Computer model simulates Neolithic transition from egalitarianism to leadership and despotism

August 6, 2014 by Bob Yirka, report

The Archaeological Site of Çatal Hüyük in the Konya Plain in Turkey. Credit: Szwedzki/Wikipedia
( —A pair of researchers at Lucerne University has created a computer simulation that helps explain how it was that humans evolved from small egalitarian groups to larger societies with control in the hands of the few during the Neolithic. In their paper published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Simon Powers and Laurent Lehmann describe how they put together their model and what the resulting simulation showed about a time during early human history that is not very well understood.

Scientists know that for hundreds of thousands of years, people lived in small hunter/gatherer communities. Because the groups were small and the projects undertaken were relatively simple, it's believed that such groups were relatively egalitarian—there wasn't a single person or small group bossing everybody else around. But then, something changed, people began living in much larger communities which were run by one person, or small groups of people, resulting in less freedom of choice for everyone else.

But why would people willingly give up some of their freedom to some despot? Historians have several theories, but to date, no one has been able to prove any of them correct. In this new effort, the researchers try another approach, entering data into a computer model that creates simulations of what might have occurred during the Neolithic. To do so they converted human proclivities such as tolerance for authority or desire for a better life due to living in a more productive society, into data that could be modeled on a computer. Critical to the model was the ability to include offspring inheriting their parent's values—that allowed for running simulations over several generations, allowing for group dynamics to emerge under different circumstances.

In running the simulations, the researchers found that one scenario appeared to demonstrate the most logical explanation for the changes that occurred during the Neolithic—as people learned to control nature, such as by building dams or large water capture systems, a means of central control became necessary to avoid a chaotic work environment. As with any group of people, leaders arose along with associated followers. The leaders were then able to exert influence because both leaders and followers experienced a higher standard of living due to their collaborative efforts. Over time, as projects grew larger, so too did the number of people required to build them and the leaders gained even more power. Eventually, the leaders grew too powerful to ignore and thus was born the despotic types of governance that has since become one of the hallmarks of civilizations ever since.

Explore further: How leaders evolve

More information: An evolutionary model explaining the Neolithic transition from egalitarianism to leadership and despotism, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, rspb.royalsocietypublishing.or … nt/281/1791/20141349

The Neolithic was marked by a transition from small and relatively egalitarian groups to much larger groups with increased stratification. But, the dynamics of this remain poorly understood. It is hard to see how despotism can arise without coercion, yet coercion could not easily have occurred in an egalitarian setting. Using a quantitative model of evolution in a patch-structured population, we demonstrate that the interaction between demographic and ecological factors can overcome this conundrum. We model the coevolution of individual preferences for hierarchy alongside the degree of despotism of leaders, and the dispersal preferences of followers. We show that voluntary leadership without coercion can evolve in small groups, when leaders help to solve coordination problems related to resource production. An example is coordinating construction of an irrigation system. Our model predicts that the transition to larger despotic groups will then occur when: (i) surplus resources lead to demographic expansion of groups, removing the viability of an acephalous niche in the same area and so locking individuals into hierarchy; (ii) high dispersal costs limit followers' ability to escape a despot. Empirical evidence suggests that these conditions were probably met, for the first time, during the subsistence intensification of the Neolithic.

Related Stories

How leaders evolve

May 5, 2011

Researchers have developed a mathematical model that explores how leaders and followers emerge in different circumstances and predicts the most likely personality types of those leaders.

Recommended for you

Semimetals are high conductors

March 18, 2019

Researchers in China and at UC Davis have measured high conductivity in very thin layers of niobium arsenide, a type of material called a Weyl semimetal. The material has about three times the conductivity of copper at room ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

4.8 / 5 (4) Aug 06, 2014
The leaders were then able to exert influence because both leaders and followers experienced a higher standard of living due to their collaborative efforts.

Might also factor in that in large groups a leader can play off knowledge (or simply made up fantasies) of individuals against each other where the individuals themselves aren't in direct contact.
(E.g by saying "Obey me or I and X will hit you" to Y....and "Obey me or I and Y will hit you" to X...even though neither X nor Y are of a mind to do any such hitting)

In small groups - where everyone interacts directly - such dissemblance is not possible.
1 / 5 (1) Aug 06, 2014
In larger groups X and Y are more likely to do what I tell them as I, the leader, am a closer to figure to both. Trusting me more than each other. Resulting in X or Y hitting one another as well as the treshold to do so is much lower in larger groups.
5 / 5 (1) Aug 06, 2014
The development of permanent residences permitted the diversification of skills to allow specialization of social roles beyond those found in family units. This was accompanied by a diversification of individual priorities and desires.
Heinlein (1973) concluded "The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire."
The first group includes those whose self-esteem requires dominance over others, and those who seek to avoid the responsibility of making decisions and taking risks.
The social order persists as long as the liberty-seeking group does not rebel under the onus of escessive control.
5 / 5 (2) Aug 06, 2014
" it's believed that such groups were relatively egalitarian—there wasn't a single person or small group bossing everybody else around."

I find this difficult to believe considering most social mammals and especially primates have a hierarchical social structure most often with an Alpha Male at the top. What evidence is there that Homo would have followed a different social structure?

(From Wiki) "Common chimpanzees show deference to the alpha of the community by ritualized gestures such as bowing, allowing the alpha to walk first in a procession, or standing aside when the alpha challenges."

Not very different than human social customs.

2.8 / 5 (5) Aug 06, 2014
In large, developed economies leaders hobnob with corporations and aristocrats much more than the constituency. Voters are fickle and capacious, while oligarchs can practically guarantee an election outcome though engineered, controlled media and sophisticated public relations. By acting thoughtlessly voters relegate themselves to obsolescence, and serve simply as media to be plumbed
5 / 5 (2) Aug 12, 2014
Religion probably plays into this. If I've fooled you into thinking that the rain god is fickle and that he'll only listen to me, I become an indispensable part of your life. When it rains, I praise you for your obeisances. When it doesn't rain, I have a wedge to complain about every last finnicky thing you're doing, claiming that the rain god abhors people who eat sea creatures without scales (as in the Bible). Now I can call all the shots. I can sleep with your wife on your wedding night. I can restrict what you say, what you wear, what you think.

This is one of many, many reasons why religion is a cancer on us and must be stopped.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.