I’m currently reading Ancient Jomon of Japan by Junko Habu, and it has brought to my attention a massive issue about how we think about societies. When it comes to prehistory, people are often interested in the markers for things like civilization, and complex society. What are the key indicators of these things?
There’s a school of thought that says you’ve got a complex society if it’s doing more complex things – material culture, food storage and more involved subsistence strategies would be obvious examples of a more complex society, and all of those things could be true of hunter-gatherers.
However, it turns out there is also a school of thought that defines complex societies in terms of hierarchy and inequality. This might be a bit out of date, the book I’m reading comes from the 1990s, but even if this isn’t a contemporary issue, the impact of it stands some thinking about. What happens to our sense of both the past and the present if we define complexity in terms of inequality? It is so limiting and distorting to see things like hereditary privilege and the exploitation of labour as defining signs of social complexity.
Given that we tend to value ideas of complexity, associating them with development, sophistication and civilization, defining more egalitarian societies as less complex has a lot of implications. It means we are bound to miss things about historical societies that don’t seem to fit this model. It is also bound to inform how we think about ourselves now.
Societies that depend on cooperation rather than dictatorship must, surely, be more complex and nuanced? It takes a lot more communication and effort to work as a team than it does to have someone in charge telling you what to do. I feel that recognising our fundamental equality as living beings is a good deal more sophisticated than deciding some people are born special and therefore should be in charge. I find the idea of inherited power barbarous and loaded with superstition.
As a Druid I am drawn to looking at how we imagine ourselves and how the stories we tell about humanity shape what we do. I think we need better stories.