The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Using Early Human Existence To Understand Historical Societies

This is chapter 5 of “The Construction of Reality”, one of the rewards of our 2023 fundraiser.

Human at Dawn

We humans adapt to the world in two ways: thru biological evolution and thru changes in culture: where culture is everything from tools and technology to language and philosophy. We are still evolving physically, and it can be seen in different human groups. Northern Europeans are more likely to be able to digest milk properly than those of African descent, for example, while whites have less melanin due to spending time in areas with less sunlight, and so on.

But cultural evolution is far faster and it is how we have done most of our adaptation since we started making stone tools.

How humans lived for most of pre-history is important, because it tells us what we are biologically adapted for: what sort of life is natural to us. Cultural adaptation often takes us away from what we were adapted for. The classic case, again, is agricultural adoption: humans became sicker, lived less long, developed serious dental problems and so on, because what they were eating is not what they were evolved for and because long terms settlements made disease more deadly. (Hunter gatherer bands move often enough, that crudely, they “didn’t shit where they eat.”)

This is a very important point and one we’ll come back to: the word progress does not mean “better life.” New technology, organization, ideology or identities may make most people demonstrably worse off and may do so for very long periods of time. Agriculture made most of the world’s population worse off for thousands of years. Yes, there were more us, and almost all of us lived worse lives than hunter-gatherers had had.

All that said, let us examine humanity at dawn.

For most of human existence we probably lived in small bands of about forty to sixty people, and interacted with other bands of similar size whom we shared ancestors or fictive kinship with. We hunted and gathered. We knew almost every person in our life.

Humans have the ability to know approximately one hundred and fifty people well (x_Dunbar’s number). This is the human span. When groups become larger than the human span we are no longer able to interact with others in the way our species was primarily adapted to do so: as individual members of our band, or of bands we have close relations to, and who probably split from our band in the past when numbers became larger than hunting and gathering could support in one location.

Within our span, we are able to:

  • Surveil others. We know what they’re up to, through direct observation or gossip with others who directly observe them.
  • Empathize and sympathize with them. Because we are physically with them much of the time, we feel their emotions almost as our own through the action of mirror neurons and bodily mimicry. We feel their pain and their joy, if not as strongly as our own, then strongly enough that their emotions matter to our own emotional well-being.
  • Apply social feedback. Since we know what they’re doing, we can apply social sanctions. If we don’t like what they’re doing, we can let them know. This may escalate to violence, but in most cases it is verbal or non-verbal approval. Since we surveil them, we will know if these social sanctions are working to improve their behaviour. Conversely, we can apply positive feedback directly, approving of them: smiling, hugging, praising and so on.

Surveillance, empathy and sympathy, social feedback. We know these people, they know us, their well-being and behaviour is in our face.

When we belong to larger groups, we can’t do these things. We use hacks, like culture and identity and ideology and organization and technology (writing and radio and Facebook & TikTok!) to scale. But none of these scale properly, they are always different from what we evolved for, and these differences generally show up as social pathologies, though there are also advantages to larger societies, even socially, as anyone who has ever lived in a village or institution knows. (I grew up in a boarding school, those who have been in the military will probably be nodding as well.)

In addition to the problems of social scaling, hunter-gatherer band societies have five other features which are important. All of these features scale badly as the number of people in a society increases, and the cultural hacks used to scale them often lead to pathologies.

We’ll circle back to these features throughout the book, so as you read each one think “how do we do this today? What has gone wrong and right?”

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And here they are:

Equality, lack of surplus, reciprocity, ownership rules, and identity.

Equality. At humanity’s dawn we’re about equal. Some people may be better hunters, gatherers, talkers, dancers or singers than others, but generally speaking the differences are minor. Older people know more than younger, men are stronger than women, young people are generally healthier and fitter than older people.

And that’s about it, that’s the sum total of inequality. Any other variations are usually a result of lifestyle and geography. In colder climes hunting produces more food proportionally, and men are higher status because men are all or most of the hunters. In more lush climes gathering produces more food, women are the primary gatherers, and women have better status (though matriarchies are almost unknown, rough gender equality appears fairly common.)

Hunter gatherers who live in bands go out of their way to make sure that no one becomes unequal. Food sharing is generally enforced by social sanction, starting with mockery and humor but escalating to ostracism or violence.

Among certain tribes the hunter who made the arrow that kills an animal is considered to be the one who brought it down: but hunters share arrows and one check found that two hunters didn’t have a single arrow made by themselves in their quiver.

In Inuit bands every hunter had a group of 11 other hunters whom he shared every kill he made with, and they shared with him.

There is little material inequality in most band level societies, then (yes, there are a few exceptions). Sharing is enforced and in many societies if you want something another person has you simply admire it and they give it to you. (Then someone else may admire it and so on.) (X-Debt)

Equality here includes violence. Maybe somebody’s better at it than others, but generally one man is as good as another, and numbers are what matters. There is nothing like later societies where a few skilled, well equipped and disciplined men can defeat far larger numbers.

Lack of Surplus: Band level societies keep very little surplus. Either they have immediate return strategies in which it is not allowed to keep surplus, or they regularly use up their surplus in feasts and gifts. Surplus, and especially private surplus, is the beginning of civilization and inequality.(x-winter surplus.)

Reciprocity: Band level societies expect reciprocity: if I give you a gift, you will give me a gift, usually within one or two years. In many societies you are not allowed to give me a gift that is more impressive than the one I gave you or larger than I can reasonably be expected to pay back. Society mitigates hard against the equivalent of “overrunning your credit card” or “running up student loans.”

Ownership: The people who already live in an area have first rights to use the land. Others who have ties with them, such as kinship, fictive kinship or gift exchanges may also use the land, others who try to may be attacked. There is no concept of private ownership of the land, however, only group rights to hunt and gather. Private ownership of land is another marker of inequality and civilization.

Identity: Everyone has about the same understanding of who they are. They live the same types of lives (hunting or gathering); they spend most of their time not working doing the same activities (art, music, dance, gossip), they live in the same dwellings, eat the same food, have the same basic life experiences.

Different cultures had very different identities from each other not because they lived differently, but because they had different stories about who they were. They had different gods and most importantly, different ancestors. Identity was learned, as you grew older you would be initiated to become more and more one of your people.

It’s important to understand this: humans who weren’t part of your identity group were often considered, by default, enemies. Common humanity is not powerful for humans. Human bands are inclined to view other human bands who don’t have the same identity and, usually, also kinship (or fictive kinship) as other. People who aren’t “of us” are fair game for murder, theft and all sorts of nastiness. In this we are similar to many other animals: humans evolved to work the same ecological niches as other humans, other humans are our direct competitors.

In periods when there weren’t that many humans and when the land provided more than enough, we didn’t fight each other much: but as the land’s carrying capacity for hunting and gathering was approached violence increased.(X).

Identity told us who we should fight, who we should help and who we should ally with.

This problem, of identity, is one of the primary problems we humans have had to overcome as we lived in large groups and wanted to interact with other groups other than violently, such as for trade. Learning to expand identity also helped us be better at violence.

But identity is much more than who, it is what creates our self, the reality of who we are, and it expands far past ties with other humans. Identity, in a very real sense, is our body, expanded far beyond our mere flesh.



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  1. mago

    Ian’s iconic raven perched on a dead tree tip is an image I actually see in real time from my rustic mountainside cabin’s picture window.
    Identity? Assumed, ascribed and adopted? Tribal?
    We live in anomie more or less.
    Traditional earth based culture is rare and growing rarer by the day.
    Genocide and suicide
    Everybody’s got a side
    Here’s to you Mrs Robinson. . .

  2. I liked it as per usual but I wanted to ask about the arrow thing – what study or book or thing were you referring to about hunter quivers not having arrows from the same hunter? Just curious

    Good stuff as per usual though ✅✅✅

  3. Jan Wiklund

    On the other hand, we who live in big societies face much less violence than those who live in hunter/gatherer bands. Most of us see violence very rarely, and the risk for any of us to be a victim to deadly violence is almost negligible. In hunter/gatherer bands it’s common. See for example Peter Turchin: Ultrasociety.

    So a few things have really become better.

  4. Ian Welsh

    Those numbers are highly disputed (the violence ones) by actual experts, as opposed to the “best time” guys. What seems to the case is that internal violence reduces somewhat (though the statistics on it aren’t good, see the paper by Taleb), but external violence numbers go way way up. Those numbers also have issues like not dealing with mass famines and so on.

    The other issue are internal violence/breeding stuff that comes out of the DNA. Once the kings come in, about 2k years after agriculture, suddenly ordinary men stop breeding much and the male DNA narrows significantly.

  5. Ian Welsh


    The Creation of Inequality by Flannery and Marcus, though I don’t remember the page (was going to footnote later.

    Lots of details in there of hunter/gatherer, rank and big man societies.

  6. Purple Library Guy

    On the violence and extension of identity, an interesting thing I ran across a year or two ago is that in North America, it seems there was this widespread existence of identity involving partly your spirit animal. And since the spirit animal thing existed across many tribes in a wide geographical distribution, people could travel, and when they came to a new tribe even some distance away, they would have a certain kinship and hospitality rights with people who had the same spirit animal–I’m Bear, you’re Bear, we’re sympatico even though you come from far away.
    So even hunter-gatherer bands had ways of extending identity beyond the band level, which probably helped with trade and things.

  7. Daniel


    Please take some time and read the important new book by David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021). Almost everything you write in this article is massively complicated (to say the least) by the evidence the authors present, beginning with Dunbar’s number and the concept of “income inequality.” They even discuss the book you’ve cited by Flannery and Marcus, and show how it’s deficient in many respects. Also, “Dawn” is extremely engaging and well-written. I would love to have your “take” on the arguments made there.

    Best wishes,

  8. Thanks Ian, just bought the last new copy on Amazon uk and stretched my budget for spending probably the most all year

    Idk if I’ll be able to read all of it since I have a bunch more reading and studying to do but I’ll try regardless

    The book looks interesting enough from its little synopsis I’ve read so far that it feels like it deserves a reading, no matter how erratic or cursory that might be 🙂

  9. capelin

    “Most of us see violence very rarely”

    It’s outsourced.

    And it’s the bedrock on which, say, European and North American power is built on.

    We benefit, they paid. Pay.

    Gaza, Ukr, Sudan, Iraq, etc etc – we’re living in the nutrient eddies of these violences.

  10. GlassHammer

    “Surveillance, empathy and sympathy, social feedback”- Ian

    ^This is also more or less the requirements to maintain a network of friends. I would say at minimum you need 3/4 of the elements listed.

  11. Ian Welsh


    keep meaning to, I’ll prioritize.

    I don’t necessarily buy the overall argument in “Creation”, but the anthropological examples are solid.

  12. anon y'mouse

    the example re: “running up student loans” is extremely badly applied here.

    these bands did not CHARGE THEIR CHILDREN for the privilege of learning how to survive in their societies. it was simply a duty and means of survival.

    our society could take some tips. just because there is so much more to learn to become a functional economic and social unit doesn’t mean people should have to pay for the privilege.

  13. bruce wilder

    I have started this comment several times.

    I find I cannot quite accept this narrative, because I know what I take to be the major premise — this statement: “How humans lived for most of pre-history . . . tells us what we are biologically adapted for: what sort of life is natural to us. ” — is false. The implied account of human evolution during “pre-history” and the emergence of “human nature” from that experience is wrong. Biological evolution is driven by processes indifferent to human notions of good design or thriving. Moreover, human “pre-history” was not spent in a steady monotone of a narrow range of physical environments and social organization sustained for tens of thousands of years, able to hone “human nature” by dint of persistence. The emergence from the random jumble of biological variation of new human capabilities, individual and social, have created their own challenging dynamics with the global environment, but we judge and propose to control outcomes from culture, not in “natural” opposition to culture. Cultural institutions and the social organization that follows are an inherent aspect of human nature as it has evolved. Stripped of pretense, your narrative is just an ill-considered rant against the corruption and misuse of power in hierarchical social organization. I think we need a critique of hierarchy. Do not misunderstand that. But this critique of hierarchy is, imho, weakened by being founded on a potted account of human biological evolution.

    I am tempted to launch into an extended discursion on the evolutionary emergence of the human species and its distinctive capabilities and modes of existence. It is a fascinating topic and a natural attractor for anyone wanting to bootstrap into extended philosophical speculation. We don’t know more than we do know and narratives can tower over foundations of sand when you don’t worry more over what you have let flow from rhetorical dichotomy rather than concrete fact.

  14. Jan Wiklund

    Well, I am not that impressed by Taleb, he got the risk of financial meltdown completely wrong – they are built into the system and aren’t black swans. And I don’t think you can call Turchin a “best time” guy, see But numbers is actually his strong side. So I prefer him to Taleb.

  15. Curt Kastens

    Anon Y mouse;
    This is what someone at the Feral Scholar came up with for a n education system many years ago. I think it was Tim Andersson. I really liked the idea.
    1.) 10 years of public education is mandatory. Private schooling would not be outlawed but it would not be allowed to compete with public education. That means that private schooling could only be offered when public schools are not in session. It is neccessary a complex society for children to attend joint classes so that people of other languages or ethnicities or religions or philosophies are not seen as outsiders.
    2.) You start school if you when are 7 years old by the 1st of September of that year.
    That means that most students will be 17 by the time of the completion of the 10 grade. Those that are not will be soon.
    3.) All those who complete the 10 grade will be guaranteed a job at a decent wage. Those who lack the ability to complete the requirements will be given at least a Universal Basic Allowance. This allowance may be seen by some as not decent as it would not be sufficient to allow someone to buy and own a home in the suburbs and live all by themselves. No it would be along the lines of living in a dormatory. The 10 years of education would be like a German Realschule or US hIghs school diploma.
    The schooling would be followed by on the job training.
    4.) Those who wish to continue their education could go for 3 more years of free education. After that the graduates would be guaranteed a job the required more brain work and less muscle work. But the jobs would pay less than those who started working after the 10th grade. The graduates of these schools would have a degree equivilant to a German Gymnasium or an American 2 year college degree. If I remember correctly that is called an associate degree in the United States. This schooling would be followed by on the job training.
    5.) Any further formal education would be at the request of someone’s employer and would be paid for. That means not only free but the person attending would actually get a salary.
    In essence people would invest time in their education not to get a better paying job, but to get a job with better working conditions. Or to do a job that they have a passion for.
    When a society encourages the idea that everyone can be a mad scientist inventing plasma tvs, or a CEO of an engineering firm the conditions are created in which everyone wants to be a chief and no one wants to be an indian and those living the life of an indian rather than a chief are protrayed as loosers and the indians lose their self esteem and society developes conflicts between the previlaged and the not so previlaged.
    An explicit implication of this is that the political leadership of the country would bascially have to be monks ( not celibate) living a vow of poverty. They would have control over the economic and military and educational and scientific leadership.

    A common criticism that I have heard about this method is that smart people will not come forward to take positions of responsiblity. Yes in the western society that we have now that is true. Our society is warped. It evolved out of a warped history.
    But if a society could implement Tim Andersson’s educational system the putrid puss thinking that has infected so many with dreams of supremacy will be eliminated from infecting new generations of children.

    Well humans will never get the chance to implement the idea anyways unless they are forced to live a do over.

  16. Ian Welsh


    it’s a simplification, but I don’t think it’s an over-simplificiation. Sure, later on in the pre-agriculture have some pretty sophisticated societies, but I don’t think that changes the large scale picture of what most of our evolutionary history history as hominids looked like.

    Could be wrong, there’s a lot of debate in the field. Perhaps I should just say what human capabilities are and skip the previous bit: it doesn’t change things like personal surveiling , questions of equality, the warping of identity and so on.

  17. CH

    There’s a good book called The Origins of Democracy in Tribes, City-States and Nation-States by Ronald M. Glassman. It’s a hard book to find, but it’s got a lot of good information about how hunter-gatherer equality was supplanted by despotism. I gave an overview here:

    As for Dawn of Everything, I wrote reviews of the entire book by chapter where I took issue with some of their conclusions. You can search on the book title or look though the archives. In brief, it’s a great book with a lot of important information, but I think some of their so-called “debunkings” were overstated or not fully reasoned out.

  18. Ian, you wrote:
    “In colder climes hunting produces more food proportionally, and men are higher status because men are all or most of the hunters. In more lush climes gathering produces more food, women are the primary gatherers, and women have better status”

    I’m not sure this is in line with current research. For example:

    “For centuries, historians and scientists mostly agreed that when early human groups sought food, men hunted and women gathered. However, a 9,000-year-old female hunter burial in the Andes Mountains of South America reveals a different story, according to new research conducted at the University of California, Davis.”

    “Lacy and her colleague Cara Ocobock from the University of Notre Dame examined the division of labor according to sex during the Paleolithic era, approximately 2.5 million to 12,000 years ago. Through a review of current archaeological evidence and literature, they found little evidence to support the idea that roles were assigned specifically to each sex. The team also looked at female physiology and found that women were not only physically capable of being hunters, but that there is little evidence to support that they were not hunting.”

    “Analysis of data from dozens of foraging societies around the world shows that women hunt in at least 79% of these societies, opposing the widespread belief that men exclusively hunt and women exclusively gather.”

  19. CH

    Marc, virtually no one believes that women didn’t hunt. These articles are attacking a strawman. It’s more a reflection of our modern times which claims that men and women are equal in every way in the job market. It’s also an critique on the lazy idea that men have to behave in certain ways because they are supposedly “hunters.” In fact, *humans* evolved to hunt, not just one particular gender. However, in most cultures, the majority of hunting is done by men. That fact is not in dispute. Someone needs to look after the children, after all. This article has a good rundown:

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