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.