Seven thousand years ago, societies across Eurasia began to show signs of lasting divisions between haves and have-nots. In new research published in the journal Antiquity, scientists chart the precipitous surge of prehistoric inequality and trace its economic origins back to the adoption of ox-drawn plows.

Their findings challenge a long-held view that inequality arose when human societies first transitioned from hunting and gathering to agriculture. According to the researchers, it was not agriculture per se that ushered in substantial wealth inequalities, but instead a transformation of farming that made land more valuable and labor less so.

Amy Bogaard, Mattia Fochesato, Samuel Bowles. The farming-inequality nexus: new insights from ancient Western EurasiaAntiquity, 2019; 1

DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2019.105

This article advances the hypothesis that the transformation of farming from a labour-limited form to a land-limited form facilitated the emergence of substantial and sustained wealth inequalities in many ancient agricultural societies. Using bioarchaeological and other relevant evidence for the nature of ancient agrosystems, the authors characterise 90 Western Eurasian site-phases as labour- vsland-limited. Their estimates of wealth inequality (the Gini coefficient), which incorporate data on house and household storage size and individual grave goods—adjusted for comparability using new methods—indicate that land-limited farming systems were significantly more unequal than labour-limited ones.