Can political complexity evolve from small-scale cooperative herding groups?

Last week I was informed that my project proposal “From small-scale cooperative herding groups to nomadic empires – a cross-cultural approach (COMPLEXITY)” was funded through the ERC Consolidator Grant scheme.

Had to wait to announce it since it was not official until 12:00 17.03.2022 when ERC announces their press release with all the successful grants. The press release can be found here.

The overall aim of the Consolidator Grant is to “… support mid-career researchers and will help them consolidate their teams and conduct pioneering research on topics and with methods of their choosing” (from press release).

Central thesis

COMPLEXITY is situated at the intersection of anthropology and ecology and deals with the evolution of political complexity.

The prevalent view of the evolution of complex societies favours agriculture as the main factor.

How do we then explain the rise of nomadic empires?

One common explanation refers to conflict, and large-scale conflict with China has been presented as the central element in the rise of, for example, the Mongol Empire.

In 1242, Europe stood on the precipice of destruction. Based in Hungary and Serbia, the Mongol armies were poised for conquering the rest of Europe. Only the death of the Great Khan halted the Mongol advance, sparing Europe from the fate of an inevitable conquest. Twenty-five years after the withdrawal, the Mongol Empire reached its peak with the establishment of the Yuan dynasty – making it the largest land empire in history, stretching from the Sea of Japan to the Mediterranean Sea and the Carpathian Mountains.

Thus, pastoralists could only develop complex levels of organisation when facing strong agricultural neighbours.

But this cannot explain how pastoralists transitioned from small, kin-based groups to complex stratified societies.

COMPLEXITY’s central thesis is that before large-scale conflict is even possible, a level of within-group cooperation must be present.

Noteworthy, it is almost impossible for pastoralists to survive without cooperative labour investment and help from other households

By viewing cooperative herding groups as the building blocks of nomadic societies, COMPLEXITY aims to increase our understanding of the evolution of political complexity based on a new theoretical explanation of pastoral political organisation.

Structure

COMPLEXITY adds to state of the art through three steps.

While cooperative herding has been documented, previous studies have been based on single case studies.

The preliminary extent of cooperative herding groups.

Evidence is also fragmented, and little systematic attempts have been made to understand general patterns of pastoral cooperation.

The first step of COMPLEXITY is thus to cross-culturally analyse and document the prevalence of cooperative herding groups by using the existing ethnographic literature and a cross-cultural database

This will be used to select four field sites in Africa and Inner Asia: 

Study design where the overall starting point is to select two communities at two sites within each region. Arrows indicate levels of comparison undertaken in the project: between regions; between sites; and between communities. Coloured areas on the map indicate the already documented presence of herding groups while animal figures indicate the traditional Old World nomadic pastoral zones defined by the key cultural animal

Cooperation, performance and the rise of pastoral inequality

Understanding cross-cultural diversity and patterns in behaviour is a central goal of human behavioural ecology.

Nevertheless, the predominant view of cooperation is shaped by studies focusing on food sharing among foragers.

A conceptual overview of the domain, focus, problem, mechanisms and research load in evolutionary aspects of cooperation in anthropology. Food sharing has been a focus because it carries a cost for the giver: the giver must share parts of their food without knowing if the action will be reciprocated. Thus, sharing is a collective action dilemma, i.e., a situation where free-riders can thwart cooperation. Sharing labour is not riddled with the same dilemma: it is mutually beneficial and, thus, represent a coordination problem. Since individuals who share labour have common interests and share preferences, they always benefit from cooperation. Also referred to as mutualism, coordination has been argued to be a better representation for many situations of human cooperation. Nevertheless, they have been viewed as less interesting and trivial than collective action dilemmas: when everyone benefits from collective action, the cooperative solution should be obvious.

In contrast, less focus has been placed on cooperative production, the primary form of cooperation among pastoralists.

Consequently, COMPLEXITY’s second step is to use field studies to comparatively investigate to what degree pastoral cooperation is structured by evolutionary factors and investigate how cooperation affects pastoral performance.

The evolution of political complexity: from small-scale cooperative group to empires?

There is also a view that livestock, as the primary source of wealth, limits the development of inequalities, making pastoralism unable to support complex organisations.

However, the Gini coefficient for reindeer in Norway indicates that wealth in livestock is more unevenly distributed than for Norway in general (see this preprint https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/zv92t).   

Temporal trends in wealth inequality measured as reindeer numbers for (A) the Saami reindeer husbandry in Norway and (B) the Saami reindeer husbandry in the North and South (Fig 1.). The Gini coefficient ranges from 0 (perfect equality; everyone owns equally) to 1 (perfect inequality; one individual owns everything). Data for Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for Norway downloaded from Statistics of Norway (https://www.ssb.no/). See preprint https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/zv92t for details.

Since we cannot observe the history of nomadic empires, COMPLEXITY’ will model if, for example, livestock as wealth can generate inequalities resulting in hierarchical power structures.

The third step is thus to combine empirical data with Agent-Based Modelling, to investigate whether cooperative herding groups can be considered prototypes for more complex organisations.

The funding makes it possible to hire 2 postdocs and 2 Phds working alongside me in Tromsø!

So stay tuned for job openings!

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