The Role of Architecture in the Stratification of Human Societies
The stratified state society is not created by conflict, nor by trade or by agriculture, but by architectural expressions of power that simultaneously restrict access to usable space and waste vast resources in their development. The process of social stratification requires two main architectural steps. First, the exclusion of any other uses of architectural space to all members of society but an elite group. Next, the combination of this restricted space with conspicuously large scale architectural resource deployment – often referred to as “monumental architecture”. The combination of these two factors leads to an architecture of what I call “monumental waste”. Monumental waste operates as a biologically hardwired social trigger in humans, and drives the development of class differentiation. As humankind’s iconic symbols of power and plenty, such emblematic structures become the most significant causal factor in the emergence of a permanent specialized upper caste in human societies. Ultimately, monuments to vast waste are the single most crucial factor in the development of all elite groups, and play a critical role in bringing about the emergence of the stratified state society. The single connective tissue between all pristine states is the iterative development of an architecture of restricted space within the context of monumental construction that is instantly recognizable to humans as highly wasteful.
In rough numbers, anatomically modern humans have spent about 95,000 of the past 100,000 years living in egalitarian groups. The latter 5,000 years of our history have borne witness to an incredible shift towards conscription of the many into the service of the few. At remarkably similar times, across the boundaries of time, space and culture, human social organization began to shift away from a model of individual autonomy centered around nomadic family groups, toward the pattern of complex multilevel hierarchy most people accept as an inevitable state of being today.
Despite its responsibility for the development of the technological means to exterminate all life on Earth – and the apparent likelihood that state societies are pushing us ever closer to the conditions in which deploying those destructive means may succeed – some even see the stratified state as a pinnacle of human achievement. This perspective incorrectly imagines human history to be some long, continuous upward arc of “progress”, without placing value on considering the utility in a seemingly unrelenting push to extract resources at exponentially increasing rates from the Earth – even though our resources are finite, and their consumption is warming the planet’s climate so quickly that our actions may actually annihilate all life on the planet.
This dramatic change, from autonomy to conscription, usually (but not always) began with the advent of agriculture and the settlement of sedentary communities that tending to crops and domesticated animals requires. It has culminated for most of earth’s population in organization of the human condition into massive, complex class-based hierarchies we know as states – vast systems of social oppression. State societies have risen and fallen many times over the past 6,000 years, with no state or “civilization” ever surviving in perpetuity. The cultural legacy of the first, so-called “pristine”, states is often passed down. This happens via written record, spoken language, legend, or other cultural memories. The cultural elements of collapsed state societies which manage to survive the vast tracts of time after a civilizational collapse are then integrated into the next civilization to emerge.
These iterative waves of civilizations’ births and deaths have ultimately led to our modern era’s massive, interconnected “globalized” civilization, and this super-state has so far culminated with the development of the technological potential to cause a planet-wide mass extinction event. Two examples of the existential threats to life on Earth that stratified states have produced are nuclear weapons and climate change caused by human industrial activity. Humans have lived in complex cities that predate the emergence of the stratified state society for around ten thousand years, half of that time without industrial resource exploitation on a scale that threatens all life on Earth, and without waging war on a scale that has the potential to eradicate all planetary life. The unique factor that state societies possess, the ingredient that may explain the development of conflict, and of systematic resource exploitation on a vast scale – beyond the needs of the community – is the existence and rule of elite classes.
There are many theories about what factors may have influenced the initial transition from relative social equality to rigid social stratification. Some of these theories focus on trade, some focus on irrigation or large scale public works projects, others still zero in on warfare, social elements, or even ecological factors as potential impetus for the transition to complex class-based systems of human organization. At least some of the factors listed in these diverse theories have been present when and where a transition to elite control in human societies began. However, some these theories involve practices that exist in both egalitarian societies and stratified societies, ruling those practices out as good candidates for a role as the impetus to elite rule. Others propose factors which are not present in all stratified societies, which also rules them out as likely causal factors in creating elite rule.
The leading theories of the origin of the state have involved three major proposals. One idea has to do with trade acting as a catalyst for social stratification. The conflict theory was a leading academic explanation for the emergence of state societies for decades, and proposed the idea that fear and upheaval caused by war and conflict caused autonomous societies to capitulate to elite rule for protection. Another idea suggested that the need to organize the development of major public works projects, such as city walls or irrigation systems, gave rise to elite classes.
Each of these theories has proven to be flawed in some way. Some type of trade is practiced in all types of human society, although the purpose of trade differs greatly between an egalitarian and a stratified society. Conflict theory was upended when the pristine state of Caral in Peru was discovered in the early 2000s, and archeologists found absolutely no evidence of any military, war, or conflict of any kind. In fact, a strong case could be made for the idea that elite classes don’t protect populations from conflict, but instead create such intensive demand for increased resource extraction that they actually engender large scale war. As for the idea of public works projects and elite rule systems, there have been many large egalitarian societies which have existed over many thousands of years – such as Çatalhöyük, Jericho, and the Celts – and these societies built very large scale public projects, including cities. Yet no elite classes emerged as a result.
Is there a single most important factor that creates the conditions for the eventual emergence of pristine state societies? Many anthropologists have argued that agriculture is this key component. However, in some exceptional examples, complex stratified societies have developed without the emergence of agriculture. Although these examples are the exception rather than the rule, they are important. They show that agriculture is also not a causal factor in the emergence of the stratified state society.
While the development of agriculture alone does not seem to be the deciding factor in the development of state societies, one precursor to agricultural development does appear in all societies that develop elite rule. That factor is sedentary human settlement. When humans shift away from nomadic hunter gathering, and transition to life in a fixed location for extended periods, elite rule does not always emerge. However, all elite rule societies have emerged from sedentary settlements. Sedentary settlement is a clear and important first step in a shift away from decentralized power structures. How and why do humans choose to become more sedentary?
Grief is ubiquitous for humanity, and also for many of our so-called “animal” kin-species. However, the unique human ability to reflect upon and comprehend our mortality, to develop belief systems which work as coping mechanisms, and ultimately, to find meaning in a search for continuity beyond death, drives humans to the process of burial or similar ceremony for our dead. Once permanent or even seasonal settlement began in the Neolithic period, elaboration on the ceremonies of birth and death in the form of ritual and worship, mirroring the seasonal process of decay and renewal, emerged across barriers of culture, time, and space. The built spaces of humanity’s oldest settlements include a variety of multi-use, communal central structures. These structures all appear to have been open to and used by the entire community. While simple temples or performance of rituals within these multi-use, open access structures are universal features of Neolithic societies of all sizes and smaller tribal societies, there are no indications of class distinction, no specialized ritual castes.
A key feature which defines the tribal society and chiefdom with a large population is structures intended for specialized ritual that are not open to wider public use. These early examples of single-use, restricted access architecture allow a priest and/or leadership class consolidate power and social control. The construction of these structures brings about social differentiation, reinforcing class distinction between an emergent specialized ritual class and the general population. Elaboration of single-use restricted access structures further separates the general population from an increasingly wealthy and powerful upper class. As an example, the ziggurats of early Mesopotamian city-states have been excavated to expose levels of construction from first iteration as a multi-use structure open to the community, through multiple phases of building that, in the final iteration, result in a single use structure, enormous in total mass but limited in usable space, that is intended solely for ritual use and is generally only accessible to the upper class.
To understand the connection between the built environment and the emergence of social stratification, we have to start by looking at the earliest cities. Around 10,000 years ago, human settlements that were larger in population and density than ever before began to emerge. Prior to the appearance of these settlements, humans had typically organized in relatively small, nomadic family bands connected by common ancestry. In most cases, as agriculture became more predominant, sedentary villages began to emerge. In a select few examples, such as Native American communities along the coast of California, the abundance of natural resources available in one location throughout the year allowed a transition to sedentary communities without the development of agriculture. Again, because these exceptions require unique conditions in terms of available resources, the transition to agriculture is a precondition for sedentary settlement in the majority of cases.
While humans have buried our dead or performed ritualistic marking of the passing of our loved ones in a symbolic reflection since the dawn of our existence, sedentary life provided for a new perspective on the continuity of life and death. People began to live among the remains of their ancestors for the first time, marking graves that could be returned to for reflection and ceremony at any time. Many Neolithic cities have provided archaeological evidence of skull removal and use of bones stripped of the flesh in ritual and temple art as well as burials beneath the floors of family homes. (Price and Feinman, Pgs. 225-229; McCarter, 156-160)
Living among the remains of our dead gave humanity a new spiritual perspective. It allowed for a new connection to geography that transcended the simple connection of the family group, allowing people who were not related with one another to share in an extra-familial bond and a mutual connection to the place they inhabited. This new relationship between unrelated groups of people marked the dawn of cultural connection, as unrelated groups of people began to share in collective ties to the place of their ancestors’ eternal rest and the life giving earth they relied on for mutual survival. The impact of a culturally driven exploration of mortality and the cycles of life, whether human or agricultural, coupled with a need to better understand seasonal cycles to guarantee survival in an agricultural society, resulted in an important focus on ritual and the emergence of Neolithic religion.
In her book Neolithic, Susan Foster McCarter notes that “religion is the glue that holds cultures together”, and asserts that “religion provides a common identity that transcends family and tribal allegiances; maintains societal morality by establishing rules on how to behave… and gives leaders their authority by affirming that supernatural beings approve of them and will come to their aid.” (pg. 148) She explores the archaeological evidence for religion at Neolithic sites around the world, and notes that while historic sites feature temples and shrines that are easily defined as ritual or religious in nature due to their scale and complexity, at “prehistoric sites – unless there’s clear evidence that ritual activities took place in a building (and this is rarely the case) – it can’t be identified as sacred just because it’s unusual.” (pg. 157). In general, as is explored further when we examine the evolution of single-use monumental structures in the tribal society and chiefdom, architecture at Neolithic sites is generally of one type of construction, undifferentiated in scale and complexity. Additionally, Neolithic burials do not suggest the existence of a specialized ritual class. In other words, the ritual spaces used by Neolithic people reflect the culture within the society itself, and while religion plays a clear central role, the practitioners of ritualistic activities were also working members of the agricultural society, and were not a full-time, socially differentiated class. Ritual spaces were accessible to the entire community, and while some community members may have been seen to have special knowledge or abilities in the execution of important rituals, these people were still regarded as equal members of the community, living in conditions identical to their neighbors and performing the same work duties as everyone else. In the book Images of the Past, for example, Price and Feldman describe the Neolithic settlement of Çatalhöyük as “the first city”. (pg. 225) This was a large settlement for the time period, as Çatalhöyük was a city of approximately 10,000 people (around 2,000 families). Ritual structures at the site comprise around 20% of the built space, pointing to the importance of religion in Neolithic society. According to Price and Feldman, many archaeologists believe that structures with ritual value were not only multi-use structures accessible to everyone, but were, even more tellingly, simply shrines within family dwellings. The lack of structural differentiation for specific ritual use indicates that while religion was very important to the people of this settlement, there was no specialized class that controlled ritual activity.
Despite the lack of class distinction in Neolithic society, there are some examples of what McCarter terms monumental architecture in some Neolithic settlements. McCarter points in particular to a large tower built into the city walls at Jericho and the massive post and lintel construction of Stonehenge. (Pgs… 89-91) While the scale of these buildings is monumental and very unusual for Neolithic societies, their role is quite different from the monuments that appear in stratified states. In the example of Jericho, it appears that the city was built where the best soil was found, at the base of a hill that delivered fresh soil in the form of dangerous mudslides. Although the actual use is still debated, evidence suggests that the wall was built to protect the site from seasonal mudslides and the tower may have been used as an early warning system during times when these events were probable. The purpose for the monuments at Stonehenge is also debated by scholars, but the general consensus is that the site was used as an astrological observatory and/or for rituals and festivals.
Examples of Neolithic monuments share some important characteristics that make them very different from the monuments that appear in either tribal societies or in states. One important element is that these structures, while unusually large in comparison to other Neolithic buildings, are well within the capability of the communities who constructed them to build. McCarter notes that the wall at Jericho was built by “a community of at most 1,000 people,” and that scholars have calculated that “as few as 200 laborers could have built it in a week”. Another important point is that these structures are functional in nature and while their purposes differ greatly, they were of great value to the entire community. As a result, the construction of these structures was possible without coerced labor or a disruption of the normal workflow in these societies. Another interesting consideration is that the construction of public works that required organization of volunteer labor does not seem to have resulted in the emergence of lasting hierarchies, or a bureaucracy that continued beyond the scope of the project. These societies agreed collectively that there was a need to be met, determined a means to address the problem, and then disbanded any organizational framework created to deal with the issue at hand once the objective had been reached.
Class differentiation begins to emerge in tribal and chiefdom societies of large population. This initial low level, but unprecedented stratification is universally driven in these types of societies by the development of restricted-use monumental structures. The importance of religion in these societies has grown, and an emerging specialized ritual caste becomes able for the first time to capitalize on their indispensable importance to the survival of the people.
Adler and Wilshusen provide a cross-cultural ethnographic analysis of data pertaining to a variety of structures in tribal societies around the world in their article Large-Scale Integrative Facilities in Tribal Societies: Cross-Cultural and Southwestern US. In chiefdom societies with large populations, the model of mixed-use structures accessible to the entire community shifted. The historical community service and open use definition of these spaces changed, and forever re-defined them as ritual structures whose use is limited to an elite ritual caste.
Adler and Wilshusen argue that the connection between population and the emergence of restricted use structures can be explained by the increasing complexity of decision-making in larger groups, and that “ritual activity reduces some of the ambiguity inherent in information exchange and decision-making”. (pg. 136) The flaw in this model is that many early Neolithic cities reached populations that exceed the levels Adler and Wilshusen indicate may lead to ritual specialization, but population alone does not result in social stratification all the time. While populations in earlier societies reached levels that may have made decision-making more difficult, this alone did not bring about the emergence of a separate decision-making class.
The factor that always separates tribal societies that begin to produce a specialized ritual class from those who do not is in fact the restricted use structure itself. As Adler and Wilshusen themselves note, “by restricting access and use, ritual specialization of integrative facilities creates a space in [which] sacred activity is the only, or at least [the] major, activity associated with its integrative function”. (pg. 137) In other words, by restricting access to the structure, the meaning of the structure changes, and society changes along with it forever. Rather than being simply a building in which many community activities take place, the structure itself drives the organization of the society. What happens within the structure becomes a source of mystery and awe in the population, and the individuals performing duties in this sacred place gain power and social differentiation through their access to it.
The population size’s statistical connection in tribal societies may simply have to do with the larger quantity of available resources for construction of these specialized ritual structures. It is only when both conditions are met – a population large enough to produce the resources needed to construct specialized structures and the actual construction of restricted-use buildings takes place – that a specialized ritual caste emerges. While there is no clear set population number that can be scientifically correlated to the emergence of caste systems, restriction and re-definition of architectural spaces must always be present as social hierarchies emerge.
We have explored the transition of human societies from egalitarian nomad to sedentary city dweller, and from sedentary, egalitarian society to early class-based systems. The final iteration in the transition from free societies to fully regimented class based societies is the transition from stratified tribal organization to full-fledged “civilization”, or statehood.
In his article Monumental Architecture: a Thermodynamic Explanation of Symbolic Behavior, McGill University professor Bruce G. Trigger argues that the specialized classes that emerge in large tribal societies further consolidate power and authority via the waste of resources and energy required to create monumental structures. By restricting space, as we have already discussed, a social group can develop into a specialized elite caste. With the means of social control the specialized classes are subsequently able to control, these classes are able to coerce labor and influence the construction of the monumental structures found universally in state level societies. The constructions are often iterative processes. They grow increasingly large in total scale and diminishingly small in terms of usable space. The usable space also becomes increasingly restricted. Social stratification and the control exerted by the elite class increases with each iteration.
The restricted use of certain spaces, when combined with strategic bureaucratic waste, results in the complete consolidation of elite power and serves to set the final conditions for the emergence of civilization. Monumental architecture at the state level encompasses “large houses, public buildings, and special purpose structures”. (Pg. 119) In general, as is the case in large tribal societies that see the emergence of a specialized ritual caste in connection with structures that are limited in function and access, monumental structures in state societies require massive increases in wasted effort and resources as a demonstration of power, but at the same time, are used by increasingly smaller segments of the population. The functional use associated with these structures also decreases dramatically as each building phase further deepens the disparity between the many and the few.
Trigger frames the impact of monumental construction on human organization as a psychological response to an instinctual biological process universal in humans across the boundaries of cultural variation. While the actual functional use of monumental structures is different from one culture to another, it is the actual scale of monumental construction and the energy expenditure required to achieve these colossal efforts that is the key to understanding its impact as a tool in influencing social stratification.
The biological means by which humans instinctively recognize energy expenditure is explained best in a theory developed by G. K. Zipf called the ‘principle of least effort’. According to data, “human groups seek to conserve energy in activities that relate to the production and distribution of food and other resources”. (Trigger, pg. 123) This theory is controversial for some because critics maintain that it is a Western ethnocentric concept. However, Trigger points out that “a substantial body of data” (pg. 122) supports the theory across all cultural boundaries, proving that this behavior does exist and is a universal component of the human experience.
According to the principle of least effort, humans instinctively calculate the different means by which a task can be accomplished and select the method that involves the expenditure of the least amount of energy. For hunter-gatherers in smaller groups, this behavior is expressed in the selection of a smaller number of harder-to-kill large game rather than a larger number of easier-to-kill small game as a first choice during a hunt. This is because one kill produces the maximum return possible in terms of caloric value obtained via the hunt. The amount of intellectual and organizational effort required to hunt the hard-to-kill large game is automatically weighed in our subconscious mind against the much larger total amount of effort required to hunt enough of the easier-to-kill smaller game to result in an a equal caloric value.
The principle of least effort holds true without exception as a hardwired behavioral principle. It’s not confined to hunting, but is a biologically hardwired strategy we have evolved which automatically recognizes for us how to accomplish anything we do with the least amount of total effort – even if reducing our total effort is a very complex process. The principle of least effort influences nearly every behavior in human groups of all sizes and across and cultures. In agricultural societies, the methods employed in cultivation always maximize the yield while minimizing the effort involved in production. When analyzing data regarding human settlement patterns, it becomes clear that “pre-industrial societies were as much concerned as modern ones to arrange their activities spatially in such a manner as to minimize the expenditure of energy involved in the movement of people, goods, and information”. (pg. 123) In all sizes and types of human society, the principle of least effort drives our behavior, from decisions about whether to get up to throw away a crumpled piece of paper or attempt to toss it into the trash can from where one is sitting, to complex urban planning in modern cities that seeks to create the most rational means of “securing resources, marketing, transportation, and administration”. (pg. 123)
Given the universal application of the principle of least effort across all human endeavors, the waste involved in the construction of monumental structures is astonishing. Additionally, while the purposes of these structures vary from one culture to the next, monumental architecture shares commonality in its typically limited function as compared to its scale. Why, when we are biologically hardwired to do things in the most efficient manner possible, would we possibly want to build massively wasteful structures that almost no one in the society is allowed to use? The monumental waste expressed in the mounds of Native American Mississippian culture and the pyramids of Egypt was deployed to house burial complexes, single-use structures accessible to virtually no one – with the lone exception of dead members of the ruling class. The pyramids of Mesoamerica and ziggurats of Mesopotamia were enormous solid structures with usable space confined to small temples at the apex, with the actual temples restricted to use only by the specialized ritual caste and upper class.
This limited use and restriction of access follows the shift away from functional, multi-use communal structures that occurs in larger tribal societies. It further develops, with each new level of monumental waste and increased restriction in the use and size of any usable space, the class differentiation that results from restricting use and access. This is achieved by integrating symbolic power into the nature of the structure using the principle of least effort and conspicuous consumption. Trigger points out that conspicuous consumption of resources is a demonstration of power “seen in rituals” (pg. 125) in the Pacific Northwestern United States and Papua New Guinea, and that some egalitarian societies accumulate of resources and then give them away to a group over whom the “big man” may want to have power in the form of a debt owed. The instinctual identification of wasted resources as a symbol of power via the principle of least effort is what causes humans to identify conspicuous consumption as a demonstration of power. These techniques, which elites use universally to consolidate power in all stratified societies, describe innate biological processes humans have evolved which have been weaponized by an elite group into psychological weapons. These weapons are deployed to achieve a state of psychic domination over the rest of the society’s population.
Monumental waste in architecture is a flagrant violation of the principle of least effort, and is the ultimate example of what conspicuous consumption describes. In combining the power of restricted access, low function structures with the biological impact of the principle of least effort, monumental waste serves as a tool to underscore and further deepen not only class distinction but the illusory but instinctive perception of an elite’s invulnerability and power.
Social organization at a high level is required to complete monumental projects, and some anthropologists theorize that the process of constructing these structures, not the finished structure itself, is enough to result in a state society. Even with highly organized systems in place, it has been estimated by Roman historians that it took ancient Egyptians 20 years and 100,000 men to build the Great Pyramid. Given the lack of any broader social benefit outside an act of monumental waste which props up and reinforces elite rule, there is little or no incentive to organize these efforts along egalitarian lines. However, in the case of monumental structures of the Neolithic period, we have demonstrated that large scale building projects can be undertaken by egalitarian societies. Importantly, we have shown that these large scale projects can be built without leading to a permanent caste system, as long as the access to usable space is not completely restricted to a specialized class.
The power gained by a specialized ritual class in larger tribal societies where restricted-use, low-function buildings are developed affords these classes enough wealth and power to coerce the labor and resources required to build on a larger scale. Increased scale triggers an identification in the general population of the power held by the class who controls monumental structures, deepening the acceptance of class division and further legitimizing stratification. Upper classes also benefit internally from the construction of monumental structures, as the symbolic power these structures hold justifies their own position of superiority.
The built spaces humans create can ultimately fundamentally be manipulated by one group to change the very nature of our relationship to one another. The emergence of monumental waste in architecture is the fundamental component in driving the multi-level social stratification central to state societies. Without the emergence of monumental waste as a feature of architectural design, the stratified state society can not and does not ever come into existence. This is why monumental waste is a universal feature in state level societies everywhere, and why it is never found in any non-state society.
Trigger, Bruce. 1990. Monumental Architecture: a Thermodynamic Explanation of Symbolic Behavior. World Archaeology, Volume 22, No. 2. Routledge, New York, NY.
Adler, Michael and Wilshusen, Richard. 1990. Large-Scale Integrative Facilities in Tribal Societies: Cross-Cultural and Southwestern Examples. World Archaeology, Volume 22, No. 2. Routledge, New York, NY.
McCarter, Susan Foster. 2007. Neolithic. Routledge, New York, NY.
Price, Douglas and Feinman, Gary. 2008. Images of the Past, 5th Edition. McGraw-Hill, New York, NY.