1993-10-19: Man’s Rise to Civilization

Man’s Rise to Civilization

The Cultural Ascent of the Indians of North America (1976)

by Peter Farb (1929-1980)

This book gives a great deal of information on several types of cultures found among native Americans: bands, tribes, chiefdoms and states.  It also has information on messianic movements, such as those triggered by the stress placed on Indian cultures by the Whites.  Farb takes a cultural evolution approach to the material, which makes it congenial for use in a memetic formulation.  One of his concerns is the injustice with which Whites have treated Indians, though he does not dwell excessively on it.  He laments the loss of cultural diversity around the world.

I think Farb’s position can be elaborated to show the important links between Indian and White American cultures, and the positive possibilities that composite culture has for the world.  Part of that possibility is acceptance and love of diversity.

Farb’s preface includes two apt quotations.  Walter Bagehot, nineteenth-century British social scientist, said, “To illustrate a principle you must exaggerate much and you must omit much.”  Rudyard Kipling wrote:

When ‘Omer smote ‘is bloomin lyre,

He’d ‘eard men sing by land an’ sea;

An’ what he thought’e might require,

‘E went an’ took — the same as me!

Parts of Farb have revealed errors in ANH.  As I approach redrafting that work in a new organization, I will incorporate as much as possible.  (This applies also to Gooddall.)

In Chapter 1 (p. 9) Farb summarizes cultural evolution:

How, then, do cultures evolve?  Why have some peoples evolved from small bands to larger tribes, while others have become chiefdoms or states?  The answers to questions about different human societies usually cannot be found solely by looking at the environments they inhabit, or by noting great historical events or the arrival on the scene of great leaders.  Rather, an analysis must be made of the cultures themselves.  Every society is composed of multitudes of cultural elements, from baskets to religious beliefs, including social practices, tools, weapons, preferred foods, attire, and so on.  Some cultures, as in Modern America, have millions of such elements, whereas some of the southern California bands probably possessed no more than several thousand elements at the time of their first encounter with Whites.

These cultural elements are in a continual process of interaction; new syntheses and combinations are constantly being produced.  But whether or not the new combinations survive in a human group depends on whether or not they work in the existing cultural context.  An invention or a new combination can be successful only if all of the elements necessary to produce it are present in the culture.

In this passage, Farb spells out the basic premises of cultural evolution.  I would differ from this only in minor ways.  Each of the cultural elements he mentions is the manifestation of a set of memes (beliefs, values, etc.); the collection of memes itself is the culture.  The society is not composed of cultural elements, but of communities (sub-societies, or sodalities), each with its own sub-culture.  These include men, women, clans, families, communities of specialists in some aspect of production, or leadership in the political or spiritual fields.  The interactions within each community express and propagate its special culture; the interactions between communities express and propagate the society’s culture.

Farb goes on to criticize some other anthropological approaches, such as the biological (and Benedict’s psychological variant).  He emphasizes the importance of the relationships between people, groups and institutions leading to the development of the social organization for a society in its environment.

In Chapter 2, Farb describes the Gosiute of the Great Basin, commonly called Diggers, a very primitive band culture.  He uses the opportunity to criticize the old (and Darwinian) notion that the most primitive humans are just a small step above the apes.

Farb describes the characteristics of the band in terms of the nuclear family (husband, wife, unmarried children).  Within a family, the father has unquestioned authority; e.g., disputes between brothers are settled by the father.  The band is a collection of families, among whom marriages can be arranged.  However, the band has no authority over its members.  If a dispute arises between members of two families, there is a danger of rising violence, retribution and feuding.  The band must mediate in such disputes, but has no authority by which to enforce mediation.  The relations between families within a band are fragile.  For this reason, an unmarried or widowed person must somehow become attached to a family for simple survival.  Kinship ties are the most important ways of extending one’s identity and security.  It is the strength of family relationships that gives a person security in a potentially hostile environment, including the potential hostility of other members of the band.  Farb bases his social organizations on this question of handling inter-society stress, and the authority to use violence.  The sources of hostility are less well-defined.  He mentions the suspicion and superstition that governs many otherwise unexplained phenomena, and how these can lead to disputes among bands.  Other examples of bands are the Eskimo and the Algonkins of the sub-arctic.

The occurrence of “romantic love” among simple societies is seen as a kind of social backwardness, something to be grown out of; only among European societies is it valued.  By this Farb apparently means lust.  The relations between men and women fulfill more practical needs, such as division of labor.  Sexual gratification is secondary, and not necessarily related to marriage.  He describes the Eskimo custom of sharing wives, but also the ways in which this can lead to dispute and homicide.

The weakness of a band lies in the necessity for cooperation and self-effacement.  This places a low value on leadership qualities.  When a leader is needed for a particular purpose, it is difficult for anyone to put himself forward.  He is likely to incur the enmity of someone who finds his action self-serving.

In the tribe, Farb finds another fragility.  The tribe imposes constraints on its clans and families, forbidding violence within the tribe.  However, even here there is scant authority.  Nonetheless, the tribe has a place for leadership in various occupations.

The Zuni, Iroquois and Plains tribes exemplify tribal characteristics.  Tribes had greater specialization, including recognized warrior communities.  Violence was turned outward toward other tribes, but controlled within the tribe.  Tribal authority was still weak, and it was possible for dissatisfied persons to remove themselves from one clan or other group and join another, or establish their own.  The kinship ties of the band were thus weakened.  A common way to increase internal tribal unity is by external strife.  Farb suggests this as a reason for the often extreme cruelty and violence shown by members of one tribe to another.  The violation of “humane” standards of conduct toward non-members reinforces the “human” identity of tribal members, and the “inhuman” identity of outside “barbarians”.

In the chiefdom, authority was more centralized.  For instance, the chief had the authority to order execution of any member of the chiefdom, but no other person had authority to kill any other.  The basis was surplus production based on specialists, and requiring distribution.  The chiefdom controlled the distribution of disparate goods among classes of members.  It also enforced class or rank distinctions, and established a “ruling class”, capable of producing new chiefs and of controlling the expression of ambition of the lower ranks.  A powerful chiefdom included multiple tribes, and fostered the distribution of a wide range of goods.

In the state, exemplified by the Aztec, a central authority exerted influence over non-cooperative tribes.  It was based on organized warriors, and exacted tribute from conquered peoples, rather than incorporating them into the structure of the state.  As a result it was susceptible to organized efforts of the conquered, surviving by their fractured weakness.  It was the ability of Cortes to organize these peoples that allowed him to conquer the Aztecs, who were militarily superior to his own small forces.


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