From Cattle To Capital: How Agriculture Bred Ancient Inequality

Nov 15, 2017
Originally published on November 16, 2017 10:01 am

The gap between rich and poor is one of the great concerns of modern times. It's even driving archaeologists to look more closely at wealth disparities in ancient societies.

"That's what's so fun about it," says Timothy Kohler, at Washington State University. "It widens our perspective, and allows us to see that the way things are organized now is not the only way for things to be organized."

Measuring inequality in societies that didn't leave written records is hard, of course. But physical ruins remain, and Kohler figured that even long ago, the richer you were, the bigger the house you probably occupied.

So he and his colleagues collected measurements of homes from many different early human societies, including nomadic groups that depended on hunting, others that relied on small-scale growing of food, and early Roman cities. There were 63 sites in all, ranging in age from 9000 B.C. to 1500 A.D.

In a report that appears this week in the journal Nature, Kohler reports that increasing inequality arrived with agriculture. When people started growing more crops, settling down and building cities, the rich usually got much richer, compared to the poor.

That's what most anthropologists expected, but there were interesting exceptions to the rule. Inequality was not inevitable. The civilization of Teotihuacan, which flourished in present-day Mexico almost a thousand years ago, was based on large-scale agriculture, yet "had remarkably low wealth disparities," Kohler says.

Kohler's data also showed something completely unexpected. After the advent of agriculture, "for some reason, wealth gets much more unequally distributed in the Old World, Europe and Asia, than it does in the New World," Kohler says. "This was a total surprise."

Kohler isn't sure why this happened, but he has some ideas. "Think about it," he says. "You know that animals like cows, oxen, horses, sheep, goats, pigs, all are Old World domesticates." Through an accident of geography and evolution, they simply didn't exist in the Americas before Columbus arrived.

So it was only in the Old World that ancient farmers could use oxen to plow more fields, expand production, and get richer, compared to poorer farmers who could not afford those animals.

They were accumulating wealth, what economists call capital — a term that Kohler says is no accident. "Our word 'capital' comes from the same proto- Indo-European root as our word for 'cattle' does," he says.

There's debate about whether this ancient history is relevant to current debates. But archaeologist Michelle Elliott, who teaches at the Sorbonne-Pantheon university in Paris, says a lot of archaeologists believe it is. "They feel like, 'We have all these data about our species, that go back to its origins,' " she says, and it would be nice if those data could somehow help solve problems today.

Elliot, who wrote a commentary on Kohler's research for Nature, says that Kohler's research is based on a relatively small sample of sites, and she's hoping that archaeologists will analyze data from additional ancient civilizations, to see if they also fit that pattern that Kohler observed.

Note: This post was updated on November 16, at 8:45 am, to include additional information about Teotihuacan and Elliott's hopes for further research.

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ELISE HU, HOST:

Politicians, economists - lots of people these days are talking about the wealth gap between the rich and poor. This worry is even driving archaeologists to examine wealth disparities in ancient societies. And they found apparently early civilizations in the Americas were more egalitarian than those in Europe or Asia. Here's NPR's Dan Charles.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Archaeologist Timothy Kohler at Washington State University says studying the ancient world can provide insights about current affairs.

TIMOTHY KOHLER: That's what's so fun about it. It widens our perspectives and allows us to see that the way things are organized now is not the only possible way for things to be organized.

CHARLES: Measuring inequality in societies that didn't leave written records is hard, of course, but physical ruins remain, and Kohler thought even back then, the richer you were, probably the bigger your house was. So he and his colleagues collected measurements of homes from all over.

KOHLER: We have some teepee rings from Wyoming.

CHARLES: Roman ruins, Mesopotamian settlements - 63 sites in all. He reports this week in the journal Nature that increasing inequality arrived with agriculture. When people started growing more crops, settling down and building cities, organizing states, the rich usually got much richer compared to the poor.

KOHLER: But after that period, for some reason, wealth gets much more unequally distributed in the Old World, in Europe and Asia, than it does in the New World. This was a total surprise.

CHARLES: Kohler is not sure why this happened, but he has some ideas.

KOHLER: Now, think about it. You know that animals like cows, oxen, horses, sheep, goats, pigs are all Old World domesticates.

CHARLES: They simply didn't exist in the Americas before Columbus arrived, so it was only in the Old World that ancient farmers could use oxen to plough more fields and expand production and get richer compared to poorer farmers who couldn't afford those animals. They were accumulating wealth, economic capital.

KOHLER: Our word capital comes from the same Proto-Indo-European root as our word for a head of cattle does.

CHARLES: Now, there's debate about whether this ancient history is even relevant to current affairs. But archaeologist Michelle Elliott, who teaches at the Sorbonne University in Paris, says a lot of archaeologists believe it is.

MICHELLE ELLIOTT: Because they feel like we have these data about, you know, our species that go back to its origins.

CHARLES: And it would be nice, she says, if that data could help us understand problems today. Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.