A brief history of democracy

Believe it or not, Democracy is ancient. As a system for making decisions which affect entire communities, it dates back tens of thousands of years. We know this because of significant advances in technology and archaeological expertise since the 1980s.

During the upper Palaeolithic period (c. 50,000 to c. 15,000 BCE), from recent research, it appears that decisions were made collectively with the principal contingency of safeguarding the interests of the tribal community as a whole rather than elevating one set of people into a political hierarchy. For the purposes of efficiency and to improve the chances of food security, during prime hunter-gathering seasons, tribes would split into subgroups. It is thought that each group may have had knowledge and expertise in a particular type of food stock – fishing, game, horticulture etc. If leaders were elected at all it was only when the tribe came together in the winter months. Their leadership was temporary, seasonal, and to perform specific tasks such as settling disputes and overseeing fair distribution of pooled resources. Most strikingly, individuals enjoyed what we would now regard as an enviable degree of social equality, freedom and leisure.

“For most of human existence, people have been hunter-gatherers. With no ability or need to store or hoard resources there can be no kings, no class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized from others. Hunting and gathering enforced social equality. It was the only way people could survive.” (Jared Diamond)

Archaeological evidence continues to pile up, however, experts already know that tribal peoples liberally experimented with many and varying social arrangements. The common thread was that everyone had a say and a shared influence in decision making. Something we might recognise as Democracy, today.

As time went on, rudimentary democracy remained although its practice took many forms mainly influenced by changes in climate as well as, crucially, the advent of organised agriculture. Contrary to popular myth agriculture did not sweep in and within a few years transform the prehistoric world from predominantly tribal, essentially nomadic, hunter-gatherers (horticulturalists) into settled farmers. No, it took thousands of years for agriculture to dominate and even during that time the practice was often taken up only to be shelved, albeit for a few hundred years, when people realised it did not work for them or, in most cases, the lack of nutritional diversity adversely affected their health.

“Humanity was not restricted to small bands of hunter-gatherers, agriculture did not lead inexorably to hierarchies and conflicts and there was not one mode of social organisation that prevailed, at least [not] until thousands of years after the introduction of agriculture.” (David Wengrow and David Graeber)

Agriculture continued to evolve after the Palaeolithic and into the Neolithic Age (c. 10,000 to c. 2,200 BCE), while propagation was gradual its impact across the globe was dramatic. People were drawn into settled rural communities and with birthrates double that of their hunter-gathering ancestors, some grew relatively quickly into towns and eventually cities hosting tens of thousands of inhabitants. These developments provoked many hitherto unknown phenomena not least of which were the mass transmission of viruses and the fermentation of new diseases such as tuberculosis, STDs and a range of diarrheal conditions. For example, the bubonic plague is an invention of cities.

With people massed together in settled environments, inevitably certain individuals rose to become Chieftains and Kings. The rudimentary democratic system which had prevailed for millennia sustained a long-drawn-out but nevertheless seismic shift from securing the needs of everyone in the community to protecting and expanding the desires of a few. Political hierarchies were established.

During the early Bronze Age (c. 2600 to c. 700 BCE), a couple of notable leaders established written rules by which their subjects were required to live. Alongside religious conformity, these codes or laws proved to be simple and effective tools by which a small number of elite individuals could efficiently control large populations. In around 2100 BCE Ur-Nammu (King of Mesopotamia) produced a crudely written list of instructions and responsibilities and then, in around 1760 BCE, perhaps the most famous experiment in Social Organisation was inscribed in stone by the King of Babylon. It was called Hammurabi’s Code or, for want of any other name, The Law. As one might expect from an insecure tyrant who believed his right to rule was gifted by the sun god Shamash, it was divisive, prejudiced and in many matters, brutal. Based partly on older Sumerian laws (UR-Nammu), for the first time it documented the division of citizens into commoners and the elite thus creating a class system that prioritised citizens of wealth and rank. The Code also favoured men over women, for example, adultery by a husband might go unpunished but an unfaithful wife would have been executed.

Experimentation with social organisation continued into the Classical Period (c. 800 BCE to c. 750 ADE). An Athenian statesman, Cleisthenes (c. 570 BCE to c. 508 BCE), designed a system of political reforms that he called dēmokratía, or “rule by the people” (from Dêmos, the people, and Kratos, power). Returning to Athens after having been exiled by the nobles, Cleisthenes attacked hereditary privilege at its roots and to that end persuaded the people to adopt individual political responsibility based on citizenship of a place rather than membership of a particular tribe or clan.

In ancient Greece, as in modern Britain, the system of Democracy had two elements. Firstly, an assembly (Parliament) for making decisions that were advantageous to the whole community, be that a city or a nation. And secondly, a court (Courts of Law) for deciding what was just. This, however, is where the similarities end because unlike Britain in the 21st century, in the 4th and 5th centuries BCE both institutions were run by the people for the people and all citizens of good standing were eligible to speak and vote.

Since Clientheses’s time, Democracy has endured an unstable and treacherous passage down the ages, through absolute monarchy and feudalism, towards maturation in the early 20th century when most men and women of voting age were finally enfranchised. However, it is arguable that neither the people of ancient Athens nor indeed tribespeople of the Palaeolithic era would recognise the current British system of collective decision making as being democratic or for the benefit of all.

The Seven Lamps of Civilisation

Comment below or write to me: brainspark@rivenrod.com

© Rod McRiven 2022

Contributory thinking:

  • David Graeber was a professor of anthropology at the LSE.
  • David Wengrow is a British archaeologist and professor of comparative archaeology at University College London.
  • Daniela Cammack is Assistant Professor, UC Berkeley. Historian of political thought, ancient and modern. Special interest in democracy.
  • Erica Benner is a Fellow in Ethics and Political Philosophy, Yale University. London School of Economics and Oxford University, St Antony’s College

Further reading:


  • Prehistory – Time before purposefully recorded history.
  • Peoples – Explorations are being conducted globally so this means the global population of human beings across all known species and subspecies.
  • Tribe – Group, social unit, community. Nomadic, transitional or static.
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