How were leaders born?

For most of our history humans appear to have lived in egalitarian groups, without a leader commanding obedience. However, at some point in the last 15,000 years many cultures underwent a social change; developing an organised, hierarchical leadership. Given the current state of politics; many of you may be jokingly asking why they made such a change (or if you’re an anarchist; maybe you’re asking this a bit more seriously).

Yet joking or not, this is still a question many anthropologists ponder. After all, having a leader raises the possibility of having a despot ruling over you. Even with the good leaders, the common folk still often have to give a portion of their hunt/farm/income to the leadership. If you’ve got an egalitarian society ticking along quite nicely, why change; particularly given these issues?

Some of the earliest administrative documents. Do they mention the earliest leaders I talk about? I dunno, I don't read cuneiform

Some of the earliest administrative documents. Do they mention the earliest leaders I talk about? I dunno, I don’t read cuneiform

Fortunately for people interested in how leaders were born, in some cases this shift also happened around the time of writing. Such records reveal that in Mesopotamia the first political leaders (who were also religious leaders) were irrevocably tied into food production. Everything produced by the city would be gathered by them at the temple, where it was promptly divvied up amongst the citizens2 in a manner I’m sure would make Karl Marx proud. Elsewhere a similar pattern appears to hold true, with a leadership developing around the time a society began producing a lot of food (and promptly taking over, or at least regulating in some way, the production of this food).

This has led many researchers to propose that the “evolution” of leaders was the result of food surpluses (which, in turn, were typically – but not always – the result of farming). Perhaps as people could produce more than they needed, some individuals began to build up resources which they could use to bribe and coerce others into making them leader. Or maybe it was more benign. With a food surpluses, not everyone needs to gather food; and could specialise in making tools or something else. But if everyone were to shift away from food production, the effects could be disastrous. Maybe societies turned to a charismatic individual to help organise everything and stop the group imploding when everyone decided they’d rather make vases than go hunting. There are many more possiblities, and it’s likely no single one is right. Different groups could’ve taken different paths towards a structured leadership. Nevertheless, there is one common theme in many of these hypotheses: leadership is the result of resource surplus.

However, two researchers from Switzerland recently asked an interesting question: what if it was the other way round? The pair created a very elaborate computer model simulating a society and every so often randomly selected one member to be a “leader” (assuming that the people in the society wanted a leader). They varied the properties of the society and the leader quite extensively, to see what were the key variables that made it likely the society would stick with the hierarchy and not return to the egalitarian state. Things like was the society making a surplus, did the leader help make more food, did the leader demand tribute, how close were other societies, did they have a leader. The list goes on.

Long story short; they found the critical variable was “does the leader make things better”. If the society wasn’t producing more food with the leader in charge, the position was untenable. It didn’t matter if it was making a surplus before or after the leader was picked, or if the leader were a despot who demanded tribute or not. The important thing was that they had to make things better. And they had to keep helping things improve for a fairly long period of time.

That’s because “producing more food” didn’t make the leader successful for the reasons you might think. What really happened is that with more resources the leader’s society could grow larger; out-competing any other societies in the area. This effectively gave the leader a monopoly on “being in a society” (which, as a social species, we tend to like). So even if they were kind of a dick, the common-folk had no viable alternative and the hierarchy lived on. Another interesting revelation is that the door swung both ways. If the leader didn’t improve the situation then they couldn’t drive out the egalitarian societies. Then, the instant they imposed a cost on the society, whether a tax or simply the resources needed to feed them, everyone decided to go back to the egalitarian societies instead.

So this research paints a nice, neat little story about how the first leaders were born. Given it’s a simulation (and thus a simplification) I’m skeptical of whether this nice narrative every played out in reality; and that’s a failing the researchers admit. However, both they and myself think that this simulation shows quite convincingly that leaders played a more pro-active role than some give them credit for. They couldn’t have just piggy backed on a successful society, they had to help make it more

The first leaders were born when people asked not what they can do for their leader, but what that leader could do for them. I feel like the fact that phrase has been flipped round says something deep and profound about our society, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what that is.

1. Proc. R. Soc. B 22 September 2014 vol. 281 no. 1791 20141349
2. Pollock, S. (1992). Bureaucrats and managers, peasants and pastoralists, imperialists and traders: Research on the Uruk and Jemdet Nasr periods in Mesopotamia. Journal of World Prehistory, 6(3), 297-336.

15 thoughts on “How were leaders born?

  1. I always thought the first leaders in early large societies were like mafias that took power rather than having it given to them. Once societies had a commanding power they could function better and this paved the way to modern organized societies, but obviously this wouldn’t have been foreseen at the time.

    • I think that is one interesting implication of this study: if there are alternatives, people will flock to them. Despots (and to a certain extent leaders in general) are only sustainable when there is no readily available alternative

  2. Surely an important factor is the control of information – which might be about food – but could relate to other resources. In any society there will be a variety of skills and personality traits and someone who has better knowledge of some key resource and is good at communicating that knowledge in a charismatic manner is likely to gain an influential position in any group.

    Of course, if things are going well (crops are improving because the climate is improving) better knowledge is not essential but surely above average communication skills are always needed in the initial choice of a leader.

    However things start getting interesting when the leader collects a sub-set of society who gain significant social benefit from supporting him and when a line of succession forms.

    • A new technology or knowledge could’ve been what allowed the leaders to sustain growth and thus secure their position. But, assuming these simulations are accurate, sustained growth is needed to outcompete the other groups.

      Now, as the society grows there are more people to work, which would help sustain said growth. The key thing is that the information the leaders had would not be depleted; allowing the new workers to also exploit the knowledge or information.

      So something like knowledge of a new patch of resources wouldn’t be enough, as the group would quickly consume them. New tools, techniques or something like that is the sort of knowledge leaders needed.

  3. Interesting post! I like simulations – they have their problems but they can produce more robust or at least better baseline results than simply blabbing about stuff. It is particularly telling that the leader only has to provide a benefit up to the point where a monopoly is established (well, interesting in my kind of biological/game/political theory, at least.)

    How good is the assumption of egalitarianism in humans? I only ask because there are some pretty fierce dominance structures in great apes. Then again, humans are the great cooperators of the animal kingdom.

    • Simulations are definitely better than just a lot of naval gazing; although they aren’t the final answer either and we should remember that.

      As for egalitarianism, every known pre-surplus society has followed that structure; so it seems like a safe bet. Also, when there is such a leadership it tends to leave some evidence; like big huts or fancy headwear. Although our record of prehistoric groups isn’t as thorough as our knowledge of modern ones, nevertheless no such evidence has been found

  4. Playing devil’s advocate in this thread, it seems more likely that egalitarianism is the new social structure, invented by Marx in the 19th century, and hierarchy is the original structure. After all, the other large social carnivores all have alpha male leadership – lions, wolves, chimps, gorillas. I’ve never heard any evidence that humanity was originally egalitarian. The Yanomamo of the Amazon, for example, have hierarchical leadership (see “Noble Savages” by Napoleon Chagnon).

    While “organized, hierarchical leadership” did come about around the time of the Sumerians and ancient Egyptians (if by ‘organization’ you’re talking about written records of the hierarchy), who’s to say it wasn’t preceded by unorganized, hierarchical leadership?

    (BTW, do you have a link to reference 2?)

    • I think anthropologists use the term egalitarian in a slightly different way to most people. They acknowledge these societies are not perfect examples of egalitarianism, with varying degrees of political infighting as people try and exert authority over others.

      Nevertheless, they are classified as such for several important reasons. Primarily because there is no organized leadership. Also, whatever politics does occur does not influence resource distribution, with everyone receiving a roughly equal amount. It also doesn’t significantly hamper the autonomy of individuals, with most families remaining independent units within the tribe; not being dictated to by some leader. Finally, whatever sort of social hierarchy does exist, ranks are not inherited. Anyone who survives long enough gets to be the elder of a tribe, not just the sons of elders.

      Perhaps the phrase relatively egalitarian would be better; I was just following the literature. At any rate, this is the almost universal political system amongst groups without a surplus of resources. As such, most feel confident in concluding that this was the dominant social system for most of modem human prehistory.

      As for the Yanomamo, they aren’t strict hunter-gatherers but engage in some agriculture. Whilst an interesting people, as such they aren’t really comparable to the sorts of pre-agriculture groups being discussed.

  5. This makes good sense to me. Organization would seem to be a requirement for any system to be large, complex and productive, and leadership (or some form of management) seems to be key in organization.

    There is also that some form of leadership might be an effective way to deal with the inevitable conflicts of interest and purpose that would occur in a larger system.

    • That was one conclusion of the study, although they arrived at it in a rather circuitous way. The leader meant the group was gathering more resources, so each individual had more. As such, they were less likely to conflict with others over said resources.

  6. As you said, Adam, they were also religious leaders who probably interceded with the spirits, gods, whatever, to produce rain and good crops as well as plan and organize. Lets save some of our crops for possible famine etc. And if they failed you could always torture them and throw them in a bog.

  7. Pingback: This week in human evolution: climate changing meteors, the first Europeans & more | EvoAnth

  8. Unsure how scientific it is, but I know there’s an anecdote in Herodotus about how one man took power in an egalitarian society. He first set himself up as an impartial judge, mediating disputes, until people kept coming to him more and more, and thereby increasing his soft power to a point that he was able to convert his position into a more formalized role.

  9. I only know one thing about anthropology, and that is the social brain hypothesis, so I have to bring everything back to it. How big were these egalitarian societies before and after they gained leaders? I would expect food surplus to correlate with increases and group size, and groups going past a certain size having to splinter or find a way to manage a society where everybody can’t know everybody else. In the latter case, I could imagine managers (or if you want to be flattering: leaders) emerging.

    This also plays nicely with the anecdote from Herodotus that John Kutensky mentions.

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