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1. On the Origin of Private Property and the Family

I. The Setting: History

It is reasonable to begin human history five million years ago, when the human line of evolutionary descent separated from that of our closest nonhuman relative, the chimpanzee. It is also reasonable to begin it 2.5 million years ago, with the first appearance of homo habilis; or 200,000 years ago, when the first representative of “anatomically modern man” made its appearance; or 100,000 years ago, when the anatomically modern man had become the standard human form. Instead, I want to begin only 50,000 years ago, when “anatomically modern man” had evolved into “behaviorally modern man.” This is an eminently reasonable starting point, too.1

“Behaviorally modern human” refers to the existence of hunter-gatherers, of which even today some small pockets have remained. Based on archeological evidence, humans living 100,000 years ago were apparently still largely inept at hunting. They were certainly unable to take down large and dangerous animals, and it appears that they did not know how to fish. Their tools were almost exclusively made of stone and wood and made of materials of local origin, indicating the absence of any distance travel or trading. In distinct contrast, about 50,000 years later the human toolkit took on a new, greatly advanced appearance. Other materials were used besides stone and wood: bone, antler, ivory, teeth, shells, and the materials often came from distant places. The tools, including knives, needles, barbed points, pins, borers and blades were more complex and skillfully crafted. The missile technology was much improved and indicated highly developed hunting skills (although bows were invented only about 20,000 years ago). As well, man knew how to fish and was apparently able to build boats. Moreover, next to plain, functional tools, seemingly purely artistic implements: ornaments, figurines and musical instruments, such as bird-bone flutes, appeared on the scene at this time.

It has been hypothesized that what made this momentous development possible was a genetic change leading to the emergence of language, which involved a radical improvement in man’s ability to learn and innovate. The archaic humans—homo ergaster, homo neanderthalensis, homo erectus—did not have command of a language. To be sure, it can be safely assumed that they employed, as do many of the higher animals, the two so-called lower functions of language: the expressive or symptomatic function and the trigger or signal function.2 However, they were apparently incapable of performing the two higher, cognitive functions of language: the descriptive and especially the argumentative function. These unique human abilities—so uniquely human indeed that one cannot think them ‘away’ from our existence without falling into internal contradictions—of forming simple descriptive statements (propositions) such as “this (subject) is ‘a’ (predicate),” which claim to be true, and especially of presenting arguments (chains of propositions) such as “this is ‘a’; every ‘a’ is ‘b’; hence, this is ‘b’,” which claim to be valid, emerged apparently only about 50,000 years ago.3

Without language, human coordination had to occur via instincts, of which humans possess very few, or by means of physical direction or manipulation; and learning had to be either through imitation or by means of internal (implicit) inferences. In distinct contrast, with language—that is with words: sounds associated with and logically tied to certain objects and concepts (characteristics)—coordination could be achieved by mere symbols; and learning thus became independent of sense impressions (observations) and inferences could be made externally (explicitly) and hence became inter-subjectively reproducible and controllable. That is, by means of language knowledge could be transmitted to distant places and times (it was no longer tied to perception); one could communicate about matters (knowledge acquired and accumulated) far away in time and place. And because our reasoning process, our train of thought leading us to certain inferences and conclusions became ‘objectified’ in external, inter-subjectively ascertainable arguments it could not only be easily transferred through time and space but at the same time be publicly criticized, improved, and corrected. It is no wonder, then, that hand in hand with the emergence of language revolutionary changes in technology would come about.

About 100,000 years ago, the population size of “modern humans,” our immediate predecessors, is estimated to have been around 50,000, spread across the African continent and northward into the Middle East, the region of today’s Israel.4 From about 80,000 to 70,000 years ago, the earth experienced a significant cooling period. As a consequence, the Neanderthals, who lived in Europe and in the course of many millennia had adjusted to cold climates moved southward, where they clashed with and apparently destroyed their African relatives in large numbers. In addition, an extended dry period beginning about 60,000 years ago robbed “modern man” of much of his subsistence basis, such that 50,000 years ago the number of “modern humans” may not have exceeded 5,000, confined to northeast Africa.5

However, from then on the rise of modern humans has been uninterrupted, spreading all across the globe and eventually displacing all of their archaic relatives. The last Neanderthals, holed up in some caves near Gibraltar, are believed to have become extinct about 25,000 years ago. The last remnants of homo erectus, found on the Indonesian island of Flores, date back about 13,000 years.

The “modern humans” led a nomadic hunter-gatherer life-style. Societies were composed of small bands of people (10–30), which occasionally met and formed a common genetic pool of about 150 and may be up to 500 people (a size which geneticists have found to be necessary in order to avoid dysgenic effects.6 The division of labor was limited, with the main partition being that between women—acting mostly as gatherers—and men—acting mostly as hunters. While private property of tools and implements was known and recognized, the nomadic lifestyle only allowed for little possessions and hence made hunter-gatherer societies comparatively egalitarian.7 Nonetheless, life initially appears to have been good for our forebears.8 Only a few hours of regular work allowed for a comfortable life, with good (high protein) nourishment and plenty of leisure time. Indeed, fossil findings (skeletons and teeth) seem to indicate that our hunter-gatherer forebears enjoyed a life expectancy of well above 30 years, which was only reached again in the course of the nineteenth century.9 Contra Hobbes, their life was anything but nasty, brutish, and short.10

However, the life of hunters and gatherers faced a fundamental and ultimately unanswerable challenge. Hunter-gatherer societies led essentially parasitic lives. That is, they did not add anything to the nature-given supply of goods. They only depleted the supply of goods. They did not produce (apart from a few tools) but only consumed. They did not grow and breed but had to wait for nature to regenerate and replenish. At best, what they accomplished was that they did not overhunt or overgather so that the natural regeneration process was not disturbed or even brought to an entire standstill. In any case, what this form of parasitism obviously involved, then, was the inescapable problem of population growth. In order to permit the comfortable life just described, the population density had to remain extremely low. It has been estimated that one square mile of territory was needed to comfortably sustain one to two persons, and in less fertile regions even larger territories were necessary.11 So what was one to do when the population size exceeded these more or less narrow limits?

People could of course try to prevent such population pressure from emerging, and indeed hunter-gatherer societies tried their best in this regard. They induced abortions, they engaged in infanticide, especially female infanticide, and they reduced the number of pregnancies by engaging in long periods of breast-feeding (which, in combination with the low body-fat characteristic of constantly mobile and moving women, reduces female fertility). Yet while this alleviated the problem it did not solve it. The population kept increasing.

Given that the population size could not be maintained at a stationary level, only three alternatives existed for the steadily emerging “excess” population. One could fight over the limited food supplies, one could migrate, or one could invent and adopt a new, technologically advanced societal organization-mode that allowed for a larger population size to survive on the same, given territory.

As for the first option, i.e., fighting, a few remarks shall suffice. In the literature, primitive man has been frequently described as peaceful and living in harmony with nature. Most popular in this regard is Rousseau’s portrayal of the “noble savage.” Aggression and war, it has been frequently held, were the result of civilization built upon the institution of private property. In fact, matters are almost exactly the reverse.12 True, the savagery of modern wars has produced unparalleled carnage. Both World War I and World War II, for instance, resulted in tens of millions of deaths and left entire countries in ruins. And yet, as anthropological evidence has in the meantime made abundantly clear, primitive man has been considerably more warlike than contemporary man. It has been estimated that on the average some 30 percent of all males in primitive, hunter-gatherer societies died from unnatural—violent—causes, far exceeding anything experienced in this regard in modern societies.13 According to Lawrence Keeley’s estimates, a tribal society on the average lost about 0.5 percent of its population in combat each year.14 Applied to the population of the twentieth century this would amount to a casualty rate of some 2 billion people instead of the actual number of “merely” a few hundred million. Of course, primitive warfare was very different from modern warfare. It was not conducted by regular troops on battlefields, but by raids, ambushes, and surprise attacks. However, every attack was characterized by utmost brutality, carried out without mercy and always with deadly results; and while the number of people killed in each attack might have been small, the incessant nature of these aggressive encounters made violent death an ever-present danger for every man (and abduction and rape for every woman).15 Moreover, increasing evidence for the widespread practice of cannibalism has been accumulated in recent times. Indeed, it appears that cannibalism was once upon a time an almost universal practice.16

More importantly, these findings regarding primitive man’s war-likeness are not just anthropological curiosities, i.e., features that one might consider incidental to the true nature of hunter-gatherer societies. To the contrary, there exist fundamental theoretical reasons why such societies were characterized by incessant warfare and peaceful relations were almost impossible to attain, in particular if the possibility of evading one another was foreclosed because all surrounding land was occupied. Because then it became unavoidable that the members of different hunter-gatherer tribes encountered each other more or less regularly on their various expeditions in search of plants and animals. Indeed, as the population size increased such encounters became ever more frequent. And because hunters and gatherers did not add anything to the nature-given supply of goods but only consumed what was provided by nature, their competition for food was necessarily of an antagonistic nature: either I pick the berries or hunt a given animal or you do it. No or little trade and exchange between the members of different tribes existed, because the members of one tribe engaged in essentially the same activities as those of any other tribe and neither one accumulated any surplus of goods that could be exchanged for others’ surplus-goods. There existed only ineradicable conflict and the more conflict the more the population number in each tribe exceeded its optimum size. In this situation, where everything appropriated by one person (or tribe) was immediately consumed and the total supply of goods was strictly limited by natural forces, only deadly antagonism could exist between men. In the words of Ludwig von Mises, men became “deadly foes of one another, irreconcilable rivals in their endeavors to secure a portion of the scarce supply of means of sustenance provided by nature. Each man would have been forced to view all other men as his enemies; his craving for the satisfaction of his own appetites would have brought him into an implacable conflict with all his neighbors. No sympathy could possibly develop under such a state of affairs.”17 Only the death of one’s rivals provided a solution to one’s own desire to survive. Indeed, to spare another man’s life would have left him equipped to create even more offspring and hence reduced one’s own future chance of survival still further.18

The second available option to deal with the steadily re-emerging problem of excess population was migration. While by no means costless—after all one had to leave familiar for unfamiliar territories—migration (as compared to fighting) must have appeared frequently as the less costly option, especially as long as some open frontier existed. Hence, setting out from their homeland in East Africa, successively the entire globe was conquered by bands of people breaking away from their relatives to form new societies in areas hitherto unoccupied by humans.

It appears that this process began also about 50,000 years ago, shortly after the emergence of behaviorally modern man and the acquisition of the ability to build boats. From about this time on until around 12,000 to 11,000 years ago global temperatures gradually fell (since then we are in an interglacial warming period) and the sea levels accordingly fell.19 People crossed over the Red Sea at the Gate of Grief, which was then merely a narrow gap of water dotted with islands, to land at the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula (which enjoyed a comparatively wet period at that time). From there onward, preferring to stay in tropical climate zones to which one had been adjusted, the migration—of possibly not more than 150 people—continued eastward. Travel was mostly by boat, because until about 6,000 years ago when man learned how to tame horses, this form of transportation was much faster and more convenient than travel by foot. Hence, migration took place along the coastline—and proceeded from there into the interior through river valleys—first all the way to India. From there, as the genetic evidence seems to indicate, the population movement split into two directions. On the one hand it proceeded around the Indian peninsula to southeast Asia and Indonesia (which was then connected to the Asian mainland) and finally to the now foundered former continent of Sahul (of Australia, New Guinea, and Tasmania, which were joined until about 8,000 years ago), which was then only separated from the Asian mainland by a sixty mile wide channel of water dotted with islands permitting short-distance island hopping, as well as northward up the coast to China and eventually Japan. On the other hand, the migration process went from India in a northwesterly direction, through Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey and ultimately Europe. As well, splitting off of this stream of migration, people pressed in a northeasterly direction into southern Siberia. Later migrations, most likely in three waves, with the first about 14,000–12,000 years ago, went from Siberia across the Bering Strait—then (until about 11,000 years ago) a land bridge—and onto the American continent, apparently reaching Patagonia only about 1,000 years later (archeological findings of human remains in southern Chile have been dated as 12,500 years old). The last migration route set out from Taiwan, which was occupied about 5,000 years ago, sailing across the Pacific to reach the Polynesian islands and finally, only about 800 years ago, New Zealand.20

The process was essentially always the same: a group invaded some territory, population pressure mounted, some people stayed put, a subgroup moved further on, generation after generation, along the coastline, following rivers and game and avoiding deserts and high mountains. The migration from Africa all the way to Australia may have taken about 4,000 to 5,000 years, and migration to Europe 7,000 years (the oldest artifacts there ascribed to modern humans, found in Bulgaria, date about 43,000 years back) and another 7,000 years to reach western Spain.21 Once broken up, practically no contact existed between the various hunter-gatherer societies. Consequently, although initially closely related to one another through direct kinship relations, these societies formed separated genetic pools and, confronted with different natural environments and as the result of mutations and genetic drift interacting with natural selection, in the course of time they took on distinctly different appearances. By and large, the genetic difference between various societies increased in correlation with the spatial distance between societies and the duration of their separation time.22 Different ethnicities emerged, and later also distinctly different human races. These emerging, genetically based differences concerned matters such as skin color, physical build and strength, resistance to cold temperatures and to various diseases, and tolerance vis-à-vis certain substances. They also concerned cognitive matters, however. Thus, genetic evidence exists for two significant further developments regarding the size and cognitive powers of the human brain. One such development occurred about 37,000 years ago and affected most of the population in Europe as well as in East Asia (but left very few traces in Africa), and another occurred about 6,000 years ago and affected mostly people in the Middle East and Europe (but had less impact in East Asia and almost none in sub-Saharan Africa).23

Moreover, hand in hand with the geographical and correlated genetic differentiation of humans went a linguistic differentiation. Very much in agreement with and supported by genetic (biological) evidence, some linguists, in particular Merritt Ruhlen,24 following in the footsteps of the pioneering work of Joseph Greenberg, have made the plausible case for a single human proto-language, from which all human languages can be derived as more or less distant relatives. Obviously, the original emigrants from the African homeland, some 50,000 years ago, would have spoken the same language, and so it seems hardly surprising that the above-sketched population movement, and the splitting of groups of people into different genetic pools, more or less separated in time and space from one another, should be closely mirrored by a differentiation of languages, the grouping of different languages into language families, and the grouping of these into still larger super-families.25 Likewise, the process of the proliferation of languages appears to have followed a predictable pattern. First, with the spread of humans around the world as hunters and gatherers and the concomitant proliferation of distinct, separated genetic pools, a successively increasing number of different languages emerged. Thus, for instance, of the 6,000 different languages still spoken today, some 1,200 languages are spoken in New Guinea, one of the most “primitive” remaining world regions, half of which have no more than the “magic” number of 500 speakers and none more than 100,000. Then, however, with the beginning of human settlement some 11,000 years ago and the following transition to agriculture and the attendant expansion and intensification of the division of labor (more on which later on), a countervailing and even contrary tendency appears to have come into existence: just as the genetic pools appear to have widened, so the number of different languages spoken has successively diminished.

  • 1. See on the following Nicholas Wade, Before the Dawn (New York: Penguin Press, 2006).
  • 2. On the “lower” and “higher” functions of language see Karl Buehler, Sprachtheorie. Die Darstellungsfunktion der Sprache (Stuttgart: UTB, 1982; originally published in 1934); and in particular also Karl R. Popper, Conjectures and Refutations (London: Routledge, 1963), pp. 134f., and idem, Objective Knowledge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), chap. 3, pp. 119–22, and chap. 6, sections 14–17.
  • 3. Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Genes, Peoples, and Languages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), p. 93, dates the origin of language at around 100,000 years ago, but given the above cited archeological evidence the later, more recent date of only 50,000 years ago appears more likely.
  • 4. Ibid., p. 92.
  • 5. Wade, Before the Dawn, pp. 8, 58; Cavalli-Sforza’s estimate is significantly higher: 50,000 (Genes, Populations, and Language, p. 50).
  • 6. Cavalli-Sforza, Genes, Peoples, and Languages, p. 30.
  • 7. The egalitarianism of hunter-gatherer societies should not be overemphasized or idealized, however. These societies were also characterized by pronounced hierarchical features. Not unlike what is known from the animal kingdom, men ranked above and dominated women. Often women were “taken” and treated by men like goods of the “outer” world are taken and treated: appropriated, stolen, used, abused, and traded. Children ranked below adults. Moreover, hierarchies existed among both male and the female members of society, down from the reigning alpha-male and female to the lowliest member of society. Status fights occurred, and whoever did not accept the established rank-order faced severe punishment. The losers in the fights for higher status were threatened with injury, even death and, at the very best, expulsion from the tribe. In a word: even if tribal life provided for a comfortable standard of living in terms of abundant food and leisure it was anything but comfortable in terms of today’s much cherished “individual autonomy.” To the contrary, life in the tribal household meant discipline, order, and submission.
  • 8. See Richard Lee and I. De Vore, eds., Man the Hunter (Chicago: Aldine, 1968); Marvin Harris, Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Cultures (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), esp. chap. 2.
  • 9. Harris, Cannibals and Kings, pp. 19f.
  • 10. This statement refers only to the hunter-gatherer life during periods of peace, however. On the high incidence of warfare and unnatural causes of death see pp. 27ff. below.
  • 11. Thus, for instance, writes Harris, Cannibals and Kings, p. 18: “In all of France during the late stone age there were probably no more than 20,000 and possibly as few as 1,600 human beings.”
  • 12. See Wade, Before the Dawn, chap. 8, and pp. 150–54; also Lawrence H. Keeley, War Before Civilization (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).
  • 13. Napoleon Chagnon, “Life Histories, Blood Revenge, and Warfare in a Tribal Population,” Science 239 (1988): 985–92.
  • 14. Keeley, War Before Civilization, p. 33; Wade, Before the Dawn, pp. 151f.
  • 15. See also Steven LeBlanc, Constant Battles (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003).
  • 16. See Wade, Before the Dawn, pp. 154–58. Contrasting the ferocity of primitive vs. modern men, Wade, following Keeley, notes (Before the Dawn, p. 152): "When primitive warriors met the troops of civilized societies in open battle, they regularly defeated them despite the vast disparity in weaponry. In the Indian wars, the U.S. Army 'usually suffered severe defeats' when caught in the open, such as by the Seminoles in 1834, and at the battle of Little Bighorn. In 1879 the British army in South Africa, equipped with artillery and Gatling guns was convincingly defeated by Zulus armed mostly with spears and ox-hide shields at the battles of Isandlwana, Myer’s Drift and Hlobane. The French were sent off by the Tuareg of the Sahara in the 1890s. The state armies prevailed in the end only through larger manpower and attritional campaigns, not by superior fighting skill."
  • 17. Ludwig von Mises, Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics (Chicago: Regnery, 1966), p. 144.
  • 18. Indirectly, this insight into the irreconcilable antagonism between the members of different tribes within the framework of hunter-gatherer societies also provides a first clue as to the requirements for peaceful cooperation among men. In order for members of different tribes to view each other not as enemies but as potential collaborators, there must be genuine production of consumer goods (above and beyond the mere appropriation of nature-given consumer goods). At least, as a very minimum requirement, there must be production of consumer goods in the sense of the storage of surplus goods (of saving for future consumption). For only if man thus adds something to nature which otherwise, without his deliberate effort, would not exist at all, can there be a reason for one man to spare another man’s life for his own good (for his own selfish motives and to his own advantage). To be sure, as proponents of the thesis that it is civilization, which breeds war, are fond to point out, the very fact that one man has added something to the supply of nature-given goods might also provide a reason for another man to engage in aggression: to rob him of his product. But there is certainly less reason to kill such a man than to kill a man who has added nothing but merely takes and consumes what is given (and hence inevitably reduces what remains available for another). Moreover, insofar as a man adds something to the total supply of available goods there exists also a reason for another man to not interfere with his activity but let him continue, and to benefit from him and his activity by engaging in mutually beneficial trade with him and hence, as a consequence, ultimately develop sympathetic feelings toward his fellow man. Thus, while civilization does not eliminate man’s aggressive impulses it can and did diminish and attenuate them.
  • 19. Actually, the last great warming period, also called interglacial period, had already ended about 120,000 years ago. During this period, i.e., more than 120,000 years ago, hippopotamuses had lived in the Rhine and the Thames and northern Europe had something of an “African appearance.” From then on, glaciers moved steadily further southward and the sea level eventually fell by more than 100 meters. The Thames and the Elbe became tributaries of the Rhine, before it streamed first into the Northern Sea and from there into the Atlantic. See Josef H. Reichholf, Eine kurze Naturgeschichte des letzten Jahrtausends (Frankfurt/M.: Fischer, 2007), pp. 15f. When this period ended, quite suddenly, about 12,000 years ago, the glaciers rapidly retreated and the sea level rose, not by millimeters per year but very quickly in an almost flood-like fashion. Within a very brief period England and Ireland, which had previously been connected to the European continent, became islands. The Baltic Sea and much of the contemporary North Sea came thus into existence. Likewise, most of today’s Persian Gulf dates from about this time. Ibid., pp. 49f.
  • 20. For further details see Wade, Before the Dawn, chap. 5; also Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: Norton, 1997), chap. 1.
  • 21. See Cavalli-Sforza, Genes, Populations, and Languages, p. 94.
  • 22. Ibid., pp. 20–25.
  • 23. See Wade, Before the Dawn, pp. 96–99.
  • 24. Merritt Ruhlen, The Origin of Language: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue (New York: Wiley, 1994).
  • 25. See Cavalli-Sforza, Genes, Peoples, and Languages, chap. 5, esp. p. 144 for a table showing the correlation between genetic and linguistic families and trees of descent. See also Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza and Francesco Cavalli-Sforza, The Great Human Diasporas: The History of Diversity and Evolution (Cambridge: Perseus Books, 1995), chap. 7; Wade, Before the Dawn, chap. 10, pp. 102ff.