Social stratification during the Upper Paleolithic?

This is a bracelet from the early Middle Bronze Age of Pannonia. The  central European Bronze Age archaeological record is characterized by ample evidence for a socially stratified society.

“Political egalitarianism is a social organization in which decisions are reached through deliberation and consensus; individuals do not command authority over, or coerce, other group members; social status, honor, and positions (if and when they exist) are voluntarily granted or withdrawn, and not inherited; and individuals can freely leave their group peers or residence. Political hierarchy is a social organization with opposite characteristics” (Shultziner 2010).

Ethnographic studies reveal that most contemporary hunter-gatherers, such as the  !Kung in the Kalahari, are egalitarian and devoid of leadership.  We do not know how prehistoric hunter-gatherers organized themselves, but the archeological evidence and the observation of their contemporary remnants indicate prehistoric hunter-gatherers lacked social stratification, although they may have had some form of role differentiation (religious specialists, craft specialists). Though Upper Palaeolithic specialists may have enjoyed influence and respect, it seems unlikely from the archaeological record that they were allowed to gain hierarchical advantage.

Some researchers speculate, that Prehistoric wealth inequality and its transmission across generations is evident in opulent burials of children and other mortuary practices during the Gravettian/Pavlovian and later Paleolithic cultures of Eurasia. Although the archaeological evidence indicates the presence of prehistoric inequality, it does not allow precise estimates of its degree or the extent of its intergenerational transmission that would permit comparison across differing production systems and historical epochs.

All early agrarian states, on the contrary, were socially stratified (Sumer, Ancient Egypt, and Mycenaean Greece). The parallel emergence of agriculture and social stratification suggests that both developments were in some way related.

The ability to produce a surplus of food lies at the core of many theories of social stratification. Surplus food is required to support a non-food-producing upper class. Agriculture has the potential to yield a surplus, and that explains why agrarian societies can be stratified. Hunter-gatherers, on the other hand, are always living on the edge of subsistence: chronically undernourished and constantly threatened by famine. They are thus unable to afford a class of non-food-producers.  Pearson (1957), for instance, argued that all societies have the potential to produce food in excess of biological necessity. It is the social organization what generates a surplus, and not the other way round. Sahlins (1998) maintains that the key precondition for social stratification is not the ability to produce surplus food, but the feasibility of food storage. Without storage, Sahlins argues, there is no accumulation of wealth, and without wealth, social inequalities cannot exist.

Most hunter-gatherers are nomads: as they quickly deplete local resources, they have no other choice but to keep moving. Nomadism makes storing food, and thus stratification, impossible. It comes to Sahlins as no surprise that the few reported cases of stratified hunter-gatherer communities are all located in exceptionally favorable ecological niches, where the abundance of food allows for permanent settlement and thus for food storage. The Pomo people of Central California are a classic example of a stratified gathering society. Acorns, the staple of the Pomo diet before modernization, were only available during one month in autumn. During that month the Pomo gathered the acorn and stored it for the rest of the year. The acorn stores were controlled by the chiefs.

Pavlovian (eastern Gravettian) sites in Moravia (30-25 k.a.) clearly show that sophisticated ritual behavior developed alongside long-term river system-oriented settlement choices, highly strategic landscape use, specialized hunting and extended exchange, and/or raw material procurement systems. This evidence suggests possible parallels with ethnographically documented “complex hunter-gatherers”.

Sedentism during the Pavlovian is precluded by the fact that the sites represent multiple rather than single occupations. Most sites seem to have been temporary places of seasonal gathering and celebration as documented for contemporary egalitarian foragers. There are also archaeological examples that may be interpreted as ascribed status during this period, such as burials in which children (Krems) and adults (Pavlovian hills) were interred with rich assemblages of ornaments and ochre.  But the scarcity of these examples, combined with the lack of evidence for sedentism or cemeteries, makes it is doubtful that they constitute evidence for established, long-standing structures of political hierarchy in Palaeolithic Europe.

The clearest evidence for the emergence of sedentary life and possible first stages of social stratification in the Pleistocene may be seen in the Early Natufian in the Levant. The most important indicator of social organization among the Early Natufian is burial treatment, which suggests variability in social status.

Whatever the preconditions to stratification may be (surplus, storage, or both), it remains to be explained how an upper class of non-food-producers can emerge. Two opposing explanations have been proposed: a conflict based explanation and a functionalist explanation. Conflict theorists hold that “aggrandizers” seized control of the means of production and then used the surplus to obtain a superior standard of living. The functionalists, on the other hand, argue that hierarchical patterns of social stratification are observable in all known societies which leads them to argue that such patterns are inevitable and desirable. The upper classes provide goods that benefit society as whole: they lead war parties and organize defenses, build and maintain irrigation systems, store food as famine relief, and manage intergroup trade. As a reward for their services, the lower classes allow the upper classes a greater share of society’s wealth. Between these extremes, intermediate positions have emerged. But such questions are clearly beyond the scope of Aggsbachs Blog….

Suggested Reading:$UBUG/repositorio/10321282_Dobrovolskaya.pdf





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