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Egalitarian revolution in the Pleistocene?
Date:10/3/2008

Although anthropologists and evolutionary biologists are still debating this question, a new study, published in the open-access journal PLoS ONE, supports the view that the first egalitarian societies may have appeared tens of thousands of years before the French Revolution, Marx, and Lenin. These societies emerged rapidly through intense power struggle and their origin had dramatic implications for humanity. In many mammals living in groups, including hyenas, meerkats, and dolphins, group members form coalitions and alliances that allow them to increase their dominance status and their access to mates and other resources. Alliances are especially common in great apes, some of whom have very intense social life, where they are constantly engaged in a political maneuvering as vividly described in Frans de Waal's "Chimpanzee politics".

In spite of this, the great apes' societies are very hierarchical with each animal occupying a particular place in the existing dominance hierarchy. A major function of coalitions in apes is to maintain or change the dominance ranking. When an alpha male is well established, he usually can intimidate any hostile coalition or the entire community.

In sharp contrast, most known hunter-gatherer societies are egalitarian. Their weak leaders merely assist a consensus-seeking process when the group needs to make decisions, but otherwise all main political actors behave as equal. Some anthropologists argue that in egalitarian societies the pyramid of power is turned upside down with potential subordinates being able to express dominance over potential alpha-individuals by creating large, group-wide political alliance.

What were the reasons for such a drastic change in the group's social organization during the origin of our own "uniquely unique" species? Some evolutionary biologists theorize that at some point in the Pleistocene, humans reached a level of ecological dominance that dramatically transformed the
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Contact: Sergey Gavrilets
gavrila@tiem.utk.edu
Public Library of Science
Source:Eurekalert

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