The Science of Inequality

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Above photo: This depiction of daily life in Pompeii shows the interactions of the wealthy with individuals of the lower class. From Pompeii: The Rediscovered City.

The ancient roots of the 1%.

Note: The current issue of Science magazine features a special section on “The Science of Inequality,” comprising some 20 articles, together with other resource materials. All are available in full on the web. — moderator

Don’t blame farming. Inequality got its start among resource-rich hunter-gatherers

In 79 C.E., the year Mount Vesuvius destroyed it, Pompeii was not one city but two. Its wealthiest families owned slaves and lived in multistoried, seaside mansions, one of which was more than half the size of the White House. They dined in rooms with costly frescoes, strolled in private gardens, and soaked in private baths. Meanwhile, at least one-third of all Pompeiian households scraped to make ends meet, with families dwelling in single rooms behind workshops, in dark service quarters, or in small houses. Such economic disparities were common in the Roman Empire, where 1.5% of the empire’s households controlled 20% of the income by the late 2nd century C.E., according to one recent study.

Inequality has deep archaeological roots. Yet if existing traditional societies are any guide, our hunter-gatherer ancestors were mostly egalitarian.  How and when did a few members of society begin to amass wealth?

Farming has long been blamed for the rise of inequality. Relying on evidence from the Near East, researchers suggested that the earliest elites emerged after 10,500 years ago, when people successfully domesticated plants and animals and settled in large permanent villages. In this view, agriculture led to the production of surpluses and the emergence of managers, craftspeople, and other specialists, who eventually gained control over extra resources.

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A Pompeiian fresco shows the Roman 1% living the good life. PHOTO: MICHELE FALZONE/GETTY IMAGES

Now, analyses of archaeological sites as well as ethnographies of traditional societies are etching a more complex picture, suggesting that some ancient hunter-gatherers may have accumulated wealth and political clout by taking control of concentrated patches of wild foods. In this view, it is the ownership of small, resource-rich areas—and the ease of bestowing them on descendants—that fosters inequality, rather than agriculture itself.

The transition from egalitarianism to societies rife with economic competition and inequality was “the single most critical watershed in the last 2.5 million years of human history,” says archaeologist Brian Hayden of Simon Fraser University (SFU), Burnaby, in Canada. Over time, it paved the way for the development of “chiefdoms, states, and ultimately industrial empires.”

BEFORE FARMING. Archaeologists have spotted the earliest glimmers of inequality among the Natufians of the Eastern Mediterranean, one of the first peoples to embark on the long transition to farming. Beginning some 14,500 years ago, the Natufians began settling at least part-time in small villages amid rich food resources, regularly supplementing their diet of wild game, fruits, and nuts with wild cereals—a lifestyle that ultimately led to agriculture.

Natufians left some traces of inequality behind. Archaeologists T. Douglas Price of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Ofer Bar-Yosef of Harvard University examined published reports for 25 Natufian and later sites dating between about 15,000 and 8000 years ago. The two looked for standard archaeological markers of inequality: disparities in grave goods, house sizes, and the ornamentation of the dead. Not surprisingly, inequality markers became more common between 10,500 and 8200 years ago, as early farmers began sowing domesticated einkorn wheat and other plants and tending domesticated sheep and goats.

But signals of incipient inequality appeared well before that, between 14,500 and 12,800 years ago, while the Early Natufians were still hunting and gathering, Price and Bar-Yosef reported in a 2010 volume. Some Early Natufian skeletons were richly ornamented, but the vast majority were not. The wealthiest 8%, for example, were decorated with pendants or marine shells such as Dentalium, imported or traded from as far as 400 kilometers away. At one site, three male skeletons were buried with Dentalium headdresses, one fringed with shells four deep—an impressive display of riches. Natufians also placed carved artworks in a few graves, built houses of varying sizes, and produced large goblet-shaped stone mortars well-suited for preparing or serving food at feasts. Making these mortars “by pecking for many hours is hardly the business of a fully egalitarian society,” noted Price and Bar-Yosef.

The findings suggest how people took a first tentative step on the long road to inequality. The Natufians lived in an environment of abundance—wild cereal grains flourished in dense patches in the forest, and game was plentiful. As Price points out, the Natufians apparently “were harvesting wild plants in large quantities and storing cereal grains as well.” He thinks that these stored surpluses of wild cereals may have given some Natufian hunter-gatherers an edge over others. “Those surpluses could allow people to begin manipulating things, giving away food and so establishing some dominance behaviors.”

HOLDING ON TO WEALTH. Other abundant, storable wild foods can lead to surpluses, too, and private ownership of these natural resources could have boosted inequality, creating a new kind of “transegalitarian” hunter-gatherer society.

Take an ancient village on Keatley Creek in Canada’s Northwest Plateau, which was occupied for part of the year by hunter-gatherers between 2500 and 1100 years ago. The village contains more than 115 house pits, the remains of semisubterranean structures with log and earthen roofs, and appears to have had a peak population of as many as 1500 people. The excavation team, led by SFU’s Hayden, found that the houses varied dramatically in size, from the square footage of a microapartment to that of a medium-sized house today.

To understand these disparities, Hayden and his colleagues examined ethnographic records of historic aboriginal societies in the region, which were divided into nobles, commoners, and slaves. The highest status families owned certain resources and passed them down to their children: fences for driving deer into hunting traps and, especially, fishing rocks that jutted out into the Fraser River, which hosted some of the world’s richest salmon runs. Owners built fishing platforms out from these rocks, and so could fish in deep waters where the biggest salmon swam. Lower status families had to fish from public areas along the riverbanks with dip nets, and could reach only smaller fish. Families then wind-dried their catch and stored it.

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Since before the Romans, elites have hoarded wealth in gold. PHOTO: THE BRITISH MUSEUM

To see if this private ownership of resources extended back in time, Hayden’s team analyzed fish vertebrae excavated from house pits of various sizes. As much as 75% of the fish bone in the large house pits came from big, 4- to 5-year-old chinook and sockeye salmon, laden with calorie-rich fat. In contrast, 100% of the bone in the two smallest houses came from smaller, 2- to 3-year-old salmon likely caught along the riverbanks.

The findings suggest that inequality began at Keatley Creek some 2500 years ago when a few ambitious, aggressive people capitalized on the salmon’s bounty, Hayden says. Aggrandizers who wanted more food than their neighbors likely built fishing platforms out over key fishing rocks and claimed private ownership. These aggrandizers controlled bigger food surpluses than others, but no one stopped them—as can happen to those who refuse to share in other hunting and gathering societies—because there was plenty of food for all, Hayden says. “It is no coincidence that the greatest inequalities on the Northwest Plateau emerged at the most productive fishing locations, where huge surpluses were produced ethnographically.”

Hayden and his team also found evidence at Keatley Creek of large roasting pits, one of which was large enough to cook food for 500 people. This and other evidence suggested that aggrandizers at Keatley Creek organized feasts resembling historic potlatches, in which a chief cajoled his clan into producing a cornucopia of food as well as obtaining prestige goods such as Dentalium, which these people also prized: They brought the shells in from as far as 300 kilometers away, to wear and to give away to a rival clan. Such feasts publicly displayed the host’s power and wealth, and forced rival chiefs to compete. Potlatch guests were expected to reciprocate with goods of greater value, and families who couldn’t come up with gifts had to go into debt to get them.

In a study published in a 2011 volume called Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner: Feasting Rituals in the Prehistoric Societies of Europe and the Near East, Hayden argues that elites in Natufian villages may have pursued similar tactics. Like Price, Hayden argues that long before farming, Natufian elites could have amassed large surpluses of food by “owning” natural concentrations of resources, such as groves of pistachio trees, or by constructing drive lanes for hunting gazelles. Massive roasting pits and hearths at some Natufian sites suggest a feasting tradition, too.

Some researchers think Hayden overemphasizes the role of aggressive, competitive individuals in the origins of inequality, and underemphasizes the role of population pressures or resource stresses. Archaeologist Anna Marie Prentiss of the University of Montana, Missoula, contends that in another ancient Northwest Plateau village in Canada, it was a shortage of food, rather than an abundance, that sparked inequality. Data from her team’s excavations at the Bridge River site suggest that the first elites emerged after salmon runs declined about 1200 years ago and the village population plummeted, she and colleagues reported online in December in theJournal of Anthropological Archaeology. They found that some families responded to scarcity by closing off public access to hunting and fishing resources and holding feasts to attract workers to their depleted households, tactics that allowed them to amass more food than their neighbors. Inequality at Bridge River, Prentiss says, “came about as a byproduct of feeding their families” during lean times.

Prentiss’s findings are raising questions about when Keatley Creek’s elites first emerged. So Suzanne Villeneuve, project director of the Keatley Creek Archaeological Research Project at SFU, and her team are now excavating and analyzing new housepit data to re-evaluate the site’s dating. But Hayden insists that in historical hunter-gatherer cultures both in Canada and abroad, aggrandizers build surpluses, amass wealth items, and hold feasts only when food is abundant. “When food is in short supply, no one tolerates other people hoarding,” Hayden says. “The majority simply take what they need because their lives depend on it. Scarcity breeds revolts and demands for more equality.” In contrast, when times are good—for example in a booming modern economy like China (see p. 832)—people seem more tolerant of inequality.

HOW THE RICH GET RICHER. While archaeologists on Canada’s Northwest Plateau probe the origins of wealth, other researchers are examining how it is passed on from generation to generation, perpetuating inequality. Economist Samuel Bowles of the Santa Fe Institute and anthropologist Monique Borgerhoff Mulder of the University of California, Davis, led an international team that studied inheritance in four types of societies: hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, horticulturalists who planted hand-tended gardens, and agriculturalists who used more advanced technology such as plows or organic fertilizers to boost crop yields.

Using historical and ethnographic data on 21 populations around the world, the team examined three kinds of wealth: material riches such as real estate, embodied wealth such as physical strength, and relational riches such as the number of people in a person’s social network. They conducted statistical analyses to determine how much of each type of wealth was transmitted. “We counted things like the number of cattle people had and their sons had, and we did the same thing for forms of wealth used by hunters, such as grip strength, which measures how strong your forearms are,” Bowles says.

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At Keatley Creek in Canada, elites arose by controlling rich patches of resources. PHOTO: SUZANNE VILLENEUVE

They found that only material forms of wealth, such as land and livestock valued by farmers, were readily handed down to children. “I can pass on my cows to my sons, but if I have some phenotypic trait that accounts for my income, like being physically strong, it is less likely that I will pass that on to my offspring,” says Bowles, whose team reported their findings in a paper in Science in 2009 and a series of papers in Current Anthropology in 2010.

The team found an unexpected difference between horticulturalists and agriculturalists. Horticulturalists, who tended widely scattered fields of domesticated plants, scored little higher than hunter-gatherers in the overall transmission of all forms of wealth. That suggests that just having domesticated crops wasn’t enough to fuel enduring inequality. Farmers who practiced intensive agriculture and boosted yields in regions where arable land was scarce readily passed down their wealth. These farmers could control access to their fields, protect them, and leave them to their heirs, Bowles says.

He thinks resource concentration is a key factor in explaining inequality among both farmers and the ancient salmon fishers. “Those societies had in a natural state exactly the same kind of concentration of resources that farming made possible everywhere,” Bowles says. “Farming vastly increased the productivity of small patches of land and a small number of animals.” People who owned particularly fertile patches of farmland had a good shot at becoming wealthy and passing on that wealth, in part because the land was defendable against others.

As agricultural societies developed, so did more elaborate hierarchies, evolving into hereditary chiefdoms and eventually kingdoms. In these complex societies, chiefs and kings came up with new strategies for amassing surpluses and concentrating wealth and power. Many chiefs created economic bottlenecks in trade routes, noted economic anthropologist Timothy Earle of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, in a 2011 paper in Social Evolution & History. These leaders then collected payments from merchants for safe passage and used the surplus to finance specialized warriors to defend and extend their rule. Material culture also became ever more sophisticated, multiplying into innumerable kinds of highly concentrated and easily transmitted forms of wealth, from copper ingots to gold jewelry. All of these trends led to ever greater levels of inequality.

By the time of the Romans, a yawning gap separated rich from poor. Historian Walter Scheidel of Stanford University in California and biblical studies scholar Steven Friesen of the University of Texas, Austin, used historical records to calculate the Gini coefficient—a standard measure of inequality in modern societies—for the Roman Empire. The coefficient ranges from 0, in which everyone shares equally, to 1, in which one wealthy person has everything and the rest have nothing. The Roman Empire’s Gini for income was about 0.43, the pair reported in 2009 in The Journal of Roman Studies—close to the 0.49 for pretax income in the United States in 2010. In fact, Rome’s super-rich had wealth on the scale of today’s billionaires. The income of the wealthy Roman triumvir Marcus Crassus equaled about $1 billion per year today, reported economist Branko Milanovic, of the Luxembourg Income Study Center of the City University of New York in New York City, and his colleagues in a working paper in 2007; that’s not quite up to Bill Gates’s more than $2 billion per year.

In today’s complex world, there’s no going back to the egalitarianism of some hunter-gatherers. And yet studies of prehistory may offer some hope for lessening the grip of the 1%, Bowles says. As societies move toward knowledge-based economies, wealth increasingly reflects know-how, social skills, and networking—factors that cannot be transmitted across generations as easily as plots of land or stock portfolios, he says. “So I think the long-term possibilities for a more egalitarian future are certainly there.”

  • DHFabian

    There has been no legitimate discussion about inequality. Our current “1% vs. the 99%” theme is false. The public/media discussion remains restricted to the gap between those who are able to work/have jobs and the very rich, with the jobless poor now regarded as non-people. This shows how much even liberals have embraced the corporate philosophy. Not everyone can work, due to health or circumstances, and there aren’t jobs for all who need one.The US shipped out a huge portion of our working class jobs since the 1980s, then ended welfare aid in the 1990s, and the consequences are simply ignored. Our situation in a nutshell: What the rich are going to the middle class is what the middle class already did to the poor. There is no “99%” precisely because the poor and middle are pitted against each other. Even today’s liberals have embraced the idea that those who have been left behind, who are not of use to employers, are undeserving of the most basic human rights, food and shelter.

  • Queequeg

    Both useful and instructive–it certainly crushes the turd worldist ideologies of many of the common screamer acolytes who deify primitives, e.g. indigenous cultures as either morally superior or less unequal than modern complex cultures.