Review of ‘The Origins of Hereditary Social Stratification’ by Malcolm McKay

11th February 2014

‘The Origins of Hereditary Social Stratification’ by Malcolm McKay, 1988, Oxford BAT International Series 413, iii + 239 pp. ISBN 0-86054-531-8 (pbk).

Review by Ian Lilley

Subtitled ‘A study focusing on early prehistoric Europe and modern ethnographic accounts’. McKay’s BAR is a minimally reworked version of the Ph.D. he did in the Department of History in the University of Melbourne. Before some of you ask why a thesis so explicitly concerned with matters prehistoric was done in a history department. I’d remind you that 40 years ago the department in question employed Australia’s first professionally trained archaeologist, John Mulvaney, and so can claim a long-held commitment to prehistory.

McKay challenges the conventional notion that hereditary social stratification arose in Europe only in the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age. In doing so he argues against traditional models which rely heavily on agricultural intensification, the development of metallurgy and the control of resource distribution. especially trade in metal. He also takes to task proposals such as Antonio Gilman’s (1981) ‘nonfunctionalist alternative’ to these models (what Jim Lewthwaite [1981] called the mafia theory), which while different from the orthodox view, still place all the action in the Early Bronze Age.

The basic problem as McKay sees it, and I’d have to agree with him, is that none of the models that he dislikes satisfactorily explain why hereditary social stratification appeared in Europe when it’s supposed to have done. To put it crudely. why, after tens of millennia of reasonably egalitarian existence (or hundreds. if like McKay we extend our reach back into the Middle Palaeolithic), would people decide that hereditary social stratification was the way to go? Because metallurgy is developed? Bear in mind that models proposing Early Bronze Age origins for marked stratification state or imply that egalitarianism survived the development of agriculture, with all that it entails for the alienation and control of resources. Why is the appearance of metallurgy and trade in metal more likely to foster the emergence of hereditary social stratification than the development of agriculture and the distribution of agricultural produce?

It’s not, according to McKay, and that’s what most of the second half of his book is devoted to demonstrating. The first half (well, five out of nine chapters) sets the scene. It explores current hypotheses, ranking amongst ethnographic hunter-gatherers, and archaeological evidence for hereditary stratification in the Palaeolithic (he mentions Homo habilis but really starts with H. erectus) and Mesolithic.

I can see the point of the rather lengthy lead-in, especially in a dissertation, but I found some of the first part pretty tedious, though again that’s often a quality of theses (no, don’t bring mine up here please). On a more uncomfortable note, some of the passing observations on the ethnography and ethnographic groups made me squirm. The following comment (pp.62-3) was the worst: ‘It is difficult to see the !Kung San as the result of 100,000 years of social evolution – if this is the case the next step must be oblivion’. It is difficult to see statements such as this as the result of research into modern perspectives on social evolution – if this is the case the next step must be back to nineteenth century evolutionism, which I thought had long been consigned to oblivion!

The second part of the work begins in Chapter 6, entitled’ Agriculture and the Alienation of the Land’. This is where the serious business really begins, for it is here that McKay sets up his hypothesis that it was the development of agriculture in the early Neolithic that caused significant hereditary social stratification to appear in Europe. He argues that hereditary guardianship of important resources of the sort discussed in his ethnographic sources devolved on individual land holders as land was alienated from communal use for agricultural production. At the same time, he believes, there would have been growing pressure on the hereditary leaders to adopt modified roles and begin redistributing resources within the community and resolving conflicts arising from competing claims to land and produce. The rest of the second part of the work is devoted to discussions of Neolithic society, archaeological evidence for hereditary social stratification in the Early Neolithic, and of the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age as the ‘denouement’.

The second-last chapter, which considers social stratification in the Early Neolithic, is in many ways the most important part of the work. It focuses on well-known Linearbandkeramik (LBK) and immediately post-LBK sites on the European continent and Early Neolithic sites in Britain and, less prominently, Ireland. He argues that the material evidence suggests that political organisation amongst LBK groups began trending towards hereditary social stratification but retained a relatively egalitarian cast. Post-LBK evidence, on the other hand, is said to suggest increased territoriality and intercommunal conflict which. McKay argues, led to the marked elevation of hereditary leaders involved in resource redistribution and conflict resolution.

In the end I think it is fair to say that McKay is proposing a version of the ‘leaders as benevolent managers’ model of the emergence of hereditary stratification, but sets it somewhat earlier than other models. While I have no great problem with the conceptual thrust of his work, and welcome his sceptical approach to ‘burial sociology’, I am not wholly convinced by much of the archaeological evidence he presents. To put it bluntly, there’s a reason why most people opt for the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age in discussions of this sort: that’s where reasonable archaeological evidence for stratification begins, and some people don’t believe that even it, let alone Early Neolithic evidence, represents ‘proper’ hereditary stratification (e.g. Shennan 1981).

I don’t want to start splitting hairs, but I do think McKay could have defined his terms better so that we all know just what he is (and isn’t) talking about, given that definitions are very much at issue in this debate. I also think the study would have benefited greatly from a more explicit statement of the sorts of archaeological evidence McKay believes are correlated with different forms of ranking and stratification; again because there is considerable argument about this, argument which extends well beyond burial sociology. All in all, though, McKay presents us with an interesting, thought-provoking study. I’m quite sure he could get his point across better in a well-written article, which apart from anything else would probably have a significantly greater readership, but there’s something to be said for publishing dissertations through outlets like BAR and University Microfilms. In addition to ‘getting the work out’ , it provides a guide to the state of play in graduate research, which often is where the freshest ideas are.


Gilman, A. 1981 The Development of Social Stratification in Bronze Age Europe. Current Anthropology 22:1-23.

Lewthwaite, 1. 1981 Comment on A. Gilman. The Development of Social Stratification in Bronze Age Europe. Current Anthropology 22: 14.

Shennan, S. 1981 Comment on A. Gilman. The Development of Social Stratification in Bronze Age Europe. Current Anthropology 22:14-15.

Lilley, I.
Review of 'The Origins of Hereditary Social Stratification’ by Malcolm McKay
December 1993
Book Reviews
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