The 1% have always been with us – even hunter gatherers had inequality

Pringle, H. May 23, 2014. The ancient roots of the 1%. Science 344: 822-825.

Don’t blame farming. Inequality got its start among resource-rich hunter-gatherers.

In 79 C.E., the year Mount Vesuvius destroyed it, Pompeii was not one city but two. Its wealthiest families owned slaves and lived in multi-storied, seaside mansions. Meanwhile, at least one-third of all Pompeiian households scraped to make ends meet, with families dwelling in single rooms behind workshops, in dark service quarters, or in small houses. Such economic disparities were common in the Roman Empire, where 1.5% of the empire’s households controlled 20% of the income by the late 2nd century C.E.
Inequality has deep archaeological roots.

Farming has long been blamed for the rise of inequality. Researchers suggested that the earliest elites emerged after 10,500 years ago, when people successfully domesticated plants and animals and settled in large permanent villages, with agriculture creating surpluses that allowed the emergence of managers, craftspeople, and other specialists who eventually gained control over extra resources.

But the latest evidence shows a more complex picture, suggesting that some ancient hunter-gatherers may have accumulated wealth and political clout by taking control of concentrated patches of wild foods. In this view, it is the ownership of small, resource-rich areas—and the ease of bestowing them on descendants—that fosters inequality, rather than agriculture itself.

The transition from egalitarianism to societies rife with economic competition and inequality was “the single most critical watershed in the last 2.5 million years of human history,” says archaeologist Brian Hayden of Simon Fraser University (SFU), Burnaby, in Canada. Over time, it paved the way for the development of “chiefdoms, states, and ultimately industrial empires.


Archaeologists have spotted the earliest glimmers of inequality among the Natufians of the Eastern Mediterranean, one of the first peoples to embark on the long transition to farming. Beginning some 14,500 years ago, the Natufians began settling at least part-time in small villages amid rich food resources, regularly supplementing their diet of wild game, fruits, and nuts with wild cereals—a lifestyle that ultimately led to agriculture.

Natufians left some traces of inequality behind. Archaeologists who examined published reports for 25 Natufian and later sites dating between about 15,000 and 8000 years ago found signs of inequality in disparities in grave goods, house sizes, and the ornamentation of the dead, and found them growing more common between 10,500 and 8200 years ago when early farmers began sowing wheat and other plants and tending domesticated sheep and goats.

But signals of incipient inequality appeared well before that, between 14,500 and 12,800 years ago, while the Early Natufians were still hunting and gathering. Some Early Natufian skeletons were richly ornamented, but the vast majority were not. The wealthiest 8%, for example, were decorated with pendants or marine shells such as Dentalium, imported or traded from as far as 400 kilometers away. At one site, three male skeletons were buried with Dentalium headdresses, one fringed with shells four deep—an impressive display of riches. Natufians also placed carved artworks in a few graves, built houses of varying sizes, and produced large goblet-shaped stone mortars well-suited for preparing or serving food at feasts.

The findings suggest how people took a first tentative step on the long road to inequality. The Natufians lived in an environment of abundance—wild cereal grains flourished in dense patches in the forest, and game was plentiful. As Price points out, the Natufians apparently “were harvesting wild plants in large quantities and storing cereal grains as well.” He thinks that these stored surpluses of wild cereals may have given some Natufian hunter-gatherers an edge over others. “Those surpluses could allow people to begin manipulating things, giving away food and so establishing some dominance behaviors.

HOLDING ON TO WEALTH. Other abundant, storable wild foods can lead to surpluses, too, and private ownership of these natural resources could have boosted inequality, creating a new kind of “transegalitarian” hunter-gatherer society.

Take an ancient village on Keatley Creek in Canada’s Northwest Plateau, which was occupied for part of the year by hunter-gatherers between 2500 and 1100 years ago. The village contains more than 115 house pits, the remains of semi-subterranean structures with log and earthen roofs, and appears to have had a peak population of as many as 1500 people. The excavation team, led by SFU’s Hayden, found that the houses varied dramatically in size, from the square footage of a micro-apartment to that of a medium-sized house today.

To understand these disparities, Hayden and his colleagues examined ethnographic records of historic aboriginal societies in the region, which were divided into nobles, commoners, and slaves. The highest status families owned certain resources and passed them down to their children: fences for driving deer into hunting traps and, especially, fishing rocks that jutted out into the Fraser River, which hosted some of the world’s richest salmon runs. Owners built fishing platforms out from these rocks, and so could fish in deep waters where the biggest salmon swam. Lower status families had to fish from public areas along the riverbanks with dip nets, and could reach only smaller fish.

To see if this private ownership of resources extended back in time, Hayden’s team analyzed fish vertebrae excavated from house pits of various sizes. As much as 75% of the fish bone in the large house pits came from big, 4- to 5-year-old chinook and sockeye salmon, laden with calorie-rich fat. In contrast, 100% of the bone in the two smallest houses came from smaller, 2- to 3-year-old salmon likely caught along the riverbanks.

The findings suggest that inequality began at Keatley Creek some 2500 years ago when a few ambitious, aggressive people capitalized on the salmon’s bounty, Hayden says. Aggrandizers who wanted more food than their neighbors likely built fishing platforms out over key fishing rocks and claimed private ownership. These aggrandizers controlled bigger food surpluses than others, but no one stopped them—as can happen to those who refuse to share in other hunting and gathering societies—because there was plenty of food for all, Hayden says. “It is no coincidence that the greatest inequalities on the Northwest Plateau emerged at the most productive fishing locations, where huge surpluses were produced ethnographically.

Hayden and his team also found evidence at Keatley Creek of large roasting pits, one of which was large enough to cook food for 500 people. This and other evidence suggested that aggrandizers at Keatley Creek organized feasts resembling historic potlatches, in which a chief cajoled his clan into producing a cornucopia of food as well as obtaining prestige goods such as Dentalium, which these people also prized: They brought the shells in from as far as 300 kilometers away, to wear and to give away to a rival clan. Such feasts publicly displayed the host’s power and wealth, and forced rival chiefs to compete. Potlatch guests were expected to reciprocate with goods of greater value, and families who couldn’t come up with gifts had to go into debt to get them.

In a study published in a 2011 volume called Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner: Feasting Rituals in the Prehistoric Societies of Europe and the Near East, Hayden argues that elites in Natufian villages may have pursued similar tactics. Like Price, Hayden argues that long before farming, Natufian elites could have amassed large surpluses of food by “owning” natural concentrations of resources, such as groves of pistachio trees, or by constructing drive lanes for hunting gazelles. Massive roasting pits and hearths at some Natufian sites suggest a feasting tradition, too.

Some researchers think Hayden overemphasizes the role of aggressive, competitive individuals in the origins of inequality, and underemphasizes the role of population pressures or resource stresses. Archaeologist Anna Marie Prentiss of the University of Montana, Missoula, contends that in another ancient Northwest Plateau village in Canada, it was a shortage of food, rather than an abundance, that sparked inequality. Data from her team’s excavations at the Bridge River site suggest that the first elites emerged after salmon runs declined about 1200 years ago and the village population plummeted, she and colleagues reported online in December in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology. They found that some families responded to scarcity by closing off public access to hunting and fishing resources and holding feasts to attract workers to their depleted households, tactics that allowed them to amass more food than their neighbors. Inequality at Bridge River, Prentiss says, “came about as a byproduct of feeding their families” during lean times.

Prentiss’s findings are raising questions about when Keatley Creek’s elites first emerged. So Suzanne Villeneuve, project director of the Keatley Creek Archaeological Research Project at SFU, and her team are now excavating and analyzing new housepit data to re-evaluate the site’s dating. But Hayden insists that in historical hunter-gatherer cultures both in Canada and abroad, aggrandizers build surpluses, amass wealth items, and hold feasts only when food is abundant. “When food is in short supply, no one tolerates other people hoarding,” Hayden says. “The majority simply take what they need because their lives depend on it. Scarcity breeds revolts and demands for more equality.” In contrast, when times are good—for example in a booming modern economy like China (see p. 832)—people seem more tolerant of inequality.


While archaeologists on Canada’s Northwest Plateau probe the origins of wealth, other researchers are examining how it is passed on from generation to generation, perpetuating inequality. Economist Samuel Bowles of the Santa Fe Institute and anthropologist Monique Borgerhoff Mulder of the University of California, Davis, led an international team that studied inheritance in four types of societies: hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, horticulturalists who planted hand-tended gardens, and agriculturalists who used more advanced technology such as plows or organic fertilizers to boost crop yields.

Using historical and ethnographic data on 21 populations around the world, the team examined three kinds of wealth: material riches such as real estate, embodied wealth such as physical strength, and relational riches such as the number of people in a person’s social network. They conducted statistical analyses to determine how much of each type of wealth was transmitted. “We counted things like the number of cattle people had and their sons had, and we did the same thing for forms of wealth used by hunters, such as grip strength, which measures how strong your forearms are,” Bowles says.

They found that only material forms of wealth, such as land and livestock valued by farmers, were readily handed down to children.

Just having domesticated crops wasn’t enough to fuel enduring inequality. Farmers who practiced intensive agriculture and boosted yields in regions where arable land was scarce readily passed down their wealth. These farmers could control access to their fields, protect them, and leave them to their heirs.

Resource concentration is a key factor in explaining inequality among both farmers and the ancient salmon fishers. People who owned particularly fertile patches of farmland had a good shot at becoming wealthy and passing on that wealth, in part because the land was defendable against others.

As agricultural societies developed, so did more elaborate hierarchies, evolving into hereditary chiefdoms and eventually kingdoms. In these complex societies, chiefs and kings came up with new strategies for amassing surpluses and concentrating wealth and power. Many chiefs created economic bottlenecks in trade routes. These leaders then collected payments from merchants for safe passage and used the surplus to finance specialized warriors to defend and extend their rule. Material culture also became ever more sophisticated, multiplying into innumerable kinds of highly concentrated and easily transmitted forms of wealth, from copper ingots to gold jewelry. All of these trends led to ever greater levels of inequality.

By the time of the Romans, a yawning gap separated rich from poor. The Gini coefficient—a standard measure of inequality in modern societies—ranges from 0 (everyone shares equally) to 1 (one wealthy person owns everything). The Roman Empire’s Gini for income was about 0.43—close to the 0.49 for pretax income in the United States in 2010. In fact, Rome’s super-rich had wealth on the scale of today’s billionaires. The income of the wealthy Roman triumvir Marcus Crassus equaled about $1 billion per year today.

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3 Responses to The 1% have always been with us – even hunter gatherers had inequality

  1. Jim OReilly says:

    This post blends well with the thesis of my new book which argues that the system is now and has been for many thousands of years inequality. We call it capitalism today but that’s a significant problem as it hides the most central fact of ancient power.


  2. Ivo says:

    Alice, can you please amend the post to include the cites for this piece since you have access to the article. Thanks