The roots of inequality: Researchers chart rising inequality across millennia

November 15, 2017, Washington State University
A newly-published article in Nature on historical social inequality includes data from University of Montana excavations at Bridge River, British Columbia. Credit: Anna Prentiss

Researchers at Washington State University and 13 other institutions have found that the arc of prehistory bends towards economic inequality. In the largest study of its kind, the researchers saw disparities in wealth mount with the rise of agriculture, specifically the domestication of plants and large animals, and increased social organization.

Their findings, published this week in the journal Nature, have profound implications for contemporary , as repeatedly leads to social disruption, even collapse, said Tim Kohler, lead author and Regents professor of archaeology and evolutionary anthropology at Washington State University. The United States, he noted, currently has one of the highest levels of inequality in the history of the world.

"Inequality has a lot of subtle and potentially pernicious effects on societies," Kohler said.

The study gathered data from 63 archaeological sites or groups of sites. Comparing house sizes within each site, researchers assigned Gini coefficients, common measures of inequality developed more than a century ago by the Italian statistician and sociologist Corrado Gini. In theory, a country with complete wealth equality would have a Gini coefficient of 0, while a country with all the wealth concentrated in one household would get a 1.

The researchers found that hunter-gatherer societies typically had low wealth disparities, with a median Gini of .17. Their mobility would make it hard to accumulate wealth, let alone pass it on to subsequent generations. Horticulturalists—small-scale, low-intensity farmers—had a median Gini of .27. Larger scale agricultural societies had a media Gini of .35.

To the researchers' surprise, inequality kept rising in the Old World while it hit a plateau in the New World, said Kohler. The researchers attribute this to the ability of Old World societies "to literally harness big domesticated mammals like cattle and eventually horse and water buffalo," Kohler said.

Draft animals, which were not available in the New World, let richer farmers till more land and expand into new areas. This increased their wealth while ultimately creating a class of landless peasants.

"These processes increased inequality by operating on both ends of the wealth distribution, increasing the holdings of the rich while decreasing the holdings of the poor," the researchers write.

The Old World also saw the arrival of bronze metallurgy and a mounted warrior elite that increased Ginis through large houses and territorial conquests.

The researchers' models put the highest Ginis in the ancient Old World at .59, close to that of contemporary Greece's .56 and Spain's .58. It is well short of China's .73 and the United States .80, a 2000 figure cited in the Nature paper. The 2016 Allianz Global Wealth Report puts the U.S. Gini at .81 and Kohler has seen the U.S. Gini pegged at .85, "which is probably the highest inequality for any developed country right now."

This worries him for several reasons.

Societies with high inequality have low social mobility. Kohler pointed to a Science paper from earlier this year that found rates of mobility have fallen from 90 percent for U.S. children born in 1940 to 50 percent for children born in the 1980s. The results, wrote the researchers, "imply that reviving the 'American dream' of high rates of absolute mobility would require economic growth that is shared more broadly across the income distribution."

Other studies have found that unequal societies tend to have poorer health, while more equal societies have higher life expectancies, trust and a willingness to help others, said Kohler.

"People need to be aware that inequality can have deleterious effects on health outcomes, on mobility, on degree of trust, on social solidarity—all these things," he said. "We're not helping ourselves by being so unequal."

Decreasing inequality is extremely difficult and usually comes about through plague, revolution, mass warfare or state collapse, according to The Great Leveler, a new book by Stanford University's Walter Scheidel. Kohler himself has documented four periods of mounting inequality among the ancient Pueblo people of the American Southwest, with each ending in violence and greater equality. The last one coincided with the complete depopulating of the Mesa Verde area.

"In each case, you see not just this decline in Gini scores, but we also see an increase in violence that accompanies that decline," Kohler said. "We could be concerned in the United States, that if Ginis get too high, we could be inviting revolution, or we could be inviting state collapse. There's only a few things that are going to decrease our Ginis dramatically."

Explore further: Don't listen to the rich—inequality is bad for everyone

More information: Timothy A. Kohler et al, Greater post-Neolithic wealth disparities in Eurasia than in North America and Mesoamerica, Nature (2017). DOI: 10.1038/nature24646

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TheGhostofOtto1923
3.7 / 5 (6) Nov 15, 2017
More political propaganda.

"have profound implications for contemporary society, as inequality repeatedly leads to social disruption, even collapse"

OVERPOPULATION leads to inequality, social disruption, and collapse.

Economic cycles - growth, decay, collapse, and rebirth - reflect how populations always grow faster than their ability to provide food for themselves. Inflation always sets in, tribalism always leads to some groups having more than others; decay and collapse is always the result.

THIS is the elephant in the room and 'studies' such as this do not help to address the problem.
AlmostClever
2.5 / 5 (2) Nov 15, 2017
To further that point.

Producing children in environments that cannot support agriculture, or to parents that are incapable of independently affording the burden of childrearing, create more horror than some of the most heinous acts of barbarism and ethnic cleansing combined.

Just because we are capable of something doesn't mean we should do it.

Not all evil is manifest by addicts of greed and dominance.

There is a vast amount of incompetence and irresponsibility with respect to breeding that nourishes this Ginis ratio.

Of course the fix to that is incomprehensibly abhorrent.

Just because we are capable of something doesn't mean we should do it.

So I get the study is making a correlation of social inequality to increased chaotic instabilities and we are left with "There's only a few things that are going to decrease our Ginis dramatically".

So please, keeping all things in play, what are those few things?

How do you sustain them over time?
Dudu101
3.7 / 5 (6) Nov 15, 2017
Some of the "few things" that may "decrease our Ginis dramatically."

Universal healthcare would help. A part of wealth accumulation is taking advantage of bankruptcies and foreclosure auctions. Insufficient or no insurance causes much of this. Too sick to work, too sick to pay the bills. If sick and unemployed, insurance premiums are paid out of savings or with more debt. Someone down on their luck could at least count on some healthcare, debt free, with universal healthcare.

Another is the estate tax on accumulated wealth, aka the death tax.

Another is the progressive tax, the rich pay more percentage wise than the poor.

Another is the negative income tax or unearned tax credit. The poorest not only pay no tax, but get some money for their trouble.

Finally, government spending that benefits the 99%, putting money into the economy rather than into off shore accounts, European art, etc.
Robert_D
2 / 5 (4) Nov 15, 2017
Hogwash. Did the USSR, and the socialist countries collapse because of inequality? The problem is NOT economic inequality, it's POVERTY, and the only way to solve that problem is through the opening up of free markets. From the June 1st 2013 edition of The Economist: "Nearly 1 billion people have been taken out of extreme poverty in 20 years.", "Most of the credit, however, must go to capitalism and free trade, for they enable economies to grow—and it was growth, principally, that has eased destitution." The population problem can be naturally solved by the elimination of poverty. Increased wealth correlates inversely with population growth. Some of the most wealthy nations, like Japan, have negative population growth.
ddaye
5 / 5 (1) Nov 15, 2017
Producing children in environments that cannot support agriculture, or to parents that are incapable of independently affording the burden of childrearing, create more horror than some of the most heinous acts of barbarism and ethnic cleansing combined.


Creating surplus children is the only old age security program available to the poor in the absence of social programs.

The US is presently working on 4 trillion dollars cuts' in their Medicare and Social Security programs, and so we should start to see a rise in family size within the next decade or two in response.
cantdrive85
1.8 / 5 (5) Nov 15, 2017
A significant portion of the inequality presently plaguing the US is due to the 16th Amendment and the illegally created Federal Reserve fiat banking system created by the moneychangers. These are the most deleterious features of this society. A close third and fourth is the 17th and 19th Amendments that allows any number of morons the right to vote.
jjesterj
not rated yet Nov 16, 2017
But: https://ourworldi...ople.png

Also, "That's not fair!", talk to the Pareto distribution, pal.
aksdad
2.3 / 5 (3) Nov 16, 2017
The only time wealth inequality leads to revolution is when revolutionaries stir up the populace by inflaming their envy of wealthy people. Think of the French Revolution, the Bolshevik revolution and the various communist revolutions of the 20th century. There were other significant factors too, like government by oligarchs or monarchs with no regard for the rights or will of the citizens.

Wealth inequality alone isn't an indicator of impending revolution. In fact it has no use as a metric other than to measure the envy of the people who think it matters. The more important factors are freedom and representative government and a sense that you can reap the rewards of your labor without having someone take it from you; all of which, incidentally, are rights protected by the U.S. Constitution which is far and away the finest governing document enumerating and protecting the natural rights of citizens.
altor3214
1 / 5 (1) Nov 16, 2017
Hogwash. Did the USSR, and the socialist countries collapse because of inequality? The problem is NOT economic inequality, it's POVERTY, and the only way to solve that problem is through the opening up of free markets. From the June 1st 2013 edition of The Economist: "Nearly 1 billion people have been taken out of extreme poverty in 20 years.", "Most of the credit, however, must go to capitalism and free trade, for they enable economies to grow—and it was growth, principally, that has eased destitution." The population problem can be naturally solved by the elimination of poverty. Increased wealth correlates inversely with population growth. Some of the most wealthy nations, like Japan, have negative population growth.

Good scam, peasant.
I think you ventured out of your woods too far, yokel.
This is a science forum.
There are no gullible idiots here.
Go hump a goat somewhere else.
Anonym
3 / 5 (2) Nov 16, 2017
Obviously not true. Wealth inequality was greatest when everyone except the ruling family was a landless serf/peasant/slave. Think 3,000 B.C.

At any rate, nearly everyone in the developed world regardless of net worth is materially far better off than the richest person on earth was 100 years ago: better health-care, greater food security, higher mobility, more employment options, a social safety net. All the advantages formally reserved to the wealthy are now available to nearly all. Thus, in terms of personal welfare, the gap actually has shrunk.

"Wealth inequality" has always been with us. Outside of the political arena where money equals power, it becomes more meaningless every day.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Nov 16, 2017
Producing children in environments that cannot support agriculture, or to parents that are incapable of independently affording the burden of childrearing, create more horror than some of the most heinous acts of barbarism and ethnic cleansing combined
Absolutely. Our tropical repro rate became a problem when we first became able to hunt the predators that were keeping our numbers in check.

But the problem today, as it has been for centuries, is religion. The religions that have survived have done so by outgrowing and overrunning the competition. They accomplish this by restricting women to doing nothing but making babies until it kills them.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Nov 16, 2017
The only time wealth inequality leads to revolution is when revolutionaries stir up the populace
Those revolutions were inevitable. Pops had grown past their ability to support themselves. The cycle had reached the point of collapse and there was no way to stop it.

The fact that wars and revolutions often appear artificial is because Leaders accept the inevitability of collapse, and take it upon themselves to make it happen in the most beneficial, and least dangerous, manner possible.

You can imagine that Those who could decide the outcomes of wars could amass boundless power and wealth by doing so.

And engineering conflict becomes far easier when rulers on either side are actually on the same side.

Aristotle schooled Alexander, Darius, and their generals and advisors on just how to conquer and consolidate the known world. This explains for instance how 50k macedonians could slaughter over 1M persians... twice.

Hundreds of examples throughout history.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Nov 16, 2017
This Process of conquest and consolidation is described for all to read, in exacting detail, in the bible.

"A Time for Everything
3 There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
2 a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build...

"7 a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
8 a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace." Ecc3

The bible is nothing less than an instruction book on how to save the world from the ruination of overpopulation.

Old testament = conquest; new testament = revolution. Ecclesiastes translates to instructions to the clergy. Our Shepherds.
AlmostClever
not rated yet Nov 16, 2017
Most sustainable systems have feedback mechanisms that modulate various operational characteristics through enhancement or suppressive influences.

Build up of non-functional elements within communities tend to limit the success of those communities to capture resources to proliferate. Typically losing out to other strategies employed by competing communities, that at times, have operated as collaborators.

I suspect for all we have learned, we lack the requisite wisdom to function within the confines of what nature has to offer, which is a hell of a lot more than "living in a van down by the river".

Focusing on verifiable realities, mitigating extremes in their form and function, and balancing the consumption to the available resources present, offers an opportunity.

Effective feedback systems are the accountability mechanism of performed actions.

Shy of that, we could just be a highly advanced, self aware, un-mitigate-able virus.

Bon Appétit
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Nov 16, 2017
Most sustainable systems have feedback mechanisms that modulate various operational characteristics through enhancement or suppressive influences
Tropical humans are an invasive species in temperate and subarctic realms. Self-regulating involves intertribal conflict, famine, non-procreative sex, gaydom, eating disorders, abortion, infanticide, genocide, pogrom, ethnic cleansing, etc.

"11He has made everything beautiful in its time." Ecc3

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