C. Northcote Parkinson, The Evolution of Political Thought (1958).


Primitive Man

In the Introduction to a recent work on social anthropology, already mentioned in the Preface,1 the editors state that 'We do not consider that the origins of primitive institutions can be discovered and, therefore, we do not think it worth while seeking for them'. This may be true. It need not, however, prevent us from noting what appear to be the basic characteristics of man, considered from a political point of view. It is hardly in question, for example, that men have always (since being recognisable as men) lived in groups of some kind, family groups or tribes. Man is thus a social animal, although less so perhaps than some other creatures, especially certain insects. Man is also carnivorous, able to live on either a meat or a vegetable diet but equipped with teeth different from those of a grass-eating animal. Some at least of his food has always been trapped or pursued, fished, or shot. Then again, the young of the human family (born singly, for the most part, not in a litter) are helplessly an exceptionally long period, needing protection and care for many years and maturing very slowly indeed.

These physical facts have their political implications. Among carnivorous creatures with slowly-maturing young there must be a fairly sharp differentiation between the sexes. With the young to be fed, nursed and protected, the more active pursuits must be left to the male. In hunting and kindred activities men have therefore felt superior to women. As against that, women and children must be kept out of danger if the family group is to survive. If men are killed in hunting, the survivors may still be enough for breeding purposes. The same is not true of women, upon whose number the natural increase must depend. Add to this differentiation of the sexes the prolonged differentiation between the adult and the young. Human children must be taught (and therefore controlled) for so long that their subordination becomes habitual. And this obedience to those older and more skilled may survive after the child has become an adult. In the social group a certain authority is thus vested in the older members.

The authority of age merges into the parental authority. Although primitive people often fail to recognise paternity, developing communities have all come to see in it a heightening of the authority of age in the special relationship between father and child.2 It is this relationship which provides us with our basic notions of authority and discipline. Nearly all our common terms of respect are derived from it. We have thus the words 'Sir' (Sire), 'Monsieur', 'Little. Father' (in Russian), 'Father' as addressed to a priest or 'Holy 'Father,' as addressed to the Pope. Psychologists break up the idea of respect into the three elements of wonder, affection and fear. The child thus feels for his father some wonder at the ability of an older person to do what the child cannot; some affection for an older person whose intention is at least to ensure the child's survival; and some fear of an older person who may punish the child by smacking its head.

If physical characteristics have a bearing on political development, so no doubt have mental characteristics. It has thus been observed that man has taken about 500,000 years to evolve, of which period 490,000 years passed before any sort of settled existence began and 495,000 before writing was invented.3 So that all inherited characteristics are pre-civilised in origin. This is obviously true of the basic instincts of hunger, fear, hatred and sex; for these are shared with other animals. But man would seem to have, in addition, such tendencies as Animism, Taboo, Fear of the Unknown and Revenge. Animism is the ascribing to animals, mountains, wind and thunder the individual character man perceives in himself. The schoolboy, having named his bicycle, will soon endow it with a personality. Animistic objects invade the undergraduate's essay, all sorts of actions being ascribed to 'The Spirit of the Reformation' or 'The Soul of India'. A whole nation becomes personified in its king or its flag. Taboo represents a confusion of mind over ethical, moral or sacred matters. It takes the form of odd distinctions between what is 'pure' and 'impure'. It surrounds the crime of incest and befogs the question of whether a man should marry his deceased wife's sister. Fear of the unknown, the novel, the foreign, is a deeply implanted emotion from which few men are wholly free. And the primitive idea of revenge lurks behind our criminal law, our prisons and our gallows. These and other instincts inform the political ideas of mankind.

The physical characteristics of man would seem obvious enough. They have often, however, been overlooked, as for example in the American Declaration of Independence, which reads: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that men are born equal. . . .' Whatever else that first truth may be it is not self-evident. It might perhaps be defended in terms of Christian or Islamic theology. Taken, however, from its religious context, it becomes difficult to sustain. Are 'men,', in this sense, to include women? If so, their equality is doubtful now and was firmly denied in eighteenth century America. Are 'men' to include persons of the age of twenty or less? For these are not, and never have been, politically or even legally equal to adults. Are younger brothers equal, for that matter, to elder brothers? They were certainly not so in English or American law. Lastly, are 'men' in this sense, to include negroes? The Americans of Washington's generation had a prompt answer to that. But what becomes of the grand generalisation when the exceptions to it include the majority of mankind? A Christian will assert that all souls are equally valuable in the sight of God: but that equality is lost when one child is baptised and another not. Nearest perhaps to the truth was the Indian thinker Asvaghosa, who asserted that human beings are 'in respect of joy and sorrow, love, insight, manners and ways, death, fear and life all equal'.4 But this philosopher, while attacking caste, says nothing of the other basic inequalities; the differentiation between male and female functions, the subordination of child to parent, the subordination of the young to any elder person and the subordination of the younger child to the elder. One might find a further inequality based upon the size of family, for the child who is one of fourteen is less valuable to its parents than the child who is one of two or the only one of its sex.

Our knowledge about the political ideas of primitive man goes little beyond our awareness of the basic characteristics which we still possess. What knowledge we have has been confused, moreover, by the persistent and widespread legend of the Golden Age. This legend, known to the Greeks, was also believed among the Indians and Chinese and can be paralleled by the Jewish story of the Garden of Eden and the Fall. The Hindu version of this legend is thus described by Beni Prasad: --

In a passage of poetic brilliance the Vanaparva records how in very ancient days men lived a pure godly life. They were, in fact, equal to gods. They could ascend to heaven and return to earth at will. The wishes of all were fulfilled. Sufferings were few and real trouble or fear was none. Perfect virtue and happiness reigned. The span of life extended over thousands of years. But all this was changed after a long while. The Santi-parva, too, has it that there was at first a sort of Golden Age wherein existed neither sovereignty nor king, neither chastisement nor chastiser. All men used to protect one another righteously. But after a while their hearts were assailed by error. Their faculties of perception were clouded; their virtue declined; greed and avarice set in. The downward course continued. . . .5
He refers to the same legend elsewhere, stating that:
The Buhaddharma Purana, an Upapriana, gives its political theory in the form of a narration of the ancient history of the human race. The world began with the golden age called Satya Yuga which was free from all sorrow and sin, disease and disputes. It was a heaven of perfect virtue and happiness. . . .6

The anthropologist of to-day is less prone to enthusiasm about such equality as exists among primitive peoples. Even Darwin observed that the equality observable among the Fuegian tribes 'must for a long time retard their civilisation'.7 More recently, Landtman has pointed out8 that such equality as exists among the Papuans, Bushmen, Hottentots, Nagas, Andamanese and other peoples is directly associated with their low degree of culture. The emergence of the idea of rank is connected with 'a somewhat higher degree of evolution'. i

The Chinese Golden Age was described by Kwang-Tze, follower of Lao-Tze (604-532 B.C.) in a passage which has been rendered thus: --

In the age of perfect virtue, men attached no value to wisdom. . . . They were upright and correct, without knowing that to be so was Righteousness: they loved one another, without knowing that to do so was Benevolence: they were honest and loyal-hearted, without knowing that it was Loyalty; they fulfilled their engagements without knowing that to do so was Good Faith. . . .9

This legend found ready acceptance in the eighteenth century, when talk about the 'Noble Savage' was not uncommon among literary men who had read Captain Cook's description of the South Sea Islanders. More recently, moreover, it has been defended by W. J. Perry and G. Elliot Smith, who attributed great virtues to primitive peoples, asserting that 'savages', whose merits were less obvious, had once been civilised and are thus degenerate rather than primitive. Of this theory it may suffice to say that while some primitive people might be shown to have been honest, inoffensive, contented and mild, they can also be shown to have been thin, small, hungry, dirty and diseased, and their life 'poore, nasty, brutish and short'.10

The modern anthropologist is less inclined to draw distinctions between primitive people and savages. He is more hesitant in fact about generalising in any context. To early political institutions, moreover, he has given perhaps less attention than to anything else. The following passage, however, quoted from a standard work, may typify the views that are currently held: --

Among simpler primitives there are above all two principles which form the foundation of government: first, the territorial principle -- that is, the geographically limited area belonging to a number of people; second, the community which exceeds the single family, be it local group, clan, tribe or people. On these two pillars repose the governmentlike institutions of primitive cultures. . . .

. . . In Australia and among some other food-gathering tribes the executive agencies of public opinion were the old men who, seasoned in life and in the tribal laws, not only informed the younger ones concerning the boundaries of the clan territory, but also instructed them in the laws of marriage, the rites of initiation, the distribution of food -- all those norms existing from time immemorial.

Our sources report unanimously that chieftainship was slightly developed or absent. . . .11

Whether or not food-gathering people lived (or still live) in a Golden Age, it seems generally agreed that their main political institution was merely the authority of the older men. Nor is this difficult to understand, for family groups which are to live on wild fruit, berries, roots, game and fish cannot grow to beyond a certain size. With a larger number than about twenty the food would be insufficient near any one camp in the recognised hunting-ground. And among as small a number as they were likely to muster the problems of government need hardly arise. Typical of food-gatherers are the Semang (or Negritos) of Malaya about which people a great deal has been written. In 1926, it is true, Mr. R. J. Wilkinson remarked that 'with all this mass of literature we know next to nothing about the aborigines . . . books are big when facts are few'12 but more detailed work was afterwards done by Ivor H. N. Evans.13 He wrote of them that:

. . . The groups seem to be but little organised, but in every camp will be found an acknowledged headman and often, too, a 'medicineman' who is also an important personage in the life of the people. . . .

The Semang can be readily contrasted with the rather more advanced aboriginal tribes, inaccurately termed the Sakai. These have a rather more settled existence, with a little agriculture, and with them the chief and the medicine-man are more firmly established. Of them Wilkinson wrote: --

. . . we find that the smallest political unit among the central Sakai is the family-group. Every family -- by which is meant a living patriarch and all his descendants and not a mere menage of husband and wife -- keeps together and keeps to itself: it does not unite with others for mutual protection and social intercourse. Exogamy means marrying into another family, not into another tribe. A number of these family-units living within a definite area and recognising a common hereditary chief make up the Sakai State -- if such a term is permissible in the case of so small a community. . . . [The Chief] settles disputes between one family and another, and keeps peace generally in his tribe. . . .

Within the family-group property was held in common; and the unsuccessful hunter . . . [received his share of the food].

. . . Communistic ideas are strong among the Sakai. At the same time, their Communism does not imply liberty, equality and fraternity. There is a vast amount of ceremonious family etiquette and a host of technicalities regulating the mode of address of one member of the family to another. It is a serious offence for a young . . . [Sakai] to address an elder by his personal name. . . 14

If a state is recognisable by 'the maintenance of political order within fixed territorial limits' the Sakai may be said to have formed states. These states remain, however, in a very rudimentary form.

Mention has already been made of the 'medicineman', the soothsayer, wizard or magician, who figures in some of the most primitive societies and rather gains in importance as their culture becomes more advanced. His functions arise perhaps mainly from two innate characteristics of man; the tendency to fear such natural phenomena as thunder and lightning, and the tendency to dream at night. Of the Semang Wilkinson writes,15 'He fears lightning and thunder to such an extent that observers have credited him with the possession of a thunder-god'. If thunder thus gives rise to the idea of a god of wrath, dreams as naturally promote ideas of ghosts and immortality. The 'spirit' is thus the real self, the something which is absent when a person is asleep. Where is it? That it is free to wander is shown by the sleeper dreaming of being somewhere else and proved again when someone else has dreamt of him. On death, the same spirit is again missing and can still appear in another's dream -- proof sufficient that it still exists. Here are good grounds for belief in an after-life. Evans is able to devote twelve chapters of his book to Negrito religion, chapters which cover the deities, a theory of the world's origin and theories of death, burial and the life to come. The Negritos have elaborate stories also to account for thunder, lightning, storms and eclipses. They have, too, a fairly long list of things that they must not say, do, eat or touch; and the penalties for a breach of etiquette illustrate their principal fears -- illness, being crushed under a falling tree or being killed by a tiger. The Sakai are more superstitious still, believing not only in the Sun God and Moon Goddess but also in demons, ghosts, vampires, dragons, man-eating monkeys, giant birds and were-tigers. The communal wizard, known at least among the Semang, is a key man among the Sakai.

The soothsayer found, as he gained influence, that there were two policies open to him. In the first place, while emphasising the danger of demons and ghosts, he could offer various charms and incantations which defeat the evil spirits by their own power; many comparable devices still linger (for example, mascots, crossing the fingers, throwing salt over the shoulder). In the second place, he could assert that the benevolent Sun or Moon God was more powerful than the demons and would protect those who approached him in the right way, by personal appeal and with suitable gifts. The magician who followed the first policy was the forerunner of the scientist, the physician and the psychologist. The soothsayer who preferred the second policy was the forerunner of the priest. Generally speaking, the priest has been more honest, and (until recently) more successful.

The classic work by Sir James Frazer16 is a study in the relationship between magic and religion, between both and kingship. In it he shows that all or most peoples have believed at one time in magic and that most of these have gradually transferred their belief to religion, often for long periods believing in both. He remarks that the sorcerer came to practise for the whole community as well as privately.

Whenever ceremonies of this sort are observed for the common good, it is obvious that the magician ceases to be merely a private practitioner and becomes to some extent a public functionary. The development of such a class of functionaries is of great importance for the political as well as the religious evolution of society. For when the welfare of the tribe is supposed to depend on the performance of these magical rites,.the magician rises into a position of much influence and repute, and may readily acquire the rank and authority of a chief or king. The profession accordingly draws into its ranks some of the ablest and most ambitious men of the tribe. . . .

This may well have been so. It is important, however, to realise, that the really primitive tribe had little to offer its magician. The Chiefship to which he might aspire (and very occasionally with success, as in Kedah) carried with it no very despotic power. The rising importance of the medicine-man depended, in fact, on a change in the habits of the tribe. While the people remained in small family groups of food-gatherers, the potentialities of both chief and magician were, of necessity, undeveloped. The story would be simpler if all food-gathering peoples had developed in the same way from the point at which they abandoned their primitive existence. In fact, however, they could progress in two different ways, if indeed they were to progress at all. Some concentrated on the domestication of animals and became nomadic herdsmen. Others, given different opportunities, became cultivators of the soil. In either event, the change of habits brought with it important political consequences, but these were not identical as between cultivators and pastoralists. To some extent they diverged and it is upon this divergence that some writers have laid the greatest stress. The divergence itself is fitly symbolised in the biblical story of Cain and Abel which rightly follows after the story of a primeval innocence. The danger here is to over-simplify both the divergence and its results. For while conflict between pastoralists and cultivator tended to follow, the latter being usually vanquished, it would be wrong to maintain that this was invariable. Professor Franz Oppenheimer maintained17 that all states known to history are thus characterised by the domination of one class by another for the purpose of economic exploitation. And Professor R. H. Lowie agreed at least that the subjection of one people to another had its origin in conquest.18 More has since been discovered, however, about the development of societies in both America and Africa and it is now clear that there are exceptions to every rule.19

Important among recent studies is that made of African Political Systems under the editorship of M. Fortes and E. E. Evans-Pritchard.20 This study summarises what is known about the political institutions of eight African peoples. Three of these, the Bantu Kavirondo. the Tallensi and the Nuer, developed no government save by elders within the separate tribes. The other five, the Zulu, Ngwato, Bemba, Ankole and Kede, developed quite advanced forms of government but not in such a way as to justify any very general conclusions. While it is true that some of these peoples are cultivators, and others herdsmen -- with at least one example of pastoralists (Bahima) dominant over agriculturalists (Bairu) -- it is also evident that they present no sharp distinction between each other in political structure. This would seem to suggest that generalisations hitherto made about the political tendencies of pastoral peoples are not applicable to herdsmen as such but to nomadic horsemen. To find the equivalent in Africa of the Semitic nomads we should perhaps turn rather to the Fulbe who founded the Sokoto empire in the early nineteenth century.

Sir Henry Maine drew a contrast between the blood tie typical of nomadic people and the territorial tie found among agriculturalists,21 and in general his ideas are still agreed.

Herdsmen and related societies.

... The individual and the patriarchal family group are the outstanding feature. The older collectivist element is replaced by individualism. The social unit is the patriarchal family group (brothers, nephews, sons, grandsons) which also claims to political independence. The tribe is headed by a chief who has been elected or whose office is hereditary. . . . Typical among the herdsmen is, above all, the development of private ownership and the accumulation of wealth in the form of stock. This at the same time presented the opportunity of developing class distinctions and of a vertical stratification of society, a differentiation of rich and poor. These beginnings of a hierarchic system among the herdsmen did not flourish until they came in contact with the agricultural societies. The law of inheritance in most of these tribes is marked by primogeniture.

The societies of herdsmen of the Old World brought about a political revolution by the creation of large empires in Asia as well as in Africa.22

This last statement is, no doubt, true. But was the revolution due to their being herdsmen or to their having horses? The point is an interesting one for it is rather questionable whether the preceding remarks, applicable to Central Asia, Siberia, Arabia and Mesopotamia, are in fact equally true of Africa. Of the eight African peoples to which we have referred the Zulu come nearest, perhaps, to being purely pastoral. But of them it is stated by Max Gluckman that 'The clans had disappeared as units', and 'members of a single clan might be found in many political groups'.23 He also remarks that 'there were few ways in which a commoner could acquire wealth'24 and that the wealth of a chief did not give him 'opportunity to live at a higher level than his inferiors'.25 He explains, further, that 'there was no class snobbery among the Zulu' and that 'all had the same education and lived in the same way'. If the Africans turn out to be poor examples of 'herdsmen', the factor which links the other 'herdsmen' may be found to be, not cattle but horses, and there are reasons for supposing that this might well be so. In the following pages where 'pastoral peoples' are mentioned they must be taken to mean nomadic horsemen, and not merely the owners of cattle.

To summarise the conclusions so far reached, primitive men are found to base their political institutions, such as they are, upon the authority of age. They are essentially social and tend to develop family groups which are migrant within a recognised territory. If there is a larger tribal organisation the chief of it rarely has more than a vague power of arbitration. They have basic instincts common to other animals but these do not necessarily make them warlike; and many of them are essentially peaceful. They have a strong belief in the supernatural, a belief which tends to strengthen as their culture becomes more advanced. Thus, the soothsayer or magicician, not unknown among the most primitive of them, becomes more important among those who have progressed. This progress, if and when it takes place, may be in one of two general directions; towards the domestication of animals or towards the growing of crops, the choice being governed by climatic and other conditions. And the further political development of each group is influenced by the change in its way of life, the pastoralists diverging most sharply from the cultivators as from the time when they become accustomed to using horses. Even from as brief a summary as this it is manifest that many later institutions are not the result of individual inspiration but are deeply rooted in the social character of mankind. At no time did primitive men attempt to frame a constitution for their body politic. They had their basic institutions from the beginning, moulded by their physical and mental characteristics and observable among the most primitive of them. Their further ideas were bounded and guided by a framework which was already there.


1 African Political Systems. Ed. by M. Fortes and E. E. Evans-Pritchard. Oxford, 1940, 4th Impression, 1950.

2 Matriarchy appears to be an earlier institution but the term is misleading as applied, for example, to certain districts of Malaya. Matriarchy there means primarily the inheritance of property through women and dates presumably from0 a period when descent through the male line could not be traced.

3 The Mind in the Making, J. H. Robinson. New York, 1939, p. 65.

4 Theory of Government in Ancient India. Beni Prasad. Allahabad, 1927. See p. 219.

5 Ibid., p. 27.

6 Theory of Government in Ancient India. Beni Prasad. p. 193.

7 Journal of Researches. C. Darwin, Chapter X.

8 The Origin of the Inequality of the Social Classes. G. Landtman. London, 1938, p. .1

9 Human History. G. Elliot Smilh. p. 182.

10 Leviathan. T. Hobbes. Part 1. Chap. XIII.

11 General Anthropology. Ed. by Franz Boas. New York, 1938. Chap. X. Government by Julius E. Lips. See pp. 487-527.

12 Papers on Malay Subjects: the Aboriginal Tribes. R. J. Wilkinson. 1926. p. 10.

13 The Negritos of Malaya. Ivor H. N. Evans. Cambridge, 1937.

14 Wilkinson, op. cit. p. 48.

15 Papers on Malay Subjects; the Aboriginal Tribes. R. J. Wilkinson. 1926. p. 1.

16 The Golden Bough: a study in magic and religion. Sir James George Frazer. See Chapter IV.

17 Der Staat (1907) quoted in The Origin of the State. R. H. Lowie. New York, 1927.

18 The Origin of the Slate. R. H. Lowie. New York, 1927. p. 42.

19 General Anthropology, op. cit. p. 526.

20 African Political Systems. Oxford, 1940. 4th Impression, 1950.

21 See Ancient Law. Chapter IV.

22 General Anthropology, op. cit. p. 515 el seq.

23 African Political Svstems. op. cit. pp. 28-29.

24 Ibid. p. 45.

25 Ibid. p. 44.