I’m under no illusion that one day there were pure hunter-gathers and the next day there was agriculture. Of course, it was a continuum over time. And of course human beings have violent impulses, but what I found most interesting to note in the research that I’ve done about current hunter-gathers is how the tribe affirmatively manages that. If senior males (or anyone really) tries to get too big for their britches, coalitions form against them to rein them back in. Anti-social behavior is treated with ridicule, and in more extreme cases, with banishment or execution. What is interesting to me is not that anti-social behavior never takes place, but that it is dealt with by the tribe for the larger good.
“The writings of anthropologists make it clear that hunter-gatherers were not passively egalitarian; they were actively so. Indeed, in the words of anthropologist Richard Lee, they were fiercely egalitarian. They would not tolerate anyone’s boasting, or putting on airs, or trying to lord it over others. Their first line of defense was ridicule. If anyone — especially if some young man — attempted to act better than others or failed to show proper humility in daily life, the rest of the group, especially the elders, would make fun of that person until proper humility was shown.
One regular practice of the group that Lee studied was that of “insulting the meat.” Whenever a hunter brought back a fat antelope or other prized game item to be shared with the band, the hunter had to express proper humility by talking about how skinny and worthless it was. If he failed to do that (which happened rarely), others would do it for him and make fun of him in the process. When Lee asked one of the elders of the group about this practice, the response he received was the following: “When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his inferiors. We can’t accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. In this way we cool his heart and make him gentle."
I think next on my reading list is Christopher Boehm’s 1999 book Hierarchy in the Forest. “Christopher Boehm, an anthropologist whose fieldwork has focused on the political arrangements of human and nonhuman primate groups, postulates that egalitarianism is in effect a hierarchy in which the weak combine forces to dominate the strong.”