Research highlight

Archaeology: The roots of inequality


November 16, 2017

In post-Neolithic times, Old World societies experienced more wealth inequality than those in the New World, a Nature paper reveals. The study, which ties this finding in with the rise of domestication of plants and animals, helps to shed light on the origins of inequality.

Using house size (area) as a proxy for wealth, Timothy Kohler and colleagues analysed thousands of houses from 63 archaeological societies across North America, Europe and Asia, and two from Africa. The sites encompass a range of economic systems, from the settlements of hunter-gatherers to ancient cities, and span the past 11,000 years. As expected, wealth inequality was found to increase over time, but unexpectedly it increased far more in Eurasia than it did in North America. Even in highly urban New World sites, house sizes were generally similar.

The reason for this disparity, the authors suggest, is the presence of large domesticated animals, such as horses, cattle and pigs, which were present in Eurasia but largely absent in North America. These animals could be used to plough fields, transport goods, and as mounts in warfare, leading to the development of a new mounted warrior elite that, in turn, enabled Eurasian societies to extend their territories and acquire more wealth.

doi: 10.1038/nature24646

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