Agriculture allowed foragers to settle in one area and even grow to be sedentary in the rainy season. It became more common for families to preserve their meat rather than share it with the larger group and others tolerated this accumulation of food. Families were also often allowed to acquire, store and trade valuables.
Once foraging plants for just the family, women were able to produce a surplus of plants in gardens. Through storage and growing a surplus of crops, family heads could produce lavish feasts for guests.
The Chimbu gardened, grew sweet potatoes and raised pigs. For the Chimbu, men who raised few crops failed to accumulate the bride-price for a wife and were labeled “nothing men”. The average citizen provided adequately for their family, while prominent citizens were more active in the economy. These men were more successful in gardening and pig-raising and hosted more feasts and speeches. They also often had more than two wives.
On the top of the prestige ladder were the “big men”. Although prominent men would make speeches, “big men” were the ones asked to speak to outsiders. They were the major participants in regional exchange and had entourages of “nothing men” to run errands. They had a great amount of influence, but no real authority.
Fighting was the original source of personal prestige and the reason some clans became enemies rather than allies. “Big men” also used lavish feasts to the same end. The more bride-prices he could pay, the more wives he could obtain. The more wives, the more sweet potatoes could be grown. The more sweet potatoes, the more pigs he could raise.
An ambitious man could raid regional enemies for pigs or get a loan from allies. However, he could also “max out his credit” and end up losing his prestige and spending his time in debt servitude to his creditors.
War was eventually pacified by the Australian government and replaced by a high-stakes game of greater and greater gift-exchange. Once a gift was given that could not be reciprocated, a “big man” was doomed to lose his prestige. This began to decrease the middle class, or average man, leaving 15% of the population as “nothing men” that couldn’t make the bride-price for a wife and 15% as “big men”.
Combine and Mix
Societies are generally not as cut and dry as the examples I’ve given have alluded. A community’s society can be different then it’s overall city’s society. We can talk about U.S. or Canadian society or all of western society and we’d probably be thinking of different characteristics.
This social complexity is not an evolutionary outcome and I’m not going to argue that social-structure can be predicted.
What I am arguing, is that humans have developed two reproductive strategies. Sperm competition selects for strong, healthy genes while during times of plenty, whether from wild-food abundance or agriculture, intelligence and ambition can beat out in external competition.
Often times this would mean the same thing—healthy and intelligent go hand in hand. But when a man is simply born into higher rank and allowed more wives than the average or is very ambitious and takes loans to rise to the top with poor genes, things can change, albeit slowly. The men with the ability to be selfish and egotistical were selected above those that carried a more passive nature in these societies.
I would argue that humans have made a trade-off, greater intelligence and/or ego in trade for degraded health. This selective pressure has brought us to where we are today. We are less healthy but able to support greater and greater populations with agriculture, technology and medicine.
I believe we are still “set-up” for egalitarian societies and try to level the playing field through our cultural values, some expressed through governmental laws and policies. In times of low resources, social networks will gain popularity over individual achievement. Both social strategies are available but the sexual strategy that underlies the egalitarian is currently suppressed by values of competition and elitism.
We are in-essence, domesticating ourselves with our own man-made environments and cultures. Like most species targeted for our domestication, we are accelerating the rate of evolution through our values and hierarchies.