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The Worst Mistake in Jared Diamond's History of the Human Race: The State

Guns, Germs and Steel is a good book, and I suggest you follow up with reading Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

However, if you find yourself interested in primatology and evolutionary biology, I don't suggest you read Diamond's The Third Chimpanzee. Instead, I recommend Frans de Waal's Our Inner Ape, unlike Diamond, de Wall doesn't ignore bonobos. I haven't read Diamond's Why is Sex Fun?, but I suspect it won't have enough kink for me.

I do have one significant disagreement with Diamond, the degree which he is a material determinist. While I agree with him that most (all?) government resembles a kleptocracy, I disagree with him that it is an inevitable consequence of agriculture. Let me quote something I wrote a while ago:

"Jared Diamond hypothesizes that when stateless egalitarian hunter-gather societies develop agriculture and experience population growth, blood feuds and new resource management problems challenge their ability to maintain horizontal political relationships and economic communalism. According to Diamond, the material transition itself leads inevitably to the State, which he refers to as "the kleptocracy," and the most the oppressed can hope for by revolting is for a change in the rate of exploitation and oppression by installing a new group of kleptocrats. In his view, "the kleptocracy" is ultimately a function of material culture.

"Some historical materialists claim a densely settled, agricultural population will inevitably develop into a hierarchically stratified society, with a centralized state and an exploitative economic redistribution system, in order avoid warfare while resolving blood feuds among its members. While this is a common occurrence, it is not the only way these issues have been resolved. Located along the southern banks of Kaniatarí:io (Lake Ontario), the traditional society of the Rotinonshón:ni (Iroquois), "The People of the Longhouse," was a densely settled, matrilineal, communal, and extensively horticultural society... these nations united through the Kaianere'kó:wa (“the Great Good Way”) into the same polity and ended blood feuding without economic exploitation, stratification, or the formation of a centralized state."
"Where License Reigns With All Impunity": An Anarchist Study of the Rotinonshón:ni Polity

To expand on this, here is a review essay that wouldn't fit on goodreads:

The Worst Mistake in Jared Diamond's History of the Human Race: The State

I didn't have space to do so in my article, but I'd like to expand a bit on how the Iroquois prove to be an exception to many of Diamond's ideas. I'll now use them as an example on his "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race".

"Another example of paleopathology at work is the study of Indian skeletons from burial mounds in the Illinois and Ohio river valleys. At Dickson Mounds, located near the confluence of the Spoon and Illinois rivers, archaeologists have excavated some 800 skeletons that paint a picture of the health changes that occurred when a hunter-gatherer culture gave way to intensive maize farming around A. D. 1150. Studies by George Armelagos and his colleagues then at the University of Massachusetts show these early farmers paid a price for their new-found livelihood. Compared to the hunter-gatherers who preceded them, the farmers had a nearly 50 per cent increase in enamel defects indicative of malnutrition, a fourfold increase in iron-deficiency anemia (evidenced bya bone condition called porotic hyperostosis), a theefold rise in bone lesions reflecting infectious disease in general, and an increase in degenerative conditions of the spine, probably reflecting a lot of hard physical labor. "Life expectancy at birth in the pre-agricultural community was bout twenty-six years," says Armelagos, "but in the post-agricultural community it was nineteen years. So these episodes of nutritional stress and infectious disease were seriously affecting their ability to survive."

I am so glad that Diamond brought up the example of Mississippian mound building civilization (which he does so in Collapse as well). Why? Because they are contemporaries and geographic neighbours of the Iroquois. Maize cultivation begins (and potentially the Rotinonshón:ni polity) at nearly the same time as does intensive maize farming begins among the Mississippian mound builders. Both are using similar stone tools and have similar domesticated crops. Unlike much of the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys and much of the entire South East, the Mississippian culture is unable to penetrate into Iroquois territory. Interesting, no? Mississippian culture also directly influences the Cherokee (southern Iroquoian speakers). The contrast between the "paramount chiefdom" society of the Mississipians and the Iroquois provides us something close to an social experiment between neighbouring cultures that share a material basis.

Some details of the Mississippian culture are worth explaining in contrasting them with the Iroquois. The Mississippians had:

"* Widespread trade (and tribute) networks extending as far west as the Rockies, north to the Great Lakes, south to the Gulf of Mexico, and east to the Atlantic Ocean.
* The development of the chiefdom or complex chiefdom level of social complexity that could be comparable at different points to post-Roman, pre-consolidation tribal England (archaeologists, when unsure of proper prehistoric terminology tend to generalize and avoid loaded terms like 'king' or 'theocrat').
* The development of institutionalized social inequality.
* A centralization of control of combined political and religious power in the hands of few or one.
* The beginnings of a settlement hierarchy, in which one major center (with mounds) has clear influence or control over a number of lesser communities, which may or may not possess a smaller number of mounds. The paramount chieftanship of Cahokia, a large city of somewhere between 8,000 to 40,000 people. Cahokia was larger than any city in the U.S. until about 1800, when Philadelphia surpassed Cahokia's estimated peak population.
* The adoption of the paraphernalia of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (SECC), also called the Southern Cult. This is the belief system of the Mississippians as we know it. SECC items occur from Wisconsin (see Aztalan State Park) to the Gulf Coast, and from Florida to Arkansas and Oklahoma.
* The most likely descendents of the Mississippians were also practicing patrilineal and patrilocal customs once encountered by the Europeans. This is in contrast to the matrilineal/matrilocality of the Iroquois, and the bilateral descent practices of many other indigenous nations."
Wikipedia: Mississippian Culture: Cultural Traits

Cahokia collapsed before the arrival of the Europeans. The Mississippian polity in general collapsed with Hernando de Soto "visit" in 1534-1539 and the introduction of horses and disease. It is interesting to note that one of the few cultures that continued to maintain a oral tradition of having been involved with mound building was the Cherokee (southern Iroquois speakers, with some similar cultural traits like matrilineal clans, consensus); who exterminated their priest caste in a revolt just before European contact.

Diamond will blame the collapse of Cahokia on a lack of available wood (caused by building, particular defensive wooden stockades) and political disintegration. The Iroquois, however, continued to thrive. The Iroquois didn't seem to face much risk of collapse until after they started facing epidemic disease introduced by European contact from the mid 16th century on. The largest Mohawk town in 630 was Tenotoge with a population of 3,300. While falling short of the size of Cahokia, it was definitely a respectable size by Mississippian standards. Further, the politically egalitarian relationship of component nations within the Iroquois and it's communal economy with it's lack of stratification may have very well discouraged the formation of a settlement hierarchy. Also, the periodic village relocation circuit of may have also limited the formation of such centralized city-states. And yet, the Iroquois live in sedentary communities numbering in the thousands with a high population density typical of farmers.

Mississippian mound building culture was influenced by two earlier mound building cultures that were also active along the Ohio river... the Adena and Hopewell. The Hopewell had extended as far as into western New York... which would later become Shotinontowane'á:ka (Seneca Iroquois) territory.

"in the western part of Iroquoia even some small burial mounds similar to those characteristic of the contemporaneous Hopewellian people of the Ohio Valley. For unknown reasons, however, such practices declined significantly in the Hunter's Home era (900 AD)", Daniel Richter, Ordeal of the Long House, 14

Then the Owasco culture developed at 900 AD. The Owasco are regarded as the proto-Iroquoisan culture. Notice the difference between Mississippian mound building culture, and the Owasco:

"cultivated maize, beans, and squash on a scale that made horticulture central to their subsistence. Second, new mortuary rituals replaced the older two-stage process in favor of immediate burials which included a few materials goods that were evidently personal belongings rather than grave offerings. Third, long-distance trade virtually ceased, at least as indicated by the archaeological record; in its place merged greatly intensified warfare among communities",Richter, 15

This is also the first era of pallisaded villages and according to some (Barbara A. Mann) would have been the war that ended with the establishment of the Kaianere'kó:wa and Rotinonshón:ni. Eventually, the amount of grave offerings would increase, but never to the excess of the Mississippian elites. Further, more grave offerings tended to accompany the burial of children.

Let's compare this to the most prestigious burial of Cahokia:

"During excavation of Mound 72, a ridge-top burial mound south of Monk's Mound, archaeologists found the remains of a man in his 40s who was probably an important Cahokian ruler. The man was buried on a bed of more than twenty thousand marine-shell disc beads arranged in the shape of a falcon, with the bird's head appearing beneath the man's head and its wings and tail beneath his arms and legs. The falcon warrior, or "birdman," is a common motif in Mississippian culture, and this burial clearly has powerful iconographic significance.

"A cache of arrowhead in a variety of different styles and materials was found near the grave of this important man. Separated into four types, each from a different geographical region, the arrowheads demonstrate Cahokia's extensive trade links in North America. Over 250 other skeletons were also recovered from Mound 72. Many were found in mass graves; some were missing their hands and heads, which seems to indicate human sacrifice. The relationship of these other burials to the central burial is unclear, but it is unlikely that they were all deposited at the time of the ruler's burial. Wood in several parts of the mound has been radiocarbon-dated between 950 and 1000."
Wikipedia: Cahokia: Prestige burial

Let's not mince words here. This has got to be the divine rite of a warlord king of Cahokia.

While the Mississippian mound builders were able to expand through out the Ohio, Mississippi river valleys, and all the way to the southeastern coast, that culture was not able to penetrate into Iroquoia.

It is also worth nothing that the only formal standing military officer positions described in the Kaianere'kó:wa is that of Ratihnhohanónhnha, the doorkeepers, two Rotiiá:ner of the Shotinontowane'á:ka. It is clear that the Rotinonshón:ni saw the largest military threat coming from the west. The Ratihnhohanónhnha were not war captains, but were primarily concerned with logistics of defense and were tasked--leaders of war parties were elected by their participants.

I'm looking for What was the 16th Century (1500s) Life Expectancy of the Iroquois?

Jared Diamond also overstresses the connection between an agricultural diet and Porotic hyperostosis. Observe this study of the Oneta, a south-western Wisconsin longhouse-living but Mississippian influenced society.

"Increasing population density had a significant impact on sanitation. Throughout the world, when people shift to more intensive agriculture, they begin living in sedentary communities with concentrated populations. Sanitation was almost definitely a problem in these early agricultural communities, and parasites and infectious disease became increasingly widespread (Armelagos 1990, Cohen 1989). We suggest that a similar situation may have developed at the Tremaine community.

"The incidence of porotic hyperostosis and cribra orbitalia at the Tremaine site may be explained by this theoretical rise in parasites. StuartMacadam (1992) argued that considering porotic hyperostosis and cribra orbitalia to be indicative of nutritional stress is not valid. Many physiological adaptations occur in the human body to prevent iron deficiency and iron, when absorbed, is rarely lost by the body (StuartMacadam 1992). Stuart-Macadam stated that modern studies have been unable to conclusively link iron deficiency anemia to poor diet and stated that iron deficiency anemia is frequently lacking in iron-deprived people. Instead, Stuart-Macadam argued that porotic hyperostosis and cribra orbitalia may be indicative of parasitic infection. Malaria, fleas and ticks, intestinal parasites and diarrhea as a result of parasitism all have been linked to iron deficiency anemia (Stuart-Macadam 1992). Although we are hesitant to completely reject nutritional causes of porotic hyperostosis, we feel that there is little dietary evidence of iron deficiency at Tremaine. The incidence of porotic hyperostosis and cribra orbitalia then may be best attributed to metabolic nutritional deficiencies exacerbated by potential parasitic infection."
"Assessing Oneota Diet And Health: A Community And Lifeway Perspective" Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, Spring 2005 by Tubbs, Ryan M, O'Gorman, Jodie A.

So, the authors argue that it wasn't a shift to an agricultural diet, but that the increased population that only became possible through agriculture had poor sanitation. That is, a problem that is solvable by agriculturalists.

"One straight forward example of what paleopathologists have learned from skeletons concerns historical changes in height. Skeletons from Greece and Turkey show that the average height of hunger-gatherers toward the end of the ice ages was a generous 5’ 9" for men, 5’ 5" for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, and by 3000 B. C. had reached a low of only 5’ 3" for men, 5’ for women. By classical times heights were very slowly on the rise again, but modern Greeks and Turks have still not regained the average height of their distant ancestors."

Radio carbon dating 1550 AD +/- 50 years; north shore of Lake Ontario--this would have been a northern Iroquois community, likely Huron. Average male height is between 68.8 inches and 72.5 inches (or 5'9"). ("A Study of the Bool-Rose Ossuary Ulnae: Demography, Defleshing and Degenerative Joint Disease", Natalie Anne Bodin, 2002)

Have I mentioned that the northern Iroquois (including the Huron) were farmers and got up to 2/3rds of their diet from domesticated plants?

"farming helped bring another curse upon humanity: deep class divisions. Hunter-gatherers have little or no stored food, and no concentrated food sources, like an orchard or a herd of cows: they live off the wild plants and animals they obtain each day. Therefore, there can be no kings, no class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized from others. Only in a farming population could a healthy, non-producing élite set itself above the disease-ridden masses. Skeletons from Greek tombs at Mycenae c. 1500 B. C. suggest that royals enjoyed a better diet than commoners, since the royal skeletons were two or three inches taller and had better teeth (on the average, one instead of six cavities or missing teeth)."

Just because a farming makes a surplus possible, and that a class of social parasites could seize it--does not mean that either that ruling class of social parasites or their ability to seize it is inevitable. If we accept that the Iroquois were agricultural farmers that did generate a surplus, then if they lacked class divisions... the class society is a matter of social form and history--not just the existence of agriculture and a surplus. As I have argued, the Iroquois had a both agriculture and a lack of stratification, that is economic exploitation. The few positions of rank did not result in material economic rewards. Not in diet, nor in possessions or grave goods.

The Iroquois lacked stratification, with no elites among them... diet would have been consistently similar for everyone. I note that they averaged the height of 5'9", that is, the same average height that Diamond gives for hunter-gathers towards the end of the Ice Age. This would be many hundred years after the introduction of maize farming among the Iroquois.

"Population densities of hunter-gatherers are rarely over one person per ten square miles, while farmers average 100 times that.", Diamond

Dean R. Snow estimates that the entire northern Iroquoian population numbered 95,840 in 1630 CE, with a 31,947 acres of farms. 639 acres in a square mile. So, Dean Snow lists about 50 square miles are farmed. Or one hundred and forty nine individuals per square mile. Now, we might need to offset this with the realization that only 2/3rds of the Iroquois diet came from farms, the other 1/3rd came from gathering wild foods (strawberries, etc...), fishing (the great lakes and fresh water rivers) and hunting. So by population density, Diamond would certainly regard the Iroquois as agricultural farmers.

"Farming may have encouraged inequality between the sexes, as well. Freed from the need to transport their babies during a nomadic existence, and under pressure to produce more hands to till the fields, farming women tended to have more frequent pregnancies than their hunter-gatherer counterparts–with consequent drains on their health... Partly, too, it’s because nomadic hunter-gatherers have to keep their children spaced at four-year intervals by infanticide and other means, since a mother must carry her toddler until it’s old enough to keep up with the adults. Because farm women don’t have that burden, they can and often do bear a child every two years."

While farmers, Iroquois women (each one of them a farmer!) tightly controlled their reproduction as well. The watched their monthly cycle closely and also made use of abortificants and spaced their pregnancies out over five years. Low rate of fecundity among Iroquois women is a subject of quite some discussion in historical primary sources; partially because this was a reason to question whether they would have made suitable slaves for European masters.

As far as equality between the sex within a hunter-gather society... that is something of a myth. The anthropological definition of "Egalitarian does not… mean that there is any equality between sexes and between different age groups" and that "true sexual equality is a rarity."(Harold Barclay). There are hunter-gather societies that are not only patrilineal and patrilocal but also patriarchal. The Iroquois were an matrilineal matrilocal agricultural society with more sexual equality than many hunter-gather societies. While the Iroquois had a gendered division of labor, women seem to have as much (if not more) political and economic authority than men.

"Or will we somehow achieve those seductive blessings that we imagine behind agriculture’s glittering façade, and that have so far eluded us?", Diamond

This entirely depends on whether humanity can collectively shake off the parasitic ruling class, the kleptocracy. Diamond will argue that such is impossible and their existence is a direct inevitable consequence of agriculture. If that is the case, I can not imagine the 6 billion people currently alive who are dependent on agriculture will reject it, and thus kleptocracy reigns. If, however, we can have societies with agriculture without kleptocracy, then that the benefits of agriculture and technology can be commonly shared by the elimination of the kleptocracy.
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