New Worlds: In the Beginning

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Some worldbuilding topics are so large, it’s hard for me to figure out which approach is best for tackling them. In more than two years of this Patreon, I have yet to say anything directly about government . . . but since that was one of the three topics tied for first place in this month’s patron poll, I decided to bite the bullet.

But before we can really talk about government, we should talk about what existed before it.

Until someone invents a time machine, we can only extrapolate from analogous sources. In this case, that means looking at modern hunter-gatherer groups and how they organize themselves — but this approach is more fraught than it might appear. Those people are not “living in the past,” and their societies are often influenced by the ones around them, even if they don’t adopt the same customs. They are not a perfect window into the habits of people fifteen thousand years ago.

Still, they’re the best source we’ve got. And when we look at them, we tend to find fairly egalitarian societies without much in the way of government at all.

Much of this has to do with resources. Unless you’re living somewhere like the Pacific Northwest, where food sources are stupidly abundant, you face some sharp limitations on population size and permanency: a given area can only support so many people for so long, after which they need to move on. The easy number to hold onto here is twenty-five, though that can fluctuate up and down depending on the season and terrain (a desert produces many fewer human-edible calories per acre than a woodland). And as you might expect, many of those people will be related to one another within a couple of degrees, such that the group is something of an extended family unit.

Just because your average hunter-gatherer group consists of about twenty-five people, though, doesn’t mean human society is totally fragmented and isolated. Bands like that can and do trade people on a regular basis — a process made easier by the fact that nobody owns more than they can carry. So if there’s a marriage, or an argument, or insufficient resources, individuals may hive off to join a different band, or separate to form their own. Or two bands may merge for a time before splitting again along different lines.

How does this relate to government? Via flexibility. In a mobile society of that type, if people don’t like how their current band is being run, they can pack up and leave. Which makes for a very different leadership situation.

In anthropology there’s a distinction between achieved status and ascribed status. The former is earned, in a variety of ways. The respect accorded to elders in many societies is one example; great skill at hunting or healing or some other task is another. By contrast, the latter accrues to you just because of who you are. You see this in aristocracies, and the remnants of that are with us even today: certain people are considered important because their families are important, even if they themselves have never done anything significant. Racism and sexism also involve ascribed status, with the opinions of white men receiving more weight than those of people who don’t fit that demographic, simply by dint of birth.

Hunter-gatherer societies feature little to no ascribed status, only achieved. If you want people to listen to you, then you have to earn it. If a successful hunter says the band should head in a certain direction to find more game, it’s probably worth listening to him. If a shaman says the lack of game is because some spirit has been offended, you might want to take the steps she recommends for fixing that. An elder who has seen decades of life will know more about what solutions do and do not work than a stripling barely past puberty.

Decision-making in this kind of society frequently hinges on consensus. A hunter-gatherer band may have a leader, but that leader doesn’t just give orders and wait for them to be obeyed. There’s debate, with different people weighing in based on their expertise. And if one or more people don’t like the ultimate decision . . . see above. It’s easy for them to vote with their feet, heading off on their own or joining a different band rather than going along with everybody else.

This, incidentally, is part of why you see less interpersonal violence in such societies. Arguments between individuals can be resolved by one party walking away, and while conflicts can arise between bands over things like access to water or other resources, they’re still less common than warfare between settled populations. It takes sedentarism to pile up lots of belongings someone else might want to steal, and those pin you down so that it becomes far more difficult to flee a confrontation. Some of the theories about how more complex governments evolved hinge on the need to organize resource distribution and defense.

Consider this a fuzzy picture, though, rather than one carved in stone. A landscape positively dripping with abundance such that your hunter-gatherers can form larger sedentary groups will need more political organization than “we follow the lead of whomever we respect the most and argue with them when we disagree.” Mobile groups facing an external threat from a larger, more settled population might join together into a larger hierarchy under the leadership of someone who convincingly argues that they can protect everyone. If the society is so fragmented that a band really just is a small family group, even the notion of a “leader” might go away, and it becomes just the parents making decisions for their juvenile children.

We see relatively little of this in speculative fiction. Sometimes fantasy novels or first-contact SF will feature hunter-gatherer groups as an Other contrasted with the protagonists from a more settled society, but it’s rare to see that contrast from the other side. The comic book series Elfquest is one of the few stories I can think of where the focus is on the hunter-gatherers, with farmers being the strange Other they encounter — and, having written a paper on this in college, I can say that in most respects they’re a fairly reasonable depiction of that way of life.

Most of the time, however, our stories depict societies with much more complex governments, where a leader’s power is based on something other than communal respect. So, having looked at the way things operate in their simplest forms, next week we’ll turn our attention to the foundations other systems are built on.

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