Free foragers? A case for transient social inequality at Epipalaeolithic Shubayqa, eastern Jordan

Patrick Nørskov Pedersen, Joe Roe, and Tobias Richter

Paper presented at the 12th International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East, Bologna, 2021.


Wengrow and Graeber have recently argued that prehistoric forager societies, typically assumed to be strictly egalitarian, may have displayed transient social complexity, consciously alternating between different modes of social organisation on a seasonal or temporary basis. Their case, based primarily on ethnographic and historic analogy, is persuasive, and raises the question of whether we can discern transient complexity in the archaeological record directly. Here we propose the hypothesis that transient complexity can be seen in the Late Epipaleolithic of Southwest Asia. Using the Natufian of Shubayqa (eastern Jordan) as a case study, we point to several features that provide evidence of seasonally alternating modes of social organisation and temporary inequality, e.g. exploitation of seasonal resources, substantial architecture and immobile technology. These findings further challenge the dichotomy between an egalitarian Palaeolithic versus hierarchical post-Neolithic societies.