Origins of Hierarchy: How Egyptian Pharaohs Rose to Power

Stephanie Pappas has an interesting post at LiveScience:  Origins of Hierarchy: How Egyptian Pharaohs Rose to Power.

The rulers of ancient Egypt lived in glorious opulence, decorating themselves with gold and perfumes and taking their treasures with them to the grave.

But how could such a hierarchical, despotic system arise from egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies? The reasons were part technological and part geographical: In a world where agriculture was on the rise and the desert was all-encompassing, the cost of getting out from under the thumb of the pharaoh would have been too high.

I think the reasoning in this article is valid.  Despotism tends to arise when it’s not easy for people to simply leave the society.  But it seems to me that the analysis misses some important points.

First, people didn’t go from living as hunter-gatherers to living in a hierarchical society in one generation.  In actuality, the transition lasted for several thousand years.  Farming is around 10,000 years old, but the oldest civilizations didn’t really arise until around 5000 years ago.  In other words, we’ve been farming for twice as long as we’ve been having cities.

None of the myths and legends from ancient societies (or at least none that I know of) mention anything about their ancestors living a foraging lifestyle.  They don’t mention it because any knowledge of that ancient lifestyle had long since faded from memory.  People could not have simply stopped farming and returned to such as lifestyle, at least not without substantial hardships (probably involving a harsh population collapse), even if they knew how to do so, which they probably didn’t.

Many ancient people probably simply had no idea of any alternate ways of doing things.  Since their memory of their ancestor’s egalitarian lifestyles had faded millenia earlier, it probably wasn’t much of a hurdle to sell them that the current arrangement was the natural order of things.  It was probably pretty easy to believe that the Pharaoh, which few of them ever actually saw in person and if so, from afar, was a god representing the cosmic order.

And leaving  your culture for another one is rarely an easy transition.  People in other lands spoke different languages, had different values, worshiped different gods, etc.  So the idea of simply leaving for another country was probably not considered unless the rulers made things utterly intolerable, and even then, unless you were a persecuted minority, rebellion was probably a more attractive option.

Of course, those cultural differences likely arose because of the difficult bordering terrains (mountains, deserts, etc) that the article mentions, which is why I do think this analysis has some excellent points.  But as for returning to a  hunter-gatherer lifestyle, by the time hierarchical society developed, that lifestyle was probably nearly as alien a way of life to them as it would be to us today, with any understanding of its egalitarianism a long lost memory.

7 thoughts on “Origins of Hierarchy: How Egyptian Pharaohs Rose to Power

  1. History as a concept is only 300 years old if not younger in the popular mindset. Agricultural societies were based on the rhythm of seasons, time as we know it didn’t exist.

    . I’m not entirely convinced it was an either/or situation in terms of the Egyptians, I suspect one bad season would be all it would take to drive populations to food. Famine is sadly persuasive.

    We often vastly over estimate early authority in modern terms. It’s more likely that survival was persuasive.


    1. I appreciate your thoughts. On the age of history as a concept, you might find reading about Herodotus or Thucydides enlightening.
      They are often regarded as the fathers of history, operating around 2500 years ago.

      I’d agree that survival is persuasive, but I’m not aware of populations in famine historically returning to hunter gatherer lifestyles. Mainly I suspect that this is because a famine rooted in drought would be even worse for foragers. But I’m always open to changing my mind if given examples 🙂


      1. I think you might be missing the point I was trying to make. A general understanding of ‘history’ at a sociocultural level is a relatively recent development . That societal elites had ‘histories’ doesn’t make it a metaphor for existence that everyone knew. It’s why in societies with oral traditions poets and priests were protected, whatever they said was ‘history’. Wonderful for maintaining the status quo, amazing what the printing press did to the democratization of ‘history’. In retrospect, we call those Greek writers history but while great reads, they wouldn’t meet modern standards of history.

        On your second point have you read Jared diamonds ‘collapse’

        Also, drought is only one possible cause of famine. Population unbalances, leadership policies and disease – it’s really the four horsemen at work. Tom holland. ‘In the shadow of the sword’ has written a great history on life after the Romans, reversions to earlier living patterns and impacts of pandemics on the roman and Persian empires.


        1. I probably did misunderstand your point about history, although I’d say Thucydides’s methods presaged a modern historians fairly well (although I’ll admit to not being a historian and basing that opinion on what historians have written about Thucydides).

          I have read Diamond’s Collapse and found it very informative. The Holland book looks interesting. Thanks for linking to it!

          I don’t doubt that Romans underwent a serious shift in lifestyle as the empire disappeared, but I haven’t really read about any of them reverting to hunter-gatherer lifestyles. From what I’ve read, the lifestyles that disappeared were city oriented ones with a larger portion of the population falling back into subsistence farming.


          1. Thucydides is great but not necessarily the most unbiased when it comes to Sparta. But he did write a work that didn’t attribute events to gods, something lost shortly after in many subsequent histories.

            I probably wasn’t being too clear on the Romans. They didn’t revert to hunter gathers after the fall of eminence. It’s that after the great plague, many of the tribal peoples between Rome and Persia, reverted to nomadic lifestyles. Both empires were too stretched for money and manpower to run these territories. Rome nearly went bankrupt with the loss of the tax base from people dying (this was the eastern Roman Empire, Rome had already collapsed). These nomadic peoples eventually merged/conquered into what became the Islamic nations.


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