Ch. 1. Early-Stage Tribal Society

Author's note: The first eight chapters have been kept as short as possible. They each describe some important aspects of traditional society that are prerequisites in order to understand the modern transformation. Most readers already have some familiarity with this material. These practices and institutions were the defining core of tribal and aristocratic societies. 1

    From the beginning of our species over 200,000 years ago, to the end of the last ice age about 14,000 years ago, early humans roamed the land and seashores as hunter-gatherers. Even though tribal names and identities had probably not yet appeared, this is called “early-stage tribal society.” They developed new technologies and new procedures, left Africa, and populated the world. Despite their many advances and achievements, they retained the basic structure of small hunting bands. 2

Political Institutions

    Leadership existed but was a fairly diffuse concept with the more experienced elders, women and men, having the largest say. Unfortunately, we do not have direct data from tens of thousands of years ago. This information comes from anthropologists who studied early-stage tribal societies in the 20th century. 3

Economic Institutions

    Small bands of about five to fifteen individuals hunted together, gathered together, prepared the food together, ate together, and performed other tasks, as necessary, in a communal fashion. Economic exchange within the local group was done primarily by tribal sharing; they were mostly related to each other. Exchanges outside the band were done through both sharing and barter. This was an early and simple time; command economies and market distribution would evolve in the future. 4


    Family structure was fairly loose, probably because the question of who would inherit property was not yet a significant concern. The land and resources were the common property of everyone. 5

Gender-Specific Roles and Tradition

    One of the most important aspects of society that originated in this early stage and remained constant until recently was the development of gender-specific roles. Men did most of the hunting and women did most of the gathering. It also became traditional for women to do the daily drudge work of cooking, cleaning, clothes making, and child care. 6

    The role of tradition in human society cannot be overemphasized. Once a given pattern of behavior has developed, been used for thousands of years, and hardened into tradition, it is likely to continue until different circumstances force a change. The only reason that all human societies can be divided into just four primary categories is because of the strength of tradition. It acts to limit change. 7

    The traditional roles assigned to men and women in early-tribal times lasted through every kind of society until the recent development of democratic-market nation states. It has been the longest lasting universal social pattern in all of history. Significant change in gender roles has only come in the last few generations, and it is happening slowly. 8

Religious Institutions

    The religious leaders of tribal societies were shamans who could “communicate” with the spirit world. They used their powers for healing, to achieve a successful hunt, and to help unify the community with shared beliefs and value systems. 9

    Shamans also watched the sun, moon, and stars; noticed repeating patterns in their movements, and developed the concept of keeping track of time. The first calendars would eventually evolve from this effort. All of this represents a great deal of very useful work, both spiritual and practical. To a large extent, shamans were the intellectuals of tribal society. They were also the most important inspirational leaders. 10


    At this early stage, prior to the end of the last ice age, it is not yet appropriate to talk about military institutions. Tribal warriors would evolve in the future. There was certainly some amount of conflict but no evidence has been found for warrior chieftains or tribal armies. 11

    The ice age environment was extremely difficult. The human population was still very small. There was little need to fight over land and resources; that would come later. Because warriors were not yet dominant, indications are that women played a greater role in early-stage tribal leadership than would be the case at a later time. 12

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