Friday, October 23, 2015

The Rise of States, Inequality, and Economics - part 2

Last time we saw how competitive feasting brought about by "big men" combined with storable surpluses may have contributed to the rise of state-level social systems. Large-scale monument building appears to be related to complex redistributive systems under the control of certain powerful elites.

We know that in the ancient near east, large-scale ceremonial complexes predate agriculture, and were used as sites both for feasting, as well as religious and ceremonial rituals. It was likely that these were conducted under the aegis of early priest-kings, and where the religious ideas that would eventually be preserved in the Bible came from, including the "fall" from a bountiful garden to earning a living working "by the sweat of one's brow" scratching a living from the earth.

Economist Michael Hudson has done extensive research in this area. From an interview earlier this year:
"We begin the volume in 10,000 BC in Gobekli Tepe in Turkey where you have very large city-like ceremonial sites, larger than Stonehenge, huge sites that took hundreds of years to build with huge stone megaliths, even in the pre-pottery Neolithic. They didn’t yet have metal to carve these stones. They didn’t even have pottery. But they had in Gobekli all sorts of huge carvings in a seasonal site where people would come together on ceremonial occasions, like midsummer. We researched from Turkey in 10,000 BC to Sumer in the third millennium BC, Babylonia in the second millennium BC, the building of the pyramids, and we have the actual bills and accounting statements for what’s paid to labour to build the pyramids."
"We found they were not built by slaves. They were built by well-paid skilled labour. The problem in these early periods was how to get labour to work at hard tasks, if not willingly? For 10,000 years there was a labour shortage. If people didn’t want to work hard, they could just move somewhere else. The labour that built temples and big ceremonial sites had to be at least quasi-voluntary even in the Bronze Age c. 2000 BC. Otherwise, people wouldn’t have gone there…There weren’t that many people in the world in 10,000 BC, 3000 BC or even 2000 BC. If a government got too oppressive, or when they would raise the contributions or taxes too high, people would just flee to another area. Or if they were too much indebted the debtors would flee, as they did from Babylonia around 1600 BC. We are talking about free labor, not slave labor."
Sovereignty in the Ancient Near East (Michael Hudson)

So, much as with the Siuai or the Trobriand Islanders, labor was given voluntarily, most likely under a sort of "big man" system. Coercive authority was not yet cemented. Leadership in these cases was most likely "charismatic" leadership, possibly with a strong religious element as well.

The reason I favor charismatic leadership as the first type of leadership is that we constantly see it reforming even today over and over again in the form of cults. People in cults willing surrender their autonomy and freedom over to a cult leader if the cult leader is able to control his followers' thoughts and beliefs. We see it even in our supposedly sophisticated, technological societies, from the Branch Davidians, to Aum Shinrikyo, to Heavens Gate, to Fundamentalist Mormons, people willingly submit to the power of a charismatic leader, and people gladly surrender to this leader outsize benefits in terms of wealth and mating opportunities.

Central to these large-scale feasting events was the consumption of alcoholic beverages made from fermented what and barley (i.e. primitive 'beer'). At these megalithic work sites, there was a great surplus of food and drink, similar to the feasts of pork, coconut pies, and sago-almond puddings under the Melanesian big men:
"We found that one reason why people were willing to do building work with hard manual labour was the beer parties. There were huge expenditures on beer. If you’re going to have a lot of people come voluntarily to do something like city building or constructing their own kind of national identity of a palace and walls, you’ve got to have plenty of beer. You also need plenty of meat, with many animals being sacrificed. Archaeologists have found their bones and reconstructed the diets with fair accuracy."
"What they found is that the people doing the manual labour on the pyramids, the Mesopotamian temples and city walls and other sites were given a good high protein diet. There were plenty of festivals. The way of integrating these people was by public feasts. This was like creating a peer group to participate in a ceremonial creation of national would have a beer party to get everybody friendly. You would have big feasts, and also these were the major occasions for socialization. All over the world, communal feasts were the primordial way to integrate societies..."
Sovereignty in the Ancient Near East (Michael Hudson)
In the December issue of the journal Antiquity, archaeologists describe evidence of nearly 11,000-year-old brewing troughs at a feasting site in Turkey. And archaeologists in Cyprus have unearthed the 3,500-year-old ruins of what may have been a primitive brewery and feasting hall. The excavation, described in the November issue of the journal Levant, revealed several kilns that may have been used to dry malt before fermentation...
Some researchers suggest that beer arose 11,500 years ago and drove the cultivation of grains. Because grains require so much work to produce (collecting tiny, mostly inedible parts, separating grain from chaff, and grinding into flour), making beer would have been reserved for feasts with important cultural purposes. Those feasts — and alcohol-induced friendliness — may have enabled hunter-gatherers to bond with people in newly emerging villages, fueling the rise of civilization. At work parties, beer may have motivated people to put a little elbow grease into bigger projects such as building monuments.
“Production and consumption of alcoholic beverages is an important factor in feasts facilitating the cohesion of social groups, and in the case of [the Turkish site], in organizing collective work,” wrote Oliver Dietrich, a co-author of the Antiquity paper, in an e-mail. Dietrich is an archaeologist for the German Archaeological Institute.
The site in Cyprus includes a courtyard and hall, along with jugs, mortars, grinding tools and, crucially, several kilns that Crewe and her colleagues believe were used to toast barley for a primitive beer.
At the Turkish site, Neolithic hunter-gatherers worshiped deities through dancing and feasting at the temple site, which is filled with pillars carved with animal shapes and other cultic designs. The site also had what appears to be a primitive kitchen with limestone troughs that held up to 42 gallons of liquid. The troughs held traces of oxalates, which are produced during the fermentation of grain into alcohol.
Discovery of ancient breweries offers clues of primitive lifestyle (Washington Post)

This record accords perfectly with Marvin Harris' descriptions from the previous post.

This lends credence to the idea that wheat and barley were first extensively cultivated not primarily as a food source, but as a means to make alcoholic beverages. We know that grains are considered "unpalatable" by hunter-gathers, plus they take a huge amount of work to process them and make them edible. Why go through all that trouble for such an unpalatable food? In the past, it was suggested that population pressure drove it, but as we've seen, grains were cultivated long before the population increase. It's more likely that the surplus grains would be fermented and consumed with large quantities of meat. Bread may have begun as simply a way of preserving wheat for brewing, and as a spare capacity in times of scarcity. Only much later did it evolve into the primary food for the poor:
The oldest surviving recipe in the world is for beer. It can be found on a 3,800-year-old clay tablet, as part of a hymn to Ninkasi, the Sumerian goddess of brewing. Sumerian documents, including the legal code drawn up during the reign of King Hammurabi around 1720BC, show that beer played an important role in Mesopotamian rituals, myths and medical practices. It was drunk by all members of society, from top to bottom, and tavern keepers were expected to abide by strict rules: the penalty for overcharging, for example, was drowning.
In addition to being at the heart of Mesopotamian culture, beer may even have been the foundation for the whole of western civilization. In the 1950s Jonathan Sauer, an American botanist, suggested that the original motivation for domesticating cereal crops (and thus switching from a nomadic to a settled lifestyle) might have been to make beer, rather than bread. The question of whether beer or bread came first has been debated ever since.
Supporters of Sauer's idea have pointed out that many of the first cereals to be farmed were unsuitable for baking without tiresome preparation, but were suitable for brewing. Beer, they suggest, may have emerged in an attempt to make wild barley edible by mixing it with water and fruit. The thick beer produced in this way would be just as nutritious as bread, in addition to being slightly alcoholic.
Sumerian documents lend credence to this idea. For although Sumerian beer was made using bappir, a form of bread that could be stored for long periods, it seems that bappir was consumed only when no other food was available. In other words, its primary function may have been to store the raw materials for making beer in a convenient form.
If beer really does underpin western civilisation, that would explain its high status in Sumerian culture. The seal of Lady Pu-Abi, queen of the city of Ur around 2600BC, shows her drinking beer from a cup through a straw; just such a straw, made of gold and lapis lazuli, was found in her tomb, and can be seen today in the British Museum.
Uncorking the past (The Economist)

Now, beer may seem like an odd thing to build a society around. But the beer they were drinking was probably not not the beer we're accustomed to. These beers were closer to ritualistic beverages and had healing powers, and possibly even psychedelic effects on the participants in the rituals. This article is talking specifically about Northern Europe, but it probably applies to the ancient Near East as well:
Pre-medieval societies often revolved around a shaman, a sort of multi-purpose community leader: a medium, a translator between the physical and the spiritual world. ‘The shaman is both healer and sorcerer, human and divine, human and animal, male and female,’ the ethnographer Piers Vitebsky wrote in Shamanism (1995), his guide to shamanic belief systems around the world. The shaman was a gatekeeper, and beers were his keys into another world.
Alcohol was a doorway, or what ethnographers call an entheogen. From the Greek for ‘creating god within’, an entheogen is a drug used in a religious context, a tool or a pathway to mystical understanding of the sacred or spiritual dimension. Drunk in ritualistic communion with the recently killed, for example, in what the Norse called a totenfolge, or ‘following into death’, potent beers were acts of solidarity that put the living into a kind of transcendent, paranormal state. But alcohol wasn’t the only magic in these drinks.
Northern shamanic brewers made use of a substantial apothecary. At an early brewery site in Skara Brae in Scotland, for example, archaeologists found residue of a beer made with henbane, hemlock, meadowsweet and nightshade. Beers such as this are heady indeed. Hemlock is a well-known poison; henbane is mildly narcotic, supposedly producing a feeling of flight, and was a common component in witches’ flying potions. Nightshade, or belladonna, disrupts the nervous system, causing delirious hallucinations. (Ironically, it was among the hallucinogenics used during the Inquisition to torture some of those same potion-wielding witches into confessing.) Meadowsweet, the mildest of the lot, still isn’t exactly neutral. It contains some of the same anti-inflammatory chemicals as aspirin.
Some Nordic shamans were fond of a parasitic fungus called Claviceps purpurea, or ergot, which grew on rotted barley and rye. Archaeologists have found its tell-tale bloated purplish grains in the guts of buried bog bodies. Ergot is powerful stuff. The fungus shares some of the same chemical compounds as LSD. The good side: wild hallucinations, ecstatic dancing – doctors call this ‘convulsive ergotism’. The bad, ‘gangrenous ergotism’, causes abdominal pain, convulsions, a sensation of burning limbs called St Anthony’s Fire and, ultimately, death. Gangrenous ergotism is perhaps caused by a different strain of the fungus, though we apparently lack for test subjects to figure it out conclusively.
Why are today's craft beers so bitter? (Aeon)

Thus we see a connection between religion, grains, and hierarchy So the overall impression one gets of the founding of Western Civilization is as one giant beer-drinking cult. Think less Oktoberfest, and more Ayahuasca ceremony.

Organizing the work was done by chieftain/shamans who would keep track of the solar and lunar cycles and use that to organize the cooperative work to create the feasts and organize the labor:
“The great ceremonial sites from Stonehenge to Turkey were based on the particular equinox or solstice. Chieftains usually would be the calendar keepers. Going all the way back to the Ice Age around 29,000 BC Alex Marshack, one of our members, published The Roots of Civilization reporting on the carved bones he found with notations for the phases of the moon. The job of the chieftain was to keep the lunar calendar, trace the waxing and waning of the moon to calculate how long the month would be, and to decide that, “Ah, in this month, six months after the equinox, here’s where we have to get together and have everybody come to the gathering and begin working on the big site”.”
“Obviously somebody was in charge of designing these monuments. We don’t know whom, but they would supervise the cutting and carving of the stones. These had to be brought over large distances, just like in Stonehenge. The groups would quarry them and cut them. Maybe the cutters and designers were the same people. And in Gobekli we’re dealing in a time before they’d invented steel or metal. Many of the stones had to be cut and designs carved just by chipping away with other stones. It obviously was a very laborious type of work.”
This we see both megalithic stone circles and granaries appearing on the scene all over the world along with the advent of farming. The stone circles were the calendars (after all, you couldn't just flip pages, you needed to know where the sun and moon were), and the granaries were the central store under the control of "big men" or chiefs, who may have also been the shamans linking the earth and the netherworld, and the arbitrators of disputes. These may have been the same people, or related elders. No writing is necessary, oral traditions would have sufficed for tribal memory, and reciprocal gift-giving for daily needs.

These societies were dedicated to the idea of reflecting a sort of cosmic order here on earth:
"First the priesthoods, then the accountants and scribes. The calendar keepers were usually the chiefs (there may have been “sky chiefs” and “war chiefs” separately, or perhaps their roles were combined as dynastic rulers developed). Most of the religions were cosmological. They wanted to create an integrated cosmology of nature and society (“On earth, as it is in heaven”). Administration was based on the astronomical rhythms of the calendar, lunar and solar cycles. For instance, you typically find a society divided into 12 tribes, as you had in Israel and also in Greece with its amphictyonies. In a division of 12 tribes, each could take turns administering the ceremonial centre for one month out of the year."
"The physical design of cities also was based on the calendar. Big cities would have 12 gates. Most cities had maybe four gates, representing the four seasons or the four quarters of the Earth. The outline of the land and the Earth was based on a calendrical cosmology, much like a mandala.'
"Ceremonial sites such as Stonehenge also were calendars in miniature, designed so that the light would fall on the stones in a particular way on a solstice or equinox. We have this going back into the Ice Age around 30,000 BC. Alex Marshak’s article in our volume on urbanisation found that these sites already in the Ice Age were usually sited on waterways, so that everybody could get to them. They often were located with mountains in the background and in between them the sun would shine in a particular way on the equinox or on the solstice in a particular alignment that occurred just at that calendrical time. They were recreating the cosmos on Earth."
According to Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens:
We control the world basically because we are the only animals that can cooperate flexibly in very large numbers. And if you examine any large-scale human cooperation, you will always find that it is based on some fiction like the nation, like money, like human rights. These are all things that do not exist objectively, but they exist only in the stories that we tell and that we spread around. This is something very unique to us, perhaps the most unique feature of our species.

You can never, for example, convince a chimpanzee to do something for you by promising that, "Look, after you die, you will go to chimpanzee heaven and there you will receive lots and lots of bananas for your good deeds here on earth, so now do what I tell you to do." But humans do believe such stories and this is the basic reason why we control the world whereas chimpanzees are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.

... It's today, I think, quite common in the scientific community to acknowledge that the Agricultural Revolution was maybe not such a good idea. On the collective level, it's obvious that agriculture made humankind far more powerful. But the individual human being probably had a worse life after the revolution than before.

The average peasant, let's say, he or she had to work much harder and in exchange for all this hard work people actually got a much worse diet. Most of the population got maybe 90 percent of their calories from a single source of food, like wheat in the Middle East or rice in East Asia. On top of that, you had much worse social hierarchies and social exploitation. Very small elites exploit masses of people for their own needs.
We Went From Hunter-Gatherers To Space Explorers, But Are We Happier? (NPR)

As Harari points out, it is these "fictions" such as the gods, or the state, or debt, that allow us to be enslaved, and it is these fictions at the heart of inequality. Elites are able to use religious beliefs to control the masses. The builders of the stone monuments were promised rewards in the"afterlife" for their continuing degradation and humiliation in this one. It's long been noted that religion is used as a justification for inequality. Religious people tend to be more credulous of the entrenched social order and deferential to the elites. Around the world we see that more religious nations are generally poorer, have less social mobility, more rapacious elites, more extractive institutions, and a generally lower standard of living than countries where religious belief is less important. There seems to be a link between religion, intergroup cohesion, and submissiveness to authority.

Our submission to centralized authority, taking place over thousands of years, may have even changed human nature itself. People who submitted to this beer-drinking/farming cult passed their genes along. These were the people who gave up their freedom and surrendered to the yoke of centralized authority. Meanwhile, people who did not want to live under the "new" system fled, and probably reproduced less. Over time, this produced a "new" human being - no longer self-sufficient, dependent upon the wider society for his needs, eating domesticated animals and domesticated grains, in essence, the domesticated human. Man became a herd animal. As the authors of The Ten Thousand Year Explosion describe:
If your ancestors were farmers for a long time, you’re descended from people who decided it was better to live on their knees than to die on their feet.

Farming led to elites, and there was no avoiding their power. Foragers could walk away from trouble, but farms were too valuable (too important to the farmers’ fitness) to abandon. So farmers had to submit to authority: The old-style,
independent-minded personalities that had worked well among egalitarian hunter gatherers (“A Man’s a Man for a’ That”) were obsolete. Even when some group had a chance to refound society on a more egalitarian basis, as in the case of the medieval Iceland republic, elites tended to reappear.

Aggressive, combative people may also have experienced lowered fitness once ruling elites began to appear. With strong states, the personal payoff for aggression may have become smaller, while law and order made combativeness for self-defense less necessary. Sheer crowding must also have disfavored some personality traits that had worked in the past. Intuitively, it seems that a high level of aggressiveness would be less favored when encounters with strangers were frequent. Fight too often and you’re sure to lose. Moreover, although the winner of a deadly struggle between two peasants might conceivably gain something, his owners, the elites who taxed both of those peasants, would not, any more than a farmer benefits when one bull kills another.

Farmers don’t benefit from competition between their domesticated animals or plants. In fact, reduced competition between individual members of domesticated species is the secret of some big gains in farm productivity, such as the dwarf strains of wheat and rice that made up the “Green Revolution.” Since the elites were in a very real sense raising peasants, just as peasants raised cows, there must have been a tendency for them to cull individuals who were more aggressive than average, which over time would have changed the frequencies of those alleles that induced such aggressiveness. This would have been particularly likely in strong, long-lived states, because situations in which rebels often won might well have favored aggressive personalities. This meant some people were taming others, but with reasonable amounts of gene flow between classes, populations as a whole should have become tamer.
There's a mistake here, though. It's not aggressive individuals who were culled - they rose to the ranks of the elites. Rather, it is the submissive people who reproduced, and their societies overwhelmed those of egalitarian, independent-minded hunter-gatherers. We see the emergence of the authoritarian personality type alongside the aggrandizing one. Once a certain threshold is achieved, a lone individual, or even a group of individuals is powerless unless a critical mass in achieved.
A different sort of argument in favor of a natural bias toward equality comes from observations of small-scale groups, which really do seem to be egalitarian. In small groups, goods are distributed roughly equally, the weak are taken care of, and the power of leaders is limited...anthropologist Christopher Boehm...argues that these egalitarian structures emerge because nobody wants to get screwed. Individuals in these societies end up roughly equal because everyone is struggling to ensure that nobody gets too much power over him or her. ...Boehm writes, “Individuals who otherwise would be subordinated are clever enough to form a large and united political coalition. ... Because the united subordinates are constantly putting down the more assertive alpha types in their midst, egalitarianism is in effect a bizarre type of political hierarchy: The weak combine forces to actively dominate the strong.”

This analysis helps us explain why such huge power differentials exist in the world right now, where it’s far harder for the weak to team up to dominate the strong. As Boehm tells it, in a small society, a wannabe dictator can be ignored or ridiculed by everyone else, and if he doesn’t get the message, he can be beaten up, expelled from the group, or killed. But this is a harder trick to pull in a society of millions where interactions are no longer face-to-face and where the powerful have guns and gulags.
People Don't Actually Want Equality. They want fairness (The Atlantic)

This "beer drinking cult" may have subsisted for thousands of years, brought about by the warmer and wetter climate of the emerging Holocene. Intensification, circumscription and population growth give central elites ever more power, crossing that threshold from chiefs into warlord kings. Once you have storable surpluses in the from of grains, and bread to be able to sustain population growing beyond the natural carrying capacity, you have the necessary ingredients for hierarchy. Most importantly, through rituals you can begin the philosophical justification for this state of affairs. You separate into the ruling class and peasants. The ruling class is like the pantheon of gods. The peasants are like humanity, dependent upon the largess of the divine gods. The ruling class is the link between the gods and man, between the divine world and this one, and it is through them that bounty flows.

As the cult becomes more popular, its numbers increase to the point where overpopulation becomes a trap – they strip the environment of palatable foods like wild game and plants, and are now dependent upon growing enough wheat and barley to keep the population fed. The changing climate plays a role here as well. As the wild herds dwindle, they become dependent upon domesticated herds of sheep and goats, and later, cattle. They cannot go backwards without mass starvation, so they adopt a philosophy of expansionism – of population, land, etc. Nature is seen as a resource that can be controlled rather than a living thing that sustains us. Gods change too. Rather than seeing god in nature, nature is a resource to be used, and the gods instead become related to agriculture - of the sky, of the earth, of the rain, and of the wheat. Fertility rituals become common, unlike hunter-gatherers, who limit their fertility to accord with environmental limits. And the leaders of the cult come to have coercive power over their followers. My guess is that this “beer drinking cult” was also the initial source of religious beliefs like dominion over the earth, patriarchy, hierarchy, and "be fruitful and multiply." Their numbers made them dominant – but miserable.
We have seen that agriculture in fact arose from abundance. More important, wealth, as distinct from abundance, is one of those dichotomous ideas only understood in the presence of its opposite - poverty. If we are to seek ways in which humans differ from all other species, this dichotomy would lead the list. This is not to say that hunter-gatherers did not experience need, hard times, even starvation, just as all other animals do. We would be hard-pressed, however, to find communities of any social animal except modern humans in which an individual in the community has access to fifty, a hundred, a thousand times, or even twice as many resources as another. Yet such communities are the rule among post-agricultural humans.
Much has been made of the creative forces that agriculture unleashed, and this is fair enough. Art, libraries, and literacy, are all agriculture's legacy. But around the world, the first agricultural towns are marked by mounds, pyramids, temples, ziggurats, and great walls, all monuments reaching for the sky, the better to elevate the potentates in command of the construction. In each case, their command was a demonstration of enormous control over a huge force of stoop labor, often organized in one of civilization's favorite institutions: slavery. The monuments are a clear indication that, for a lot of people, life did not get better under agriculture, an observation particularly pronounced in Central America. There, the long steps leading to the pyramids' tops are blood-stained, the elevation having been used for human sacrifice and the dramatic flinging of the victim down the long, steep steps.
We know from their remains that the farmers were smaller, the result of deprivation and abuse. The women, especially, were smaller. The physiques that make up a modern women's soccer or basketball team were simply unheard of among agricultural peoples, from farming's beginnings to only very recent times. On average, we moderns (and only those of us in the richest parts of the world) are just beginning to regain the stature that we had as hunter-gatherers, who throughout time were on average as tall as North Americans are today.
Part of this decline stems from poor diet, especially for those who provided the stoop labor. Some of it is inherent in sedentism. Almost every locale's soil and water are deficient in one mineral or another, a fact that was not a problem for nomadic hunter-gatherers. By moving about and taking food from a variety of niches, they balanced one locale's deficiencies against another's excess. This is also true for the early sedentary cities that relied on seafood. They didn't move, but the fish did, bringing with them minerals from a wide variety of places.
More important, however, grain's availability as a cheap and easily stored package of carbohydrates made it the food of the poor. It allowed one to carry baskets of dirt day after day, but its lack of nutritional balance left people malnourished and stunted. The complex carbohydrates of grains are almost instantly reduced to sugars by digestion, sometimes simply from being chewed. The skeletal record of farming peoples shows this as tooth decay, an ailment nonexistent among contemporary hunter-gatherers.
Richard Manning, Against the Grain. pp. 32-36

Early taxes before the money economy were done not by providing not money (which did not exist) but labor. That is, you paid your "debt" to society by your labor. This was common - A very similar system developed in the Andes with the Inca mita system. The amount of labor you provided to the collective was proportional to how much land you and your family controlled (leading to hierarchy and wealth differentials):
"Later, by about 2,000 BC, populations were growing more dense. There also was a shift from the temples, which originally organised most of these mega-projects, to the palaces that developed out of them around 2750 BC. Their scribes developed accounting practices to schematise and organise this labour coming together. To coordinate this in an equitable, almost schematic way, land tenure was allocated on the principle that whoever had such-and-such a plot size had to supply a given number of labourers to work on the public infrastructure. So what we found as a by-product of the labour volume is that the origins of land rights were defined by the tax payments – the corvee labor obligation."
"To get the right to a given land of a given size, you had to promise on such-and-such dates to provide this much labour for the corvee project. It’s a French word, because a corvee tax in the form of labour instead of money payments lasted all the way down through the 18th Century in France. It was typical in mediaeval Europe before you had a money economy. Everybody who had their own subsistence land or their own land holdings of one form or another, or their grazing lands, would have to supply X number of labourers to the big building project."
It was this corvee labor, essentially early "taxes," that built the great monuments, not slaves.
By the third millennium BCE, we can clearly see extensive social stratification, and that the lot of the average person has fallen considerable from that of hunter-gathers:
In terms of written history, this is the very remote past. But there is also something very direct and almost intimate about it too. You can see fingernail marks in the clay. These neat little symbols and drawings are clearly the work of an intelligent mind.These were among the first attempts by our human ancestors to try to make a permanent record of their surroundings. What we're doing now - my writing and your reading - is a direct continuation. But there are glimpses of their lives to suggest that these were tough times. It wasn't so much a land of milk and honey, but porridge and weak beer.
The numbering system is also understood, making it possible to see that much of this information is about accounts of the ownership and yields from land and people. They are about property and status, not poetry.
This was a simple agricultural society, with a ruling household. Below them was a tier of powerful middle-ranking figures and further below were the majority of workers, who were treated like "cattle with names". Their rulers have titles or names which reflect this status - the equivalent of being called "Mr One Hundred", he says - to show the number of people below him. It's possible to work out the rations given to these farm labourers.
Dr Dahl says they had a diet of barley, which might have been crushed into a form of porridge, and they drank weak beer. The amount of food received by these farm workers hovered barely above the starvation level. However the higher status people might have enjoyed yoghurt, cheese and honey. They also kept goats, sheep and cattle. For the "upper echelons, life expectancy for some might have been as long as now", he says. For the poor, he says it might have been as low as in today's poorest countries.
Breakthrough in world's oldest undeciphered writing (BBC)

The big-man /chief system evolved into a tributary economy:
A tributary economy is characterized by a political elite extracting goods and labor from primary producers.
The elite were urban and depended on the primary producers of the hinterland to grow food and make craft products (who had their own means of doing so), with some of the surplus being collected as tribute. This provided the elite with sustenance, with a portion sometimes set aside in case of disasters, and also funded political control, exotic imports, luxury goods and labor. Tribute demands increased in the 4th millennium, forcing rural folk to either flee to the remote countryside or move to the cities; later, an inability to collect sufficient tribute would precipitate the collapse of the tributary economy as the elite found other avenues of maintaining their lifestyles.
Archaeological evidence at rural settlements reveals that most houses had a range of artifacts for output of food, textiles, pottery and chipped stone tools. Tools were made out of whatever was local and abundant, suggesting that most or all people could access the basic means of production. Sheep, goats, cattle and pigs were grown; and wild ass, gazelle, onager, deer and fish were exploited. Among these, different regions favored certain animals due to the local environment. Wheat and barley were mainly cultivated, as well as lentil and flax. Reeds were woven in mats, and local trees were used for food, fuel and construction; tamarisk, almond, poplar and willow in southwestern Iran, and tamarisk, poplar and date palm in Sumer.
The Ubaid economy was by and large a tributary economy: most households had to produce mundane goods such as food and cloth, with surplus being exacted by elites who may have couched this as a voluntary religious duty. Surplus may have been stored extra to guard against disaster, but records of this indicate that payouts in emergencies were a fraction of the total collected. By the Middle Uruk era in the 4th millennium, it had become the norm for mundane utilitarian goods to be centrally produced in cities. A larger pool of available specialized labor offered elites who could afford to employ it the opportunity to commission luxury goods; also, the laborers needed employment, as the cities were too densely populated and the fields too far away for the laborers to have grown their own food. Simultaneously, and likely as a result of this, tribute exactions were increasing. This may have precipitated sedentary agriculturalists to vote with their feet and become nomads or move to a different region (these outcasts were later targeted by governments and known as habiru), or else move into the city.
House sizes varied, but pottery densities were generally equal, so this was likely due to family size rather than social stratification. Certain houses have unique quantities of certain types of artifacts (ie, mostly just bowls) or bone species (ie, nice gazelles) with occasional correlation house size. Perhaps some persons were just better hunters, but regardless some houses were larger and seem to have had access to better resources. Also, there is heterogeneity in burial goods at a cemetery near Susa. In addition to some disparities at houses, evidence for social stratification arises from the presence of temples. They were generally not much bigger than houses, but were raised on a platform, with niched and buttressed façades, mosaic decoration and recessed portals. They had about the same contents as houses, with the addition sometimes of highly decorated goods and also seals. While it has been suggested that priests led everyday lives outside of temple responsibilities, they likely benefited from the offering of luxury goods (ostensibly for the gods) and the use of authority (indicated by the stamp seals).
Ancient Mesopotamian tributary and oikos economies (Student Reader)

The tribute economy eventually breaks down when the resources to sustain it are no longer available:
Urbanization led to a dwindling of the rural population, thus decreasing tributes while their need perhaps even rose.

This decrease in tribute approached (or perhaps reached) crisis levels for some urbanites whose lifestyle depended on rural producers' surpluses. This caused the oikoi -- that is, temples, royal palaces and wealthy estates -- to expand their strictly kin-based households to include a non-kin labor force.

Thus, what followed the demise of the tribute-based economy when tributes diminished, was an oikos-based economy that was an interdependent network that included kin-based households, and oikoi with dependent laborers.
The tribute economy gives way to the oikos , or household-based, economy. It is the household-based economy which was the next stage the economic structure, not markets. But in the household composition, we can clearly see social stratification and differentiation based on one's social position, ownership, kin group, and so on:

[S]cholars have determined that households were the principal locus of production and consumption in ancient Mesopotamia. The Sumerian and Akkadian words for "household" (é and bîtum, respectively) subsume a variety of entities that to our minds may seem quite different. On one end of the scale were households comprised of nuclear or extended families living under one roof. At the opposite end were temples (the earthly households of the gods and goddesses), royal palaces, and wealthy estates belonging to important public officials. The temples, palaces and estates - collectively referred to as oikoi (from the Greek word for "households") or "great households" - formed large socioeconomic units with a dependent (and unrelated, in kin terms) workforce, managerial personnnel, flocks of animals, pastures, fields, orchards, storage facilities, and artisan's workshops.
Following the lead of Max Weber, scholars have characterized third millennium Mesopotamia as having an oikos economy. An oikos economy is principally oriented toward the satisfaction of needs...The various households or production units are responsible for the production of goods for their own use, storage of raw materials and goods, and the manufacture of indispensable exchange goods." In an oikos economy oikoi are a focal point of production and consumption of goods, and most of the goods necessary for their social reproduction are produced within them.
Membership in different types of households overlapped. Many people were part of kin-based households (sometimes termed "private" households, a misleading designation in that it is unlikely that Mesopotamians had concepts of public and private similar to ours) by virtue of family ties. They participated in production activities and were entitled to consume household products on the basis of their kin ties, mediated by age and gender.
Well-to-do families might possess and estate whose organization and personnel resembled an oikos. Members of many families, from the wealthiest to the poorest, were also connected to oikoi not by kinship but by official or dependent relationships. Ties to oikoi ranged from part-time commercial obligations -- for example, to help in the harvest or with a large construction project - to permanent obligations. Some permanent members of large households lacked any family attachments. Such individuals included the poorest members of society and prisoners of war, who were employed in large numbers in the workforces of temples and palaces.
Instead of demanding portions of the surplus production of other households as was the case in a tributary economy, the oikos incorporated its own large and varied workforce. Oikos personnel included farmers and herders, who dwelt at least part of the year in cities and were sent out from there to the fields and pastures to carry out their appointed tasks, along with artisans and laborers. In return for surrendering their labor power, workers were provided basic subsistence. Through this arrangement the means of production - including land, tools, and raw materials- came increasingly under the control of oikoi. The concentration of people in large, urban communities, at first perhaps an unintended consequence of growing tribute demands, may later have become a deliberate strategy on the part of large households to secure a permanent labor force.
Texts characterize oikos workforces as highly specialized, with a clearly defined division of labor based on gender and age. Heads of households could be adult men or women of even in some cases children. Many of the thousands of cuneiform documents recovered from the ancient city of Girsu (modern Telloh), in the state of Lagash, are accounts from the oikos known as é-mí, which was headed by the wife of the ruler of Lagash. In addition to running her household - which like other oikoi included land, flocks, fisherman, craftsmen, cooks, brewers, gardeners. and other dependent laborers- she engaged in exchange with other Mesopotamian cities and lands beyond. The ruler himself had a similar household, and so did their children. Under one of the later rulers of Lagash, Urukagina, who is known for his purported reforms of abusive practices by high temple and political officals, the é-mí was renamed é-Ba'u (the household of the goddess Ba'u, wife of the patron god of Lagash). The renaming of the household seems to have been chiefly designed to distract attention from the economic benefits that the royal family derived from its properties by cloaking them in the mantle of religious piety. Urukagina's wife remained earthly head of the household and presumably recipient of most of the material benefits it generated. In its new, pious incarnation, the number of dependent laborers expanded considerably.
The rations provided oikos members typically consisted of household products, especially barley, wool, and oil. They were usually distributed in raw form, requiring further processing prior to consumption: barley that could be fermented to make beer or cooked into baked products, wool that could be spun into thread and then woven into cloth. On special occasions, rations might include flour, bread, cloth, fish, milk products, fruit, meat, or beer. The size of rations depended upon the recipients' age, gender, and type of work performed. Rations were also distributed to animals, and deities received provisions in the form of offerings.
Instead or sometimes in addition to rations, oikos members might receive plots of land. They could work the land to provide for their one subsistence needs or lease it to third parties in return for a rental payment or part of the produce. In principle, plots of land were not heritable, but in practice they frequently remained in the hands of a single family over several generations. At the same time, substantial plots were cultivated by members for the benefit of the oikos. The products of this land reverted in their entirely to the household, contributing to the subsistence of the members and to surplus for exchange. Plots were leaded to nonmembers, again in return for a fixed payment or a share of the crop.
In the Akkadian period and additional land category is attested; crown land was at the disposition of the royal family rather than tied to an oikos within a city-state. Grants of more than 1,000 hectares ware made to important individuals. Imperially appointed governors of city-states held land in the territory of their city-states, probably as part of a strategy to weaken local power bases.
Not all oikos members had access to land. Higher-ranking members were among those who received plots for their own use, and the higher their social positions, the larger the plots they were likely to receive. Landholders included political leaders (such as kings, queens and governors), cult officials, titled professionals (such as scribes, canal inspectors, and foremen), administrators and supervisors, skilled artisans, and soldiers, as well as some workers with unspecified skills. All of these individuals might also have use rights in land through membership in kin-based households. Among the lowest social strata were those how were fully dependent upon an oikos and owed the oikos most or all of their labor. These groups included impoverished individuals of local birth, most of whom maintained families, as well as slaves, who often lacked family connections and could be bought or sold. Many of the latter were prisoners of war, usually women and children; men were commonly killed rather than taken prisoner. the divisions between these categories may not have been entirely clear-cut; instead there seems to have been a continuum of people living in varying states of servitude.
Susan Pollock, Ancient Mesopotamia. pp. 117-121

This was the birth of the "economy"; oikos is the the root of oikonomia, the Greek word for household management, from which our word "economics" is derived.

Next - debt and money enter the picture.

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