Archaeology Sheds Light On Why Some Ancient Societies Were More Unequal Than Others

November 26, 1922, marks what is arguably the most famous discovery in the history of archaeology. On that day, the British Egyptologist Howard Carter made a small hole through which he could insert a candle in the sealed doorway of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber and thus lit the interior.

archaeology-sheds-light-on-why-some-ancient-societies-were-more-unequal-than-others

As his eyes slowly adapted to the darkness, he was able to make out a chamber that had not been disturbed for over 3,000 years.

Aztec society, even with its horrific human sacrifices, was at the time of the Spanish conquest more egalitarian than Mexico 200 years later.

Some archaeologists have attempted to apply economic principles to examine social differences at specific sites and, crucially, compare the data from different places.

A study led by Samuel Bowles from the Santa Fe Institute and published in Nature in 2017 tried to address this question by applying the Gini coefficient — a single number most commonly used to measure income inequality — across a large number of sites from the archaeological record, both in the Old World and the Americas.

The list of sites included paradigmatic cities such as Çatalhöyük in Turkey, Pompeii in Italy, and Teotihuacan in Mexico; the authors measured the dimensions of houses as estimated indicators of wealth.

Among modern hunter-gatherers, the team found, the Gini coefficient is low — around 17 (on a scale of 0 to 100). This is not surprising as few objects can be carried in nomadic societies, and consequently, personal qualities such as the ability to hunt count for more.

archaeology-sheds-light-on-why-some-ancient-societies-were-more-unequal-than-others

This does not mean that some people didn’t have a higher social status; material culture was probably so poor — or so different from our perceptions of status — that it is difficult to grasp social differences among past hunter-gatherers.

In the ancient farming societies under study the Gini coefficients are estimated to have been between 35 and 46; interestingly, the real measurements were lower than those obtained from records. For instance, among the ruins of Babylonia, researchers estimated a coefficient of 40, yet an estimate based on information from the Babylonian chronicles resulted in a higher coefficient of 46.

The ancient accounts likely overemphasized the size of the largest houses in admiration. This is not unlike what happens when we return from a trip: We sometimes tend to exaggerate the things that we’ve seen.

Nevertheless, the most remarkable differences come from the comparison of the societies of the Old World and those of the Americas, with the latter being much more equal in the Gini coefficient, despite being highly hierarchical in some cases such as the mighty Aztec Empire.

Researchers conclude that the root of these differences could be ecological since there were more and larger animals to be domesticated in Eurasia — such as cows, horses, pigs, sheep, and goats — than in the Americas, with only dogs and turkeys, and this trait alone created a differential system of accumulated wealth.

archaeology-sheds-light-on-why-some-ancient-societies-were-more-unequal-than-others

At the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, for instance, houses had highly standardized dimensions and were all quite similar.

Aztec society, even with its horrific human sacrifices, was at the time of the Spanish conquest more egalitarian than Mexico 200 years later, when the European elite had created the encomienda system, under which the indigenous population worked in semislavery.

Within a few generations, the concentration of wealth had almost doubled in the colonial New World, with a consequent increase in inequality.

When did these differences between the Old and New Worlds emerge? Early farming societies had the possibility of generating and storing food surpluses, creating potential scenarios for differences in population size along with a certain degree of inter- and intrasettlement inequality.

A recent application of the Gini coefficient to 90 sites from the Near East and Europe showed a remarkable increase of inequality thousands of years after the advent of agriculture — a finding that would indicate it was not farming per se that created unequal societies.

According to the authors, at some point some farmers were able to maintain specialized plow oxen that could cultivate 10 times more land than other farmers, thereby transforming the economy toward a higher value of land in detriment of human labor.

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