The article, "Greater post-Neolithic wealth disparities in Eurasia than in North America and Mesopotamia," includes research from Anna Prentiss, a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Montana.
Prentiss and UM anthropology Professor Emeritus Tom Foor provided data from the archaeological sites at Bridge River, British Columbia, and Ozette, Washington.
As people became more agricultural and settled, the rich became richer as the ancient farmers who could afford oxen, cattle and other large animals increased their crop production. This provided significant opportunities for amassing and transmitting wealth, and the degree of household wealth-based inequality became much higher in Old World, Eurasian contexts, as measured by house size.
"High degrees of inequality did not contribute to long-term stability in ancient societies," Prentiss said. "That is something that should concern us given the extraordinary high degree of inequality in our own society."
The study is based on data gathered from a research team that studied 63 archeological sites across four continents, dating between 9000 B.C. and 1500 A.D. It is one of the first studies to use archaeological data to measure inter-household inequality between Old and New World sites.
Greater post-Neolithic wealth disparities in Eurasia than in North America and Mesoamerica
Timothy A. Kohler, Michael E. Smith, Amy Bogaard, Gary M. Feinman, Christian E. Peterson, Alleen Betzenhauser, Matthew Pailes, Elizabeth C. Stone, Anna Marie Prentiss, Timothy J. Dennehy, Laura J. Ellyson, Linda M. Nicholas, Ronald K. Faulseit, Amy Styring, Jade Whitlam, Mattia Fochesato, Thomas A. Foor & Samuel Bowles
How wealth is distributed among households provides insight into the fundamental characters of societies and the opportunities they afford for social mobility. However, economic inequality has been hard to study in ancient societies for which we do not have written records3,4, which adds to the challenge of placing current wealth disparities into a long-term perspective. Although various archaeological proxies for wealth, such as burial goods5,6 or exotic or expensive-to-manufacture goods in household assemblages7, have been proposed, the first is not clearly connected with households, and the second is confounded by abandonment mode and other factors. As a result, numerous questions remain concerning the growth of wealth disparities, including their connection to the development of domesticated plants and animals and to increases in sociopolitical scale8. Here we show that wealth disparities generally increased with the domestication of plants and animals and with increased sociopolitical scale, using Gini coefficients computed over the single consistent proxy of house-size distributions. However, unexpected differences in the responses of societies to these factors in North America and Mesoamerica, and in Eurasia, became evident after the end of the Neolithic period. We argue that the generally higher wealth disparities identified in post-Neolithic Eurasia were initially due to the greater availability of large mammals that could be domesticated, because they allowed more profitable agricultural extensification9, and also eventually led to the development of a mounted warrior elite able to expand polities (political units that cohere via identity, ability to mobilize resources, or governance) to sizes that were not possible in North America and Mesoamerica before the arrival of Europeans10,11. We anticipate that this analysis will stimulate other work to enlarge this sample to include societies in South America, Africa, South Asia and Oceania that were under-sampled or not included in this study.