How taming cows and horses sparked inequality across the ancient world

first_imgCattle and other livestock may have boosted inequality in Old World societies, including ancient Egypt.   Today, 2% of the world’s people own more than half its wealth. This rise of the superrich has economists, politicians, and citizens alike wondering how much inequality societies can—or should—accept. But economic inequality has deep roots. A study published this week in Nature concludes that its ancient hotbed was the Old World: Societies there tended to be less equal than those in the New World, likely because of the use of draft animals.“Nobody has tried to do this before—take this very broad view and see if there are significant differences between the Old World and the New World,” says historian Walter Scheidel of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who calls the results “quite striking.” Just as striking: Every ancient society studied was much more equal than the United States is today.Detailed economic records don’t exist for most premodern cultures, so the study’s authors needed a way not only to measure wealth at archaeological sites, but to compare it across societies. “To do a true comparative analysis, you have to get everything into the same framework,” says archaeologist Michael Smith of Arizona State University in Tempe, who led the study with Tim Kohler of Washington State University in Pullman. The researchers settled on house size, which many archaeologists already measure. Sign up for our daily newsletter Get more great content like this delivered right to you! Country 1000 FRAGEN AN DIE NATUR, VIA THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, ROGERS FUND, 1948/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS Email By Lizzie WadeNov. 15, 2017 , 1:00 PMcenter_img Click to view the privacy policy. Required fields are indicated by an asterisk (*) Country * Afghanistan Aland Islands Albania Algeria Andorra Angola Anguilla Antarctica Antigua and Barbuda Argentina Armenia Aruba Australia Austria Azerbaijan Bahamas Bahrain Bangladesh Barbados Belarus Belgium Belize Benin Bermuda Bhutan Bolivia, Plurinational State of Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba Bosnia and Herzegovina Botswana Bouvet Island Brazil British Indian Ocean Territory Brunei Darussalam Bulgaria Burkina Faso Burundi Cambodia Cameroon Canada Cape Verde Cayman Islands Central African Republic Chad Chile China Christmas Island Cocos (Keeling) Islands Colombia Comoros Congo Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Cook Islands Costa Rica Cote d’Ivoire Croatia Cuba Curaçao Cyprus Czech Republic Denmark Djibouti Dominica Dominican Republic Ecuador Egypt El Salvador Equatorial Guinea Eritrea Estonia Ethiopia Falkland Islands (Malvinas) Faroe Islands Fiji Finland France French Guiana French Polynesia French Southern Territories Gabon Gambia Georgia Germany Ghana Gibraltar Greece Greenland Grenada Guadeloupe Guatemala Guernsey Guinea Guinea-Bissau Guyana Haiti Heard Island and McDonald Islands Holy See (Vatican City State) Honduras Hungary Iceland India Indonesia Iran, Islamic Republic of Iraq Ireland Isle of Man Israel Italy Jamaica Japan Jersey Jordan Kazakhstan Kenya Kiribati Korea, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Republic of Kuwait Kyrgyzstan Lao People’s Democratic Republic Latvia Lebanon Lesotho Liberia Libyan Arab Jamahiriya Liechtenstein Lithuania Luxembourg Macao Macedonia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Madagascar Malawi Malaysia Maldives Mali Malta Martinique Mauritania Mauritius Mayotte Mexico Moldova, Republic of Monaco Mongolia Montenegro Montserrat Morocco Mozambique Myanmar Namibia Nauru Nepal Netherlands New Caledonia New Zealand Nicaragua Niger Nigeria Niue Norfolk Island Norway Oman Pakistan Palestine Panama Papua New Guinea Paraguay Peru Philippines Pitcairn Poland Portugal Qatar Reunion Romania Russian Federation Rwanda Saint Barthélemy Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha Saint Kitts and Nevis Saint Lucia Saint Martin (French part) Saint Pierre and Miquelon Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Samoa San Marino Sao Tome and Principe Saudi Arabia Senegal Serbia Seychelles Sierra Leone Singapore Sint Maarten (Dutch part) Slovakia Slovenia Solomon Islands Somalia South Africa South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands South Sudan Spain Sri Lanka Sudan Suriname Svalbard and Jan Mayen Swaziland Sweden Switzerland Syrian Arab Republic Taiwan Tajikistan Tanzania, United Republic of Thailand Timor-Leste Togo Tokelau Tonga Trinidad and Tobago Tunisia Turkey Turkmenistan Turks and Caicos Islands Tuvalu Uganda Ukraine United Arab Emirates United Kingdom United States Uruguay Uzbekistan Vanuatu Venezuela, Bolivarian Republic of Vietnam Virgin Islands, British Wallis and Futuna Western Sahara Yemen Zambia Zimbabwe The team worked with archaeologists around the world to collect data from 62 sites in North America and Eurasia dating from before 8000 B.C.E. to about 1750 C.E. (They also included one modern hunter-gatherer group, the !Kung San in Africa.) From the distribution of house sizes, they calculated each site’s Gini coefficient, a standard measure of inequality. Gini coefficients range from zero, indicating that each person has exactly the same amount of wealth, to one, representing a society in which a single person has all the wealth.The researchers found that inequality tended to gradually increase as societies transitioned from hunting and gathering to farming, supporting long-held hypotheses about how agriculture intensified social hierarchies. About 2500 years after the first appearance of domesticated plants in each region, average inequality in both the Old World and the New World hovered around a Gini coefficient of about 0.35. This figure stayed more or less steady in North America and Mesoamerica. But in the Middle East, China, Europe, and Egypt, inequality kept climbing over time, topping out at an average Gini coefficient of about 0.6, roughly 6000 years after the start of agriculture at Pompeii in ancient Rome and Kahun in ancient Egypt.Those numbers are far below the wealth inequality seen today in the United States and China, which have Gini coefficients of 0.8 and 0.73, respectively, according to studies by Chinese researchers and a 2008 United Nations study.The authors propose that domestic animals may explain the difference between the New World and the Old World: Whereas North American and Mesoamerican societies depended on human labor, Old World societies had oxen and cattle to plow fields and horses to carry goods and people. Livestock were an investment in future enterprises, allowing people to cultivate more land and stockpile food surpluses, as well as build trade caravans and armies to control huge territories. “Think about how people get rich in modern societies. They find clever ways to tie their current wealth into their future income,” Kohler says. Because land and livestock could be passed to future generations, certain families got even richer over time.Calculating Gini coefficients for ancient sites ought to be standard practice, says archaeologist Brian Hayden of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada, but he notes that draft animals aren’t the only way to turn natural resources into heritable wealth. At Keatley Creek in British Columbia in Canada, he excavated houses up to 20 meters in diameter dating to between 2500 and 1100 years ago, and calculated a Gini coefficient of 0.38. He thinks that some families monopolized productive salmon fishing sites for generations, making this hunting and gathering society much less equal than others in the new data set. “The inheritance of fishing sites is exactly like the inheritance of land or cattle or anything else,” Hayden says. He’d like to see data from Andean South America, where empires from the Moche to the Inca controlled huge territories and also domesticated llamas and alpacas.Economist Peter Lindert of the University of California, Davis, calls the choice of house size as a wealth proxy “wise,” but archaeologist Melissa Vogel of Clemson University in South Carolina cautions that factors such as the quality of construction materials could complicate the analyses. “It’s great to try to do these larger comparisons,” she says. “But there are some real limitations.”David Carballo, an archaeologist at Boston University who studies the egalitarian society of Teotihuacan in central Mexico—Gini coefficient of 0.12—thinks such simplifications are a necessary price to pay for such a long and diverse record of inequality. Kohler and Smith hope other archaeologists will calculate Gini coefficients for their sites and add to the research. “We’re just scratching the surface,” Kohler says. 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