Penn Researchers Find Ancient Customs Alive in Modern Fraternities


Photo by MarleBrizard / CC 2.0

The writings and material cultures of past civilizations have long offered clues into how early humans used to live, but figuring out how groups of people actually behaved in ancient times is no easy task. However, a team of researchers led by Penn archaeology professor Angela Daniels has discovered a startling phenomenon: the customs of our ancient ancestors may live on today in unexpected ways.

In the study, Daniels and her collaborators found that college fraternities continue to uphold many of the traditions of ancient societies. Some of these traditions include age-based hierarchies, violent initiation rituals, and bartering systems based on the exchange of women.

"I'm constantly fascinated, and often bemused, by the behavior of fraternity brothers. Having taught frat boys for many years, I truly believe that the fraternity is a useful proxy for the ancient city-state. It really can give us profound insight into the way people lived four, five, six thousand years ago," said Daniels. She pointed out that frats and ancient people faced many of the same obstacles, such as frequent invasions of their homes, and lived in similar conditions: with poor sanitation and low literacy rates.

Still, questions remain, and Daniels plans to explore this topic further. "A big question in my research is how prehistory affects history. I believe that ancient people may have inherited certain traditions from their hunter-gatherer ancestors, and the fraternity model corroborates my theory. After all, I often see behavior in fraternity members that's not only un-evolved from ancient times, but downright caveman-like."

A special exhibit based on this groundbreaking research is planned for 2019 at the Penn Museum. Visitors can expect to meet real, live frat brothers in an interactive exhibit, as well as viewing important artifacts: old items belonging to the brothers that literally no one else would take.

"Penn is a great place to study this behavior, since it has made fraternities such a priority both socially and financially," Daniels declared. "There are some really wonderful opportunities here."