples, and the houses of rich merchants. Many of these tablets were written in an alphabet of 30 tokens: 27 consonants and three for a, i, and o. They give information about the Ugarit society and show the high status of women, especially the mothers. This is characteristic for more Bronze Age civilizations, such as that from Elam and Indus.

The onset of the Iron Age (1300-600 BC)[9] appears to have been triggered by a catastrophic drought and starvation, the breaking adrift of the Sea Peoples (pirates from Greece and Anatolia) and the devastation of Bronze Age civilizations such as the Hittite empire, the Mycaenean, and the Ugaritic civilizations, with at the same time a temporal decline of Egyptian and Mesopotanian civilizations. It was the beginning of warfare and raiding by horse-riding pastoral[10] peoples from the Russian steppes. The decline of the Hittite empire contributed to the rise of the Assyrian empire that would dominate the Middle East for centuries. At the same time, the onset of the Iron Age started the decline of the ancient high status of women: in society in general, and particularly in the agricultural religions. The rise of monotheism around 600 BC established the definitive victory of male dominance in religion.

[1] Longtime this is performed by pounding the corn stalks with their digging sticks with a woven basket to catch the grains; only later, when the good grains shucked on the ear, the women began to make and use a sickle, threshing the grains at home; still later they cut the whole culms, to use the straw for stronger loam for the walls of their huts

[2] Perhaps caused by the Laacher See explosion, the LSE-event

[3] The start of the Holocene, we still live in

[4] Archaeologists can determine the source of origin of an obsidian tool. The Anatolian obsidian source was the base of Hasan Dag volcano, and the significant trading in it gave rise to the settlement Catal Huyuk. Because the obsidian blades and spear points had to bear sacred incantations to insure their swiftness and flight to bring down the kill, the manufacture required priests and priestesses. Half of the buildings in Catal Huyuk were shrines. The city was not just a major trade center, but also a religious center.

[5] Onagers are a little larger than donkeys at about 290 kilograms (640 lb) and 2.1 metres (6.9 ft) (head-body length), and are a little more horse-like.

[6] For example. Phoenician seafaring merchants had discovered the tin deposits of the British islands. Tin was a vital metal for making bronze, but its deposits were small and scarce. The Phoenicians kept the knowledge of the Cornish tin mines closely guarded secret so they could control trade in the metal and charge an high price for it.

[7] For now 4000 seals have been found, some 2000 of it in Mohenjodaro alone.

[8] Iron in its natural form is too soft for tools – though harder than bronze –unless it is combined with carbon to make steel.

[9] The conventional end date for the Iron Age is about 600 BC, although technically, we are in fact still living in the Iron Age today.

[10] pastoralism. When early agrarian villages in bad times had to leave their hamlet and to resume their ancestral nomadic HG life-stile to escape starvation, the women took their half-wild goats and sheep with them, perhaps on ropes. When better times returned, several successful nomadic groups didn’t resume agriculture but developed the new pastoral life-stile.