Meet Heterarchy

Hierarchy and Anarchy Together

Seaonl Hunting Temple — Gobekli Tepe in Turkey

The story goes that humans genetically emerged as distinct around 200 millennia ago. Then around 10 millennia ago, sedentary agriculture started to take root amongst humans in what we call the agricultural revolution. Up until this point humans are considered to have been simple hunter-gatherers. The popular narrative about these ancient ancestors frames them as ‘prehistoric’ with little social organisation. They were small and dispersed hunter-gatherer bands, where hunting and gathering was simply a means of survival.

Humans then progressively developed into societies centred around dense urban sprawls at the pinnacle of social and organisational complexity. Those that are still not participating in this are assumed to be behind the times, whether held back by poverty or tradition. This popular narrative — sometimes called the ‘childhood of man’ — binds organisational complexity to centralised hierarchy, while other forms of organisation are implicated as simple and primitive.

In a recent publication Archaeologist David Wengrow of University College London, and Social Anthropologist David Graeber of the London School of Economics present a different reading of the archaeological record informed by new research in their respective fields.

They suggest that between our emergence as a species and the later agricultural revolution, a vast diversity of complex societies existed. However what did not emerge until the agricultural revolution was the dominance of societies with fixed states of social organisation. Instead “the same population might experience entirely different systems of economic relations, family structure, and political life at different times of year”.

These prehistoric hunter-gatherers’ different organisational systems included densely aggregated societies, complex architectural structures, paintings and elaborate ivory carvings and ornaments, complex organic-based technology, long distance and intensive trade, hierarchy and anarchy. As they go on to note “Stateless societies do not represent an evolutionary stage, innocent of higher organisation, but are based on self-conscious rejection of the principle of coercive authority”

In short our ancestors were not stuck in static hierarchies nor in constant anarchy, but practised multiple large scale social re-organisation throughout the year. The term Wengrow and Graeber use to describe this is heterarchy. In a political and categorical sense — rather than by degree — they consider such societies to be more complex than the one’s we live in. Specifically in their ability to take advantage or at least continually renegotiate the benefits of heterarchical organisation rather than be stuck in a State of ongoing ‘coercive authority’.