The wealth of Neolithic nations


Archaeologists have attempted to separate the haves from the have-nots in ancient societies. Andrew Masterson reports.


Neolithic huts on the island of St Kilda. As the number of sheep grew, so did some of the huts.
Neolithic huts on the island of St Kilda. As the number of sheep grew, so did some of the huts.
Juan-Carlos Muoz/Getty Images

Thus, apparently, has it ever been: along comes a radical change to the way a society operates, its proponents promising it will bring wealth and advantage to all.

Then, before you know it, the rich have got richer and the poor are paying for it.

This type of inequality arising from economic change has become an all too predictable outcome in the twenty-first century, but new research suggests the same processes were very much in play as far back as the Neolithic age.

An analysis of wealth disparity during the Neolithic and post-Neolithic periods, using house sizes as a proxy measure for wealth, has found that inequality generally increased as the domestication of animals and plants developed. The growth of settled communities also exacerbated the gap between the haves and have-nots.

The study, led by anthropologist Timothy Kohler of Washington State University in the US, examined housing sizes at 63 archaeological sites in Europe, Asia, North and Central America.

The Old World sites ranged in age from about 11,000 to 2000 years old. The New World range was considerably more recent, covering 3000 to 300 years old.

Kohler and colleagues note that in both contexts the settlements analysed are significantly older than the early modern archaeological remnants previously used in wealth disparity research. They also point out that earlier proxies, such as burial goods and luxury items, do not function as direct analogues of wealth.

The study found that wealth disparity – as measured by the differences in house sizes within communities – increased in concert with advancing use of animals and the development of agriculture. However, the scientists noted that the disparities in Eurasia were higher than those noted in the Americas, at least up until the time of European settlement in the latter.

This, they suggest, was because of the presence in Europe and Asia of a wide range of large mammals. The domestication of cattle, sheep, pigs and horses permitted a more robust and expansive form of agriculture to develop, and, with it, greater opportunities for the accumulation of wealth.

The presence of horses, too, permitted the development of a warrior class, an elite group that enabled the creation (through invasion and superior fighting abilities) or larger, cohesive societies – which in turn created opportunities for better (or more ruthless) exploitation of resources.

Kohler and his team are wary of applying their findings to modern societies.

“More research is needed to determine how reliable the proxy of house size is as a measure for wealth in contemporary societies,” they write in the journal Nature, “[but] we do know that housing wealth makes up about one half of household net worth in the United States and about 70 per cent in China.”

They go on to say that it is possible that the methods they used to estimate household disparities may have underestimated the true size of the differences.

However, they add, “it is safe to say that the degree of wealth inequality experienced by many households today is considerably higher than has been the norm over the last ten millennia.”

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Andrew Masterson is news editor of Cosmos.
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