Just regarding egalitarianism in the earliest large societies, indeed there wasn’t an automatic leap into stratification after so many thousands of years in the mostly-egalitarian Stone Age. Instead there was a transitional period that mixed some advantages of large societies with certain hunter-gatherer values. Agriculture and sedentism were necessary but not sufficient for stratification.

Morris Berman makes this point in Wandering God: “Once hunter-gatherers become storing and sedentary, they can adopt agriculture without any major changes in their way of life. But it is agricultural intensification that enables an incipient class stratification, linked with storage, to evolve into a class society, a civilization.”

After agricultural intensification, the political role of polytheism becomes clear, as the biblical scholar Kurt Noll points out in regard to the Canaanites (link below): ‘The four ranks in human society—royal, noble, peasant, and slave—were mirrored by four tiers of gods…At the top stood the divine patron and sometimes his spouse. In the second rank were the cosmic gods, who ruled aspects of the natural realm such as the storms that fertilized the land, the lights in the sky, the endlessly chaotic sea, the vast earth, and the eternal underworld. On the third level were the gods who assisted with practical aspects of daily life, such as gods of craftsmanship, gods of childbearing, and the family ancestors who had become gods after death. The lowest rank of the gods, corresponding to slaves in human society, were the messengers. The Greek word for “messenger” is angelos, and this is the origin of the English word “angel.” ’

Egalitarianism was normal in the Stone Age more for practical reasons, because of all the movement in the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and because possessions couldn’t therefore be hoarded, not because we’re inherently pleasant and peaceful, contrary to Rousseau. Berman points out that “the evidence from grave goods indicates status differentiation by gender going back into the Middle Paleolithic (i.e. -75,000 years).” Ethologically, the social default is to divide into alphas, betas, omegas and the like, as in territorial primates and most social animals.

Hunter-gatherers survived by choosing nomadism as a strategy that happened to entail egalitarianism. Once we settled into permanent societies, we gradually transitioned into hierarchical states that returned us to our social-animal default. Religious and political myths rationalized the transition, but the hierarchies and concentration of power were ultimately forced on us for material reasons.

For example, the informal law of oligarchy came into play, since egalitarianism doesn’t work well for management purposes when the group is sufficiently large. A good example is Occupy Wall Street which paid the price for eschewing a power structure, since the movement dissolved into confusion because of its lack of direction. Likewise, Wikipedia was supposed to be diffuse in its base of editors, but eventually an elite tier of editors formed to exert veto power and prevent the website from breaking down due to internal divisions.

In any case, I tend to agree that the introduction of psychedelic drugs or other means of inducing peak states of consciousness was crucial to the rise of culture and especially of religion, via shamanism. It would be interesting if the Indo-Proto-Europeans brought the party through cannabis.

You seem to be equating “hierarchical animism” with polytheism (pagan pantheons). Wouldn’t polytheism be a development of animism, the hierarchy of spirits replacing the equality of nature spirits and clearly reflecting the gradual transition from nomadism to stratified states and civilization?


Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

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