The Great Leveler: Review (Part 1)

The Beginnings of Inequality.

While doing my research into Jordan Peterson and the Alt-Right more generally, one troubling thesis kept coming up again and again: that hierarchies and extreme inequality of wealth and income is inevitable, and that furthermore there is nothing that we can do about this. They are simply a product of basic human social instincts that we inherited from our primate (and lobster) ancestors. Anything we do to restrain these phenomena or rein in inequality will only end up making us worse off (as Communist states allegedly proved); that any cure would be worse than the disease (the ‘perversity thesis’); and that nothing will make a dent (the ‘futility thesis’). Here’s Peterson on FOX News, for example:

“The point that I was trying to make in that chapter which was … the first one among others is, the Radical Leftists have a proclivity to blame hierarchy and inequality on Western culture and Capitalism. And look, inequality can be a real problem because people stack up at the bottom and that can destabilize your entire society. And no one likes poverty. No one’s in favor of poverty. ”

“The problem is that the reasons for inequality are much older than human society itself. And so when the Radical Leftists play their linguistic games, let’s say, and blame all of that on Capitalism, then they’re not treating the problem with its requisite seriousness. We actually don’t know what to do about radical inequality. And demolishing the Western system, well, unless you bring everyone down to zero which is something that’s happened before, is not going to address the issue. And so that is the point I was making.”

One book that kept coming up in discussions was ‘The Great Leveler’ by Walter Schiedel. The thesis of the book has been well documented by now: that only war, revolution, plague, state failure or financial collapse, or some combination of these, has reduced the historical trend towards more and more inequality. Absent one of these conditions present, inequality inevitably trends upward without bound. He writes in the Introduction:

Material inequality requires access to resources beyond the minimum that is needed to keep us all alive. Surpluses already existed tens of thousands of years ago, and so did humans who were prepared to share them unevenly. Back in the last Ice Age, hunter-gatherers found the time and means to bury some individuals much more lavishly than others.

But it was food production-farming and herding-that created wealth on an entirely novel scale. Growing and persistent inequality became a defining feature of the Holocene. The domestication of plants and animals made it possible to accumulate and preserve productive resources. Social norms evolved to define rights to these assets, including the ability to pass them on to future generations.

Under these conditions, the distribution of income and wealth came to be shaped by a variety of experiences: health, marital strategies and reproductive success, consumption and investment choices, bumper harvests, and plagues of locusts and rinderpest determined fortunes from one generation to the next. Adding up over time, the consequences of luck and effort favored unequal outcomes in the long term… p. 5 (Emphasis mine)

Of the Great Levelers, he writes:

“For thousands of years, civilization did not lend itself to peaceful equalization. Across a wide range of societies and different levels of development, stability favored economic inequality. This was as true of Pharaonic Egypt as it was of Victorian England, as true of the Roman Empire as of the United States. Violent shocks were of paramount importance in disrupting the established order, in compressing the distribution of income and wealth, in narrowing the gap between rich and poor.”

“Throughout recorded history, the most powerful leveling invariably resulted from the most powerful shocks. Four different kinds of violent ruptures have flattened inequality: mass mobilization warfare, transformative revolution, state failure, and lethal pandemics. I call these the Four Horsemen of Leveling. .. Sometimes acting individually and sometimes in concert with one anomer, they produced outcomes that to contemporaries often seemed nothing short of apocalyptic. Hundreds of millions perished in their wake. And by the time the dust had settled, the gap between the haves and the have-nots had shrunk, sometimes dramatically.” p.6 (Emphasis mine)

David Graeber summarized Scheidel’s main thesis like this:

…historian Walter Scheidel has taken [Thomas] Piketty-style readings of human history to their ultimate miserable conclusion in his 2017 book The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, concluding there’s really nothing we can do about inequality. Civilization invariably puts in charge a small elite who grab more and more of the pie. The only thing that has ever been successful in dislodging them is catastrophe: war, plague, mass conscription, wholesale suffering and death. Half measures never work. So, if you don’t want to go back to living in a cave, or die in a nuclear holocaust (which presumably also ends up with the survivors living in caves), you’re going to just have to accept the existence of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.

This thesis disturbed me greatly. Is there really no hope? Is that what history and social science have decisively proven? I decided to pick up the book and give it a read.

The first part of the book is in many ways the most interesting. It is three chapters in which Scheidel gives a brief history of human inequality. This part is a great historical overview, and I recommend reading it if nothing else. The rest of the book looks at historical examples of the ‘four horsemen’ and attempts to back up his core assertion.

What follows is a review of the book combined with my own previous research and blogging about the history and nature of persistent social inequality. We’ll start with Scheidel’s early history of the rise of inequality.

The First Great Leveling

Scheidel begins his survey with our primate ancestors, who exhibit a very strict hierarchy. Silverback gorillas are at the extreme end, lording over harems of females and dominating subordinate males with displays of aggression and brute force. Sexual dimorphism (how much bigger males are then females) is pronounced.

Chimpanzees live in larger, more cooperative bands, but nonetheless occupy a strict hierarchy based on aggression and bullying. Despite this, lower-status male chimps are unable to leave the group, as a solitary chimp is vulnerable to attack from other bands, meaning they must either compete or submit. Bonobos are less violent and aggressive then their chimp cousins, yet there is still a strict hierarchy where status rank is inherited from the females. Gibbons and orangutans branched off earlier and evolved into more solitary creatures. However, these species are confined to Asia, while all African great ape species live in large social groups exhibiting strict ranking hierarchies, including, Scheidel contends, our own:

Hierarchy is a function of group living…Chimpanzees, especially but not only males, expend tremendous energy on status rivalry. Bullying and aggressive dominance displays are matched by a wide array of submission behaviors by those one the lower rungs of the pecking order. In groups of fifty or a hundred, ranking is a central and stressful fact of life, for each member occupies a specific place in the hierarchy but is always looking to improve it…Across these species, inequality is expressed in unequal access to food sources—the closest approximation to human-style income disparities—and, above all, in terms of reproductive success. Dominance hierarchy, topped by the biggest, strongest, and most aggressive males, which consume the most and have sexual relations with the most females, is the standard pattern… p. 26

Several important changes occurred in the human species (genus Homo) after it branched off from the common ancestor some six million years ago. Protohumans, who walked upright, learned how to fashion stone tools and weapons with their free hands. Some two million years ago, the shoulder evolved to hurl projectile weapons, something no other great ape can do. They harnessed fire perhaps as early as one million years ago. As brain size grew, coalition-building by less dominant males and the use of artificial weapons, such as hand-axes and spears with fire-hardened tips, tamed the power of alphas. No longer could aggression and brute force alone keep and hold onto power. Humans swapped brawn for brains.

Cooperative hunting strategies and raising vulnerable offspring also limited the ability of the few to dominate the many. Intelligence, including social intelligence, became much more important for status than just brute strength, and some have speculated that it is was this need for social intelligence which was the primary driver of rapid brain growth. As our brains grew, we began to evolve culturally instead of just biologically. Sexual dimorphism became less pronounced, indicating greater cooperation between males and females in child rearing. Food provisioning, too, became cooperative, with males hunting and defending territory, and women gathering and tending the children. This allowed us to expand out of Africa, and to survive and outcompete all other Homo species as well as archaic humans:

…a gender- and age-based division of labor, emerging around 40,000-50,000 years ago, resulted in H. sapiens adopting a wider resource base, i.e. the hunting of smaller prey. Thus, a shift from a narrow reliance on large game that continued to characterize Neanderthal subsistence, to a marked increase in the exploitation of small game provided a demographic advantage and an expanded population of H. sapiens throughout Eurasia. In this scenario, males and females, whether Neanderthal or H. sapiens, both were engaged in narrowly focused economies; the labor of men and women, of both hominins, was closely aligned…An emerging reliance on smaller animals, and a greater reliance on vegetal and seed resources, is believed to signal a gendered division of labor. Men hunt large prey; women and children hunt small animals and forage for consumables. This initial division of labor by gender and age in turn contributed to the evolutionary success of H. sapiens. C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky; Labor, Social Formation and the Neolithic Revolution in Labor in the Ancient World

Humans developed a variety of cultural strategies to keep domineering aggrandizers in line, as Scheidel describes:

Numerous means of enforcing egalitarian values have been documented by anthropologists, graduated by severity. Begging, scrounging and stealing help ensure a more equal distribution of resources. Sanctions against authoritarian behavior and self-aggrandizement range from gossip, criticism, ridicule and disobedience to ostracism and even physical violence, including homicide. Leadership consequently tends to be subtle, dispersed among multiple group members, and transient; the least assertive have the best chance to influence others. This distinctive moral economy has been called “reverse dominance hierarchy”: operative among adult men (who commonly dominate women and children), it represents the ongoing and preemptive neutralization of authority. p. 29

One of the basic building blocks for this was envy as James Suzman notes:

Ju/’hoansi egalitarianism was not born of the ideological dogmatism that we associate with 20th-century Marxism or the starry-eyed idealism of New Age ‘communalism’. There was no manifesto of ‘primitive communism’. Rather, it was the organic outcome of interactions between people acting explicitly in their own self-interest in a highly individualistic society. This was because, among foraging Ju/’hoansi, self-interest was always policed by its shadow, envy – which, in turn, ensured that everyone always got a fair share, and that those with the natural charisma and authority to ‘lead’ exercised it with great circumspection.

Why inequality bothers people more than poverty (Aeon)

For those groups without large-scale top-down hierarchical systems or omnipotent gods, cooperation was instead fostered by shared stories spun by storytellers, who were most likely the ancestors of the first priests and shamans. Instead of organized religions with hereditary priesthoods, the stories held the tribe together, and storytellers were accorded a correspondingly high degree of status:

Storytelling promoted co-operation in hunter-gatherers prior to the advent of organised religion, a new UCL study reveals. The research shows that hunter-gatherer storytellers were essential in promoting co-operative and egalitarian values before comparable mechanisms evolved in larger agricultural societies, such as moralising high-gods. Storytellers were also more popular than even the best foragers, had greater reproductive success, and were more likely to be co-operated with by other members of the camp…

Storytellers promoted cooperation among hunter-gatherers before advent of religion (

The nomadic foraging lifestyle prevented any great accumulation of material goods. Wealth could not be hoarded nor passed down. Land could not be claimed by any specific individual. The main “production” of the economy was big-game hunting, and the best place to store excess meat was in the belly of one’s friends and neighbors. The main social “unit” was not the individual family but the band or tribe, and the maintenance of social ties was crucial. Cooperation was paramount, taming the bullying power of would-be elites. Cultural norms like meat sharing and taboos helped maintain equality and allow humans to cooperate as Peter Turchin explains:

As an example of cooperation, consider meat-sharing, which is the norm in most foraging societies. Meat-sharing has numerous benefits for the group within which it is practiced. First, any particular hunter, no matter how skilled, is not always successful in bringing home game. Sharing ensures that everybody has a moderate amount of meat every day. Not sharing results in long spells of famine, interspersed with feasts (with a portion of the kill spoiling, or being wasted in other ways).

Second, put yourself in the moccasins of a hunter. You have an interest in the well-being of others in your tribe. There is that old-timer who is not as spry as he used to be, and can’t chase the game in the bush. But he is an amazing repository of knowledge that can save the whole tribe when a drought strikes. Or that pregnant woman, whose husband was killed in a hunting accident. When her son grows up, he will stand together with your children against the tribe’s enemies.

Thus, the whole tribe, including you and your descendants, benefits from meat sharing. But when you bring that yummy warthog from a successful hunt, there is a terrible temptation not to share it with others. It’s the Cooperative Dilemma all over again. The benefits of meat sharing are spread thinly over all. Its consequences are often deferred into distant future. Meanwhile, pigging out on the juicy warthog steak is here and now.

This is why you need social norms to help you stick to the straight and narrow. Such “cultural-institutional technologies” make sharing psychologically easier and prevent free-riding. One kind of such a social technology is meat taboos. Among some Kalahari foragers, for example, “the hunter himself could only eat the ribs and a shoulder blade; the rest of the animal was taboo for him. The hunter’s wife received the meat and fat around the animal’s hindquarters, which she had to cook openly and share with other women (only). Taboos prohibited young males from eating anything except abdominal walls, kidneys, and genitals.” These taboos essentially guaranteed that a large carcass would be widely distributed across the whole band.

How Social Norms are Like Chili Peppers (Cliodynamica)

Another technique observed among contemporary hunter-gatherers is the “shaming” or “insulting” of the successful hunter and his kill, as James Suzman describes:

Skilled Ju/’hoansi hunters needed a thick skin. For while a particularly spectacular kill was always cause for celebration, the hunter responsible was insulted rather than flattered. Regardless of the size or condition of the carcass, those due a share of the meat would complain that the kill was trifling, that it was barely worth the effort of carrying it back to camp, or that there wouldn’t be enough meat to go round. For his part, the hunter was expected to be almost apologetic when he presented the carcass. Of course, everyone knew the difference between a scrawny kill and a good one but continued to pass insults even while they were busy filling their bellies. Hunters rarely took the insults to heart, and those dishing them out often did so through broad grins. This was a performance in which everyone played well-rehearsed roles. But it was also a performance with a clear purpose, as beneath the light-hearted insults lay a sharp and potentially vicious edge.

It’s also the expectation in hunter-gatherer societies that even items considered “private property” would be offered up for the good of other people, and not hoarded. All one had to do was simply ask:

Insults and mockery weren’t the only tool that hunter-gatherers had in their bags to maintain egalitarianism. Another that was explicitly linked to the expression of envy was ‘demand sharing’. Where we usually consider it rude for others to ask unashamedly for something that we own or to just expect to receive it, the Ju/’hoansi considered this normal. More so, as far as they were concerned, denying someone’s request ran the risk of being sanctioned for selfishness. Demand sharing did not lead to a free-for-all that ended up undermining any sense of private ownership. Instead, demands for things were usually – though not always – carefully considered. The net result of this was that, while private property was respected – after all, if there is no private property, how could you enjoy giving or receiving a gift? – material inequalities were quickly ironed out. However, the system was challenging for relatively well-resourced outsiders such as myself, which often resulted in a month’s supply of tobacco and food for a field trip being exhausted within a very short period of time.

…how envy functioned in societies such as the Ju/’hoansi suggests that, even if [Adam] Smith’s hidden hand does not apply particularly well to late capitalism, his belief that the sum of individual self-interests can ensure the fairest distribution of the ‘necessaries of life’ was right, albeit in small-scale band societies. For hunter-gatherers, the sum of individual self-interest ultimately ensured the most equitable ‘distribution of the necessaries of life’ because it discouraged profitable exchange, hierarchy, wealth-accumulation and significant material inequality.

Why inequality bothers people more than poverty (Aeon)

Not only was food sharing used to create social bonds, but so was gift-giving. Rather than bartering, negotiation or formal contracts, goods were primarily exchanged reciprocally to create social bonds between individuals and, especially, corporate groups. Exchange was not designed to “profit,” although there were circumstances in some very materially abundant cultures where gifts were expected to be returned “with interest,” to perpetuate what James Carse calls “infinite games” where the goal is not to “win” but to keep playing the game.

As with cultural norms and taboos, norms of reciprocity ensured sharing and prevented hoarding, as Tim Johnson describes:

One of the most famous stories illustrating the role of reciprocal exchange has concerns an anthropologist who after spending some time with bushmen [sic], gave one of them his knife. When visiting the group some years later, anthropologists discovered that the knife had been owned, at some point in time, by every member of the community. The knife had not been communally owned, its ownership had passed from one person to the next and its passage was evidence of a social network in the community, just as the motion of planets is evidence of an, otherwise invisible, gravitational field.

One of the most studied examples of these sorts of systems was that of indigenous people around Vancouver in Canada. A young man would lend five blankets to an older, richer person, for a year and they would be repaid with ten blankets. A similar situation existed in the Southwestern Pacific were strings of shells, whose value was purely ceremonial, were lent by a young man, sometimes to an unwilling borrower, at very high rates of interest. Many cultures had similar systems where by a gift had to be reciprocated by a greater gift in return these systems played a critical role in gluing society together by establishing bonds between the rich and poor, the old and young.

Lady Credit (Magic, Maths and Money)

A similar logic stands behind the idea of religious sacrifice in general. In this idea, a reciprocal relationship is instead established between the tribe and its deities or ancestors. Reciprocity means that the deity will “pay back” the sacrifice. Appeals were made to the ancestors to intercede on your behalf with the gods who presided over nature. Without science, this was the only method early humans saw to exercise any control over the vagaries of life.

I’ll note at this point that food-sharing feasts and reciprocal gift exchange both contribute to what I called the “feasting theory” of inequality’s origins. In superabundant conditions, aggrandizers (those especially attuned to status) promote surplus production through carrots and sticks (mostly carrots), and then use the resulting surpluses during feasts to generate material inequalities using debt and interest, which they then convert into status inequalities. To recap:

Brian Hayden…proposes that through the lure of feasts, with their free meals, delicacies, dances, exciting entertainment, and ambitious organizers, “triple A” personalities draw others into contractual agreements that generate debts and thereby confer social leverage.

In other words, through competitive feasts, surpluses are produced and converted into wealth and power by enterprising individuals, creating social inequalities. He takes a step back in time and proposes that during the Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods in resource-rich environments, triple-A individuals manipulated relationships through competitive feasting in such a way as to dodge the leveling hammer of egalitarian ethos.

This leads him to the proposal, supported by compelling evidence, that the need for certain amounts of rare delicacies for competitive feasts may have been a significant factor in the domestication of certain plants and animals, and thus may have given impetus to early agriculture.

The Feasting Theory

All of these foraging groups can be broadly characterized as immediate return hunter-gatherers. They do not store significant surpluses. They do not have a concept of private property and there is no transmissible wealth to be passed down through the generations. Natural resources cannot be “owned” by individuals, and there is often no concept of “ownership” or “private property,” or very loose and flexible ones at least. Population density is low, so resources are not scarce, and so do not need to be rationed by markets or elites. Such groups invariably have very “flat” (although not totally nonexistent) hierarchies. Scheidel concludes:

A foraging mode of subsistence and an egalitarian moral economy combine into a formidable obstacle to any form of development for the simple reason that economic growth requires some degree of inequality in income and consumption to encourage innovation and surplus production. Without growth there was hardly any surplus to appropriate and pass on. The moral economy prevented growth, and the lack of growth prevented the production and concentration of surplus. p. 30

Taken together, the evidence indicates a long-term reduction in inequality thanks to these developments–what Scheidel calls “The First Great Levelling.”

There is, however, some intriguing evidence that some degree of inequality was present even as far back as the Ice Age. The most famous example comes from Sungir (Sunghir) in Siberia, about 120 miles north of Moscow. Here, archaeologists found the remains of three burials–a man and two children– from the climatically moderate period of the last Ice Age. They were buried about 30-34,000 years ago during the Gravettian period of the Stone Age (named after a tool kit found widely in Eurasia). Similar burials have been found around Eurasia, such as in Dolní Věstonice, in the modern Czech Republic, which indicates cloth and ceramic manufacture on a large scale.

The Sungir society was a group of hunter-foragers who hunted bison, horse, reindeer, antelope, fox, bears, wolf, and especially mammoth. The burials were adorned with extensive decoration, including 10,000 beads carved from mammoth tusks and fox teeth, and prestige items such as art objects and spears made from straightened mammoth tusk were found in the graves. Archaeologists estimated that it would have taken:

…anywhere from fifteen to forty-five minutes to carve a single bead, which translates to a total of 1.6 to 4.7 years of work for one person carving forty hours a week. A minimum of seventy-five arctic foxes needed to be caught to extract the 300 canines attached to the belt and headgear in the children’s grave, and considering the difficulty of extracting them intact, the actual number may well have been higher… p. 31

Similar enigmatic burials are found all over Eurasia from the Ice Age, as David Graeber and David Wengrow point out:

Comparably rich burials are by now attested from Upper Palaeolithic rock shelters and open-air settlements across much of western Eurasia, from the Don to the Dordogne. Among them we find, for example, the 16,000-year-old ‘Lady of Saint-Germain-la-Rivière’, bedecked with ornaments made on the teeth of young stags hunted 300 km away, in the Spanish Basque country; and the burials of the Ligurian coast – as ancient as Sungir – including ‘Il Principe’, a young man whose regalia included a sceptre of exotic flint, elk antler batons, and an ornate headdress of perforated shells and deer teeth. Such findings pose stimulating challenges of interpretation… What, then, are we to make of all of this?

One scholarly response has been to abandon the idea of an egalitarian Golden Age entirely, and conclude that rational self-interest and accumulation of power are the enduring forces behind human social development. But this doesn’t really work either. Evidence for institutional inequality in Ice Age societies, whether in the form of grand burials or monumental buildings, is nothing if not sporadic. Burials appear literally centuries, and often hundreds of kilometres, apart. Even if we put this down to the patchiness of the evidence, we still have to ask why the evidence is so patchy: after all, if any of these Ice Age ‘princes’ had behaved anything like, say, Bronze Age princes, we’d also be finding fortifications, storehouses, palaces – all the usual trappings of emergent states. Instead, over tens of thousands of years, we see monuments and magnificent burials, but little else to indicate the growth of ranked societies. Then there are other, even stranger factors, such as the fact that most of the ‘princely’ burials consist of individuals with striking physical anomalies, who today would be considered giants, hunchbacks, or dwarfs.

How to change the course of human history (Eurozine)

From this, it is reasonable to conclude that as far back as the Ice Age, many societies may have already been transegalitarian societies–defined as societies where some inequality existed, but was not likely institutionalized, probably because of the extreme difficulty of intergenerational wealth transmission. That’s probably why all that wealth was buried in the first place–to prevent it from being passed down.

Anthropologists generally differentiate between achieved status and ascribed status. Achieved status is generally status earned during one’s own lifetime via one’s personal qualities such as being a wise leader, a fierce warrior, a successful hunter, a skilled craftsman, a creative artist or storyteller or some other intrinsic quality. The “Big Men” of Polynesia are an example. Ascribed status comes from occupying a specific niche in the society which is passed down, such as the Egyptian Pharaoh. Since the buried children were too young to have acquired achieved status, their elaborate burial seems to indicate that some level of ascribed status must have been present as early as the Ice Age.

This need not be the case, however. Some have speculated that the children were sacrificial victims. Child sacrifice was surprisingly common in a variety of very ancient cultures. Because the children were giving up their lives for the good of the tribe, they were accordingly ascribed very high status. This may be the reason why they were so elaborately buried. There is some evidence for this–genetic testing has shown the individuals in the grave were not related. The children were buried on ochre pigment, very similar to the child sacrificial victims found in various South American cultures:

Peru child sacrifice discovery may be largest in history (BBC)

The Sunghir Burial Site: Were these Two Children Sacrificed in a Form of Prehistoric Scapegoating? (Ancient Origins)

The ancient Carthaginians practiced child sacrifice. It persisted in the New World until European arrival. It is thought by many religious scholars that the story of Abraham and Isaac in the Bible is an allegorical tale representing the replacement of child sacrifice with animal sacrifice in ancient Hebrew monotheistic cults as animal domestication became commonplace. Scholars also believe that human sacrifice itself contributed to hereditary inequality:

Despite being scarce today, ritualised human sacrifice was performed in early human societies throughout the world. During the First Dynasty of ancient Egypt, the graves of Pharaohs were accompanied by ‘retainers’ or human sacrifices who were believed to provide assistance in the afterlife. In Europe, mutilated bodies are found buried in peat pits, some of which are up to 8,000 years old and are accompanied by religious paraphernalia such as crucibles, idols and sacred plants. Aztec high priests extracted the beating hearts of victims in front of visiting dignitaries from competing communities. Often the victims were themselves captives from one of the competing communities, and the dignitaries returned home trembling in fear.

While it was relatively scarce in egalitarian societies, human sacrifice was practised in the majority of cultures with strictly inherited class systems. This suggests that there is a relationship between social inequality and human sacrifice, but it doesn’t tell us whether human sacrifice leads to social inequality or vice versa. Using a language-based family tree and statistical methods developed by evolutionary biologists, we were able to model how human sacrifice and social inequality evolved in the prehistory of Austronesia…We found strong support for the social control hypothesis: human sacrifice helped to build strictly inherited class systems, and prevented cultures from becoming more egalitarian.

How human sacrifice helped to enforce social inequality (Aeon)

Peter Turchin, however, points out that over a certain level of complexity, human sacrifice becomes maladaptive, which likely led its disappearance among larger, more complex societies, especially in Eurasia:Is Human Sacrifice Functional at the Society Level? (Cliodynamica)

Surveying these, and other Ice Age burials, Scheidel concludes:

It is tempting to interpret these findings as the earliest harbingers of inequalities to come. Evidence of advanced and standardized craft production, time investment in highly repetitive tasks, and the use of raw materials sourced from far away offers us a glimpse of economic activities more advanced than those found among contemporary hunter-gatherers. It also hints at social disparities not normally associated with a foraging existence: lavish graves for children and adolescents point to ascribed and perhaps even inherited status.

The existence of hierarchical relations is more difficult to infer from this material but is at least a plausible option. But there is no sign of durable inequalities. Increases in complexity and status differentiation appear to have been temporary in nature.

Egalitarianism need not be a stable category: social behavior could vary depending on changing circumstances or even recurring seasonal pressures. And although earliest coastal adaptations, cradles of social evolution in which access to maritime food resources such as shellfish encouraged territoriality and more effective leadership, may reach back as far as 100,000 years, there is-at least as yet-no related evidence of emergent hierarchy and consumption disparities. For all we can tell, social or economic inequality in the Paleolithic remained sporadic and transient. p.32

Anthropologists David Graeber and David Wengrow, however, have argued against the view that human history is a linear progression from less to more inequality, which tracks perfectly with the scale of societies. Instead, they argue, the Upper Paleolithic was a time of experimentation with different modes of subsistence, which led to experiments with different modes of living. They argue that even large, complex societies functioned much of the time with a flat, anarchistic structure, often varying at different times of the year. Furthermore, these varying modes persisted far after the agricultural revolution, which was not the “phase change” as often depicted by many historians. The earliest large cities such as Çatal Höyük were quite egalitarian, with no palaces or temples and equally-sized dwelling units. They note that in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, “cities with sophisticated civic infrastructures flourished for over half a millennium with no trace of royal burials or monuments, no standing armies or other means of large-scale coercion, nor any hint of direct bureaucratic control over most citizen’s lives.”

Overwhelming evidence from archaeology, anthropology, and kindred disciplines is beginning to give us a fairly clear idea of what the last 40,000 years of human history really looked like, and in almost no way does it resemble the conventional narrative. Our species did not, in fact, spend most of its history in tiny bands; agriculture did not mark an irreversible threshold in social evolution; the first cities were often robustly egalitarian…Quite independently, archaeological evidence suggests that in the highly seasonal environments of the last Ice Age, our remote ancestors were behaving in broadly similar ways: shifting back and forth between alternative social arrangements, permitting the rise of authoritarian structures during certain times of year, on the proviso that they could not last; on the understanding that no particular social order was ever fixed or immutable. Within the same population, one could live sometimes in what looks, from a distance, like a band, sometimes a tribe, and sometimes a society with many of the features we now identify with states. With such institutional flexibility comes the capacity to step outside the boundaries of any given social structure and reflect; to both make and unmake the political worlds we live in. If nothing else, this explains the ‘princes’ and ‘princesses’ of the last Ice Age, who appear to show up, in such magnificent isolation, like characters in some kind of fairy-tale or costume drama. Maybe they were almost literally so. If they reigned at all, then perhaps it was, like the kings and queens of Stonehenge, just for a season.

How to change the course of human history (Eurozine)

The Great Disequalization

As the Ice Age ended and the Holocene dawned, it became possible to ramp up food production, and no doubt inequality became more pronounced due to the surpluses in both food and material goods. The New Stone Age (Neolithic) is characterized by stone tools designed for food processing such as saddle querns, and buildings expressly built for food storage such as granaries (which predate domestication). Early societies still seem to have gotten much of their meat from seasonal hunts, though.

Pretty much all scholars agree that significant equality began with two crucial conditions in place: consistent and reliable surpluses and a sedentary habitation pattern. Both of these factors interplayed with and promoted each other:

Inequality took off only after the last Ice Age had come to an end and climatic conditions entered a period of unusual stability. The Holocene, the first interglacial warm period for more than 100,000 years, created an environment that was more favorable to economic and social development. As these improvements allowed humans to extract more energy and grow in numbers, they also laid the ground for an increasingly unequal distribution of resources.

This led to what I call the ‘Great Disequalization,’ a transition to new modes of subsistence and new forms of social organization that eroded formerly egalitarianism and replaced it with durable hierarchies and disparities in income and wealth. For these developments to occur, there had to be productive assets that could be defended against encroachment and from which owners could draw a surplus in a predictable manner. Food production by means of farming and herding fulfills both requirements and came to be the principal driver of economic, social and political change. p.33 (Emphasis mine)

However, neither surpluses nor sedentism were confined to just societies that relied upon domestication or food production as previously thought. In particular ecological niches such as fishing and riverine cultures of North America, signs of sedentism and hereditary inequality have been found, despite the absence of domestication. In some superabundant natural environments, sedentism could be practiced even without food and animal domestication, because certain foodstuffs—such as smoked meat and tree nuts—could be processed and stored for long periods of time. Anthropologists call these delayed return (or complex) hunter-gatherers.

However, domestication of plants and animals was not an indispensable prerequisite. Under certain conditions, foragers were also able to exploit undomesticated natural resources in an analogous fashion. Territoriality, hierarchy, and inequality could arise where fishing was feasible or particularly productive only in certain locations. This phenomenon, which is known as maritime or riverine adaptation, is well documented in the ethnographic record.

From about 500 CE, pressure on fish stocks as a result of population growth along the West Coast of North America from Alaska to California encouraged foraging populations to establish control over highly localized salmon streams. This was sometimes accompanied by a shift from mostly uniform dwellings to stratified societies that featured large houses for chiefly families, clients and slaves.

From about 400 to 900 CE, the site of Keatley Creek in British Columbia housed a community of a few hundred members near the Fraser River that capitalized on the local salmon runs. Judging from the archaeological remains, salmon consumption declined around 800, and mammalian meat took its place. At this time, signs of in equality appear in the record.

A large share of the fish bone recovered from the pits of the largest houses comes from mature chinook and sockeye salmon, a prize catch rich in fat and calories. Prestige items such as rare types of stone are found there. Two of the smallest houses, by contrast, contained bones of only younger and less nutritious fish. As in many other societies at this level of complexity, Inequality was both celebrated and mitigated by ceremonial redistribution: roasting pits that were large enough to prepare food for sizable crowds suggest chat the rich and powerful organized feasts for the community.

A thousand years later, potlatch rituals in which leaders competed among themselves through displays of generosity were a common feature across the Pacific Northwest. Similar changes cook place at the Bridge River site in the same area: from about 800, as the owners of large buildings began to accumulate prestige goods and abandoned communal food preparation outdoors, poorer residents attached themselves to these households, and inequality became institutionalized. p. 33-34 (Emphasis mine)

These cultures may have existed as far back as Cro-Magnon Europe, as Richard Manning notes in Against the Grain:

Sedentism…requires proximity to water. Particular groups of hunter-gatherers became skilled fishermen and settled in stable communities near river mouths. Their dependence on migratory fish such as the salmon was particularly pronounced, then and to the present.

Salmon show up in Cro-Magnon paintings—and their skeletons in Cro-Magnon sites—throughout Europe. Cro-Magnon peoples stayed in one place and had enough leisure time to paint, and they painted salmon because salmon were important to them. The rise of art much later among Northwest American Indians is unique among North American hunter-gatherers, suggesting something parallel in the two salmon cultures—a correlation between salmon, sedentism, and art. Fishing a migratory species allows all this. You simply stay put at streamside and the salmon come. Throughout the world, sites along rivers, seas, estuaries, and lakes show layers of shellfish and fish bones below (and thus older than) layers containing evidence of agriculture. These early sedentary people did not have to wander seeking game; currents, the habits of their prey, and the enormous productivity of marine systems like estuaries brought the prey to them.

Agriculture did not arise from need so much as it did from relative abundance. People stayed put, had the leisure to experiment with plants, lived in coastal zones where floods gave them the model of and denziens of disturbance, built up permanent settlements that increasingly created disturbance, and were able to support a higher birthrate because of sedentism.
pp. 30- 31 (Emphasis mine)

It’s interesting to note that the Shigir Idol, found in Siberia and over twice as old as the Egyptian pyramids, has been compared to the totem poles of the Pacific Northwest. As one of the archaeologists remarked of the idol‘We can say that in those times, 11,000 years ago, the hunters, fishermen and gatherers of the Urals were no less developed than the farmers of the Middle East.’ However, because this civilization built from perishable materials and had no writing, we cannot say for sure what levels of inequality or complexity it possessed.

In addition to fish, harvesting tree nuts and seeds also contributed to ancient sedentism during the Ice Age, as Brain Fagan notes:

More work to process food–some nuts, such as certain acorns, contain high levels of tannins, which have to be leached out by boiling or soaking, while other compounds make certain grasses and nuts either mildly toxic and less digestible, again requiring endless processing. Parching, grinding, or boiling starchy plant foods required great investments of labor daily before they could be eaten or stored. Such activities tied bands down to one location for longer periods of time…storage in a pit or aboveground means that food can be rationed out through the lean months, but at the price of drastically reduced mobility. Brain Fagan, The Long Summer pp. 70-71

Because these foods took considerable time to harvest and prepare, more work == more wealth. A connection between work and wealth was established. Households became differentiated. Hunter-gatherers were dependent upon nature’s bounty and could not easily increase the food supply. Processed foods, by contrast, could be expanded and stored. A shift to a wider variety of food sources than just big game—plant-foods particularly—has been called the broad spectrum revolution, and was encouraged by a milder, more predictable climate along with the extinctions of megafauna such as aurochs, bison, elk, wild horses, and especially mammoths and mastodons.

In addition, population growth meant that for the first time resources became scarce, so some sort of rationing method was called for. Into that void stepped the Triple-A aggrandizers:

As scarcity transitioned to plenty…aggrandizers were freed to pursue their goals. Their selfish behavior was no longer grounds for excommunication, because everyone was able to get enough to eat—if they were willing to work. Slowly, through a variety of strategies such as bride prices and competitive feasts, aggrandizers consolidated their power. They developed new sorts of relationships based on debt and obligation. Eventually these strategies led to establishment of private property rights over valuable resources, such as the fishing rocks in the Fraser Canyon.

Seeing Fairness Evolve (Pacific Standard)

Once there was something to defend, violence increased because you needed to defend it from others. Investments in fields, granaries, irrigation ditches and so forth, led to investments in walls, forts and weapons to defend them. This brought forth the need for military and managerial elites.

Two basic theories about the establishment of hereditary inequality are common: managerial (functional) and military (conflict) theories. Managerial elites are exemplified by redistributive chiefs and priests who store and distribute surpluses among geographically dispersed populations by fiat.

In groups dispersed over diverse ecosystems with specialized labor and different modes of subsistence, managerial elites ensure the wide distribution of differentiated resources which are not available in all areas, knitting people together in complex relationship webs, often using religion. These elites draw upon their social networks to do this, often using rare ‘prestige goods’ to signify their status and forming long-distance trade networks. Such societies practice two different kinds of feasts: differentiated (which excluded commoners and enforced elite solidarity) and redistributive/communal (which mobilized labor and reinforced overall group solidarity).

…a relatively benign process lay behind the simple class structure—that the wealthier and more powerful attained their rank because they provided valuable services that benefited the community at large. For instance, they might have been adept at organizing the fishing and preservation process to create a bigger salmon pie for everyone in the community. Since everyone’s share is bigger, the community would not begrudge the benefactor a slightly larger slice. Also, the high-status benefactors presumably would come to the aid of the community in times of need—to share their surplus as well as their managerial talents to get everyone through the hard times.

Two paths To Inequality (Pacific Standard)

Functionalist theories (called so because they assume that complex societies arose to fulfill some important function) explain evolution of the state as a solution to organizational and redistributive problems. For example, in an influential book, The Evolution of Human Societies: from Foraging Group to Agrarian State, Allen Johnson and Tim Earle argue that complex societies arise (1) to reduce production risks, (2) to manage resource competition, (3) to allocate resources efficiently and to make capital investments, and (4) to conduct interregional trade. Conflict enters their theory as a relatively unimportant factor, under (2) resource competition.

Evolution of the Egyptian State: the ‘Managerial Model’ (Cliodynamica)

The other model presupposes warfare and conflict. Those best able to organize and lead troops in battle become the new elites. These military warlords became perforce the ruling power. Note that that these two theories are not mutually exclusive. I suspect that warfare became more important with the Bronze Age and horse domestication.

Kings (and Queens) of the Stone Age

Scheidel cites what scholars have found to be the three most crucial determinants of inequality:

    • Ownership rights in land and livestock
    • The ability to transmit wealth from one generation to the next.
    • The transmissibility of material wealth.

Let’s take a look at those one at a time. Different types of wealth are more or less important in various societies. To determine this, researchers divided wealth into three broad categories:

  • Embodied (body strength and reproductive success)
  • Relational (partnerships in labor and trade)
  • Material (household goods, land and livestock)

What they found was that among hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists, embodied endowments were the most important for status, while material goods were the least important. This condition was reversed among herders and farmers: material wealth was the most important, embodied wealth the least:

Physical constraints on embodied wealth are relatively stringent, especially for body size and somewhat less so for strength, hunting returns, and reproductive success. Relational wealth, though more flexible, was also more unevenly distributed among farmers and pastoralists, and measures of inequality in land and livestock in these two groups reached higher levels than those for utensils or boat shares among foragers and horticulturalists. p.37

Transmissibility of wealth was also crucial. Material wealth is much simpler to pass down than either embodied wealth or relational wealth. In farming and herding societies, the degree of intergenerational wealth transmission was twice as high as foraging and horticultural societies, because the prime material assets were more suitable for transmissivity than the assets of foragers and horticulturalists. Social mobility–that is, moving from one quintile to another in the status hierarchy–was correspondingly lower in farming and herding societies than in foraging ones. In other words, it was much easier to pass down achieved status to your lineal descendants in societies with a lot of transmissible wealth, such as fields and herds, especially if the culture recognized some form of private property rights.

It’s important to note that transmissible wealth was primarily passed down within families, and not to specific individuals. Individual property rights and private contracts came much, much later, and is in fact a fairly recent phenomenon. In fact, ancient laws did not even acknowledge the existence of such a creature as the ‘individual’, nor did it permit contracts to valid between lone individuals, only between corporate kinship groups such as families. This was the conclusion of Henry Sumner Maine in his magisterial review of ancient legal codes:

Ancient Law, it must again be repeated, knows next to nothing of Individuals. It is concerned not with Individuals, but with Families, not with single human beings, but groups. Even when the law of the State has succeeded in permeating the small circles of kindred into which it had originally no means of penetrating, the view it takes of Individuals is curiously different from that taken by jurisprudence in its maturest stage. The life of each citizen is not regarded as limited by birth and death; it is but a continuation of the existence of his forefathers, and it will be prolonged in the existence of his descendants. p.152

Scheidel concludes:

According to this analysis, inequality and its persistence over time has been the result of a combination of three factors: the relative importance of different classes of assets, how suitable they are for passing on to others, and actual rates of transmission. Thus groups in which material wealth plays a minor role and does not readily lend itself to transmission and in which inheritance is discouraged are bound to experience lower levels of overall inequality than groups in which material wealth is the dominant asset class, is highly transmissible, and is permitted to be left to the next generation. In the long run, transmissibility is critical: if wealth is passed on between generations, random shocks related to health, parity, and returns on capital and labor that create inequality will be preserved and accumulate over time instead of allowing distributional outcomes to regress to the mean.

In keeping with the observations made in the aforementioned survey of Native American societies, the empirical findings derived from this sample of twenty-one small-scale societies likewise suggest that domestication is not a sufficient precondition for significant disequalization. Reliance on defensible natural resources appears to be a more critical factor, because these can generally be bequeathed to the next generation. The same is true of investments such as plowing, terracing, and irrigation.

The heritability of such productive assets and their improvements fosters inequality in two ways: by enabling it to increase over time and by reducing intergenerational variance and mobility. A much broader survey of more than a thousand societies at different levels of development confirms the central role of transmission. According to this global data set, about a third of simple forager societies have inheritance rules for movable property, but only one in twelve recognizes the transmission of real estate. By contrast, almost all societies that practice intensive forms of agriculture are equipped with rules that cover both. Complex foragers and horticulturalists occupy an intermediate position. Inheritance presupposes the existence of property rights. pp. 38-39 (Emphasis mine)

One speculation is that the idea of private property is the very reason why farming was maintained over foraging, despite all of its apparent disadvantages in both health and nutrition over foraging:

…The first farmers emerged in less than a dozen spots in Asia and South America…they were already living in small villages. They owned their houses and other objects, like jewelry, boats and a range of tools, including fishing gear.

They still hunted and foraged, but they didn’t have to venture far for food: They had picked fertile places to settle down, and so food was abundant. For example, one group in what is present-day Iraq lived close to a gazelle migration route. During migration season, it was easy pickings — they killed more animals than they could eat in one sitting. They also harvested more grain from wild plants than they knew what to do with. And so, they built “pantries” — structures where they could store the extra food.

These societies had seen the value of owning stuff — they were already recognizing “private property rights,” says [Samuel] Bowles [the director of the Behavioral Sciences Program at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico]. That’s a big transition from nomadic cultures, which by and large don’t recognize individual property. All resources, even in modern day hunter-gatherers, are shared with everyone in the community.

But the good times didn’t last forever in these prehistoric villages. In some places, the weather changed for the worse. In other places, the animals either changed their migratory route or dwindled in numbers.

At this point, Bowles says these communities had a choice: They could either return to a nomadic lifestyle, or stay put in the villages they had built and “use their knowledge of seeds and how they grow, and the possibility of domesticating animals.”

Stay put, they did. And over time, they also grew in numbers. Why? Because the early farmers had one advantage over their nomadic cousins: Raising kids is much less work when one isn’t constantly on the move. And so, they could and did have more children.

In other words, Bowles thinks early cultures that recognized private property gave people a reason to plant roots in one place and invent farming — and stick with it despite its initial failures.

Bowles admits that this is just an informed theory. But to test it, he and his colleague Jung-Kyoo Choi built a mathematical model that simulated social and environmental conditions among early hunter-gatherers. In this simulation, farming evolved only in groups that recognized private property rights. What’s more, in the simulations, once farming met private property, the two reinforced each other and spread through the world.

Bowles’ theory offers a more nuanced explanation that ties together cultural, environmental and technological realities facing those first farmers, says Ian Kuijt, an anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame who specializes in the origins of agriculture. But, he says, the challenge is to figure out who owned the property back then and how they ran it. “Was it owned by one individual?” Kuijt says. “Was it a mother and father and their children? … Does it represent community or village property?”

Why Humans Took Up Farming: They Like To Own Stuff (NPR)

If this speculation is valid, the very concept of private property is what caused sedentary societies to form in the first place. Most likely those people that remained in such societies were okay with this idea, and the ones that weren’t took off. The ones that remained, although shorter and sicker, produced more offspring, so we are predominantly the descendants of the greedy materialists who remained. No doubt this caused changes to the social order, and possibly genetic changes as well.

Eventually, pantries became attached to specific households instead of being publicly available, indicating that some households were prospering more than others. Specialized resources–such as fishing rocks in Keatley Creek or arable farmland–became the property of certain privileged families, possibly due to their connection with a shared ancestor or a special ability to communicate with the gods and ancestors. Burials also become more elaborate at this time, indicating the emergence of elite individuals. Even before the emergence of protostates in places like China and Mesopotamia, children are buried with signs of inherited rank, such as cylinder seals, indicating transmissibility of status. Some of these may have been priests. Very commonly ancestors are buried under the floors of houses, such as in ancient China and Mesoamerica, indicating a hereditary ownership claim to certain plots of land passed down through generations.

Early elites tended to emphasize their descent from a particularity renowned ancestor, or even a spirit, and the leaders from this favored clan became the paramount leaders of the tribe. Their claims were based on appeals to the supernatural, a concept which does not exist in any other animal besides humans. This is the thesis of The Creation of Inequality by anthropologists James Flannery and Carol Marcus:

The Creation of Inequality [moves] more or less progressively from history’s relatively egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups, such as the Caribou and Netsilik Eskimos and the !Kung of southern Africa, to the multi-level administrative empires of the Aztec and Inca. Along the way, [authors] Flannery and Marcus dedicate lengthy sections to discussion of the various “clues” which reveal how the “social logic” of more equal societies, manifested in practices such as meat-sharing partnerships, gift-exchange, and prestige-based, non-hereditary leadership (i.e., Melanesian “big men”), gave way to the logic of inequality in societies with—among other things—taxes, bureaucracies, separate burial practices for nobles and commoners, and, importantly, hereditary formal power. Key to their analysis is their conception of the unique role of the “sacred” in human societies.

Looking to chimps, who compete and assemble themselves hierarchically into alphas, betas and gammas, Flannery and Marcus observe that even outwardly egalitarian hunter-gatherers preserve hierarchy by making their supernatural beings the alphas, their ancestors the betas, and themselves the undifferentiated gammas. Moving toward institutionalized social inequality has thus often involved certain gammas’ claiming power legitimated by special—and often hereditary—relationships to these sacred alphas and betas. Clearly, European kings were not the only ones who invoked the divine right to rule.

Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, March 2014, Volume XLI, Number 1, pp. 161-162 (PDF)

Interestingly, many human cultures have arranged themselves into a tripartite hierarchy of nobility, priests and commoners. Sometimes a warrior or a merchant/farming caste is included as well. Examples range from Ancien Régime France just prior to the Revolution to the caste systems of India until British rule (Brahmins, Kshatrys, Vasyas). Indeed, the very word ‘hierarchy’ comes from ‘hiero-‘ meaning sacred and ‘archos’ meaning ruler (as in anarchy, patriarchy, etc.).

…The combination of surplus extraction from defensible resources and personal or familial property claims to these resources that included the right to transfer them to descendants or other kin laid the foundation for growing socioeconomic stratification. New forms of political and military power contributed to and amplified the resultant inequalities in income and wealth.

Much like the shift to food domestication, the evolution of political hierarchies was a slow and gradual process and was highly contingent on ecological conditions, technological progress, and demographic growth. In the long run, the overall direction of change was from the small family-level groups of a few dozen people that were typical of simple forager economies to local groups and collectives whose members typically numbered in the hundreds and on to larger chiefdoms or protostates that controlled thousands or even tens of thousands. This was not always a linear progression, and not all environments supported more complex forms of social organization.

As a result, complex state-level societies based on agriculture eventually came to share the planet with bands, tribes, and chiefdoms of herders, horticulturalists, and what remained of the ancestral population of hunter-gatherers. This diversity has been vital to our understanding of the driving forces behind the emergence of inequality, allowing us to compare the characteristics of different modes of subsistence and their consequences for the accumulation, transmission, and concentration of wealth as already summarized. p. 41 (Emphasis mine)

The documented range of variation in sociopolitical organization around the world has been similarly broad, making it possible to relate inequalities of power and status to inequalities in wealth. From a global perspective, agriculture is closely correlated with social and political stratification. In a sample of more than a thousand communities, more than three-quarters of simple foraging communities do not display signs of social stratification, as opposed to fewer than a third of those practicing intensive forms of farming.

Political hierarchies are even more strongly dependent on sedentary agriculture: elites and class structure are virtually unknown among simple foragers but are attested for the majority of agrarian societies. Once again, however, it was the scale of the economic surplus rather than the mode of subsistence as such that served as the critical variable. p. 42 (Emphasis mine)

Indeed, James C. Scott estimates that up to 60 percent of humans lived outside of state-level societies until as late as 1600 CE. Today, I would estimate that number is probably under 2 percent, despite the human population exceeding seven billion.

With the advent of protostates came hereditary rank—high priests, kings, potentates, generals, taxes, bureaucrats and so forth. We’ll take a look at those new forms of hierarchy stemming from differential access to political and military power—and how they contributed to the next stage of inequality—the emergence of “The Original One Percent”—next time.

2 thoughts on “The Great Leveler: Review (Part 1)

  1. What is your conclusion based on all this regarding the inevitability of inequality?

    The basic thesis seems to be sound for a variety of reasons, ranging from the natural roots of hierarchy to the obvious competitive advantages that aggrandizers enjoy over the lazy or laid-back, and of course the basic math of the Piketty Formula.

  2. Some of the more difficult sayings in the Gospels are on just this topic. ‘The poor you always have with you’; ‘To him who has, more shall be given; to him who has not, even what he has will be taken away’. But then, worldly wealth isn’t supposed to matter: ‘Those who are first shall be last’; ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s’ – etcetera.

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