Social Groups by Jim Snee

It is one of the cruel facts of archaeology that social interaction, the thing that archaeologists are most concerned about, often leaves the least amount of evidence in the archaeological records. This is particularly true of the Palaeolithic. In fact, the further back in history and prehistory you go, the sparser the evidence gets. This has, and to an extent still is, creating an impression that society starts simple and becomes more complex.

Impressions are not the same as facts.

Traditionally social theory has been about the evolution of society from simple societies with no social ranking (egalitarian societies) through various stages of stratification (the creation of elites and social ranks) to the modern state when social evolution ends. This is known as processual and humanity marches through its natural procession from simple savages to fully evolved modern humans (the pinnacle of creation). You can even buy the T-shirt.

I was trained at a time when such theories were, if not actually challenged, then certainly discussed in a very forthright manner. I was very much in the post-processual camp and could be described as a contextual archaeologist. Since then I am sure that the arguments over archaeological theory have continued and the ideas that I was taught have fallen into disrepute. And this is exactly as things should be. In the thirty years since my training, my own ideas and theories have been subject to change when faced with new evidence. Now, while I still emphasise the importance of context, I tend to look at social theory in terms of force and power. It is in these terms that I will attempt to make sense of the social organisation of Palaeolithic people in Lincolnshire.

In traditional social theory, the size of the social group will generally push it up the social ladder. The Palaeolithic people lived in small family groups and were egalitarian, the later prehistoric people lived in tribes and were more stratified with elites that controlled underlings. The trouble with this is that studies of small groups of peoples and animals have shown quite complex systems of social interaction and status in even small groups. This shows us that group size does not pre-determine social complexity and that you don’t have to be “evolved” to have social interactions.

Looking at our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, the primates, there are a number of different groups sizes, by there are some consistent behaviours which can be identified between them. The most obvious is the use of display to establish and protect social status. This is most commonly seen in males, but it is not exclusive. Display behaviour manifests in several ways. Calling is usually the first form adopted as it can project to a large area. This is particularly true of solitary apes such as the orangutan, but it can still be found in troops of chimpanzees. In the larger chimpanzee troops, other displays may include charging, throwing things or picking up an improvised club and thrashing things. The last resort is to actually fight the challenger.

So we can, in primates at least, identify the display or use of force (action) to create social power (influence) for the individual. But is this the only social power available and are simply looking for “alpha” leaders (previously known as “big men”)?

I think not.

As well as individual power, there is also evidence in primate behaviour of collective power. To give an example, at the Monkey World Ape Rescue Centre, they were trying to introduce a young male to a troop of Chimpanzees. The group leader, Hananya, saw the new arrival as a threat and displayed against it (use of force). The newcomer didn’t respond and Hananya increased the use of force attacking the young chimp. At this point, the females of the group (no one of which had sufficient power to challenge Hananya) acted as a group and ended the attacks. This is not the only example of groups within the troop changing the balance of power and a lot of the individual behaviour is geared towards forming alliances as well as facing down rivals.

So, looking at Palaeolithic people in Lincolnshire, we cannot assume that they have a simple social organisation. People would have lived in social groups in which there were complex relationships, alliances, and rivalries.

The size of the group is difficult to gauge. Where, in other parts of Europe, evidence of dwellings has been found; they tend to be solitary and suitable for a single family group. However, we have already established that Palaeolithic nomads had large homes and such solitary dwellings may represent just one room. It is possible that Palaeolithic social groups were made up of several families that lived in separate locations for some of the time and came together at others. They all live in the same home but don’t spend all their time in the same room.

Within this social group, there would be a social order of differing amounts of individual power that is consolidated by the use or demonstration of force. But there would also be alliances and undefined groups of collective power. This would be changing constantly through time and the tenure of a group leader would be short. There would be power struggles, regime changes, heroism, and betrayal. There would also be strong personalities at all levels of the social order.

In some ways, it might be best to imagine it as a sort of Palaeolithic soap opera. A social group in a defined geographic area going through all the positive and negative social interactions between individuals and groups that we see in a good drama serial.

So we have discussed the general theory and we have built some ideas about homes and technology. What happens when we bring it all together.

How would our Palaeolithic soap opera look on the screen?