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Chapter Seven


When the philosophers of the eighteenth century made religion out to be an enormous error conceived by priests, at least they were able to explain its persistence by the interest the sacerdotal caste had in deceiving the masses. But if the peoples themselves have been the artisans of these systems of erroneous ideas, at the same time that they were their dupes, how has this extraordinary hoax been able to perpetuate itself throughout the course of history?             —Emile Durkheim


Three centuries ago, when Europeans in North America encountered the chief of the Natchez Indians, they couldn't help but notice his high self-esteem. One Jesuit priest observed that he "knows nothing on earth more dignified than himself." And, since the chief knew nothing in the heavens greater than the sun, it seemed only natural to deem himself "brother of the Sun." This logic made sense to the sun-worshiping Natchez people, who vied for proximity to the chief's divine aura. Upon his death, those who had the honor of accompanying him into the afterlife would swallow enough tobacco to lose consciousness and then be ritually strangled.

From a modern vantage point, it is hard to relate either to the chief or to his followers. Few politicians today consider themselves gods or demigods—or, at any rate, few would admit it. And few citizens aspire to spend eternity in the company of politicians. It's tempting, indeed, to dismiss the Natchez people as a bizarre aberration. But they were actually pretty typical—typical of human beings living in a particular phase of cultural evolution: the chiefdom, in which numerous villages are subordinated to firm, centralized political leadership, and that leadership is distinctly institutionalized.

So far as we can tell from the archaeological record, all the ancient state-level societies were preceded in cultural evolution by chiefdoms. So far as we can tell from the ethnographic record, the leaders of chiefdoms have routinely claimed special access to divine force. And, remarkably, their people have typically considered this claim plausible.

How can we say with confidence that "chiefdom" is a standard phase of cultural evolution, a natural transition between the "Big Man" society and the states of the ancient world? Since the rubble of prehistory by definition holds no written records, what lets us discern the social structure of a long-lost people? Here the chief's characteristically large ego becomes a good source of illumination.

We know from chiefdoms observed over the past few centuries that chiefs go to great lengths to underscore their chieflinesss. Some Polynesian chiefs turned their entire faces into ornate works of art, enduring a painful, tattoo-like engraving process that leaves the skin looking like the leather on a fancy cowboy boot. Other chiefs have force-fed their wives into obesity, creating vivid testament to their affluence. Unfortunately for archaeologists, fat cells and engraved skin don't fossilize well. But other common forms of chiefly self-advertisement are more enduring, such as monumental architecture, often built in tribute to (and as a reminder of) the chief's distinguished lineage.

Hence the huge mounds built in North America as tombs for past chiefs. Or the pyramid-like temples on Tahiti, or the earliest ziggurats in Mesopotamia. The giant stone heads on Easter Island, up to ten meters tall, also suggest social organization beyond the Big Man level. Using these and other hallmarks of a chiefdom, archaeologists have found a clear pattern: After agriculture first spreads across a region, chiefdoms tend to follow.

This doesn't mean that farming is a prerequisite for a chiefdom. Natural abundance, and attendant population density, will occasionally do the trick. As we've seen, the Northwest Indians were on the verge of chiefdomhood. And the Calusa of Florida, also coastal hunter-gatherers, were a full-fledged chiefdom, whose leader dispatched an armada of eighty canoes (not enough) to battle Ponce de Leon.

Nor, on the other hand, are we saying that chiefdoms inevitably follow fast on the domestication of plants and animals. In the jungles of Amazonia or New Guinea, farming doesn't become very productive very fast. But given a friendly environment and a millennium or two, widespread agriculture does seem to propel social organization into the age of chiefdoms.

Thus, farming and cattle ranching come to England around 4000 B.C., and within a thousand years "megaliths"—orderly arrangements of boulders, as at Stonehenge--start appearing. The same pattern— first farming, then chiefdoms—is found earlier in continental Europe. (Julius Caesar would happen upon chiefdoms when he ventured into Germany and Gaul.) In Mesoamerica—Central America and the south of modern Mexico—farming villages were common by 2,000 B.C., and within a thousand years, immense stone heads, in the Easter Island genre, had been carved. And so on. Chiefdoms, the scholar Randolph Widmer has written, "were at various times the most common form of society found throughout Europe, Africa, the Americas, Melanesia, Polynesia, the Near East, and Asia." Around the world, with the multiple invention and rapid spread of agriculture, cultural evolution marched on. Chiefdoms sustained the basic trend toward larger and more complex social organization.

They seem to have flourished in part by harnessing large quantities of non-zero-sumness. The chief, like the Northwest Indians' Big Man, orchestrated much of the necessary coordination. But the orchestra was larger—thousands, even tens of thousands of people, sometimes spread over diverse landscapes, with diverse resources. So economic integration could be deeper and broader, with more division of labor and larger swaths of regular economic intercourse. Capital projects could be more ambitious—irrigation systems, even the occasional dam.

Sounds wonderful. But it poses two puzzles.

First, how could the cold logic of non-zero-sumness thrive in a hotbed of ridiculous superstition? How, if at all, did things like sun worship and ritual strangulation translate into economic efficiency?

The second puzzle is how the stereotypical chief could be a faithful steward of the public good. Chiefs, after all, aren't known for their sensitivity to the welfare of others. Just ask four sixteenth-century Calusa village leaders who were subordinate to the paramount chief. Not subordinate enough, apparently. He cut off their heads and displayed them at a party. The followers of Chief Powhatan (father of the Indian princess Pocahontas) were described this way by the Englishman John Smith: "At his feet they present whatsoever he commndeth and at the least frown of his brow, their greatest spirits will tremble with fear." This attitude is not a good antidote to a politician's self-aggrandizing tendencies.

One standard response to this puzzle is simple: Chiefs actually didn't serve the public; they duped the public into serving them, and religion was part of the duping. As one archaeologist puts it, "Chiefs coopt the religious authority of the community for themselves." In this view, a chiefdom's division of labor and its public works did yield positive-sums—more output than the same people could have produced working alone but the chiefs then appropriated the gains rather than returning them to the people whose synergy created them. Chiefs, in short, were parasites.

Here we revisit a venerable debate we've already touched on, a debate that applies to much of human history: the question of exploitation by ruling elites. At one extreme are Panglossian optimists, often of a rightward political bent, who can find the sunny side of the most gratuitous social inequality. At the other extreme are those--typically on the left, and sometimes Marxist—who see exploitation everywhere they look.

One place to seek evidence in this debate is Polynesia. This vast stretch of the south Pacific, dotted sporadically by islands, is a laboratory of chiefdomhood. Between 200 B.C. and A.D. 1,000, settlers leapfrogged from island to island, starting new societies. In some cases, such as Hawaii (settled around A.D. 400), these social experiments were thereafter isolated from the others. Such seclusion notwithstanding, a general pattern emerged across Polynesia: the blossoming of chiefdoms that grew more complex over time. The question is: Was it "good" complexity, fairly equitable in its benefits, or was it "bad" complexity? And where did religion fit in?


The generic Polynesian chief had plenty of sacred clout. He was an earthly representative of the gods, the conduit through which divine power, or mana, flowed into society. Indeed, he possessed tapu-such sanctity that commoners were not to come in direct contact with him. (Hence the modern word taboo.) Some chiefs were carried around on litters and had trained spokesmen, "talking chiefs," who handled the dirty business of public communication. The Polynesian chief, observed one western scholar, "stands to the people as a god."...


An excerpt from Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, By Robert Wright, published by Pantheon Books. Copyright 2000 by Robert Wright.