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  The Ishmael Community: Questions and Answers

The Question (ID Number 673)...

    I have recently come across a culture know as the 'Aleut' who inhabit the Aleutian chain of islands in the north pacific (between Siberia and Alaska, under the Bering Straight) who mostly subsist of hunting the various sea life which (before the Russians in the 18th century) was rather abundant. What striked me as odd was that their social organization was termed by various authors as 'hierarchical'; indeed, they exhibited feautures of hierarchies, such as a 'nobility' class and a 'common' class. Though the Aleutians did not (as far as historians and anthropologists know) have one section of society toil incessantly to erect massive structures as in other hierarchies, how is it that this particular culture was able to develop a hierarchical social organization without the development of agriculture? Though I do not expect many people to be familiar with the Aleutians specifically, my question seeks simply to identify how any culture (for others must exist(ed)) can develop a hierarchy, which presumably contains a stratification in power, wealth and power WITHOUT developing agriculture? I was under the impression, after reading a number Quinn's works, that agriculture (and only agriculture) developed hierarchies.

    ...and the response:

    As I've tried to make clear in all my books, Leaver peoples did not by any means all live the same way. They lived in multitudinous ways that suited them and their particular circumstances. Food from the sea was extremely abundant to the Northwest Coast Indians (which I believe could be extended to include the Aleuts); although not agriculturalists, they were certainly aquaculturalists, developing techniques for drying and smoking fish to produce surpluses that enabled them to live largely sedentary lives (just as Leaver agriculturalists have done). This very commonly led to the appearance of an unusual social organization known as the chiefdom, which was hierarchical--but in a sense very different from our own. Not every hierarchy is a hierarchy composed like ours (with chiefs, nobles, and peasants). Peter Farb described it this way: "In the chiefdom, the people do not move around. One group lives most of the time near the river, and it fishes; another resides in the forest, and it specializes in hunting game; a third gathers plant food. Each group channels the food and raw materials to a central authority--the 'chief'--who then redistributes them to all." Anthropologists are unanimous in pointing out that the chiefdom was not a society that was divided (as ours is) into chiefs, nobles, and peasants. As I've pointed out in my books, agriculture is not a single thing--is not just the thing that WE do. The same is true of hierarchy; it's not a single thing--not just the thing that WE do. The fact that the surpluses that allowed the Aleuts to organize themselves in this way came from the sea rather than from the land is, to me, incidental. The principle is the same; whether they're produced by farming the sea or the land, those surpluses must be there before a sedentary society can emerge.


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