The Alpha Factor and Religion

The Alpha Factor and Religion

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The Alpha Factor and Religion: The Display of Power and Altruism in the Sixteenth-Century Conquest of Mexico

Like other animals, humans must respond appropriately to their environmental circumstances in order to survive.  As noted by Jordan Peterson in Maps of Meaning, this means that bodily needs like food are only ignored at one’s peril (Peterson, 1999, p. 22).  However, like some other animals, humans are social animals, and viability for such an animal is enhanced by the ability to understand the parameters of an assigned role within the group.  To cite Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained, when we foraged “for food in small nomadic groups, where close cooperation is a matter of survival and information is richly transmitted through example and communication,” humans learned to perceive complex action as a function of the benevolent or threatening intentional agency of others, even as they tried to gather information about the world around them and enhance group cooperation in order to survive (Boyer, 2001, pp. 116, 120, 142-65).  The capacity to understand another’s intentions and develop appropriate responses within such a context is central to developing a unifying culture for any group, and biologist Edward O. Wilson writes that “Culture, including the more resplendent manifestations of ritual and religion, can be interpreted as a hierarchical system of environmental tracking devices” (Wilson, 2000, p. 560).

David Sloan Wilson, for his part, sees religion as often functioning to promote group coherence and group selection while leveling special benefits. As suggested by his book Darwin’s Cathedral, culture and its specific religious abstractions may very well serve as tracking devices indicating who can be trusted to provide altruistic aid and thereby promote group survival, as in the case of Christians of the Roman Empire, who seemingly had a better support system in times of contagious plague and a resulting higher survival rate than pagans (Sloan Wilson, 2002, pp. 18-25, 36, 151-57).  Still, in the midst of binding communities, religion creates hierarchies of thought, preferred groups, out-groups and social hierarchies needed to organize societies larger and more complicated than the small foraging bands in which Homo sapiens originally evolved.  Christianity acquired a pope in the west and a patriarch in the east as a result of this process.

When viewed historically, religion has been responsible both for peace and war, acts of charity and acts of domination.  It is manifested in ranking and then sharing within those ranks to develop group cohesion.  In 1 Corinthians 12 this is made explicit when the ancient body metaphor for society is used to describe the Christian community as the mystical body of Christ.  All parts of the body are meant to work together to attain the health, the common good, of the organism, but loss of one’s head, the loss of Christ, is obviously more devastating than the loss of a hand.  Meaning is mapped, but as an historian I must ask what this means in relation to particular historical circumstances.

During the sixteenth-century conquest of the Nahua people known historically as Aztecs, Spaniards exhibited behavioral patterns that crossed human cultures and even primate species.  Displays of disciplinary power and altruism embedded in Spanish religious discourse and institutions had their parallels in the religion of central Mexico’s Nahua people and provided for mutual understanding in the midst of linguistic, religious and cultural differences.  By examining these Spanish and Nahua patterns in the light of world history and comparative primatology, we can begin to hypothesize the fundamental categories of natural human behavior, of human nature, that underlie the different narratives spun by our diverse cultures. 

The quest for an organizing meta-narrative using biology’s analysis of our very real animal needs is what historian Robert McElvaine has termed “biohistory” (McElvaine, 2001, p. 6).  Since chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and bonobos (Pan paniscus) share some 98.4% of their genomewide DNA with us, are capable of tool use, and some limited symbolic usage-since, like humans, they develop different tool kits and hunting methods, different cultures, in different parts of Africa-these apes who shared a common ancestor with our lineage some five to six million years ago are often referenced in biohistorical studies as a type of control group.  If they exhibit a certain pattern of behavior in their different cultures, and diverse human cultures do too, then that behavioral pattern may exist beyond cultural construction. While the abstract notions of religion do appear to be well beyond the apes, the principles of hierarchy, group cohesion and altruism are not.  An exploration of Spanish-Nahua interaction provides a case study of how humans construct, deconstruct and reconstruct religious “maps of meaning” in order to promote particular interpretive perspectives on cross-culturally persistent questions concerning group affiliation, ranking within a group and sharing within the ranks.  Other case studies from world history, all too briefly referenced here and in need of further research, add plausibility to the working hypothesis of human, and indeed primate, universals.

One of those universals appears to be the alpha factor.  It administers the social order (what Spaniards called policía) through the ability to balance altruism and aggression in order to maintain coalitions and the loyalty of subordinates.  The alpha factor is expressed through display behaviors influenced by different cultural traditions, and the process of filling this role combines both the will and personality of the group with that of the emergent leader or leaders.  Since leadership coalitions cannot be discounted where hominids or apes are concerned, the alpha factor is often a nexus of display behaviors rather than an individual alpha serving as avatar.  It is a visible focal point of a society, thereby making display a necessary part of leadership.

Ethologists define “display” as a behavior pattern that has been modified by evolution so as to communicate and inform.  It is very often associated with reproductive and agonistic activity.  If agonistic and related to fighting, aggression, conciliation or retreat, it may serve to reinforce or challenge rank, leadership, and hierarchy (Wilson, 2000, p. 578).  It can also be used to define the territory of a given group (Ibid., p. 582; Barash, 1977, p. 326; Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1989, pp. 308-09).  With humans, the language of display transcends cultural and linguistic differences to communicate at a primal level-one in which human universal tendencies toward altruism, reciprocity and cooperation, as well as aggression, hierarchy and competition, become apparent.  Across the centuries, both the Aztecs and Spaniards still demonstrate these tendencies in a “first contact” situation that made the ancient, nonverbal behavior of display pre-eminently apparent.

An early fifteenth-century (C.E.) creation, the Aztec tributary empire was an alliance of three altepemeh, or “city-states”: Texcoco, Tlacopan/Tacuba, and Tenochtitlan (Tenochtitlan being home to the Mexica who eventually came to dominate the alliance).  All three altepemeh spoke Nahuatl, as did many of the people they subjugated as tributaries-the speakers of this language being called Nahuas to the present day.  Just as Mesoamerican conquerors demanded tribute payment of the vanquished, it was believed that the deities also demanded such things of human beings in general.  Not only tribute to alleviate the hunger of the gods, Mexica human sacrifices reinforced the potency of Tenochtitlan’s noble and priestly elites.  They held the power of life and death on behalf of the gods (Conrad and Demarest, 1984, p. 47). While the elaborate nature of the sacrifice performance included numerous aspects of learned culture, its fundamental basis, like that of the Spanish Inquisition, was a far more primal urge to demonstrate potency.  From the top of temple-pyramids, human sacrifice displayed the victors’ power and reputation for all to see, while also giving the vanquished a last chance to display:

“Those who slew them were the priests.  Those who had taken them captive did not kill them; they only brought them as tribute, only delivered them as offerings; [the priest] went laying hold of their heads, and seizing [the hair of] their heads….

“And when some captive faltered, fainted, or went throwing himself upon the ground, they dragged him.

“And when one showed himself strong, not acting like a woman, he went with a man’s fortitude… he went strong of heart and shouting, not without courage nor stumbling, but honoring and praising his city” (Sahagn, 1950-82, bk. 2, pp. 46-47).

In this description taken from the Florentine Codex (a multivolume document written half a century after the conquest by the Franciscan friar Sahagn and his Nahua interlocutors) the hierarchy is clear.  Priests hold an elevated status as intermediaries with the divine forces who bring sunshine, rain and fertility, while warriors submit to supernatural power, surrendering their captives to the priests.  In a parallel construction of hierarchy, men are valued by men at a higher level than women.

However, equally as important as the hierarchical expression of force and dominance was the expression of elite benevolence and kindness.  The good Aztec noble is explicitly defined as a provider for people in need: “He sustains one, he serves food, he provides comfort, he provides solace” (Ibid., bk. 10, p. 21).  After all, the deities themselves struggled against the forces of darkness to provide sunlight and fertility to the people who reciprocally provided them with warriors’ hearts as sustenance.  The ruler of Tenochtitlan, the tlatoani, was called to lead the common folk in “peace and calm” (Ibid., bk. 6, p. 19).  On a daily basis, simple acts of charity served as signs of reciprocal relations among the ranks of the noble pipiltin and common macehualtin:

“If any poor vassal, who made bold to hail the ruler, greeted him pleasingly, then [the ruler] commanded the majordomo to give him a cape, a breech clout, and a place for him to sleep, and that which he might drink and eat..”. (Ibid., bk. 8, p. 59).

During the feast of Uey tecuilhuitl, the poor were provided with food until communal stores were depleted (Ibid., bk. 2, p. 91).  In short, the leaders of the Aztec alliance were quite capable of displaying great benevolence as well as great cruelty.  In this pattern of behavior, they were similar to their Spanish conquerors.

While viewed culturally as the purging of undesirables and reconciliation of lost sheep to the flock, the Spanish Inquisition’s auto de fe was an explicit display of crown and priestly potency comparable to human sacrifice in its very public affirmation of leadership’s prerogative to spill blood. Maureen Flynn has noted the theatrical and pedagogical qualities of the auto de fe as a culture-creating lesson for the subjects of the Spanish empire (Flynn, 1991, pp. 281-97; Kamen, 1985, p. 42).  Thus, on November 30, 1539, the Nahua Don Carlos Ometochtzin of Texcoco was publicly burned in Mexico City before Bishop Juan de Zum Drraga and Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza (Biblioteca Enciclopedia, Proceso inquisitorial, 1980).  He was seen by the leading males among the Spaniards as a rival who defended Amerindian religious beliefs and customs which they could not tolerate — especially when they were being taught by the grandson of the great Nahua ruler and lawgiver Nezahualcoyotl of Texcoco.  Alpha males can be brutal when challenged, but the crown and church were also quite capable of feeding the poor by means of such institutionalized displays of benevolence as the early modern hospital– an institution that housed the poor and fed them, as well as one that made attempts at healing.

Indeed, both Aztec human sacrifice and the Spanish auto de fe were seen on one level as healing acts and promoters of social cohesion by their respective societies.  Proper order and discipline were promoted by dramas that involved mimetic imitation, clothing worn to signify status, processions, acts of dominance and submission, and noise.  Among the Mexica of Tenochtitlan, a feast like Toxcatl, honoring Tezcatlipoca, involved the music of flutes, drums and rattles, leaping dances by women, an undulating serpent dance by warriors, and the sacrifice of an enemy warrior identified with the god himself (Smith, 1996, pp. 236-37).  At the auto de fe, formulaic statements of repentance, ritual clothing like the sanbenitos of penitents, the immolation of recalcitrant heretics, of conversos and moriscos, and submission before priests and God were meant to overwhelm crowds of observers with images of the Last Judgment.  At both religious rituals, authority figures observed and presided.  Power and hierarchy were on display through performance, even as apes will use display in a more direct fashion to state authority. (Kamen, 1985, pp. 186, 194-95)

In his original rise to power in Holland’s Arnhem Zoo, before the formation of a coalition with the younger Nikkie, the wily old chimpanzee Yeroen impressed other chimpanzees into submission by rhythmically stamping and pounding on large, hollow metal drums.  The noise created by these “drumming concerts” seemingly cowed the other chimpanzees, while minimizing actual violence.  Likewise, at Gombe in the 1960’s, Jane Goodall studied Mike, a male chimpanzee who used the pounding and clanging noises made by empty kerosene cans to reach the top of the male hierarchy (de Waal, 1998, p. 47; Goodall, 1971, pp. 117-22).  In using drums and kerosene cans, Yeroen and Mike adapted the standard behavior of pounding a tree and dragging a branch during a charging display.  Not only do these displays indicate a type of cross-cultural chimpanzee behavior, regardless of captivity, they also demonstrate the extent to which display is used aggressively by primate males to gain pre-eminence within a hierarchy.  In the words of Frans de Waal, “Humans are talking primates, but in fact their behavior is not very different from that of chimpanzees.  People engage in verbal fights, provocative or impressive word displays… and many other patterns of verbal activity that chimpanzees perform without an accompanying text.  When humans resort to actions instead of words the resemblance is even greater” (de Waal, 1998, p. 187).

Of course, the manipulation of human artifacts in both the Arnhem and Gombe instances has been criticized as “unnatural,” just as the use of human names and descriptive terms such as “wily” has been attacked as anthropomorphism. The irony here lies in the fact that historians debate the extent to which historical works are corrupted by the intervening filtration of documents bearing all sorts of subjective interpretations and cultural nuances (Appleby, et al., 1994, pp. 215, 223, 256-57).  Likewise, cultural anthropologists have been criticized for somehow corrupting the cultures they study with their presence, as though human cultures do not regularly borrow from each other and from their physical environment.  A chimpanzee’s “ingenuity” in successfully borrowing a human artifact and using it to a pongid end is merely another reflection of the interdependence of living processes on this planet.  It is an extreme position to deny our ability to understand our human conspecifics across the divides of language, time and culture simply because we cannot telepathically enter into the minds of others.  Likewise, it is a function of what Richard Dawkins calls the “discontinuous mind” to deny common analogous and homologous behavioral traits across genera and species (Dawkins, 1993, pp. 80-82).  If a chimpanzee behaves in front of a mirror as a human child would, demonstrating self- recognition, I assume, where both the chimpanzee and the child are concerned, that their self-awareness is comparable to mine. History, as a discipline, reminds us that human words and written documents can be misconstrued, just as I can misunderstand another in conversation, or misidentify the alpha in a colony of Japanese macaques on first observation . Patterns and corroborating evidence, however, should allow us to speak of common hominid and ape display templates.  To the present-day we still speak of the rattling of sabers, while alpha male chimpanzees and alpha female bonobos will drag tree limbs and charge, hair on end, in their displays.  In response to displays of power across numerous cultures we still kneel as supplicants with hands outstretched, even as a chimpanzee will.  We pray to heavenly alphas in such a fashion, abstracting far more primal patterns, making ourselves small before authority, hoping for benevolence.

What is eminently apparent is that primate leaders seemingly thrive by balancing intimidation and force with reciprocity and benevolence.  At the Arnhem Zoo in the Netherlands, de Waal witnessed the fall of Yeroen as alpha male in 1976-1977.  A younger, stronger male, Luit, came to the fore after a series of confrontations with the old ruler.  However, by October of 1977, Yeroen had formed a leadership coalition with a still younger male, his protégé Nikkie.  Together they toppled Luit, and, while Yeroen would greet Nikkie submissively, other chimpanzees in the community submitted with greater frequency to Yeroen: “The females and children ‘greeted’ him almost three times as often as Nikkie and five times as often as Luit” (de Waal, 1998, p. 146).  De Waal noted that “The policing {i.e., the Spanish polica} was done by Yeroen,” and that the old ape favored losers 82% of the time when he intervened in conflicts not involving Nikkie, while “Nikkie was still, despite his position as the alpha male, a winner supporter” (Ibid., pp. 145-46).  Yeroen not only championed the weak; he also shared “incidental, extra food” which came into his possession.  Upon seeing a large amount of oak leaves on one occasion, Yeroen dashed to the pile, bluffing and displaying as he went.  No other chimpanzee dared to challenge him, but upon acquiring firm possession of the pile, he proceeded to distribute the leaves among the others.  De Waal writes, “For the adult male, the amount that he himself possesses is not important.  What matters is who does the distributing among the group” (Ibid., p. 197).  In this, de Waal has cited a tendency also apparent among human children.  Children at ten to twelve months of age offer food to establish friendly contact.  With children aged five to eight, dominant children tend to be the most active food-sharers.  As with the dominant Yeroen, the Mexica tlatoani and the Spanish king, their engaging in benevolent behavior, as well as aggressive display, helps to define that dominance (Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1989, pp. 341, 344).

Far from being aberrant, food-sharing behavior is quite common among our ape cousins.  One of Jane Goodall’s first significant experiences in the wild was witnessing a chimpanzee named David Graybeard share a baby pig with a female actively engaged in begging by means of outstretched hands  (Goodall, 1971, pp. 50-51).  Since then, a number of studies at Gombe and other African sites have demonstrated that meat is commonly shared after a successful hunting expedition, thus lending some credence to Glynn Isaac’s classic hypothesis regarding hunting and food-sharing as a foundation of human cultural and social construction (Isaac, 1979, pp. 114-21; Goodall, 1986, pp. 299-301, 372-73).  Even though Isaac himself belittled chimpanzee sharing behavior as tolerated scrounging, acts of culture-building human reciprocity are themselves not necessarily engaged in with ever-present enthusiasm.  As with humans, most food-sharing among chimpanzees seems tied to reproductive strategies and kinship in some capacity or other, but this classic “cost-benefit” altruism is not always the case.   On Liberia’s Bassa Islands, unrelated adult males have been seen sharing palm nuts, and de Waal notes the propensity for altruism without immediate mutual benefit in Capuchin monkeys as well as chimpanzees (McGrew, 1992, p. 111; de Waal, 1996, pp. 133-62; Goodall, 1990, p. 206).  The community to which a chimpanzee belongs in fact serves as an extended family, a tribe of sorts, and sharing within its confines is not out of the question.  It is only that more immediate relatives and potential or actual sexual partners are favored.  Likewise, among the Spaniards and Mexica, there is no doubt that the majority of food-sharing was a matter of kinship, but public charity did occur, helping to build a broader sense of community.  Hernman Cortos even saw the presence of beggars as proof that the Nahuas were civilized: “And there are many poor people who beg from the rich in the streets as the poor do in Spain and in other civilized places” (Cortes, 1986, p. 75).

Ordinances issued by Cortes after the conquest demonstrate the importance of the redistribution of bread to the community.  Fixed weights and prices were to be maintained by a town board called the Fiel, and the poor were to be sustained:

“Item: that bakeries selling bread sell it in the public plaza, and that the bread be of the weight ordained by the Council of the aforesaid town, and at the price assigned by it, and… if any would sell it at less weight or higher price, they will lose (their earnings), and half will be applied to the aforementioned Fiel, and the other half to the poor of the Hospital” (Pacheco, et al., 1864-84, vol. 40, pp. 179-80).

As early as the siege of Tenochtitlan itself, Cortes displayed the potential for benevolence within the midst of Spanish atrocities and barbarism.  When the city fell to an allied force of Tlaxcalans, Texcocans and Spaniards in 1521, display included behavior akin to any male’s marking of territory. Bernal Diaz reported that Pedro de Alvarado and a contingent of men made their way to the temple of Tlatelolco, where, for two hours, they fought priests and warriors guarding their gods: “Nevertheless we climbed to the top, set the shrines on fire, burnt the idols, and planted our banners there…” (Díaz del Castillo, 1963, p. 397).  According to Nahuatl sources, “pretty women” were set apart to be raped (Sahagún, 1950-82, bk. 12, p. 118).  However, even in the midst of these brutalities, the complexity of human nature was maintained.  According to Bernal Diaz del Castillo, the Spaniards received into their camp “many poor Indians who had nothing to eat” (Díaz del Castillo, 1963, p.400).  While Amerindian sources have the Spaniards raping (something easily believable given other historical accounts of male behavior in war), the Spaniards claimed to have fed the starving (Trexler, 1995, pp. 1-63).  The two behaviors, indeed, are not necessarily as incongruent as they appear at first– the alpha male using both aggressive display and food-sharing behavior to announce his prominence.

Some time before 1524, Hernen Cortes founded Mexico City’s first general hospital, the Hospital de la Limpia y Pura Concepcion de Nuestra Senora y Jesus Nazareno, on the site where he first met Moctezuma.  It was designed to care for both Spaniards and Amerindians, and simultaneously to display Cortes’s charity and piety in a very public fashion. (Muriel, 1956-60, vol. 1, pp. 37-48)  He provided for the hospital’s initial endowment by donating one thousand ducats, and in the verbal display that was his will, he made elaborate arrangements for a permanent endowment, detailing which of his estates were to sustain the hospital.  Cortes was joined by a number of his fellow conquistadores, and, together, they established a cofrada (i.e., lay religious fraternity) to supervise the management of the hospital’s estates and rents.  Private charity was the chief source of hospital support, but individual donors like Cortes were complemented by royal support.  Portions of church revenues and tithes granted the Crown by the papacy through the patronato real often were channeled to the support of hospitals, along with subsidies derived from Amerindian tribute and profits from royal pharmacies and monopolies.  Thus, an alpha coalition was formed, with the ultimate Spanish alpha, the king, involved.  Through human culture, through the symbolic medium of writing, the conquistadores demonstrated the same propensity found in male chimpanzees to form an alpha-supporting coalition and to distribute excess incidental food (Paso y Troncoso, 1905, vol. 3, p. 23; Muriel, 1956-60, vol. 1, pp. 40-43; Risse, 1987, pp. 37-38; Martz, 1983, p. 81).

For their part, Amerindian communities and regional Amerindian elites adapted a hospital system acceptable to the conquering Spaniards.  Rather than depending on irregular donations and endowments from prosperous Spaniards, Amerindian communities retained their own autonomy through the management of poor relief and hospital funds by their own local elites.  The Franciscan Motolina described the maintenance of an Indian hospital, the Hospital de la Encarnaci0n, founded in the city of Tlaxcala in 1536.  In this hospital, one hundred thirty of the indigent sick were treated and maintained by the gifts of their fellow Amerindians.  On Easter Sunday of that year, the Tlaxcalans, who had their own Amerindian-controlled town council, or cabildo, donated maize, beans, turkeys, and European sheep and pigs.  The offerings were so steady that seven months later, the hospital’s endowment was already worth a thousand pesos in land and livestock (Borah, 1966, p. 53; MacLeod, 1984, pp. 73-96; Pacheco, et al., 1864-84, vol. 9, p. 62; Motolina, 1971, pp. 159-60).  In this fashion the hospital was a culturally and religiously developed site where the powerful and entire communities displayed both hierarchy and reciprocity, control and compassion.

While the alpha factor frequently is linked to male display behavior, it should not be thought of as exclusively male.  Aside from bonobos having displaying alpha females, at Arnhem, before the introduction of males, a chimpanzee female named Mama assumed alpha status. At Gombe, the female Gigi was noted for her high display rate, willingness to stand up to aggressive adult males, and her persistent participation in male border patrols (Goodall, 1986, pp. 66-67).  Likewise, the Spanish imperium had its Queen Isabel of Castile, and the male-dominated Mesoamerican cabildos provided opportunities for Amerindian noblewomen to serve as cihuatepixque, or officials who had some vaguely described jurisdiction over women and their activities (Lockhart, 1992, p. 44; Cline, 1986, p. 54).

Primate females can assume leadership roles within a given hierarchy, but they are often excluded from such roles by patriarchal artifices.  Still, individual women historically have struggled to maintain and expand whatever influence is allowed them by particular patriarchal systems.  In colonial New Spain, Amerindian women were no exception as they interacted with Spanish authority.  The role of the Nahua ticitl, or healer, offended many Spanish perceptions concerning religion and gender roles, and if Spaniards were to express their dominance as the distributors of benevolence from their hospitals, they would have to eliminate Nahua elements which challenged their own prejudicial cultural assumptions.  Within the social hierarchy described by the Florentine Codex, the ticitl, or physician, could be a woman skilled in herbs, roots, trees, and stones.  A real medical professional who took observation into account, the female traditional healer set bones, used nerve-numbing copal to deaden the pain of toothache, and cut growths from the eyes.  In fact, of 118 different medical applications of various Mesoamerican plants studied by the anthropologist Ortiz de Montellano, approximately 60% show some form of desired biochemical or physical activity (Ortiz de Montellano, 1990, pp. 190-91).  The codex contrasts this somewhat effective female healer with her evil counterpart, a witch who “kills people with medications” and has “a friction-loving vulva” (Sahagn, 1950-82, bk. 10, p. 53).  One cannot be absolutely certain to what extent Sahagn’s Nahua interlocutors were influenced by the characteristics commonly ascribed witches by European clerics– characteristics that included lasciviousness and the use of poisons (Caro Baroja, 1990, pp. 30-31).  After the Spanish invasion, Nahua women who persisted in trying to maintain the tradition of female healers, tied as it was to Nahua  religious mapping, would be attacked as superstitious witches by male Spanish priests. Prayers to indigenous deities which permeated their healing practices served as a direct affront to the male clerical hierarchy and its definition of appropriate religiosity.  However, the real lack of a prevalent Spanish medical presence in the countryside would allow for the continuance of pre-Columbian healing traditions among men and women whom Spaniards called hechiceros and hechiceras– veritable “warlocks” and “witches” (Lanning, 1985, pp. 139, 32-33).  Cultural transmission by women would not always be easy in the midst of Spanish biases, and Nahua women who healed were prime targets for prejudicial priests.

Sixteenth-century Spanish clerics tried to repress male desires for sex and power.  Whereas Nahua lords had been honored with tribute and concubines, and Spanish conquistadores had taken Amerindian women, Spanish priests, at their best, tried to demonstrate that human males can be more than lascivious creatures of violence, desperately trying to perpetuate their genes through brutal competition.  Spanish priests aimed at adopting characteristics and tendencies that were generally ascribed to the female realm by their culture.  They often spoke a language of care and concern, which grew out of the maternal images embedded in the New Testament Jesus, who would suffer the little children to come unto him (Bynum, 1982).  The problematic twist was that male Spanish priests would never entirely lose a certain dedication to martial tendencies– to the violent, competitive, hierarchical tendencies found among male primates.  The Inquisition was always there, but so too was the language of empathetic care and concern, as found in more philanthropic priests like Motolinía, Vasco de Quiroga, Bernardino de Sahagn, and Bartolomo de las Casas.  It was the voice of empathetic concern, functioning within the Spanish hierarchy, which ameliorated some aspects of conquest brutality, but it was a voice always associated with conversion and cultural imperialism.  Just as conquering Aztec armies desecrated the temples of other peoples and Aztec priests displayed power over life and death, so too Spanish priests wished to retain control over the decision to alleviate brutality.  They still desired the privilege of administrative power– the power to distribute oak leaves and meat-the alpha factor.

Therein lay the tension.  Though many Spanish priests desired some cultural exchange, they wished to control that exchange on their own terms.  The sixteenth century was not an age of ecumenism, and if Sahagn could recognize a body politic (i.e., “civilization”) among the Aztecs, it was still a “sick” body politic by his estimation (Sahagn, 1956, vol. 1, p. 27).  In fact, many of the signs of health were directly related to hierarchy.  Spanish priests jealously guarded their place as official mediators in the public hierarchy, and as the representatives of the heavenly alpha male.  As such, they opposed any attempts by Amerindian women to compete as healers and religious leaders in the public arena.  Spanish “medicine men” took from the Nahuas where they deemed fit, helping to shape syncretic religious icons like the dark-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe, also known by the Nahuatl honorific Tonantzin (Poole, 1995).  And Spanish hospitals would also set the pace for the all-important distribution of aid and comfort to the poor and sick.

The alpha factor to Spanish priests was epitomized by a merciful and vengeful god the father, the alpha male.  The female ticitl was an affront to them, and even in cultures that might have goddesses, male priestly authorities have often used words to batter down female attempts at alpha status, even as chimpanzee males will use actual blows against females. Fierce as Coatlicue might be, Aztec goddesses were still subordinated before priestly tribal unifiers like the Mexica’s Huitzilopochtli.  Likewise, Irene Silverblatt noted that the Inca Empire, though it may have given some tributary authority to the coya, or empress, subordinated her interests and those of her moon goddess to Inti the Sun and his son, the Inca, or emperor (Silverblatt, 1987, pp. 61-66).

In the convolutions and abstractions of human cultures, female alphas have often become “male” in order to contend with patriarchy, or they have subordinated themselves symbolically to satisfy priests and claim a distant lord who fails to intervene and demand real submission.  In ancient Egypt, Hatshepsut symbolically became male to rule as pharaoh, while in sixteenth-century England, Elizabeth I used language of subordination to a male God, a distant, abstract male alpha to her advantage.  On the other hand however, Maya queens could apparently use female religious imagery more successfully than most.

As pharaoh, ruling jointly in New Kingdom Egypt (1539-1075 BCE) with her stepson Thutmose III, Hatshepsut (reigned 1490-1468 BCE) displayed her power in reliefs at the Der el-Bahri temple constructed at her command.  Her achievements spoke of her ability to enhance trade with Punt, or the Somali coast, above all else.  On the Punt reliefs, Thutmose III only appears once in a subordinate role, while the chiefs of Punt are shown offering obeisance to Egypt, meaning Hatshepsut, who is described as daughter of the sun god Amon-Ra, “the King himself, the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Makere (i.e., Hatshepsut)” (Breasted, 1906, p. 111).  Described in male terms as “the King,” the dominant ruler in alliance with her stepson, Hatshepsut is portrayed receiving the submission of the lords of Punt on behalf of Amon-Ra, including myrrh trees, ebony, ivory and cattle:

“There is rejoicing by all the people; they give praise to the lord of gods, they laud Makere (Hatshepsut) in her divine qualities, because of the greatness of the marvels which have happened for her.  Never did the like happen under any gods who were before, since the beginning.  May she be given life, like Re (i.e., Ra), forever” (Ibid., 112-13).

Placed above carvings representing the gathering of wealth from Punt, the temple inscriptions display Hatshepsut as she probably wished to be displayed and represented: submitted to and lauded by her people, a gatherer of wealth, who, according to Egyptologist Betsy M. Brian, then went on to use her wealth to distribute favors in order to build a coalition loyal to her.  In the most private areas of the temple, where a small segment of the small literate elite would go, these privileged few were twice admonished, “‘He who shall do her homage shall live, he who shall speak evil in blasphemy of her Majesty shall die'” (Bryan, 2000, p. 242).  If loyal and dutiful, Hatshepsut’s elite could expect very generous treatment by their alpha female.  During her reign, there was a significant jump in luxurious private tombs at Thebes and Saqqara.  Loyal members of her supporting male coalition could expect to enter the afterlife with the material comforts desired by ancient Egyptians.  It is also significant that Hatshepsut is the first pharaoh to be represented in private tombs with the accoutrements of Amon-Ra himself.  This is the case in the tombs of her royal steward Amenhotep and her butler Diehuty.  Subordinates of a benevolent pharaoh, such men also had enough wealth to dedicate a large number of private statues in temples like the one at Karnak.  Hatshepsut exemplified standard alpha food-sharing behavior among her allies, always demanding submission in return for the economic resources that she granted.

That we have any such inscriptions of this female pharaoh is fortunate since at the end of Thutmose III’s sole rule, or immediately following it, a campaign was launched to deface her monuments and inscriptions.  Some man or men in authority tried to erase the record of Egypt’s early female pharaoh, just as the monuments of male pharaohs were sometimes defaced by successors bearing animosities.  In ancient Egypt, such actions were not only attempts to rewrite history; they were efforts to prevent the deceased from achieving peace in the afterlife.  Whoever did this to Hatshepsut, given her successful reign, may have been religiously motivated (Tyldesley, 1998, pp. 225, 216-28).  In the religious literature of New Kingdom Egypt, ma’at, or appropriate cosmic order, stereotyped woman as “a fertile field for her lord” (Robbins, 1993, p. 75).  A woman who refused to be subordinated as such stood out as an affront. Thus, Hatshepsut was sometimes called “king” and often carved wearing the false beard and carrying the phallic scepters and staves of Egyptian pharaohs.  She was carved as a woman in a man’s short kilt or, metaphorically, as an entirely male figure (Tyldesley, 1998, pp. 130-41).  Still, despite the ambivalence of Egyptian culture, there would be female rulers in Egypt after Hatshepsut, just as there had been one relatively unsuccessful female pharaoh, Sobekneferu, (Twelfth Dynasty, 1763-1759 BCE) before her(Ibid., pp. 18, 226; Murnane, 1997, p. 28).  Again and again, women have historically demonstrated their ability to fulfill the primate alpha role, and again and again, many men have joined their coalitions, while others have attempted to deface the collective memory of female rule.

Between 1563 and 1567, Elizabeth of England was cajoled consistently by her House of Commons to marry.  The concern of Commons had some legitimacy.  The unmarried queen had recently recovered from smallpox, and without a direct heir to the throne, England ran the risk of descending into a civil war between contenders as it already had during the fifteenth century’s War of the Roses (1455-1485).  Already challenging custom as a female alpha in England, Elizabeth refused to submit to her Parliament’s demands that she marry.  In response to the House of Commons’ petition of January 1563, the thirty-year-old recognized her own mortality and promised to give the “deep matter” much thought (Elizabeth I: Collected Works, 2000, p. 76).  At the same time, she reminded Commons of the anti-Protestant reign of her sister Mary and the support given it by Catholic Spain through Mary’s Spanish husband Prince Philip:

“…I am neither careless nor unmindful of your safety, in this case, as I trust you likewise do not forget that by me you were delivered whilst you were hanging on the bough ready to fall into the mud-yea, to be drowned in the dung; neither yet the promise which you have here made concerning your duties and due obedience, wherewith, I assure you, I mean to charge you as further to let you understand that I neither mislike any of your requests herein, nor the great care that you seem to have of the surety and safety of yourselves in this matter” (Elizabeth I: Collected Works, 2000, p. 72).

Elizabeth’s verbal display recognized an act of supplication by the Commons in promising to give the “deep matter” consideration.  Likewise, alpha male chimpanzees respond to a subordinate’s bow, outstretched hand and fear grimace “smile” with embraces, pats, and other signs of comfort and conciliation.  However, she also reminded Commons that she had saved them from the anti-Protestant persecutions of her sister Queen Mary and her Spanish coalition.  When Parliament persisted in its demands for a royal marriage, she attempted to gag them on the issue of succession in November of 1566, citing that “it is monstrous that the feet should direct the head” (Ibid., p. 98).  On January 2, 1567, she dissolved troublesome Parliament, citing, “As to liberties, who is so simple that doubts whether a prince that is head of all the body may not command the feet not to stay when they would slip” (Ibid., p. 105)?  Never one to suffer insubordination lightly, in 1586, Elizabeth sternly reprimanded Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, when he disobeyed her orders as he aided Dutch rebels against Spanish authority on her behalf (Ibid., p. 273).  When contrite and once again submissive, she forgave Leicester, even as she could not forgive the Earl of Essex for his outright attempted rebellion against her authority late in her reign. Disobeying one order could be forgiven through begging forgiveness of her majesty.  Active attempts to severely limit or overthrow Elizabeth were met with execution of the complicit, as with Essex and her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots (Neale, 1957, pp. 265-92, 365-91)

Elizabeth was obviously an alpha female who was successful at agonistic display.  She attained this status by fulfilling the demands placed upon human alphas by their subordinates, from her ability to groom loyal coalition partners, distribute favors, defend her subordinates, and use the culturally constructed language and institutions around her to her advantage.  When a counselor like William Cecil proved loyal to her and her interests, he could expect his own advancement and that of his family. Cecil, among her early advisors, was elevated to the lordship as Lord Burghley, while his son Robert also served as an advisor to the Queen. Alliance with this monarch as a trusted subordinate provided benefit, just as it did for Hatshepsut’s followers.  Indeed, both queens paralleled the food-sharing behavior of chimpanzee alpha males with their allies after a hunt.  The living embodiment of the alpha factor, Elizabeth has nearly been called as much by anthropologist Clifford Geertz when he referred to her as “the center of the center,” fulfilling a binding function of monarchs that he also detected in the traditions of Java and Morocco.  She was the focal point for the coalition that surrounded her, and for her whole kingdom (Geertz, 1983, p. 129).

Where her entire realm was concerned, Elizabeth was extremely frugal.  She created a surplus in the treasury, and fostered trade and manufacturing through light tax burdens.  Elizabeth would save some court expenditures by progressing around her kingdom, staying at the estates of leading subordinates and personally receiving petitions from and granting favors to locals of all estates and ranks as she went.  The monarch was regularly seen by commoners and interacted with them as they supplicated and submitted. She created opportunities to be personally kind to her subjects.  At the same time, poor relief was provided through the collection of a compulsory contribution at the parish level, while so-called “shiftless” beggars faced the severity of the lash and ear boring as the Elizabethan Poor Laws were executed (Neale, 1957, pp. 209-14; Dodd, 1961, p. 135; Trevelyan, 1964, pp. 72-73; Beier, 1985, p. 159).  In a similar fashion, the alpha male chimpanzee will discipline subordinates, even as he settles disputes among them and food-shares with them.

In her famed Golden Speech of 1601, given near the end of a long reign, Elizabeth subordinated herself before the judgment of God just as personal prayers and public documents written throughout her life subordinated her to Anglican Christian practice.  Still, although she submitted to a heavenly alpha replete with male pronouns, she would publicly show displeasure at a bishop’s actions by walking out on him in the middle of services, and refer to herself in prayer as created in God’s own image as was Adam (Elizabeth I: Collected Works, 2000, 335-44, 156; Neale, 59).  She did not refer to herself as descended from Eve, one of Adam’s ribs.  Instead, her submission to a distant and invisible alpha only comforted her people as her recognition of limits to her power.  This had worked for male European monarchs in her day as it did for her (MacLachlan, 1988, pp. 8-19). Overall, she learned to use a male proclivity to submit to institutional hierarchy, general prosperity and occasional brutality.  She was the focus of her community-the alpha factor.

Whereas chimpanzee communities are dominated by alpha males and tightly bonded male coalitions, bonobo societies have influential alpha females and much stronger female coalitions.  Both chimpanzee and bonobo females may relocate from one community’s territorial range to another’s in the course of their lives, but bonobo immigrant females form tight bonds with females in the new community, while chimpanzee females tend to range in solitude or with immediate family members.  Female grooming is more common among bonobos than male grooming, and much more common than female grooming among chimpanzees. Bonobo expert Takayoshi Kano writes, “Several examples have been reported in which a male provoked a female and a group of females cooperated in a counterattack.  A group of males will not attack a female, but the opposite can occur” (Kano, 1992, p. 188).  Like their female chimpanzee counterparts, these female bonobos are often accompanied by offspring who beg to be kiss-fed, but unlike the chimpanzees of drier ecosystems or ranges also inhabited by gorilla competitors, these bonobo females take advantage of more easily accessible food to range together while still providing for their hungry dependents.  The mother-offspring bond is very tight, and male bonobos will associate closely with their mothers well beyond adolescence.  This is not the case with male chimpanzees (Ibid., pp. 75, 165, 189; White and Chapman, 1994, pp. 186-87).

Kano has observed that the “long period of dependency of the son on the mother” may cause adult females to “see the majority of males as ‘childish,’ like their own sons” (Kano, 1992, p. 188).  In bonobo society, male and female hierarchies are co-dominant, and the alpha female is often enough the mother of the alpha male-a son dependent on his mother for his position.  A bonobo alpha female like Wamba’s Haru will display dominance, dragging branches, in a fashion generally reserved for males among chimpanzees (McConnell and Moses, 1995, videotape).  And within the ranks of Wamba’s E-group, a high ranking female like Aki will support her youthful son when he challenges a high ranking adult male.  With the help of her female allies in 1982, Aki assured her son’s dominant status vis-a-vis Ude, then the second ranking male in Wamba’s E-group.  When Ude fought with Aki’s son after the youth had displayed before him, a female coalition, with Aki carrying her screaming baby on her belly, chased the older male away.  From that day on, Ude was subordinate to Aki and her son (Wrangham and Peterson, 1996, pp. 205-07).

The real differences between Pan troglodytes and Pan paniscus demonstrates the extent to which primates are a diverse lot, and that diversity is exhibited among chimpanzees themselves.  The rich ecology inhabited by the bonobos may help to explain closer female bonds in that mothers need not separate to find enough food for their dependent offspring.  And since there are two locations, Bossou in Guinea, where female chimpanzees in more abundant rain forest ecosystems have sometimes banded together to defend against males, it is fairly obvious that female chimpanzees are not beyond this type of bonding and mutual support.  More intense competition for scarcer resources alone may limit them.

Until November 5, 1973, the provisioned Arnhem Zoo community of chimpanzees was entirely female.  In the absence of males, Mama assumed the status of alpha female.  Until she and her coalition partner, a female chimpanzee named Gorilla, were removed by keepers, the introduced males experienced great difficulty asserting themselves.  The three males would often escape to the top of a tall metal drum while the females displayed below them. Mama and Gorilla “bit the males’ feet and pulled their hair,” leading to attempts by the males to defend themselves, “but this only aggravated the aggressive display of the others” (de Waal, 1998, pp. 46-47).  Through aggressive display, hair on end, Mama had dressed in the accoutrements of a chimpanzee alpha-mounting a proto-feminist challenge by expanding female expression, and she continued on in the role of peacemaker even after her overthrow.  When Nikkie and Yeroen eventually founded a ruling coalition, Mama often settled their disputes, using kisses and other chimpanzee signals of reconciliation (de Waal, 1989, p. 22).  No longer a warrior, she served as a diplomat, adjusting to the assumption by human zookeepers that a male-dominated society would be “more natural.”  Mama’s alpha female status, with its use of behavior normally associated with chimpanzee males, was erased, just as Hatshepsut’s monuments were defaced.

It is difficult to find female alphas in human-constructed zoos, and it is difficult to locate female alphas in the historical record.  Information has been filtered by those looking for patterns of male authority.  These powerful male filters skew our perspective on Hatshepsut, but sometimes the record speaks for itself.  The genealogical lists of monarchs recorded in Maya hieroglyphics reveal that the city-state of Palenque had at least two ruling queens around 600 CE-Kanal-Ikal (a.k.a. Ol Ik’nal) from 583 to 604 and Zac-Kuk (a.k.a. Sak K’uk) from 612 to 615.  On his sarcophagus, King Pacal, who ruled from 615 to 683, part of the time perhaps jointly with his regent mother Zac-Kuk, who died in 640, proudly reveals that his ancestry as a ruler descended through a line that included his mother Zac-Kuk and his great-grandmother Kanal-Ikal.  Normally, Maya rulership was passed on patrilineally, but on these occasions the daughter of a monarch passed on rulership, and Pacal recognized his reliance on alpha females for his legitimacy.  Here, we have an instance of a respectful bonobo son if you will.  While human males have been known to reluctantly submit to female authority, they have also been known to submit respectfully.

A personal history is lacking for Kanal-Ikal.  It may still await excavation, or, as noted by Linda Schele and David Freidel, it may also be that she was not permitted the kingly privilege of recording a personal history.  Zac-Kuk’s personal history, on the other hand, is found on monuments erected by her son Pacal and his son Chan-Bahlum.  Zac-Kuk is in fact likened to the Maya mother of the gods, a goddess who gave birth to the three central gods known as the Palenque triad.  With the First Mother being the source of all creation in this mythos, alpha males could point to legitimate female reign using religious institutions.

Much excavation remains to arrive at a fuller image of Zac-Kuk, but here is clearly an example of a woman included in the monumental discourse of rulership so dominated historically by men.  The inclusion occurs with respect, using institutional tradition without any of the mixed feelings present in the case studies of Hatshepsut and Elizabeth of England.  Of course, the evidence is scanty in the Maya case, but it comes to us through respectful male heirs.  Here, the Maya mother of the gods stands as a customary and institutional precedent for women at the zenith of hierarchy, and she may have served this role in Maya city-states other than Palenque. The mysterious “Lady of Tikal” in the early sixth century CE may be the first recorded female ruler in Maya history, while Naranjo had its Lady Six Sky, portrayed on one stela as trampling on a bound captive like any male ruler (Drew, 1999, pp. 252, 264-66, 417; Schele and Freidel, 1990, pp. 216-28, 252-53; Joyce, 2000, pp. 82-89; Sharer, 1994, pp. 280-90).

Throughout human history, tribes and empires have used religious imagery as a means of expressing the alpha factor, the principle of building social cohesion through leadership.  At times, a distant deity has worked to the advantage of egalitarian types, as with the seventeenth-century Quakers, and at times a distant male deity has even helped to prop up the rule of female leaders in patriarchal societies (Hill, 1975, pp. 234, 240, 244, 255, 258). More often than not however, evidence can be gathered where patriarchal hierarchies have been assisted by religious discourse and abstraction, even while some levels of benevolence are simultaneously maintained. To return to Edward Wilson and David Sloan Wilson, ritual and religion provide tracking devices pertinent to group cohesion and group survival.  In the words of Edward Wilson:

“To sanctify a procedure or a statement is to certify it as beyond question and imply punishment for anyone who dares to contradict it….  The individual is prepared by the sacred rituals for supreme effort and self-sacrifice.  Overwhelmed by shibboleths, special costumes, and the sacred dancing and music so accurately keyed to his emotive centers he has a ‘religious experience.’  He is ready to reassert allegiance to his tribe and family, perform charities, consecrate his life, leave for the hunt, join the battle, die for God and country” (Wilson, 2000, p. 561).

In Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire, David Cannadine writes that British imperial honors focused on “costume, ceremony, heraldry, religion and monarchy-all the accoutrements of hierarchical display and imperial ostentation.”  British imperialists served God and country:

“They were concerned with costume because… the statues of viceroys and governors-general that were placed in the imperial capitals invariably depicted them clad in the robes of the Order of the Star of India or of St. Michael and St. George….  They were concerned with heraldry because the banners of the knights, complete with coats of arms and mottoes, were hung in the chapels of their orders.  They were concerned with religion because, with the exception of the Indian orders, all the orders of chivalry were Christian foundations.  And they were concerned with monarchy because, as another authority on India observed, ‘The Crown is the Fountain of Honour, and those who accept its decorations or privileges owe, and admit their liability for, something in return.'”  (Cannadine, 2001, pp. 99-100)

In the nineteenth- and twentieth-century British Empire as in the Spanish Empire before it, God, the monarch and well-ordered hierarchy were linked as a system of reciprocal social claims and noblesse oblige were established. The alpha factor persisted.

The alpha factor focuses the group-changing many individuals into one organism.  There are many cultural casualties of the alpha factor, but the resulting stability allows for the sort of fission-fusion integration found among both humans and chimpanzees.  The human manifestation of the alpha factor can even build religiously inspired expression in its fantastic abstractions.  Humans may write symbols to maintain collective experience and memories, but beneath the complexities and cultural convolutions are patterns of hierarchy and reciprocity more clearly identifiable among our primate cousins.  At the most basic of levels, our senses reveal us to be material creatures with bodies that require food and protection from the elements.  It should come as no surprise that all human cultures must deal with the distribution of resources– not only in terms of how much is doled out to different individuals within the same immediate environment, but also in terms of who does the distributing.  Questions of hierarchy, reciprocity and altruism are human fundamentals that should be of central concern to world historians.  They are present even where the San peoples of southern Africa are concerned.  The alpha factor is a human universal, but it is one that is always factored into particular human cultural equations in particular ways.  It is a symbolic principle of organization often attached to religious mapping, but it is one with a firm foundation in evolutionary reality and the biological continuity found among related species.


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