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An Elite Apart: The Biology of Hierarchy
Originally published in Man’s World Edition 3 and reprinted with kind permission of the editor. You can read it, along with dozens of incredible articles here
A core principle of Western liberal politics, at least from the French Revolution, is the insistence that everyone is equal when our social roles are stripped away. The inherently horizontal nature of humanity is now the hegemonic view across most of the world and it’s hard for someone born and raised in modernity to think anything else. However, this was not always the dominant view and it demands closer scrutiny in light of our increased knowledge of prehistory and genetics. There are lurking questions across the fields of hunter-gatherer and early farming studies - how did social stratification occur and when? How was it maintained and developed, and what do these inequalities mean for us today?
I want to explore some of these ideas here, whether such a thing as a ‘biological hierarchy’ existed and how it would have arisen amid the much lauded egalitarian nomadic societies of our earliest ancestors? I’ll trace a winding path, from Voodoo priests to Polynesian chiefs, from Palaeolithic cannibal cults to Bronze Age island pyramids, all to show you how different conceptions of power and hierarchy function and to reveal the ancient roots of the enemy today.
A word of warning - this is not a scholarly dissertation, concerned with tedious referencing and hedging. I’m laying out a story, one that is surely wrong in its minutiae, but broadly correct I think from a wider vantage point.
Two Types of Foragers
To begin the search for a natural hierarchy, we have to start with the traditional image of the small-scale nomadic foraging band, which is assumed to be the norm for the Palaeolithic. This social structure is defined as ‘simple’. This doesn’t mean that the group can’t have rich and complex traditions and stories and art, but it refers to the levels of social difference.
A small band like this would be basically egalitarian. This word is slightly misleading though, it doesn’t refer to the modern liberal idea of free individuals doing whatever they want. Even in small bands, people are governed by norms, precedents, group control methods such as mocking, enforced sharing and punishments like banishment for offenders. There will be natural hierarchies, between men and women, adults and children, the competent and the dependent, the elderly and the young. These form the texture and fabric of life, but they aren’t institutionalised or fixed, much like a group of boys at school, or a club of friends. Dynamics change and shift and some people will rise and fall as coalitions form and fracture. Economically, this egalitarian form of social structure tends to also be simple. Food is collected and hunted and usually eaten on the spot. Very little if any is preserved for long or even medium term storage. This economy is referred to as ‘immediate return’, in the sense that each person gets an immediate return on energy invested. The opposite to this is ‘delayed return’, which is associated with complex hunter-gatherers, groups which have a more formal system of hierarchy and power, sometimes hereditary.
It’s not always obvious where the boundaries between these two start and stop, but what is clear is that highly complex hunter-gatherers mastered just about every technology typically associated with the Neolithic - ground stone tools, carpentry, astronomical maps and knowledge, pottery, early metalworking, warrior elites, slavery, monumental architecture and sacrificial rituals overseen by a shamanic or priestly class. We know less about these complex hunter-gatherers as they have been eradicated from history. We’re left with anthropology, archaeology and surviving societies to bear witness to their achievements. In North America the two dominant examples are the fishing civilisations of the Pacific North-West and the Calusa people of Florida. Both were noted for their sedentary and stratified societies, based on aquatic resources, with rich traditions of boat building and a population of slaves. The interesting question is how did we get from egalitarian nomads to slave owning forager-fishers without agriculture?
One of the more unknown social realities of hunter-gatherers all around the world, is the presence of secret societies within the tribe. Anthropologists have long documented their existence, but for some reason we prefer the simple nomad vision and it comes as a surprise to many that secret cults dedicated to sex, astronomy, cannibalism, music and art were a normal part of human life since our origins. Brian Hayden, a specialist in forager religious and ritual practices, defines hunter-gatherer secret societies as:
“voluntary, ranked, ritual associations whose memberships, or at least the upper ranks of memberships, were exclusive and who typically claimed to possess ritual knowledge of great value to their own members or knowledge which could be used for the benefit of others, usually at a cost. This ritual knowledge constituted the ‘secret’ in these organizations. The existence of the societies and their memberships was typically public knowledge and was not part of the secret”
These secret societies often have similar characteristics, which Hayden lists as: 1) a body of esoteric knowledge, 2) the use of costumes and masks to transform into animals and spirits, 3) instruments such as flutes and bull-roarers to create spirit noises, 4) images and artwork of powerful animals, 5) an initiation ritual involving an ecstatic experience, 6) the presence of human sacrifice and cannibalism, 7) use of prestige objects such as shells, precious stones, rare feathers etc, 8) a secret iconography, 9) special locations and structures for rituals, 10) exclusive and unusual burial practices for members, 11) vast majority of secret societies were exclusively male and 12) children of members were usually initiated.
What we can take away from this is that, as hunter-gatherers develop in technological and social complexity, groups of men begin to form exclusive, hereditary organisations to enhance their wealth, power and prestige within the society. These rights and esoterica are jealously and violently defended from becoming common knowledge. Describing the fear Amazonian Mehinaku women have of accidentally seeing a secret ritual or even glimpsing the musical instruments, the anthropologist Thomas Gregor relays:
“It has always been like that since our grandfathers' day. I don't want to see the sacred flutes. The men would rape me. I would die. Do you know what happened to the Waura woman who saw it? All the men raped her. She died later. Kauka had sex with her. I don't like it. But I would not get angry with the men if they did it to another woman.”
Similar stories of rape and murder accompany the ethnographic record around the world when describing the relationship of women and girls to male secret societies. Sometimes women are violently initiated into the group, thus forcing her to guard the secret knowledge, but also trapping her somewhere between a biological female and a spiritual male; other times females are simply killed for having witnessed a ritual, sacred instruments or artwork or for contaminating a ritual space. In the wider context male cults often serve to separate young boys from their mothers and extended female kin, to teach them the secrets of hunting magic and warriorhood.
A useful outcome of this mechanism is to effectively recruit all kinship groups and their male leaders into one group, reducing competition and conflict and turning the society into a hereditary vehicle for power. In many cases there were strict rules around who could be admitted and even who could procreate. The Tahitian / Polynesian Arioi, a priestly secret society who worshipped the war god ‘Oro, while admitting both men and women into their ranks, had severe control over their reproduction. While members of the Arioi had total sexual freedom before marriage, any child was killed at birth, to prevent contamination between the serf class and the nobility. Similarly the Hamatsa cannibal society of the British Columbian Kwakiutl people had clear rules about the lineage of any candidate boy, who had to be from a high ranking aristocratic family.
Having seen some of the characteristics of documented secret societies, we can turn to the prehistoric evidence to look for patterns and commonalities which might point to the existence of similar organisations. One of the most dominant pieces of evidence comes from the spectacular and ornate burials in the Upper Palaeolithic.
At sites such as Sunghir, Arene Candide, Dolni Vestonice, Grotte des Enfants and La Madeleine, the rich burials and adults and children with mammoth beads, ivory spears, shell bead caps, large flint knives and other prestige objects, shows a likely class divide within Palaeolithic groups. The mammoth beads buried with the Sunghir children took thousands of hours to manufacture and the children themselves may have been ritually executed, all classic signs of a secret society. The cave art which adorns the walls of Lascaux and Chauvet, among other sites, likely shows a society which could afford to have dedicated artists and the time and resources to grind huge amounts of pigment and build scaffolding in the pitch dark of a cave to access roof spaces. Animal figurines such as the Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel or the exploded clay animals of Dolni Vestonice also fit into the model of rare prestige magical objects. In the case of Dolni Vestonice, the animals were intentionally made with a wet clay called loess which was deliberately overloaded with water to make them explode when placed on the fire. The kiln itself was a small secretive structure away from the main campsite, all of which speaks to the trickery and deception used by secret societies to demonstrate their power over their people.
Caves are a perfect place for secret and exclusive rituals and many have offered up evidence of specialised cannibalistic rites, such as the ‘skull caps’ of Gough’s Cave in Somerset, which are interpreted as drinking vessels. The heads were carefully defleshed and the skulls broken in a specific way to produce a vessel shape.
The Dysgenic Shaman
If we accept the premise that secret societies likely existed among Palaeolithic and later hunter-gatherers then we broadly have to accept the existence of some form of religious, priestly or elite class. Palaeolithic archaeology is comfortable with the presence of shamanism during this time period, meaning people who engage in specialised forms of ritual designed to alter their states of consciousness and travel through other realms or worlds to cure disease, find animals and other important social tasks. A common feature of shamans which often goes unrecognised is that they are typically ill, sick, deformed, diseased, neurologically atypical, epileptic or physically unusual in some other way.
Eliade and other specialists in shamanic studies often call them the ‘Wounded Healer’, an archetype of the doctor or medicine man. This leads to the curious phenomenon where a sickly and deformed person ends up with a huge amount of social power. Examples of potential shamans in the archaeological record often focus on physical impairments of the skeletal remains, such as the Romito Dwarf, Lady of Bad Durrenberg or the Sunghir children. Secret societies then, could end up being ruled by the least strong member. By any Nietzschean analysis, this could lead to the prioritisation of a resentful form of politics, characterised by spitefulness, petty disputes, cruelty, trickery, vengefulness and backstabbing. This is borne out in the literature - a study of Buriat shamans highlighted the importance of gossip, rivalry and constant magical attacks between shamans, vying for status. Among the Venezuelan Hoti, shamans are the main source of fear within a highly egalitarian and peaceful society. More disturbing are the ‘dark shamans’ of the Warao people, those who perform the horrific ‘kanaima’ revenge ritual, leaving their communities trapped in a constant cycle of feuding.
The Biology of Hunting Elites
Could we begin the search for a hierarchy within a foraging society based on biology? The first place to start would be diet, which traditionally is one of the most important factors in population differences. A poor diet leads to poor health, which in turn reduces the health of one’s offspring and begins the epigenetic differentiation from the group which eats a good diet. While agricultural civilisations show a far more pronounced difference in diet quality, hunter-gatherers can still create significant differences in nutrition. A well documented example comes from the Comanche people, who divided up their tribe by the foods they ate - the Yamparika (root-eaters), Kotsoteka (buffalo eaters), Penateka (honey-eaters), Taykahpwai (no-meat) and the Tanima (liver-eaters), to name a few.
An interesting paper by Germonpré and colleagues investigated whether Palaeolithic dogs were a source of social inequality, by helping distribute wealth, food and prestige vertically as individuals and families gathered and bred more dogs. There is also a marked decline in bone robusticity, individual height and tooth health as the Palaeolithic gives way to the Holocene Mesolithic fisher-foragers, but it’s unlikely that we have enough skeletal remains to pinpoint when and where biological differentiation began to occur as the Mesolithic communities became more sedentary and hierarchical.
What is more clear-cut is the case for biological difference as agriculture becomes the dominant mode of food production. In Levantine pre-pottery Neolithic cemeteries we begin to see dental caries being unequally distributed, similarly in later Portuguese Neolithic burials, the isotope markers for diet show social differentiation based on meat vs plant consumption. This shouldn’t be a surprise, meat is the most highly valued food group across the world, regardless of economic system. The relegation of a lower class to a life of grain eating while an elite class consumes more meat is a trope which continues to the present day. An interesting exception to this trend are some highly mobile pastoralist cultures, such the Ligurian Neolithic. Skeletal analysis from this period show individuals with higher upper and lower limb density than Mesolithic hunter gatherers, most likely due to the rugged terrain and a high protein diet. To quote from the paper:
“This provides further evidence to suggest that although domesticated animals and plants replaced gathered products, vegetable consumption was less important than for other Neolithic communities and a significant part of the diet was derived from meat and dairy products”
With this new system of stratification in place, with the rise and dominance of agriculture and domesticated livestock, we can weave the threads together so far and make the following arguments:
Hunter-gatherers often organised their systems of hierarchy through secret societies
Secret societies allowed for the hereditary maintenance of power
This social differentiation was likely marked by minor differences in nutrition
Agriculture hugely widened the differences between groups, particularly in diet
“Between 1600 and 1500 BC in Bronze Age Europe, warrior aristocracies appeared along an axis from mainland Greece in the south to Norway in the north. In the archaeological record, the new warrior aristocracy is identified by graves under barrows containing valuable equipment, including bronze weapons. The personal equipment of this emerging group centred on four themes: warfare, horse riding and chariot driving, bodily decoration, and alcohol drinking”
This concise passage sums up the sweeping social change from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age across Europe and Eurasia. The emergence of a warrior elite, largely driven by the earlier expansion of mounted steppe warriors and Beaker people on boats, developed into a full hereditary aristocracy at the beginning of the Iron Age. This change, from a relatively egalitarian settled farming community to a highly stratified warrior society is best summed up by Joseph Campbell, who said it thus:
“It is now perfectly clear that before the violent entry of the late Bronze Age … there had prevailed in that world an essentially organic, vegetal, non-heroic view of the nature and necessities of life that was completely repugnant to those lion hearts for whom not the patient toil of earth but the battle spear and its plunder were the source of both wealth and joy”
One of the most crucial changes here is the rise of a young male elite, tasked with expansion and conflict, which seems in direct conflict with the older shamanic elites that seem to have been in control for much of human history. As has been noted: “minding flocks against depredations of wild animals, or, above all, by other shepherds … constitutes a permanent training in violence”. The move from a hunting economy, in which the hunt itself was managed by a potent spiritual animism, to a pastoral herding economy, in which the shepherds themselves were responsible for physically defending their charges, broke the original and ancient order of control, and liberated young men in particular to create new orders outside of the control of their elders.
We can see how these new cults took shape on the steppe by examining the ‘midwinter wolf sacrifices’ that appear around the late Bronze Age. At Krasnosamarskoe in Russia, the Srubnaya-era site revealed over 60 wolf and dog remains who had been systematically butchered and eaten. The interpretation is that it was a midwinter initiation site, where young men broke the food taboo on eating canids and transformed into wolves for the evening as they were welcomed into a youthful warband. Other similar sites have been found on the Lower Don and in the Rhine Valley.
It’s not inconceivable that these youthful war bands were in direct conflict with older, more secretive forms of political and religious power. Prior to the Palace dominance of the Aegean and Minoan Bronze Age, there is evidence for more classic secret society rituals. In caves across Europe from the Grottes des Perrats to Nakavona Cave, evidence of cannibalism, bronze drinking cauldrons and smashed drinking cups suggests active cultic activity. On the Greek island of Keros, there is ample evidence of powerful rituals, including a pyramid made from hundreds of tons of marble, complete with underground drains and raised monuments. Similarly on Crete, many shrines and caves show the remains of drinking feasts and a possible human sacrifice. It has been argued that these pre-palace societies gained enough power to either become or be incorporated into the kingships that came to dominate the Late Bronze Age in the Mediterannean. It could be that these sites represent a youthful, exuberant energy, unleashed to conquer islands and build statues. But it could equally be the continuation of a more secretive sclerotic form of power, which held down any aggressive energy with carefully managed displays of prestige.
Polynesian Caste Systems
One of the most profound examples of a biologically superior elite is from the Kingdom of Hawai’i. Despite the Disneyfication of the Polynesians in popular culture, in reality their societies were governed through a strict caste system, with a lower class of war captives and slaves who may be sacrificed at ritual events. Marriage between these captives, or Kauwā, and the higher ranks was forbidden. At the top of the caste hierarchy were the Ali’i, the hereditary nobility which governed over all, including the Kahuna priestly class. In a wonderful 1917 article, Professor Vaughan McCaughey outlines the ‘Physique of the Ancient Hawaiians’. He notes that the aristocratic class was often mistaken by the earliest anthropologists and explorers for an entirely separate race. They regularly stood taller than 6 foot, possessed of enormous muscular stature and refused to engage in any drudgery or menial work, but busied themselves with sport, combat and lengthy massages. Vaughan notes with surprise:
“The physical superiority of the chiefs is striking negative evidence against the popular belief in the bad effects of inbreeding. The chieftain class married habitually within itself, very commonly within the same family ... There is absolutely no evidence of deterioration of any sort. On the contrary, all who saw the chiefly classes in the early days agree as to their striking bodily and mental superiority.”
This is an interesting insight, since it has long been an archetype of early kingships that incest was a crucial mechanism for maintaining familial power. Anthropological and historical evidence, although contested, does point to Egypt, Peru, West Africa and Hawai’i, among others, as having royal families which engaged in incest to protect their privileges. Some potential confirmatory evidence for this came from Ireland, where an adult male was identified in the Newgrange passage tomb as being born from first-degree incest. This potentially confirms a traditional story about a builder-god-king who restarts the solar cycle by sleeping with his sister. The question of what biological effect this kind of incest has on the blood line of these royals is debatable, but a paper by Berghe & Mesher concluded that the strategy is viable, provided the king has access to a large harem to offset any potential biological problems with his children.
Vital Nobility vs Slave Cults
What I’ve tried to sketch out here, is a road map through early prehistory into the recent past and how the elites of those societies structured themselves, both politically and biologically. Elites can be both physically and spiritually healthy, or they can be sick and degraded. Both are possible and perhaps in reality, humans lean towards being ruled by the weak. Contrasting the Nietzschean vision of a carefree, beautiful, war-like and physically strong nobility against the sickly, ugly, weak and spiteful - this is the framework I want to work with.
In many cases, the shaman is a perfect representation of slave morality - often sick or crippled, diseased and wracked with headaches and afflictions, they look at power with a certain lust and can be incredibly cruel and vindictive in grasping it and defending it. Many kinds of secret societies also feel the same, full of old men, looking to control the behaviour and sexual lives of the young men, using trickery and theatre to deceive and maintain status. By contrast, the rise of pastoral and sea-borne life generated a new kind of elite, one concerned with movement and space, with violence, domination and colonisation. This noble class was primarily driven by younger men, fighting and travelling together in bands, exploring their worlds and gaining glory for themselves and their people.
While this is a highly simplified image, and many shamans do not comport themselves that way, it nevertheless captures something of the spirit of aristocracy which has moved through us since the beginning. Secret societies are ambiguous of course, there have been and hopefully still are societies where vital and noble traits are celebrated. However, they can of course go in the opposite direction, and this is the lesson of Haitain Voodoo.
In its origins, Voodoo is a syncretic blend of Catholicism and Yoruba / West African beliefs. The character of Voodoo has been determined by its necessity as a secretive, furtive, underground slave religion. Having developed in opposition to the plantation slave owners, Voodoo practitioners became experts in organising without leadership, in practicing their rites without attention and communicating without oversight. These qualities allowed it to become a dominant force during the Haitian Revolution - in 1791 a Voodoo priest named Boukman became possessed during a ritual and channelled the spirits' insistence that the slaves be freed and the French driven from the island. To quote Michel Laguerre:
“After independence … former slaves and maroons congregated in secret societies around influential Voodoo priests. Throughout the nineteenth century they participated in and organised peasant revolts against the appropriation of their land by influential politicians and army officers … During the presidential elections of 1957, there were half a dozen secret societies that had almost complete control over the daily life of the Haitian peasantry and urban dwellers. As a kind of underground police force, judicial body and regional government, they issued their members with passports that have ever since been honoured”
Despite how intriguing and fascinating Voodoo is, it’s hardly a paradigm of health and vitality. It’s a phenomenon created under the greatest pressures, the need to survive at all costs and reproduce itself in the next generation. This yields a familiarity with secrecy, deception, trickery, forgery and resentment. For a peasant to join the Bizango society for example, he must give his money, spend time cleaning other people’s toilets or similar base work, be subjected to daily oversight and spying to ensure he doesn’t give away secrets, and all this just during the initiation phase.
When Voodoo did find itself with a measure of real political power, during the Duvalier regime, the imprint of this underground character came to the fore. As Laguerre notes - “it is less the Voodoo ritual that was retained than the political significance of the Voodoo church and the structure of relationships that it generates”. The installation of Voodoo priests into government meant Duvalier could have a subterranean reach into the lives of every individual citizen, through spying, secret society control and fear. His creation of the Tonton Macoutes, named after a child snatching monster, was the logical result of this kind of politics. Their modus operandi involved kidnapping, murder, torture, intimidation and creating a regime of fear. Many leaders with the Macoutes were known Voodoo priests and their leader, Luckner Cambronne, was nicknamed the ‘Vampire of the Carribean’ for forcing and extorting Haitians into donating plasma to his company. By 1972 Hemo-Carribean was exporting over 1,500 gallons of plasma to the US every month, much of which was tainted and some potentially infected with HIV. The image of a mythical monster which sucks the blood from its victims, leaving them lifeless husks, could not be more terribly manifested in the world.
If you’ve followed me this far then hopefully this argument has made some kind of sense. It is impossible to precisely and thoroughly deal with the question of biology and hierarchy in a short essay, partly for space and partly because it isn’t a subject that receives any scholarly attention. To sketch a path like this one needs to read between the lines, follow clues and bring together very different fields of study. If I haven’t managed this then at the very least I’ve hopefully whetted your appetite to research further on your own.
The study of what kinds of society and what kinds of elite exist should be of central importance to us. Our world is not one driven by vitality, youth and health, but rather by the kinds of secret society I have talked about. Dominated by the old, the sclerotic, those with a pure lust for power. These societies are very old and they give preference and advantages to the enemy. The opposite of this is the military society, the brotherhoods of men, those who train to hunt, sail, ride, fight and move. These two are not always cleanly divided or even obvious within a society and some of the mechanisms by which elites maintain their hereditary rule, namely incest, should rightly be dismissed. Societies like the Polynesians display one of the crucial social divides, essential for preserving health and vitality - keeping the priestly class subordinate to the warrior class. There’s a rich history here to be tapped someday, from Henry II’s murder of Thomas Becket to the modern Saudi regime, a constant tension and conflict between the priest and the soldier.
You may disagree with everything I’ve written here, and that’s fine. What I hope to have brought to the fore, that elites matter, that the quality and character of those elites matter, is my goal. We can disagree on specifics, but on this I hope we are united. It’s time to break the ancient order of the secret society and bring forth the cleansing nobility the world desperately needs.