The Development Dual Hierarchies: Individual Status and Group Stratification

Andreas Hofer
6 min readJan 5, 2022


For a species that has lived for the most part of its existence in small egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands, hierarchy seems surprisingly ubiquitous in human societies and cultures. Even more surprising, humans are the only species that have a dual hierarchy, not merely one that distinguishes between individual ranking (alpha to omega), but also one that distinguishes between groups (castes, gender, class). From a biological perspective classes are somewhat paradoxical as they are fairly endogamous and prevent mating.

Of course, powerful males from higher classes have always been able to recruit mating partners from lower classes, but males from lower classes are effectively cut off from mating with females from higher classes. The purpose of group hierarchy seems therefore associated with preventing lower-status males from mating within an alleged superior group.

If our species has been egalitarian for most of our history, where do individual and group hierarchies come from? The answer has been given multiple times: food surplus production. However, no one so far has claimed that this surplus production led to genetic changes that favour individual and group hierarchy. I will argue that these are adaptations to subsistence strategies:

Political scientists distinguish between four extreme political dispositions:

Individual hierarchy, conformity and authoritarianism are most likely adaptations to early farming, especially irrigation farming that requires a hierarchical organisation of labour. People who gave up genetic egalitarianism and found it easy to assume a role in the hierarchical order were more likely to survive and have offspring (group/kin selection).

The second type of food-producers, herders, have a different social organisation. Herders often raid among their neighbours, who then retaliate. In order to be able to thrive under such conditions herders form shifting alliances that will show the superiority of their group to prevent getting raided themselves. This pattern can be found in most tribes based on segmentary lineage:

A close family is usually the smallest and closest segment and will generally stand together. That family is also a part of a larger segment of more distant cousins and their families, who will stand with each other when attacked by outsiders. They are then part of larger segments with the same characteristics. If there is a conflict between brothers, it will be settled by all the brothers, and cousins will not take sides. If the conflict is between cousins, brothers on one side will align against brothers on the other side. However, if the conflict is between a member of a tribe and a non-member, the entire tribe, including distant cousins, could mobilise against the outsider and his or her allies. That tiered mobilisation is traditionally expressed, for example, in the Bedouin saying: “Me and my brothers against my cousins, me and my cousins against the world.” (source Wikipedia)

The resulting political orientation is called Social Dominance Orientation (SDO). Clans typically consider themselves superior to the neighbouring clans and more distant lineages.

In both cases of food producers, there should be much higher levels of endogamy and reliance on kin than in foragers. Indeed, hunter-gatherer bands are — contrary to food producers — not made up of close kin:

There is an obvious objection to evolutionary models which assume that our strongest social ties are based on close biological kinship: many humans just don’t like their families very much. And this appears to be just as true of present-day hunter-gatherers as anybody else. Many seem to find the prospect of living their entire lives surrounded by close relatives so unpleasant that they will travel very long distances just to get away from them. New work on the demography of modern hunter-gatherers — drawing statistical comparisons from a global sample of cases, ranging from the Hadza in Tanzania to the Australian Martu3 — shows that residential groups turn out not to be made up of biological kin at all; and the burgeoning field of human genomics is beginning to suggest a similar picture for ancient hunter-gatherers as well, all the way back to the Pleistocene. While modern Martu, for instance, might speak of themselves as if they were all descended from some common totemic ancestor, it turns out that primary biological kin actually make up less than 10 per cent of the total membership of any given residential group. Most participants are drawn from a much wider pool who do not share close genetic relationships, whose origins are scattered over very large territories, and who may not even have grown up speaking the same languages. (The Dawn of Everything, A New History of Humanity )

Stratified societies, therefore, should rely to a certain extent on the presence of SDO. It is true that the Incas developed something similar to social classes, however, one thing that is markedly absent in the Inca society is the presence of slaves. Slavery is a clear sign of SDO and contrary to other places where farming originated there was no domestication of livestock in the Americas.

However, there were rare instances of slavery among Northwest Coast natives, who practices horticulture and fishing (with food surpluses).

Slaves on the Northwest Coast were hewers of wood and drawers of water, but they were especially involved in the mass harvesting, cleaning and processing of salmon and other anadromous fish. There’s no consensus, however, on how far back the indigenous practice of slavery actually went there. The first European accounts of the region in the late eighteenth century speak of slaves, and express mild surprise in doing so, since full-fledged chattel slavery was quite unusual in other parts of aboriginal North America. These accounts suggest that perhaps a quarter of the indigenous Northwest Coast population lived in bondage — which is about equivalent to proportions found in the Roman Empire, or classical Athens, or indeed the cotton plantations of the American South. What’s more, slavery on the Northwest Coast was a hereditary status: if you were a slave, your children were also fated to be so. (The Dawn of Everything, A New History of Humanity )

This pattern shows all the characteristics of SDO. Ironically it may have been egalitarianism that gave rise to slavery in the first place. High-status males could not command low-status males to do the menial work for them. Slavery offered a way out of this situation. This probably led to a runaway process in which the possession of slaves itself was an indicator of status.

The situation in the Fertile Crescent was a very different one. Agriculture and animal husbandry developed in conjunction and semi-nomadic herders typically lived around farming centres, sometimes symbiotically, sometimes parasitically.

It was likely pastoralists who started capturing slaves for status and trade (see discussion of the Americas above), especially as farming required much more work than animal husbandry. From this pattern the familiar three-class division of early civilizations can easily be derived:

Depending on who had the upper hand the aristocracy was made up either of warriors or landowners.

Forager types would later try to restore hunter-gatherer egalitarianism again and again with varying success. Forager types would also constitute the majority of outcasts. The Dalit in India most likely practised foraging until recently in history. The last remaining foragers in the world (Hadza, Aborigines, Inuit) often typically live on the margins of society. Most Native Americans have found it hard to integrate into a farmer-herder society and other remaining foragers simply refuse to do so.

It is thus that we see combinations of individual hierarchy, group hierarchy and egalitarianism in history.

For more check out my book

Understanding History: Herders, Horticulturalists and Hunter-Gatherers

Originally published at on January 5, 2022.