• Researchers say weapons gave more power to individuals in social groups
• This forced leaders to be more persuasive and allowed groups to debate
• They believe it appeared with species like Homo erectus 1.9m years ago
• The scientists argue democracy played a key role in our own evolution
By Richard Gray for MailOnline
It is seen as a defining feature of civilisation that emerged relatively recently from the intellectual crucible of ancient Greece.
New research, however, suggests the roots of democracy can be traced back more than a million years and that it played a key role in the evolution of our species.
In a new scientific paper, a group of anthropologists suggest human political systems began evolving as soon as our primate ancestors began living in groups.
They argue weapons undermined the social hierarchy that tends to exist in primate societies as they forced leaders to use the tools of persuasion and debate to convince others to follow them.
HOMO ERECTUS COULD THROW
Early human ancestors may have evolved to throw spears allowing them to hunt around two million years ago, a new study has suggested.
Research by Dr Neil Roach has shown that the that the skeletons of Homo erectus had shoulders and collar bones that would have allowed them to hurl sticks accurately and powerfully.
This would have enabled Homo erectus to become a proficient hunter, able to throw weapons like spears and rocks at potential prey.
The oldest human footprints left behind on a muddy lakeside 1.5 million years ago also suggest Homo erectus hunted in packs.
Researchers examining the site where a series of tracks left by a barefooted early human in Ileret, northwest Kenya, have now found a total of 99 prints.
They now believe that they belong to groups who all passed over the soft mud at the same time - perhaps even stalking some of the other animals whose prints are also preserved in the mud.
It provides some of the strongest evidence yet that the human ancestors that left the prints - Homo erectus - were sophisticated hunters.
This is because weapons gave weaker members of a group the ability to inflict lethal harm on more dominant individuals.
Writing in the journal Current Anthropology, Herbert Gintis, an external professor of economics and behavioural science the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, and his colleagues said: 'The combination of social interdependence and the availability of such weapons in early hominin society undermined the standard social dominance hierarchy of multimale or multifemale primate groups.
'The successful sociopolitical structure that ultimately replaced the ancestral social dominance hierarchy was an egalitarian political system in which lethal weapons made possible group control of leaders, and group success depended on the ability of leaders to persuade and of followers to contribute to a consensual decision process.
'The heightened social value of nonauthoritarian leadership entailed enhanced biological fitness for such leadership traits as linguistic facility, ability to form and influence coalitions, and, indeed, hypercognition in general.'
Their conclusions have important implications for the development of politics in human society.
It was thought that complex political systems such as democracy were a relatively recent innovation that occurred only in the last few thousand years as humans began settling in large towns and cities.
Democracy is widely assumed to have been born in ancient Greece due to the political systems that emerged in the Greek city states in the 5th century BC.
However, Professor Gintis, together with Professor Christopher Boehm, an anthropologist at the University of Southern California and Professor Carel van Shaik, an anthropologist at the University of Zurch, examined the the latest evidence from studies in primates, anthropology and archaeology.
They found that while most primate societies employ a hierarchical political system where a dominant female or male makes decisions for the group, this changes in human societies.
In primitive hunter gatherer societies, the existence of weapons leads to a far more egalitarian structure.
The researchers say that the availability of lethal weapons in early hominin society could have helped to stabilise relationships in groups that were reliant upon sharing of collective duties.
They said: 'Thus, two successful sociopolitical structures arose to enhance the flexibility and efficiency of social cooperation in humans and likely their hominin ancestors.
THE COMPLEX EVOLUTION OF MAN
55 million years ago - First primitive primates evolve
15 million years ago - Hominidae (great apes) evolve from the ancestors of the gibbon
8 million years ago - First gorillas evolve. Later, chimp and human lineages diverge
5.5 million years ago - Ardipithecus, early 'proto-human' shares traits with chimps and gorillas
4 million years ago - Australopithecines appeared. They had brains no larger than a chimpanzee's
2.8 million years ago - LD 350-1 appeared and may be the first of the Homo family
2.7 million years ago - Paranthropus, lived in woods and had massive jaws for chewing
2.3 million years ago - Homo habalis first thought to have appeared in Africa
1.8 million years ago - Homo ergaster begins to appear in fossil record
1.6 million years ago - Hand axes become the first major technological innovation
800,000 years ago - Early humans control fire and create hearths. Brain size increases rapidly
400,000 years ago - Neanderthals first begin to appear and spread across Europe and Asia
200,000 years ago - Homo sapiens - modern humans - appear in Africa
40,000 years ago - Modern humans reach Europe
'The first was the reverse dominance hierarchy, which required a brain large enough to enable a band's rank and file to create effective coalitions that could definitively put an end to alpha male hegemony and replace this with a lasting egalitarian order.
'Leaders were kept weak, and their reproductive success depended on an ability to persuade and motivate, coupled with the rank-and-file ability to reach a consensus with such leadership.
'The second was cooperative childrearing and hunting, which provided a strong psychological predisposition toward prosociality and favored internalized norms of fairness.'
The first stone tools are thought to have emerged around 3.3 million years ago, long before the emergence of the Homo genus, of which we are the sole surviving species.
Many anthropologists believed sharpened sticks may also have been used as weapons before this, which could mean this very 'human' political system predates some of our earliest ancestors.
However, the researchers behind the new paper argue that it was probably not until Homo erectus, which evolved around 1.9 million years ago, that our ancestors began hunting large prey.
This, they suggest could be when the first truly egalitarian political systems began to emerge.
They argue that it was not until the later Holocene about 12,000 years ago, where cultural changes, perhaps driven by innovations like farming, fostered the accumulation of material wealth and social hierarchies began to emerge again.
The researchers say it is likely that early democratic societies played an important role in the evolution of social groups in humans that led to them becoming the dominant species on the planet.
They said: 'This scenario has important implications for political theory and social policy because it suggests that humans are predisposed to seek individual dominance when this is not excessively costly and also to form coalitions to depose pretenders to power.
'Moreover, humans are much more capable of forming large, powerful, and sustainable coalitions than other primates because of our enhanced cooperative psychological propensities.
'Such coalitions also served to reinforce the moral order as well as to promote cooperation in hunting, warding off predators, and raiding other human bands.'