Tag Archives: inequality

The Patriarchal Age

1761-1555 BCE

The time of the Biblical Patriarchs. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is sometimes called the Patriarchal Age. If there is a kernel of truth to the Biblical stories, the Patriarchal Age probably goes back to the early third millennium. But the concept applies more broadly. A recent title says it: “A recent bottleneck of Y chromosome diversity coincides with a global change in culture.” This figure shows it.
The left panel shows effective population sizes based on Y chromosome DNA, transmitted down the male line. The right panel shows effective population sizes based mitochondrial DNA, transmitted down the female line. The dramatic dip on the left panel, where effective population sizes go way down in the last ten thousand years, means that there was a period, from the initial spread of major language families to near the dawn of history, where just a few men were leaving lots of descendants in the male line. This must reflect a time when polygyny – some men taking multiple wives, others not reproducing at all – was common. But this pattern probably reflects more than just polygyny. It probably also reflects a continuing advantage, carried over many generations, for some male lines of descent. In other words, back in the day, not just did Lord Y (or whoever) have many wives and many sons, but his sons, his sons’ sons. his son’s son’s sons, and so on, had many offspring. This probably implies some kind of long-term social memory, such that that the “Sons of Y” or the “House of Y” had a privileged position for many generations.

Australian Aborigines, subjects of our last two posts, often have high frequencies of polygyny, but mostly don’t keep track of genealogies over the long term. Men can tell you what kin terms they apply to other people, but they mostly don’t know their ancestry past a few generations. If I’m an Aborigine, it’s enough to know that my father called some other man “brother,” to know that that I call that man’s children my “siblings.” I don’t have to know the actual genealogy. But many Eurasian societies have been different. People can give you a line of begats stretching back many generations. For example, Kirghiz boys from a young age were expected to be able to tell you their “seven fathers”, i.e. their father, their father’s father, and so on, for seven generations. Having prominent ancestors inthe male line is a form of social capital. Even very large groups may claim descent from ancestors going way back. These stories – the tribes of Israel going back to the sons of Jacob, Greek patrilineages going back to the sons of Hellen (a guy, no relation to Helen of Troy), Indian Brahmins belonging to different ancestral gotras (patrilineal clans) going back to Vedic times – must have been heavily fictionalized. But maybe not completely.

Eurasian history is often told as the story the rise of states and empires. But it’s also the story of the rise of patrilineal descent groups (and the heavy policing of female sexuality to make sure of paternity in the male line). One thing we’ll see in posts to come is how the relationship between State and Clan played out differently in different civilizations.

Write and wrongs

Here’s one account of the origin of the first system of writing in Mesopotamia:

The immediate precursor of cuneiform writing was a system of tokens. These small clay objects of many shapes – cones, spheres, disks, cylinders, etc. – served as counters in the prehistoric Near East and can be traced to the Neolithic period, starting about 8000 B.C. … The development of tokens was tied to the rise of social structures, emerging with rank leadership, and coming to a climax with state formation. Also, corresponding to the increase of bureaucracy, methods of storing tokens in archives were devised. One of these storage methods employed … simple hollow clay balls in which the tokens were placed and sealed. … Accountants eventually [turned to] imprinting the shapes of the tokens on the surface of the envelopes [balls] prior to enclosing them. An envelope containing seven ovoids, for example, bore seven oval markings. The substitution of signs for tokens was a first step toward writing. Fourth millennium accountants soon realized that the tokens within the envelopes were made unnecessary by the presence of markings on the outer surface. As a result tablets … replaced the hollow envelopes filled with tokens.

Schmandt-Besserac How Writing Came about

(Hat tip to commenter Eric Kimbrough for the reference.)

Examples of tokens and corresponding pictographs below:

tokens : writing

And here is Claude Lévi-Strauss (Tristes Tropiques) on the original function of writing:

Writing is a strange invention. One might suppose that its emergence could not fail to bring about profound changes in the conditions of human existence, and that these transformations must of necessity be of an intellectual nature. The possession of writing vastly increases man’s ability to preserve knowledge. It can be thought of as an artificial memory, the development of which ought to lead to a clearer awareness of the past, and hence to a greater ability to organize both present and future. After eliminating all other criteria which have been put forward to distinguish between barbarism and civilization, it is tempting to retain this one at least: there are peoples with, or without, writing; the former are able to store up their past achievements and to move with ever-increasing rapidity towards the goals they have set themselves, whereas the latter, being incapable of remembering the past beyond the narrow margin of individual memory, seem bound to remain imprisoned in a fluctuating history which will always lack both a beginning and any lasting awareness of an aim.

Yet nothing we know about writing and the part it has played in man’s evolution justifies this view. … If we ask ourselves what great innovation writing was linked to, there is little we can suggest on a technical level apart from architecture. … To establish a correlation between the emergence of writing and certain characteristic features of civilization, we must look in quite a different direction. The only phenomenon with writing has always been concomitant is … the integration of large numbers of individuals into a political system and their grading into castes or classes. … At the time when writing first emerged, it seems to have favored the exploitation of human beings rather than their enlightenment. This exploitation, which made it possible to assemble thousands of workers and force them to carry out exhausting tasks, is a … likely explanation of the birth of architecture. My hypothesis, if correct, would oblige us to recognize the fact that the primary function of writing is to facilitate slavery.

(To follow up on the preceding post about empires before history: Lévi-Strauss acknowledges that there have been empires without writing, but argues that the lack of writing kept them from enduring long.)

Roots and grains, clans and kings

9.85 – 9.31 thousand years ago

Agriculture got started in the Near East by 10,000 years ago, yesterday on Logarithmic History. But a very different agricultural system may have begun around today’s date on the margins of Kuk Swamp in the highlands of New Guinea. This early date is controversial, but agriculture was clearly in place by around 6.5 kya.

The folks at Kuk Swamp were harvesting (and at some point cultivating) root and tree products: taro, yams, and bananas. We know relatively little about the early history of such crops, and their New World counterparts like manioc and sweet potatoes, since they don’t preserve as well archaeologically as grains like wheat, rice, and corn/maize.

And there may be a more consequential difference between roots and tubers, and grains. Many root crops don’t keep well once they’re harvested. Better to leave them in the ground and harvest small amounts as needed. But grains have to be harvested all at once, and then stored. There may be a further socio-political implication to this: in the case of grains, concentrated stores make it easier for tax collectors to step in and appropriate a part of the product. Around the world, grain agriculture eventually ends up associated with complex stratified societies, with elites supported by rents and taxes extracted from a dependent peasantry. Places where root and tree crops were the basis of subsistence were less likely to develop political organization beyond the local level. Highland New Guinea winds up illustrating this, with productive agriculture and dense populations, but tribal-scale politics right up to the mid twentieth century.


The Andes, where the potato was first cultivated, and a succession of empires eventually flourished, may be the exception that proves the rule. At high altitudes, potatoes could be preserved by freeze drying.

James Scott, a political scientist with some anarchist sympathies, has a recent book out, Against the Grain: Deep History of the Earliest States, about the relationship between grains and the state formation. And in an earlier book, The Art of Not Being Governed:An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, he argues that stateless folk in Southeast Asia sometimes opted for root crops for political reasons – to preserve their independence – more than ecological ones.

Globalization and its discontents

October 2015 – November 2016

According to some paleontologists, evolution proceeds by fits and starts. Long periods of stasis, without much change, are punctuated by pulses of rapid evolution accompanying speciation. Human history too often proceeds by fits and starts. In 2016 several electoral upsets occurred – the British vote to leave the European Union, the U.S election of Donald Trump to the Presidency – that suggest that a long period of consensus about politics is due to be punctuated.

From Old Deal to New Deal

It’s interesting to compare-and-contrast the current situation in the United States with an earlier episode of stasis and punctuation in American history. Between the 1870s and the 1920s, there was an effective détente between Republicans and Democrats, with each party getting their way on the issues that mattered most to them. The Republicans were the party of Big Business, and Big Business for most of this time was a supporter of protectionism and high tariffs, meant to insulate domestic industry from foreign, especially European, competition. In the industrializing Northeast, much of the middle and working class was on board with this program, welcoming protection from low-wage labor abroad (although in big cities, Democrats and even Socialists had a base of support from recent immigrants). The Democrats, meanwhile, were above all the party of Race, specifically in the white South, which was effectively under single-party rule, dedicated to keeping African Americans (and low class whites) disenfranchised. The agricultural South and West would have preferred more a more open trade policy, and the industrial Northeast had some misgivings about segregationist excesses, but the two sides managed to keep the peace with one another.


With the onset of the Great Depression, being the party of Big Business stopped working for the Republicans. A very different political alignment came into being with the New Deal. Intellectually too there were major shifts, especially in thinking about race, so that the cultural world of, say, 1950, seems miles away from the world of 1900.


From “The World is Flat” to a Fractured World

From the 1970s until 2016, a different bargain held between Republicans and Democrats. Curiously, this bargain was a kind of inverted version of the earlier détente between the parties. The Republicans were still the party of Big Business, but with the United States having matured into an industrial superpower, this translated into support for reducing barriers to international trade. And the Democrats were again the party of Race, but now non-whites were a crucial part of the Democratic coalition, making up for (and contributing to) the party’s weak showing among whites. In particular, Democrats dominated the African American vote as effectively as they had once dominated the white Southern vote. Intellectually, this bargain translated into an ideological fusion of economic internationalism (what left wing critics would call neo-liberalism) and multiculturalism. Geographically, the pattern of support for the two parties was almost exactly the opposite of what it had been a century earlier.


Under the surface, there were signs that the Republican embrace of Big Business and free trade and the Democratic embrace of multiculturalism and identity politics left a lot of voters dissatisfied. But it took a very unusual political campaign to bring this discontent to the surface. Like Roosevelt, Trump won with the support of Northeastern voters who would previously have supported the other party’s candidate (or stayed home). But analogies with the past go only so far. Trump’s margin of victory was far narrower than Roosevelt’s. The future seems more likely to witness an Age of Discord and racialized politics than a stable new political alignment.


Culture wars

October 2015 – November 2016

Since 1981, the World Values Survey Association has been carrying out surveys around the world regarding people’s values, asking respondents, for example, whether most people can be trusted, and whether they are proud of their country. A lot of the variation in values across countries falls along two axes, survival versus well-being and self-expression, and tradition versus secular rationality, shown as the x and y axes in the chart below.


In societies high on survival and low on well-being (left on the x axis), people tend be less trusting and less happy, and to value money and material well-being more than emotionally rewarding careers. In societies high on traditional authority (low on the y axis), people are more patriotic and more religious.

We can also plot countries around the world by their positions on the two axes, as in the chart below.


A few observations: Confirming everyone’s stereotypes, Sweden is extreme both in post-materialism, and in post-traditionalism. Overseas Europe is more traditional than the Continent: the Anglosphere is more traditional than the Continental Protestant world, and Latin America more traditional than the Continental Catholic world. And Soviet Communism did a moderately effective job of destroying traditional values, and a really good job of leaving people miserable.

Values change over time. They constitute a mediating link between economic and political change: economic changes tend to result in changing values, while changing values tend to result in changing political institutions. More specifically:

  1. The growth of industrial employment tends to move societies up the y axis, away from traditional values, without shifting them much on the x-axis. The history of rapidly industrializing late nineteenth- and early-twentieth century Europe reflects this value shift, with new ideologies and leaders bypassing or assaulting traditional hierarchies of aristocracy and Church while fighting ruthlessly to make sure their followers came out on top in the struggle for existence.
  2. More recent economic changes, toward post-industrial employment, tend to move societies rightward on the x axis. The declining levels of violence documented by Pinker, as well our halting progress toward a more democratic world, are reflections of this. These are encouraging developments, but matters are complicated by the fact that this movement is highly uneven, both across and within countries. We no longer see the stark divisions of the Cold War era. But in many areas around the world, people find themselves in a house divided against itself on cultural matters, and the resulting culture wars can make for more conflict. Political scientists have coined a label for this, Center-Periphery Dissonance, and many of the revolutionary political struggle of the last several years have pitted a modernizing center against a more traditional periphery.

Tutsi and Hutu

October 1993 – January 1996

In just one hundred days in 1994, some 800,000 Rwandan Tutsi were murdered under the direction of the Rwandan government, with the participation of a large part of Rwanda’s Hutu majority population. This was genocide, the last major genocide of the twentieth century. However US diplomats were forbidden to use the word. Calling it genocide would have obliged the international community to intervene.

A few comments:

The internal violence in Rwanda was closely linked to external conflict. Next door to Rwanda is Burundi, with a similar demography – a Tutsi minority and a Hutu majority. But politics took a different course in the two countries. In Rwanda the Hutu took power when the country attained its independence in 1963, and the government directed massacres of Tutsi. Meanwhile, in independent Burundi, the Tutsi dominated. In 1972 100,000 Hutu were massacred there. The next year saw anti-Tutsi riots in Rwanda. The genocide in 1994 followed a seizure of power by Hutu extremists, who played on fears of a Tutsi takeover. French political scientist Jacques Semelin calls Rwanda and Burundi “ethnic false twins.” He notes similar “fratricidal duos” in the case of other twentieth century genocides – Serbia and Croatia, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Ottoman Turkey and Czarist Russia. In each case, mass killing of ethnic minorities – of Croats, Jews, Armenians –  was tied, in the minds of the perpetrators at least, to life-and-death external threats.

The history of the Tutsi and the Hutu goes back a ways, although group boundaries were accentuated by Belgian colonial policy. Genetic and ethnohistoric evidence points to the Tutsi being a an offshoot of the great migration of Nilotic cattle-herders over the last millennium, while the Hutu derive ultimately from an even greater demic expansion, of the Bantu. The Tutsi came to speak the same language as the Hutu, and there has been some intermarriage between the two populations, but they are still physically fairly distinct from one another, with the Tutsi taller and thinner. These physical differences played into the development of ethnic animosity, an instance of “somatic prejudice.” A major theme of anti-Tutsi propaganda in the period leading up to the genocide is that Tutsi women were especially sexually alluring, but also wanton, dangerous, and emasculating. A few story titles, “Beautiful Tutsi Women as Bait into Servitude” and “The Death Trap of Tutsi Women’s Beauty,” make the point (as did a lot of visual pornography). In the Hutu Ten Commandments, a major piece of anti-Tutsi propaganda published in 1990, the first three commandments are concerned with resisting the allure of Tutsi women. Sexuality and ethnicity are the source of some of our most intense emotions; together they make an especially combustible combination.

The veil

January 1980 – January 1983


From Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi.

Before the Iranian Revolution, a number of Western scholars wrote books attempting to develop general theories of revolution. Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy is an early classic in the genre, treating different political trajectories – liberal, reactionary, and communist – as the outcome of different bargains between landowners, peasants, and bourgeoisie. Theda Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions covers some of the same ground with an added focus on states and war-making.

But the class-centered theories that these authors develop don’t do a very good job of accounting for the Iranian Revolution or broader political currents in the Islamic world. It’s difficult to map Middle Eastern political movements onto a Left-Right spectrum. And both democracy and communism made far less headway in the Middle East than in either Latin America or East Asia. Nor do the class-based theories have much to say about gender relations and patriarchy, major issues in Islamic politics.

One of our themes in the past few months of Logarithmic History has been how the major civilizations of Eurasia have found different ways of combining patrilineal clans, state formation, and major world religions. From this perspective, the Islamic world is distinctive in several respects. The custom of marriage within the patrilineage (stemming from a culture of honor long predating Islam in the Near East, but spread far and wide by Muslim conquests) probably contributes to making the Muslim Middle East exceptionally fragmentary and fissiparous. And Islam has been exceptionally successful in overriding alternative identities based on nationality and class. Today for example, according to surveys, most Pakistani Muslims think of themselves as Muslims first and Pakistanis second, while most Indian Hindus think of themselves as Indians first and Hindus second. Michael Cook’s Ancient Religions, Modern Politics makes the case for Muslim exceptionalism in some detail in comparing the Islamic world with Hindu India and Catholic Latin America.