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How Our Egalitarian Ancestors Became Elitists

(About a 7 minute read)

Three days ago, I posted on how the division of societies into elites and non-elites was a relatively new thing in human history that began as recently as 5,500 years ago on the plains of Sumer.

Before that, our ancestors had lived in small hunting/gathering groups, and were fiercely jealous of their freedoms — so jealous that they resented and opposed any attempts by someone, or some group, to rise up above the others. In short, they were non-elitists, egalitarians. You can find that post here.

My post prompted the astute Sha’Tara to observe that there must have been some reason why the ancient Sumerians suddenly (in historical terms) decided to surrender their freedoms to a small group of elites, despite their egalitarian instincts and customs. That is an excellent question, a question I hope to address in this post.

Now to in part recap.  Ancient Sumer, 5,500 years ago.  Humans are living in small bands of about 200 or fewer individuals that — quite possibly — are by this time part of much larger tribes of up to perhaps tens of thousands of individuals.  The tribes might have held together in much the same way as some Native American tribes did — by meeting up once a year to reconnect with each other.

Of great importance here, there were no genuinely powerful individuals as we think of powerful individuals today.  The leaders did not rule.  Instead, they were merely influential.  Their ability to influence people rested — not on force, not on their ability to compel obedience — but on their authority, which was in all likelihood derived almost solely from the prestige of their accomplishments in life.

Such leaders were only as powerful as they were personally persuasive.  The peoples back then made even seemingly minor decisions democratically.

Should the band move its village to a new site, one surrounded with more fertile soils, or build irrigation canals?  The leaders would call the group together, present the options as objectively as they could (a good part of their authority came from being fair to all sides), and then put the matter to a vote after everyone had had a chance to speak.

At that point, the band might split, some going to the new place, others staying behind to build canals.

How do we know all this?  We cannot be absolutely certain that we do know, but there are multiple lines of evidence that come together here. Everything from observations of the way the last remaining hunting/gathering and horticultural societies on earth are organized, to the still traditional ways in which some Native Americans make decisions affecting their groups.

So to the best of our knowledge today, that’s how it was back in the good old days, 5,500 years ago, just before the rise of non-egalitarian civilizations.

All of which raises the question: Why and how did the Sumerians decide to split their society into elites and non-elites?  Specifically, what prompted the non-elites, who were a majority, to go along with the idea that a few people should not merely lead them, but rule over them?

Naturally, there are a few theories about that, and naturally I myself have my own — which is absolutely crazy compared to the others.  One theory is that the tribe went through a period of nearly constant warfare with other tribes, and hence, the war leaders increasingly gained power — real power — over others until finally they and their closest warriors were established as kings and nobles, rulers over the rest.

A second, more peaceful, theory is that everyone agreed to create elites in order to dig and maintain the newly invented irrigation system on which their crops depended. But neither theory has quite enough lunacy in it to satisfy me.

In the case of the first theory, surely if constant warfare were sufficient to raise up an elite, we would have seen innumerable civilizations springing up all over the populated earth by that time.  Or are we to suppose the Sumerians were the only group to experience a protracted period of warfare?

As to the second theory, we have Southwestern Native Americans (the ancestors of the Hopi) who built astonishingly sophisticated irrigation systems without, however, raising up a fixed elite, nor destroying their democratic decision-making.  Why couldn’t the Sumerians have done the same?

So for those and several other reasons, I am forced to wave my fanny in the most derisive manner imaginable at those silly theories, despite the embarrassing fact that the people who came up with them know a whole lot more than me, and are smarter to boot.

No, I’m sticking with my own theory — and I’m not only sticking with it, I’m going to insufferably inflict it upon your tender sensibilities here, despite that it is bound to outrage your sense of the plausible.

But first, recall that folks 5,500 years ago in Sumer were sitting on an agricultural surplus.  The relatively new art of domesticating wild plants had given rise — for the first time in human history — to more food than could easily be consumed largely because Teresums was not around back then to eat it.

Now, imagine someone — let’s call him Perklesquat the Politician — who one day is seized by a bold, new idea: “With all this extra food, a deserving man (such as myself) need not work for a living.  Instead, a deserving man could easily live off the labor of others.  Ah! But how do I convince everyone else that I am a deserving man!”

So Perklesquat goes to his best warrior buddy, Thonkers, and implores him to join him in a coup to take over the tribe, install him as king, and Thonkers as his defense minister.

Unfortunately for our heroes, every adult male in the tribe is just as well armed as they and their relatively small group of conspirators, and the coup is quickly crushed by the fiercely egalitarian people.  Perklesquat and Thonkers receive almost the worse penalty such people were usually willing to give out: They are exiled for life.  Good riddance!

However, a young lad has taken note of all of this. He has observed that Perklesquat was half right — there really is no reason a deserving person needs to work.  But how to convince the others he’s deserving?  Obviously not through force of arms!

The lad — Turkles — is stumped.  In desperation, he talks the issue over with his best friend, the shaman, Og.  Og soon has a solution.  At least it’s worth a try, he says.

“Look here, Turkles.  We can we do it, but we only have one tool available to us for the job.  We can’t use arms: we don’t have an army — yet. So we have to persuade them to install us as rulers.  And normal persuasion won’t work here — so forget about using the irrigation system as a ploy to get us into power.”

“So what’s left to us, Og?  What’s so persuasive that it will work?”

“Religion, Turkles, religion.  Basically, I tell them I’ve had a vision in which the gods themselves demanded that I tell everyone they want you to rule over them. You resist at first in order to appear as if you’re not the power-crazed madman that you are, but then in the end, you submit to the will of the gods.”

“Og! That’s brilliant!  But will there be women too — along with the food, I mean?”

And so, the Sumerian king’s list begins, “After the kingship descended from heaven, the [first] kingship was in Eridug. In Eridug, Alulim became king…”  Which only goes to show, Turkles also established the custom of taking on a new name when ascending to the throne. Trust me on that one. I’m an internet archeologist!

You see, it’s one thing for someone to challenge your right to rule, and quite another for someone to challenge the gods’ right to appoint you to rule.

What we know is this: Many of the early civilizations entwined the political leadership with the religious leadership.  The Sumerians, for sure.  Their earliest rulers were not yet called “kings”, but rather “Stewards of the (local god)”.  The Egyptian pharaoh was also considered a god-king, as were the Inca and Aztec rulers.

To be sure, there are civilizations we aren’t sure about, such as the Indus Valley and Yellow River civilizations, but those came later — after the notion of dividing society into elites and non-elites had already gained currency.

There is so much more that could be said about this.  So much more that even a summary of what could be said might run to another 500 or even 1000 words.  But I’ll leave it here for now.

Questions? Comments? Confessions that you routinely moon my posts?  Generous offers to arrange my next marriage for me?

5 thoughts on “How Our Egalitarian Ancestors Became Elitists”

  1. Ok, sure and fine but… what if, just what if, the “gods” were real? Not spirit beings who appear in a vision to a shaman, but real life beings… from another world, and it was they who established the elites by naming their favourite servant, Turkles (call him what you will, Gilgamesh if you want, it will always be a “him” by the way), as their chosen first king over mankind, then equipping him and his supporters with enough “fire power” for a time to establish the kingship on through heredity? Why would the “gods” (Anunnaki as per Zecharia Sitchin research et al) do this? If humankind, or as “my people” refer to them, Earthians, were indeed the “invention” of the Anunnaki (clones in the image of these “aliens”) then it’s possible that post flood earth could no longer support the aliens but a controlled and controllable species which they invented and actually “loved” would be desirable for them until such a time as they could possibly return to earth to rule again. There’s a bit more than speculation here, though my evidence, hm, is more “spectral” and more focused in agreement with some “ancient alien” type of research. There is so much hidden history here fiercely and mockingly denied by establishment religion, academia and science, it’s like trying to find a needle in the haystack… maybe we should just burn down the haystack then use a magnet to poke in the ashes, what sayest thou?

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