Posted by: Alan D. Price, PhD | November 26, 2009

Evolution of Democracy, Part II

Origins of Democracy in Paleolithic Hunter-Gatherer Groups

A paper by Doron Shultziner, PhD, referenced in Part I of this essay and entitled, “Evolution and Liberal Democracy,”  highlights the shortcomings of definitions of democracy in the 20th century that ignore and obscure the evolutionary nature of democratic ideals.  The discussion is found in a section labeled, “Setting Democracy in a Larger Evolutionary Context,” 

Democracy at the beginning of the 21st century is a term that denotes a variety of regimes that share similar main characteristics. Democracy has a thin procedural definition and thicker definitions. The thin definition of democracy is a political system with universal suffrage and “whose leaders are elected in competitive multi-party and multi-candidate processes in which opposition parties have a legitimate chance of attaining power or participating in power” [citation in original]….Thicker definitions of democracy require effective and enlightened participation as well as human rights and freedoms beyond what is necessary for a democratic process [citations in original]. Thicker standards of democracy usually relate to liberal-democracies, namely democratic countries which are free and respectable to human rights. The two categories, however, are not necessarily synonymous [citation in original].

Defined by these criteria, however, democracy is a very recent invention that appeared only in the 20th century after women gained voting rights. The merits of these definitions have been recognized by political scientists for providing a useful analytical tool and for distinguishing democracies from other types of regimes, at least since the 20th century [citation in original]. 

Unfortunately, 20th century definitions of democracy, useful as they may be to distinguish democracies from nondemocracies at present, are not applicable to democracies prior to the 20th century [citations in original].  The famous democracy of Athens (and other Greek cities) about 2500 years ago is not a democracy by today’s definitions because not all men, women or slaves were allowed to vote or have any say about matters that influenced their lives. For similar reasons, the American democracy was lacking significant characteristics prior to the 20th century. In Switzerland, men gained suffrage as early as 1848; women in Switzerland, however, began gaining suffrage only in 1971 and the Swiss canton Appenzell Innerrhoden was forced by the Supreme Court to give women voting rights as late as 1990.  Still, it would not make much sense to argue that Switzerland became a democracy only in 1971 or 1990. 20th century definitions of democracy detach democracy from its historical roots for reasons of analytical clarity. It is not that these historical roots are not unacknowledged; rather, they are perceived to be irrelevant for the purpose of analyzing the unprecedented number of democratic transitions in the 20th century. This logic, as I intend to show in the following pages, is flawed because it fails to recognize seminal historical democracies as forerunners of a much deeper and profound phenomenon….

Egalitarian Social Structures in the Paleolithic Era

I believe that much of our ability to understand the transition to democracy is impaired by the focus on 20th century standards of democracy. I argue that shared features exist between 20th century democracies, democracies prior to the 20th century, and ancient forms of human egalitarian societies.

Estimates for Homo sapiens appearance are between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago [citation in original].  We know that all human beings lived throughout this period, known as the Paleolithic era (2 million -10,000 B.C.E), in small nomadic societies of hunters and gatherers (i.e. foragers) who were usually of an average group size of 25 people, although at times of festivals group size could reach over one hundred [citations in original].  Human beings in the Paleolithic era have [sic] had the same physiological and psychological capabilities as us (“biologically they were us” [citation in original], although their cultures and ways of life were obviously different.  These forager bands sustained their ways of life and social structures into the 20th century. Forager bands, albeit influenced to different degrees by external factors, were extensively studied around the world by anthropologists, and these studies provide valuable information regarding behavior and social structures in the Paleolithic era. 

An important characteristic of forager bands, which has become a topic of interest especially since the 1990’s, is their egalitarian social structures.  Wide agreement exists that the social structure of small nomadic societies in the Paleolithic era was egalitarian [citations in original]. Even at the present, after a long period of environmental influences, only a few examples of nonegalitarian foraging societies exist, and these too are affected by high population density and large group size, sedentary life, and other specific characteristics [citation in original]. As Boehm [citation in original] puts it, “Indeed, this egalitarian approach appears to be universal for foragers who live in small bands that remain nomadic, suggesting considerable antiquity for political egalitarianism.”  No strict hierarchical structure existed in foraging bands: decisions had to be reached through consensus, leaders usually had little, if any, substantial power over other group members, and people could come and go as they pleased [Emphasis added].

The Linkage Between Technology and Democracy

As Shultziner points out:

The Paleolithic era, however, ended with the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago, human beings began to settle permanently in one place and to grow plants and animals for their subsistence. This period in human history is known as the Neolithic era. Gradually, sedentary agriculture became the dominant mode of life in most areas of the world inhabited by humans (but not in all areas). The invention of agriculture revolutionized the environmental conditions human beings once lived under, and consequently remarkably changed social structures. Small egalitarian foraging societies were replaced by larger scale sedentary settlements, some of which later became empires. As these sedentary settlements developed and grew, central authoritative power of large scale societies came into being. Put differently, the invention of agriculture resulted in far-reaching consequences on the social structures of human beings.

Shultziner aids understanding by putting the “entire time-span of human history, into an intriguing, one-day, temporal scale.

In order to put the emergence of democracy, and the transitions to democracy, in the right context, then, it would be helpful to compare the scope of this phenomenon to the entire time-span of human history, namely at least 102,000 years (if not 200,000) since Homo sapience began to dwell on the earth. A helpful perceptual scale and illustration would be to compare the relative portion of historical periods to their equivalent in a one-day scale. For more than 21.5 hours of the day (more than 90% of human history), human beings lived in small egalitarian societies of foragers. The emergence of agriculture and the beginning of the Neolithic era occurred in the last 2.5 hours of the day. The Athenian democracy briefly emerged and disappeared 36 minutes before midnight. The modern territorial sovereign state system that began to crystallize after the Peace of Westphalia (1648) was created in the last 8 seconds of that day. Democracy, as a type of regime that qualifies to 20th century definitions, emerged barely 2 seconds ago! In this context, and by 20th century standards of the term, democracy is a very recent development in human history [Emphasis added].

Shultziner goes on to state:

Although democracy by 20th century definition may be a very new phenomenon, I argue that its historical roots and causes lie in ancient times, long before the Athenian democracy came into being [citation in original].  In order to gain a better understanding of why we witness a fast rate of transitions to democracy in recent history we are required to look more closely at the egalitarian social structures under which human beings lived through the Paleolithic era.

In Part III of this essay, I shall discuss the development of these egalitarian social structures as they relate to the culture of early man and their linkage with what is known about social behavior in other species.



  1. As this is a very interesting essay I feel tempted to add that I cannot agree with a definition of democracy that puts 25-people forager bands on one level with 25’000’000-people nations. Everybody who has participated in social life and associations of one kind or another has experienced that as easy as it is to maintain a small group on a egalitarian basis, as difficult it gets as soon as said group grows, for in a small group situation literally everybody affected can be heard.

    Paleolithic society wasn’t confronted with anything similar to the challenges of millions of people living together in an area as tiny as Manhattan. In my point of view only democratic/egalitarian systems prevailing _in_spite_ of theses challenges can be regarded as comparable to modern democratic systems.

    • For some reason your comment was, unfortunately, dumped into the Spam folder, and I just discovered it today. Now, I find that, strangely your excellent comment, that I first saw and to which I responded at length, has mysteriously disappeared. I don’t think that you can remove it, so I am puzzled. I looked in the Trash folder to see if I had inadvertently deleted it, but it was not there.

      Regarding the 2009/11/30 comment above, I shall say that it was not my intention to give a “definition of democracy that puts 25-people forager bands on one level with 25′000′000-people nations.” I was, rather, discussing the evolutionary roots of democracy and the results of millions of years of naturally selected behaviors that form the basis for human attitudes toward group membership and governance.

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