Book Summary: “Evolution of Human Societies” by Johnson and Earle

Title: Evolution of Human Societies: From Foraging Group to Agrarian State
Author: Allen Johnson & Timothy Earle
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 3 stars
My personal rating: 4 stars
See more on my book rating system.

If you enjoy this summary, please support the author by buying the book.

Topic of Book

The authors develop a theory that explains the evolution of human societies from Hunter Gatherers to modern societies. It focuses on the role of expanding populations forcing societies to intensify agricultural production and become more complex and stratified.

If you would like to learn more about the evolution of human societies, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

Key Take-aways

The authors argue for the following:

  • Population Growth and Technological Innovation leads to >
  • Agricultural Intensification, which leads to >
  • Growth of Institutions, which leads to >
  • Economic/Political Integration and Stratification

Important Quotes from Book

“Our purpose in this book is to describe and explain the evolution of human societies. Some societies are of small scale and flexible; others are large and highly structured; and still others fall in between those extremes. A central question of anthropology is how to understand the variability in human societies across space and time.”

“Our theory pays particular attention to the causes and consequences of population growth.”

“the three interlocked evolutionary processes of subsistence intensification, political integration, and social stratification have been observed again and again in historically unrelated cases.”

“Following the law of diminishing returns, for any given strategy the cost of producing food tends to climb as output from that strategy increases”

“In the subsistence economy, the goal is not to maximize production but to minimize the effort expended in meeting household needs”

Population Growth + Technology > Intensification > Institutionalization > Econ/Pol Integration and Stratification

Problems of Intensification:

  1. Production risks
  2. Raiding and warfare
  3. Inefficient resource use
  4. Resource deficiency

“The evolution of human societies is an upward spiral. As a consequence of the process of intensification-the positive feedback between population growth and technological development-serious problems arise that must be solved if the intensification is to be sustained. If not, a crisis of overpopulation would precipitate low fertility/high mortality, readjusting population downward to carrying capacity. The solutions to these problems are most often found in the creation or elaboration of institutions of the political economy,”

“Intensification does not come cheaply, but typically creates four kinds of problems, their relative importance varying according to environmental conditions. These are production risk, raiding and warfare, technological needs, and resource deficiencies. The solutions to these problems generally require increasing the economic integration of communities and the power of leaders.”

“The first problem is production risk. As a landscape fills with people, the most desirable foods are soon depleted, and less desirable foods, those that once served as buffers against starvation in bad years, come to be part of the regular diet. With fewer buffers and less food generally, the risk of starvation increases,”

“The second problem is resource competition… At the family level, characterized by low population densities and dispersed resources, households tend to avoid competition by scattering and staying out of each other’s way. With intensification, however, locally rich resources, such as fertile bottomlands, become even more precious, and improvements to the land, such as long-yielding tree crops, become more common.”

“The third problem, inadequate use of resources, refers to resources that may be used only if costly technologies are developed. As population rises in a resource area, and with it production risks, it becomes advantageous to invest in technologies that utilize resources that were ignored at lower population levels… These technologies are frequently beyond the capacity of a single family; they require the collaboration of households in a community and in due course come under the control of a manager.”

“Fourth, the depletion of local resources brought on by population growth may increase the need for goods that cannot be produced locally but can be obtained in exchange for local goods. Trade can even out seasonal or annual shortfalls in production, and it can increase food production by making tools (e.g., axes) available in places poorly supplied with the raw materials for producing them.”

“Production risk, then, is countered with risk management arrangements; resource competition leads to the formation of alliances to defend resources; inefficient resource use is corrected by group contributions to larger scale technologies; and resource deficiencies are made up by trade. These responses to intensification are open to individual families only in partial and limited ways. They require larger, integrated groups with leaders, and these come into being. The problems of intensification are solved, but population inevitably presses against resources. Technological responses continually present themselves, and the process is iterated up the spiral to the development of the nationstate.”

“We have identified three critical levels of socioeconomic integration as a basis for organizing our discussion in this book: (a) the Family-Level Group, including the family/camp and the family/hamlet; (b) the Local Group, including the acephalous local group and the Big Man collectivity; and (c) the Regional Polity, including the chiefdom and the state.”

“The Family-Level Group. The family or hearth group is the primary subsistence group. It is capable of great self-sufficiency but moves in and out of extended family camps or hamlets opportunistically as problems or opportunities arise.”

“The Local Group. Local groups of many families, running to five or ten times the size of family-level groups, form around some common interest such as defense or food storage. They are usually subdivided along kinship lines into corporate lineages or clans.”

“The Big Man and his managed intergroup collectivity are found at higher but variable population densities in areas in which warfare between territorial groups has traditionally been intense. Subsistence is focused heavily on agriculture, pastoralism, or extremely productive natural resources.”

“Chiefdoms develop in societies in which warfare between groups is endemic but becomes directed toward conquest and incorporation rather than toward the exclusion of defeated groups from their land”

Family Level:

“Family-level Organization is an elemental form of human society. A typical group has around twenty-five members coresidential as a camp or hamlet of perhaps five nuclear or minimally extended families. The key relationships are biocultural-parent-child, husband-wife, and siblings. A forager camp is like a grown-up family, including older siblings, their spouses, and their children. Individuals can move between camps, joining small groups in which they have close relatives.”

“The striking characteristic of family-level societies is their freedom from formal institutions above the family.”

“The Cultural Revolution was the first profound change in human history, taking place well before forty thousand years ago. An outcome of natural selection, the evolution of humans came to include a capacity for culture-creating technologies, languages, understandings, and ordered interpersonal relations. ”

“Even at the family level, the human capacity to build social relations through exchange is remarkable and unique compared with that of the great apes and other animals. The nuclear family itself depends on the unparalleled willingness of the human father to share food with his own mate and offspring, and that in turn is made possible by the mother’s acceptance of cultural rules requiring her to be sexually faithful to her husband. This simple but profound reciprocity, which increases the food supply for mother and offspring in exchange for the father’s (more or less) exclusive reproduction rights in his mate, is a human universal with rare exceptions.

A man’s willingness to provision his wife and her offspring-which is costly to himself-depends on his trust that he is the father of her children.”

“The family itself, based on a division of labor by age and sex, is organized by the principles of generalized reciprocity.”

“The simple rule, with far-reaching implications, is that competitive forms of food procurement favor dispersion and cooperative forms favor aggregation.”

“the family economic unit (usually a household) is required to allocate a good portion of its total resources to separate “funds”: caloric minimum, replacement, ceremonial, and rent. The caloric minimum fund covers the family’s expenditure to meet its basic needs for nourishment, while the replacement fund includes expenditures for shelter, clothing, seed, tools, draft animals, and whatever else is “needed to replace … minimum equipment for both production and consumption” (Wolf 1966a: 6). Together, we will refer to these as the “subsistence fund.” The ceremonial fund covers those expenditures, especially for food and drink, used to host social gatherings, and valuables used to build and maintain social relations through reciprocity. The fund of rent refers to expenditures to elites (landowners, nobles, priests, and other power-holders) in exchange for rights of access to the means of production.”

“in the long run, humans can be expected to develop the technology to get the job done.

Two key variables affect what the job is: the environment and the human population. The first variable, the environment, is created by physical and biological processes. Contrasting environments result from variable climate (especially rainfall and temperature), geology (topography and soils), and the biogeographical processes of animal and plant dispersal. Added to this are diverse anthropogenic changes to the environment.”

“intensification is the engine for change in the subsistence economy, as population growth and technological change chase each other.”

“low-density foragers live a good life of sorts, and we feel that evolutionary change from this simple economy cannot be seen simply as a matter of developing improved technologies.”

“As we argue throughout the book, the primary causes of group formation are risk management, technology, warfare, and trade.”

“First, population aggregation among fora gers depends on locally dense resources that are frequently ephemeral and unpredictable. Second, leadership solves specific problems of organizing the activities of such a group, but like the large group itself this leadership is ephemeral and context-specific. Third, festival activities are very much tied to seasonal and irregular patterns of resource availability that encourage larger groups to form for economic reasons.”

“Environmental conditions, because of their direct effect on procurement, determine in large measure the nature of the subsistence economy and related social and cultural characteristics.”

“During the immediate post-Pleistocene period (12,000 to 7,000 B.P.), referred to as the Mesolithic in Europe and as the early Archaic in the New World, the diet of human populations in many areas changed radically to include a large number of new species… its main cause was the growth of human populations… This process of intensification, which has been called the “broad-spectrum revolution” (Flannery 1969), appears to have taken place on a worldwide basis (Christenson 1980; Mark Cohen 1977). With the expansion into virgin territory largely complete, further population growth required intensification.

The most common outcome of this broadening diet was a concentration on plant foods that created a subsistence economy generally analogous to that of the Shoshone and the !Kung. It was during this period that the basic family-level society spread throughout the world, ”

“The intensification of food procurement activity in a given area is necessitated by an increasing population or a deteriorating environment. In the Pleistocene and immediate post-Pleistocene periods, a slow growth in population spread humans throughout the world and gradually raised population densities in those areas capable of sustaining more people. Intensification in food procurement was the result (Mark Coher. 1977). First came the gradual occupation of new habitats with suboptimal resources such as low-density large game, small game, and plants that require more costly procurement strategies. Next came the diversification of diets as increasingly costly species were added to support a larger population. Both trends increased the amount of labor devoted to procuring food. Logically and historically, the next step was domestication.”

“The family-level organization that characterized most hunter-gatherer societies after the end of the Pleistocene persisted in at least some instances well after the beginnings of agriculture.

In both the Middle East and Mesoamerica, agriculture and pastoralism appear not as economic revolutions permitting a sedentary lifestyle but as long and gradual transitions not directly linked to villages. Indeed, in the Middle East, sedentary villages predate the beginnings of agriculture;”

“For more than a thousand years after the earliest use of domesticated cereals (emmer wheat and two-row barley) and animals (goats and sheep), hunting and gathering continued to provide the majority of the diet.”

Local Group:

“The main characteristics of the local group:

1. The environments associated with local groups can be highly variable, from high Arctic coasts to tropical forests, but they tend to be more productive than for comparable family-level groups on the one hand, and more marginal than for chiefdoms and states on the other. Resources are often abundant seasonally (but not year-round), or capable of significant intensification.

2. Population is similarly intermediate. Among farmers, it typically ranges from i to 20 or 3o persons per square mile, well above levels achieved by family-level societies.”

“3. Technology consists primarily of personal tools, such as the digging stick and harpoon. But some key technologies, especially for intensified hunting and fishing and for animal-herding, are owned by individuals and used by a larger group under their control. These include fishing weirs, whaling boats, and animal corrals.

4. Social organization of production has two levels, each with characteristic sets of functions: (a) the family level, involving daily subsistence, child-rearing, frequent socializing, and informal aid; and, (b) the local group, involving cooperation in large-scale work tasks, risk management, war, and ceremony.

5. Warfare and territoriality are common among most local groups, with ownership of group lands highly charged and often carefully demarcated.”

“6. Political integration is strong within the local group, defined by a combination of ceremonial activities and leadership.”

“7. Stratification in the local group takes the form of leaders whose status rivalry creates the intergroup collectivity. But these leaders do not have exclusive control of resources and hence the power to oppress. Individuals, usually men but supported and directed by women, distinguish themselves by their fierceness or diplomatic skill to become recognized leaders for their local group. ”

“8. Sanctity especially takes the form of invoking, honoring, and placating ancestral spirits who stand for the local group and its subgroups. ”

“the most dramatic contrasts with the family level appear in the frequency of warfare and the rise of ceremonialism and leadership. These in turn contribute to a change in emphasis in gender relations: whereas a strong division of labor continues the close economic interdependence between wives and husbands within the household, now a cultural emphasis on men’s bravery, aggression, and display of status contribute to a public imagery of male superiority and a corresponding devaluation of women’s activities and attributes.”

“The North Slope Eskimos offer a remarkably clear example of factors that lead to the formation of a village-level economy. This case is especially revealing because although all North Slope Eskimos belong to the same cultural and linguistic group, only those living on the coast and engaged in cooperative whale hunting (the Tareumiut) have a developed village economy. The inland Eskimos (Nunamiut) are typical family-level foragers; much like the Nganasan (Case 4), they aggregate in groups beyond the camp level only for semiannual caribou drives or, less commonly, to pass the winter in the security of a settled neighborhood.”

“Pastoralism is the only possible way of life in much of East Africa, thanks to the comparatively high population density and the extreme marginality of the region for rainfall agriculture. The central feature of pastoralism is the concentration of subsistence in movable propertythat is, the family herds. ”

Clan and Big Man Collectivity:

“The Big Man is a local leader, one who makes decisions for the local group and represents it in major intergroup ceremonies. ”

“Big Men characteristically manage the economy beyond their own local group. They organize and direct the intergroup ceremonies, accompanied by large-scale, coordinated gift-giving, that are critical for a group’s prestige and desirability as an ally and exchange partner. They organize external trade and may be important traders. In general, the Big Man acts as a group’s spokesman, dealing with other Big Men to organize political and economic relations in the loose association of communities known as the intergroup collectivity.”

Chiefdoms & States:

“The settlement pattern of chiefdoms and states is typically sedentary and hierarchical…  the primary unit of settlement is the village-a socially recognized community, ritually focused on a plaza, shrine, or graveyard, and subject to elite control. Separated from other villages across the landscape so that households remain close to productive lands, the village has usually been occupied continuously across many generations, its history seemingly eternal to its members, its ancestors still a presence in everyday life”

“The following culture-core variables characterize regionally organized polities:

1. The environment now usually includes (a) rich resources like irrigated land or bottom alluvium, or (b) opportunities for trade resulting from water-based transport or proximity to markets and trade routes. The environment has been radically transformed by intensification”

“2. Population density is characteristically high,”

“3. The technology of intensive agriculture includes major capital improvements (such as irrigation canals, flood control dikes, terraces, and drainage). Where trade is important, capital investments can be found in canoes and ships, piers and ports, wagons, bridges, and roads.”

“4. The social organization of production is hierarchical, subject to regional patterns of specialization and stratification.”

“5. Warfare and territoriality remain central, but the goals change. The nature of war shifts fundamentally, from competition between local groups over land and other resources-in which enemies are killed or driven off-to conquest warfare that seeks to expand the political economy by capturing both land and labor and bringing them under elite control. The increasingly professional military serves both to expand (or protect) the polity in the competitive external political arena and to outlaw violence between communities and against the state. Land ownership implies the right to share in production (the fund of rent), the basis for finance of elite institutions and projects.

6. Except in the cases of the smallest chiefdoms, political integration is expanded spatially to incorporate large regions and thousands of subjects… “ It is the building of regional institutions of power-the chiefdom, the state, church hierarchies, and bureaucracies-that most defines the emergence of the regional polities. All depends on means of financing the new institutions of government.

7. Stratification in the regional polity is pronounced-some would say it is its definitive characteristic. With the emergence of complex chiefdoms and states comes the division into classes… The stratification may include a belief in elite racial, historical, and religious superiority. Gender inequality also can become quite marked. Materially, the many divisions and hierarchies are represented in dress, culture, quality of housing, burials, and the like.”

“8. Sanctity in the regional polity is deployed most dramatically, in sacred ceremonies intended to create a sense of common origins, purpose, and destiny among strangers and to sanctify the class divisions of society.”

“A chiefdom is characteristically larger [than a Clan]; it is achieved by organizing local communities in a regional hierarchy based on the inherited rank of their respective leaders. Positions of leadership constitute offices with explicit attached rights and obligations. Chiefs thus “come to power” that is vested in an office rather than building up power, as Big Men do, by amassing a personal following. Social status in chiefdoms is inherited, based upon an individual’s genealogical position in a social hierarchy, and access to power through office is accordingly confined to specific elite personages.”

“Chiefdoms are based on generalized central leadership, as are Big Man societies; but a chief has sufficient institutionalized control over his society’s political and economic organizations to be able to restrict leadership to an elite segment. Such control, based on restricted access to critical economic resources, may derive from any of four major conditions, which vary from place to place:

1. Central storage, instituted originally as a way of handling risk but providing control over capital for use in political affairs.

2. Large-scale technology, desirable to a local population for minimizing production costs but requiring a major capital investment that bonds subsistence producers to the chief.

3. Warfare in naturally circumscribed regions, which requires leadership but allows the victorious chief to control a subjugated population.

4. External trade, which may be necessary to a local population or attractive because of strong external demand but which is not available to most individuals because of the high costs of transport technology (Burton 1975) and the difficulties of intersocietal contracts.Once regional control is established, the evolutionary development of chiefdoms toward greater centralization depends on controlling or defending whatever investments are made. Some investments, such as irrigation agriculture and marine-based trade with foreign states, offer an exceptionally large potential for control and growth”


“STATES ARE REGIONALLY organized societies whose populations number in the hundreds of thousands or millions and often are economically diverse. In contrast to chiefdoms, the populations of states are usually ethnically diverse as well, and state power depends on balancing and manipulating the divergent interests of these groups. Whereas chiefdoms vest leadership in generalized regional institutions, in states the increased scope of integration requires specialized regional institutions to perform the tasks of control and management. The military is responsible for conquest, defense, and often internal peace; the bureaucracy is responsible for mobilizing the state’s income, meeting many local managerial responsibilities, and, more generally, for handling and monitoring information flow; the state religion serves both to organize production and to sanctify state rule. Along with this elaboration of the ruling apparatus comes increasing stratification. Elites are now unrelated by kinship to the populations they govern; their power, underwritten by economic control, is displayed in the conspicuous use of luxury goods and the construction of splendid buildings.

The ethnic, institutional, and class divisions in state societies create competing interests and divergent sources of power.”

“Capital-intensive technology is perhaps the most common basis for the developing political economy of states. Increasing population density requires a level of agricultural intensification that ultimately can be achieved only by large capital improvements such as irrigation systems.

“The high productivity of developed irrigation systems lays the economic foundation for all pristine state formations in coastal Peru, highland Mexico, Egypt, the Middle East, India, and perhaps China.”

If you would like to learn more about the evolution of human societies, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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