The Roots of Material Inequality
The world today is marked by unprecedented levels of wealth disparity that have prompted the majority of the population to raise their voices in revolt against the 1 per cent that hordes all of the wealth. However, economic inequality is not, as some have mistakenly claimed, a new phenomenon. During the Roman Empire, around 1.5 per cent of households had around 20 per cent of their society’s income, numbers that resonate with current trends. And in fact, wealth inequality has deep archaeological roots that extend all the way back to the time that agriculture took hold in human culture.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were by and large egalitarian, which can be primarily attributed to the nomadic lifestyle that prevented concentrations of wealth and necessitated cooperation. Because they were almost always on the move, they had relatively few possessions to begin with. What they did have they shared with their community. This would have included food, weapons, shelter, and clothing, but sometimes also property when they stayed anywhere long enough to establish territory. Such a model of equitable sharing was actually an evolutionary advantage: it ensured that all members of the community were strong and healthy enough to be effective hunters and fighters. This was particularly beneficial during hunting time, as cooperative hunting yields more meat than individual or small group hunting, and thus ensures that there’s more than enough food to go around.
Hunter-gatherers thus incorporated these egalitarian values into every aspect of their social lives. For example, the poorest hut in the community almost always belonged to the leader, who wanted to avoid being seen as superior in any way. If a leader were to let their stature go to their head, lower ranking groups quickly rose up to oust the domineering individual, or at the very least tease or ignore them. The society protected its ethic of sharing so ardently because it knew it was central to their community’s very survival.
And so the human species lived in such as way for the vast majority—about 90 per cent—of our human history. It was until the Natufians of the Eastern Mediterranean started transitioning to farming 14,500 years ago that signs of inequality began to emerge. The Natufians started settling in small villages where there were abundant and rich food resources such as wild grain cereals and game. Research on 25 of their alter sites from 15,000 to 8,000 years ago revealed archaeological markers of inequality such as disparities in grave goods, ornamentation of the deceased and shelter sizes. As an example, some skeletons were richly decorated with pendants or marine shells imported from as far as 400 kilometers away. However, these skeletons only accounted for about 8 per cent of the population.
The indicators of inequality showed up even more predominantly for the Natufians between 10,500 and 8,200 years ago, around the time the early farmers successfully domesticated sheep and goats. They were harvesting the wheat and other plants in large quantities, leaving them with surpluses that could be stored. These surpluses led to the emergence of managers to control and distribute the extra resources. Having such control gave them an advantage over others, and the temptation to manipulate the resources for their own gain.
Once the seeds of inequality were planted, inheritance practices perpetuated wealth disparity. Economic and anthropological research studies found that material forms of wealth such as land and livestock were handed down to children even in these early agrarian communities. Farmers needed to have control over not only domesticated crops but also livestock and territory—access to their fields—in order to give their heirs a significant advantage.
In other words, the concentration of resources and the ability to control and defend them is the key causative factor for the evolution of inequality. Once these early agricultural societies formed, further levels of stratification emerged, evolving eventually into hereditary kingdoms in which the chiefs claimed nearby waterways. With control over sea trade routes, the leaders of these kingdoms collected payments for safe passage and used profits from those fees to pay warriors to defend their water territories. This created an economic bottleneck for trade routes that further exacerbated inequality and allowed for the continuing concentration of wealth.
Fast-forward about 9,000 years and today’s complex world is far from the egalitarian hunter-gatherer cultures of the past. Our focus on material wealth and our prioritisation on the accumulation of resources as both a means of survival and a validation of one’s worth leave little room for consideration of the social detriments that accompany inequality. However, some scholars are hopeful that human culture will look back to prehistoric societies for lessons as we move into knowledge-based economies that value know-how, social skills and networking. With resources such as these not as easily passed down as land or livestock, human culture will be forced to look at other ways of negotiating control over and distribution of resources. And if the past is any indicator, a more egalitarian social structure may offer the most attractive solutions.