Herders, Warriors, And Traders — The Origin of Social Stratification

Andreas Hofer
5 min readSep 8, 2022


While the origin of inequality clearly lies in the transition from foraging to food-producing (farming and herding), the origin of social stratification is less clear. It is typically associated with farming. However, considering that agriculture started some 12,000 years ago, we see little in terms of stratification for the first 6,000 years. What agricultural societies typically produce is differences in administrative hierarchy and status, however social stratification is something completely different as it divides society into strata with higher and lower prestige, often with strict marriage rules. Stratification and hierarchy represent a dual layering of society and social status.

If egalitarian hunter-gatherers would certainly resist stratification by voting with their feet (leaving) and farmers “merely” produce an administrative hierarchy, where does social stratification come from? There is a third mode of subsistence: semi-nomadic pastoralism and it has presented anthropologists with a lot of puzzles regarding a political tendency, as pastoralists can be almost as egalitarian as hunter-gatherers and resist state integration, but they are also frequently stratified.

In ethnographic studies of nomadic and semi-nomadic herding communities in Africa, including Nuer, Fulbe, Baggara, Turkana, Borana, Somali, pastoral polities have been seen as intrinsically egalitarian and “acephalous”, literally “headless”, or without centralized authority. Schneider (1979) suggested that there were political entailments to the fact that livestock wealth — being self-reproducing and mobile — cannot be monopolized , for in the absence of any other factor of production which can be centrally controlled, pastoralism will make possible, indeed will stimulate diffusion of wealth and thus decentralization of power. This argument is most applicable to East Africa, where most pastoralists are organized in relatively discrete herding sections, in which community leadership is exercised through local councils or age-groups.

In order to understand the role herders play in creating stratification the African Interlacustrine Kingdoms (see map above) are highly interesting, as we can historically see all kinds of centralised organisations ranging from simple chiefdoms to complex kingdoms. In Herders, Warriors, And Traders: Pastoralism In Africa (1991) John G. Galaty presents us with an interesting picture stratification that is is almost ubiquitous in the area and that is highly dependant on subsistence economy:

In the Intralacustrine cases presented by Bonte, “aristocratic” Tutsi or Hima, associated with a symbolic monopoly on cattle, were attributed honor and labor by Hutu agricultural commoners and Twa forager/serfs within an ideology of intrinsic “ethnic” difference, despite a common Bantu language and culture.

For Rwanda the approximate percentages are as follows:

  1. Tutsi pastoralists about 15% of the population
  2. Hutu agriculturalists about 84% of the population
  3. Twa hunter-gatherers about 1% of the population

What we see is a small aristocratic pastoralist elite who dominates commoners and the lowest class made up of foragers (serfs). This social make-up is very similar to Mycenaean Greece, for which geneticists found similar ratios:

  1. Steppe pastoralists (Yamnya): 10%
  2. Anatolian farmers (descendants): 88%
  3. Balkan hunter-gatherers and others: 2%

As the vast majority of Mycenaean aristocratic graves are graves of warriors with steppe ancestry, we can assume that the social order was very similar to the one in Interlacustrine Kingdoms. What’s more, while the specific percentages and importance of pastoralism may vary a lot in those kingdoms, wealth and power are always associated with the possessions of cattle.

How can relatively egalitarian pastoralists come to create stratified societies? The answer lies in their attitude towards outgroups:

Intense pride is frequent in the pastoral character, with egalitarian ideology seen to obtain primarily between pastoralists, with non-pastoralists frequently deemed of lesser honor and quality. […] However, even the most assertively egalitarian pastoralists — such as the Maasai or Fulani — harbor notions of the superiority of livestock ownership and husbandry over other metiers and indulge themselves in discourse regarding the inferiority of non-pastoralists, laborers , and women (Galaty 1982). In effect, attributes of value, including strength, courage, restraint, animal wealth, and honor , on which the equal worth of pastoralists is based, are predicated on the existence of symbolic “others” who exemplify the negation of pastoral value and esteem.

I argue that this pastoralist attitude is the same as social dominance orientation (SDO). SDO represents an individual’s tendency to endorse group-based dominance and inequality. Due to the inherent in-group egalitarianism, this tendency also leads to decentralised forms of government: oligarchy, feudalism or mafia-like protection racketeering. We therefore arrive at the four political orientations as evolutionary instincts or of past subsistence modes: anarcho-communism (hunter-gatherers), authoritarianism (farmers) and SDO (herders).

Only in combination with centralised authoritarianism (farmers) can SDO (herders) produce a stratified social system, that is initially based on subsistence and ethnicity and later based on occupation (e.g. soldiers, traders and craftsmen would typically have been herder types). The small percentage of hunter-gatherer admixture to each polity would eventually become crucial in the development of a polity into a civilisation. Hunter-gatherer types would instinctively reduce the tribalism inherent in food producers and foster democracy. “All the evidence suggests that our ability to sustain peaceful and thriving democracies depends, to a large extent, on how we handle humanity’s powerful instinct toward tribalism” (Yascha Mounk). It would only take a lot of time for them to rise from the bottom of a chiefdom to the top.

In many African pastoral societies, one finds endogamous caste groups, artisans, blacksmiths, hunters, fishermen, and even bards and diviners, who are marked by notions of pollution and inequality and viewed ambivalently. In such cases, it appears that internal egalitarianism is acquired at the price of external hierarchy.

The time of the hunters had gone, but hunter-gatherer types were still able to rise in status as bards, diviners, artisans, shamans or druids, people formerly considered of “impure blood” due to their hunter-gatherer origin or admixture.

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Originally published at http://the-big-ger-picture.blogspot.com on September 8, 2022.