The Walking Dead: A Tour of Prehistory

by | Dec 9, 2014 | Human Origins & the Paleolithic, The Neolithic & Latter-Day Prehistory

The Walking Dead offers some good prehistory. In the show’s post-apocalyptic world, humanity returns to the key life stages of our prehistoric past: [SPOILER ALERT for Seasons 1-5!]

[As of 2020, I’ve changed my mind. This post is wrong. /DT]

  1. Hunter-gatherer turned villager turned townswoman (turned corpse)

    Hunter-gatherer turned villager turned townswoman (turned corpse)

    Hunter-Gatherers / Rick’s Foragers: Most prehistoric people hunted and gathered — and that’s how Rick and his group, and most other survivors, live through most of the show. Hunter-gatherers live in small bands, like the group, and they keep moving, looking for food. They share egalitarian societies where charisma makes leaders, not titles or permanent positions — just as charisma makes Rick the group’s leader, but not without challenges from Shane and Abraham. Without police or state protection, hunter-gatherers go armed, and meetings with strangers often turn violent. A guy named Joe and his men attack Rick, for instance, but he and his allies brutally kill them all; the group defeats anothers band and hacks them to death … it goes on and on. Nor is violence rare within bands: Shane beats Ed half to death, Merle assaults T-Dog, Rick threatens to shoot Merle, Carol kills little Lizzie, etc. Finally, hunter-gatherer life breeds the toughest of all humans, again like Rick and his few companions who survive season after season.

  2. Villages / Hershel’s Farm & the Prison: With the rise of farming, some people settle into tiny villages — like Hershel’s farm and the prison. Foraging and wandering fade as farmers stay put to mind their crops and livestock. Society remains relatively egalitarian, but authority grows more formal — just as the Council governs the prison and Hershel reigns as patriarch on his farm. Violence within the group declines, but the “state” isn’t strong enough to stop it. So Rick kills Shane, Carol kills David and Karen, etc. Finally, sedentary populations and their livestock breed disease. So some new illness nearly wipes out the prison — apparently contracted from pigs.
  3. WoodburyChieftainships & Towns / Woodbury & the Governor: Eventually, villages unite into chieftainships, sometimes with walled towns — like Woodbury. Chieftainships have stronger and more formal governments than villages, with a permanent leader: the Governor in Woodbury’s case. These chieftains head troops of warriors, like the Governor’s thugs. As society militarizes, it grows less egalitarian, including along gender lines. The Governor truly rules Woodbury, and his thugs include almost no women. In fact, women become objectified, so it’s no coincidence the Governor sexually assaults Maggie. Ironically, though, the chieftain’s near monopoly on force reduces internal violence. So far as we know, no one at Woodbury kills fellow townsfolk except the Governor.

Both prehistory and The Walking Dead offer variations on the patterns above:

  • Cannibalism / Terminus: Cannibalism offers many benefits, including ritual dominance over enemies. That’s its role at Terminus — along with calories, of course. Gareth and his people have been brutalized, and cannibalism gives them psychic power. Thus Gareth’s mantra: “You’re either the butcher or the cattle.”
  • Slavery / The Hospital: Slavery provides free labor, of course, and sexual exploitation. That’s its role at Grady Memorial Hospital, with “patients” required to work and female patients forced into sex with the “police”: the slave masters.

Of course, all the characters long for the far end of the historic spectrum: civilization. Sadly, it’s Woodbury that offers the greatest hope. If the governor had focused on farming and population-growth, instead of petty revenge, he might’ve built a new Sumer, with himself as king — as Governor Gilgamesh.

By the way, if you like these sorts of games with history, you’ll love The Jericho River!




© 2014, 2015 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.


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