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OneOnOne1162

Prehistoric Human Organization?

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I was wondering about what the organization of "groups" of humans was in prehistoric times. Here, of course, I'm talking about before we started using agriculture and before we started settling in one place.

 

What was the typical size of a group of humans? Why was it this size? How was it lead? How were the jobs divided? What was the hierarchy? How was the hierarchy maintained or changed? How was it organized? All of that good stuff.

 

So, any thoughts?

 

Simply links to for example documentaries about this are also appreciated.

Edited by OneOnOne1162

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As these were "prehistoric" there isn't much to go on. Still, we can glean some things from the artifacts and fossils left for us. Prior to the invention of agriculture, our species is likely to have existed much as recent hunter-gatherers societies did (do). That means that we lived in relatively small groups, perhaps up to 100 or so individuals but likely much smaller. In addition, these small kin-groups were likely part of much larger supergroups - perhaps of kin or anyway groups that they did not live with year round but who they were used to interacting with, trading with, warring with, from time to time. We know that there was constant contact with others because our species has a relatively low genetic diversity, indicating not only bottlenecks (one, thought to be about 75k years ago may have resulted in our species population dropping to the low 10s of thousands) but it also indicates extensive gene flow between groups. We can even map these out and get estimates for when and how human populations moved and interbred. This indicates that we were highly mobile both geographically and socially, even then.

 

The evidence shows we lived in hunter/gatherer societies where group size was highly proscribed by resource availability. For all its attendant problems, the invention of agriculture allowed for much more intensive living as well as greater stratification and diversification of roles in the society. The rise of cities was mirrored by the rise of the ruling class and the appearance on non-food producing/procuring professions. Hunter/gatherers do have some stratification and diversity in them, but the rigors and difficulties of such a lifestyle serves to reduce their breadth - the difficulties inherent in living a hunter/gatherer lifestyle meant they could not afford to have too many specialized skills or roles. We don't know how their communities were stratified but modern hunter/gatherer cultures are built on something like a caste system - sometimes hereditary though often not. Modern hunter/gatherers tend to be more egalitarian both in the structure of their communities and the outcomes of their interactions and there is no reason to think early humans were any different. This egalitarianism and role limitation may simply reflect a solution to survival with limited resources; they couldn't afford to mess about with the kinds of functions intensive, complex societies face.

 

There are many studies on the ethnology of modern hunter/gatherers that would be of interest to you. These groups were studied partly (largely) because they represent the style of life our ancestors led.

Edited by MEC1960

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The commonly encountered minimum number for a successful breeding population of humans to have a good chance of maintaining itself indefinitely is about 500.

 

The generally accepted number for the maximum size a human population can reach and still maintain a reputation based and consensus system of decision-making is about 150 (that's the number a mammal with a human sized brain can track socially).

 

So realistically, with a safety margin, we're talking about dozens of groups of people of 20 to 100 each, numbering in the thousands all together, encountering each other frequently and routinely under standard circumstances they have set up in advance. Traveling to these encounters, even, at certain times.

 

It's a bit misleading to think of pre-agricultural humans as having no fixed residences. Most were nomadic to a degree

 

(exceptions like the Pacific Northwest salmon fishers are much studied, and they all appear to be coastal populations with resources that came to them by water - but that may have been how the entire species got started, so we can't assume they are "atypical" somehow in an evolutionary sense)

 

but the traveling was often between fairly fixed and traditional locations in a well-marked and bounded home range. They probably had winter camps and summer camps, rainy season camps and dry season camps, etc.

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As these were "prehistoric" there isn't much to go on. Still, we can glean some things from the artifacts and fossils left for us. Prior to the invention of agriculture, our species is likely to have existed much as recent hunter-gatherers societies did (do). That means that we lived in relatively small groups, perhaps up to 100 or so individuals but likely much smaller. In addition, these small kin-groups were likely part of much larger supergroups - perhaps of kin or anyway groups that they did not live with year round but who they were used to interacting with, trading with, warring with, from time to time. We know that there was constant contact with others because our species has a relatively low genetic diversity, indicating not only bottlenecks (one, thought to be about 75k years ago may have resulted in our species population dropping to the low 10s of thousands) but it also indicates extensive gene flow between groups. We can even map these out and get estimates for when and how human populations moved and interbred. This indicates that we were highly mobile both geographically and socially, even then.

 

The evidence shows we lived in hunter/gatherer societies where group size was highly proscribed by resource availability. For all its attendant problems, the invention of agriculture allowed for much more intensive living as well as greater stratification and diversification of roles in the society. The rise of cities was mirrored by the rise of the ruling class and the appearance on non-food producing/procuring professions. Hunter/gatherers do have some stratification and diversity in them, but the rigors and difficulties of such a lifestyle serves to reduce their breadth - the difficulties inherent in living a hunter/gatherer lifestyle meant they could not afford to have too many specialized skills or roles. We don't know how their communities were stratified but modern hunter/gatherer cultures are built on something like a caste system - sometimes hereditary though often not. Modern hunter/gatherers tend to be more egalitarian both in the structure of their communities and the outcomes of their interactions and there is no reason to think early humans were any different. This egalitarianism and role limitation may simply reflect a solution to survival with limited resources; they couldn't afford to mess about with the kinds of functions intensive, complex societies face.

 

There are many studies on the ethnology of modern hunter/gatherers that would be of interest to you. These groups were studied partly (largely) because they represent the style of life our ancestors led.

 

What do these caste systems generally entail? And does that mean there's a leader caste who makes decisions for the group?

The commonly encountered minimum number for a successful breeding population of humans to have a good chance of maintaining itself indefinitely is about 500.

 

The generally accepted number for the maximum size a human population can reach and still maintain a reputation based and consensus system of decision-making is about 150 (that's the number a mammal with a human sized brain can track socially).

 

So realistically, with a safety margin, we're talking about dozens of groups of people of 20 to 100 each, numbering in the thousands all together, encountering each other frequently and routinely under standard circumstances they have set up in advance. Traveling to these encounters, even, at certain times.

 

It's a bit misleading to think of pre-agricultural humans as having no fixed residences. Most were nomadic to a degree

 

(exceptions like the Pacific Northwest salmon fishers are much studied, and they all appear to be coastal populations with resources that came to them by water - but that may have been how the entire species got started, so we can't assume they are "atypical" somehow in an evolutionary sense)

 

but the traveling was often between fairly fixed and traditional locations in a well-marked and bounded home range. They probably had winter camps and summer camps, rainy season camps and dry season camps, etc.

 

So you're saying that culturally it was sort of like a "high school" where there weren't so much rules among the individuals participating in the group or a larger governing structure but rather cliques of people where one or multiple may have a "pecking order" amongst themselves and that interact based on reputation, rumour and whatnot? And I mean the students of a high school, not taking into account the organized structures of the teachers, etc.

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"What do these caste systems generally entail?

 

They vary. Typically in modern hunter/gatherer societies the castes are comprised of members who have specialized skills - hunters, warriors, weavers, laborers, fishers, etc. They can and do overlap, so these don't exactly resemble the caste system we see in agrarian societies like recently in India. They tend to be rigidly hereditary (and at times racist) but there is some overlap in skills and roles between groups. The relative importance of each caste also varies. In the modern Watta culture, for example, hunters were considered a low caste while in the San they were among the most privileged. As agriculture took root, some castes -especially the warrior and religious castes- began to take and wield the kind of power and authority we come today to know as class.

 

"And does that mean there's a leader caste who makes decisions for the group?"

 

The difference between caste and class can be a bit complex and subtle, but in a class system there is mobility between classes while in caste systems there is comparatively little social movement. Both systems can be hereditary, but the caste system is more rigid in this regard. Oddly, though modern hunter-gatherer groups have a more hereditary style (castes), they don't show as much reliance on hereditary power and authority as do agrarian cultures, which are almost all run by warrior/religious classes - themselves often hereditary. This may reflect the egalitarianism of a hunter-gatherer, which seems at odds with the overall caste system. Perhaps it is better to view it as pragmatism rather than egalitarianism. To be sure, it is much more common for the warrior or religious castes to be in control of a hunter-gatherer group than, say, a fisher caste but power and control in the hunter-gatherers is more tenuous and can differ from group to group. It's been a long time since I've read up on this but I think the reasoning is that because hunter-gatherer societies are dependent on highly variable resources no one kind of caste can claim authority all the time or in all places.

 

I should point out that everything we know about the structure of hunter-gatherer societies comes from studying modern ones. With very few exceptions, these modern hunter-gatherers did not live without interaction with or influence from modern agrarian or industrial societies. One of the constant problems those who study these groups face is to try to disentangle those influences that, in many cases, are superimposed on the hunter-gatherers. This superimposition can change how their societies function, how they are structured and how they change. Always we need to be careful extending these findings to ancient human groups. It is best to let the direct evidence (via fossils and artifacts) speak for themselves.

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"What do these caste systems generally entail?

 

They vary. Typically in modern hunter/gatherer societies the castes are comprised of members who have specialized skills - hunters, warriors, weavers, laborers, fishers, etc. They can and do overlap, so these don't exactly resemble the caste system we see in agrarian societies like recently in India. They tend to be rigidly hereditary (and at times racist) but there is some overlap in skills and roles between groups. The relative importance of each caste also varies. In the modern Watta culture, for example, hunters were considered a low caste while in the San they were among the most privileged. As agriculture took root, some castes -especially the warrior and religious castes- began to take and wield the kind of power and authority we come today to know as class.

 

"And does that mean there's a leader caste who makes decisions for the group?"

 

The difference between caste and class can be a bit complex and subtle, but in a class system there is mobility between classes while in caste systems there is comparatively little social movement. Both systems can be hereditary, but the caste system is more rigid in this regard. Oddly, though modern hunter-gatherer groups have a more hereditary style (castes), they don't show as much reliance on hereditary power and authority as do agrarian cultures, which are almost all run by warrior/religious classes - themselves often hereditary. This may reflect the egalitarianism of a hunter-gatherer, which seems at odds with the overall caste system. Perhaps it is better to view it as pragmatism rather than egalitarianism. To be sure, it is much more common for the warrior or religious castes to be in control of a hunter-gatherer group than, say, a fisher caste but power and control in the hunter-gatherers is more tenuous and can differ from group to group. It's been a long time since I've read up on this but I think the reasoning is that because hunter-gatherer societies are dependent on highly variable resources no one kind of caste can claim authority all the time or in all places.

 

I should point out that everything we know about the structure of hunter-gatherer societies comes from studying modern ones. With very few exceptions, these modern hunter-gatherers did not live without interaction with or influence from modern agrarian or industrial societies. One of the constant problems those who study these groups face is to try to disentangle those influences that, in many cases, are superimposed on the hunter-gatherers. This superimposition can change how their societies function, how they are structured and how they change. Always we need to be careful extending these findings to ancient human groups. It is best to let the direct evidence (via fossils and artifacts) speak for themselves.

 

That last thing is something I was wondering about. This seems fairly complex for the earliest human groups. I would've expected something more like the system of other genetically close species of ape.

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That last thing is something I was wondering about. This seems fairly complex for the earliest human groups. I would've expected something more like the system of other genetically close species of ape.

 

 

It's probable that the earliest "humans" emerged from beings with a fair amount of technology - fire, stone tools, shelter construction, probably crude nets and rudimentary gathering/carrying apparatus - and the social organization to match.

 

It's hard to imagine where else the kind of physiological adaptations that require such a long childhood could have obtained the necessary evolutionary pressure from.

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It's probable that the earliest "humans" emerged from beings with a fair amount of technology - fire, stone tools, shelter construction, probably crude nets and rudimentary gathering/carrying apparatus - and the social organization to match.

 

It's hard to imagine where else the kind of physiological adaptations that require such a long childhood could have obtained the necessary evolutionary pressure from.

 

So what about previous species of human then?

 

Strays kind of away from my central question, but you have made me curious.

Edited by OneOnOne1162

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