How the village feast paved the way to empires and economics

November 23, 2017
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Brian Hayden (professor emeritus of archaeology at Simon Fraser University), brings another dimension to history of empires and economics. He says what we are is a lot due to the village feasts which started earlier. These feasts meant people with surpluses came and lent their surpluses to the families hosting these feasts. This led to a hierarchy where those who lent became creditors and shaped human relations for times to come.

Feasts helped to transform egalitarian hunters and gatherers into the kinds of societies that laid the foundations for early states and even industrial empires. They created hierarchies and inequalities, the advantaged and the disadvantaged. Feasts might well have been the catalyst for the agricultural revolution, some 10,000 years ago. But just how did feasts bring about such dramatic transformations in cultures? In the ethnographic research that my students and I conducted among traditional tribal and chiefdom societies, feasts turned out to be very different kinds of events than your average turkey and cranberry Thanksgiving. 

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Feasts are often very expensive events, sometimes requiring up to 10 years of work and saving. Those who are paying for them expect to obtain some benefit from all their efforts and expenditures. And this is the important part about traditional feasts: those who are invited, and who often receive gifts, are considered obligated to reciprocate the invitation and gifts within a reasonable amount of time. By accepting invitations to feasts, individuals enter into relationships of alliance with the host. Each of them supports the other in political or social conflicts as well as in economic matters….

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The networks and debts that feasting systems created gave great political power to certain individuals. This is how traditional feasting created the first economically based (ie, surplus-based) hierarchies. Ambitious individuals profited from the feasting system by involving others in reciprocal debts. The use of feasts in this fashion is, of course, tied to the ability of hosts to produce food surpluses, and then to convert these surpluses into advantages. This kind of energy-conversion adaptation probably emerged only in the Upper Paleolithic of Europe among the more complex hunter/gatherers, around 30,000 years ago. Feasting became common elsewhere only about 15,000 years ago during the Mesolithic or Epipaleolithic.

Phew..Never really thought about all this.  

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