Modern economic theory explains prehistoric Mediterranean societies

Modern economic theory explains prehistoric Mediterranean societies
Thomas Leppard, assistant professor of anthropology. Credit: Florida State University

A Florida State University professor's research suggests a theory by famed economist Thomas Piketty on present-day wealth inequality actually explains a lot about how smaller-scale societies in the prehistoric Mediterranean developed.

Piketty's theory says that high-growth economic conditions can slow the rate of wealth inequality and low-growth can accelerate it. In a new study, FSU Assistant Professor of Anthropology Thomas Leppard argues that certain hierarchical Mediterranean societies from about 3500 B.C. to 1000 B.C. fall into this low-growth context described by Piketty.

Leppard's research is published in the journal Current Anthropology.

"Even though they never achieved the size and scale of societies in richer environments throughout the Old World, the fact that these Mediterranean societies developed in zones that were not prime for agriculture provided opportunities for some individuals to amass great wealth and compared to other individuals," Leppard said.

Because many of these societies were pre-monetary, wealth and can be approximated by , particularly of large-scale, extensive farming of different grains.

"We know that agriculture was, to an extent, vital for the emergence of urban and 'state' societies," Leppard said.

Leppard argues that in larger, urban societies located in Mesopotamia, or near the Nile and the Yellow rivers, exaggerated income inequality took longer to occur because they were high-growth environments. This growth held off rapidly emergent inequality and associated institutional hierarchies for longer, allowing these societies to coalesce at larger scales before durable hierarchies and state-type institutions appeared.

Piketty's theory, Leppard said, illustrates that very different conditions can drive similar social outcomes, and this challenges some in anthropological archaeology on how societal hierarchies developed.

"Ultimately, if very different processes can drive the appearance of societies that appear structurally similar, we're going to have to start thinking about multiple pathways to societies that we like to think of in one category," Leppard said.

Explore further

Concentrated wealth in agricultural populations may account for the decline of polygyny

More information: Thomas P. Leppard. Social Complexity and Social Inequality in the Prehistoric Mediterranean, Current Anthropology (2019). DOI: 10.1086/703174
Journal information: Current Anthropology

Citation: Modern economic theory explains prehistoric Mediterranean societies (2019, May 10) retrieved 21 October 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

May 11, 2019
People achieve great wealth do it because they are smarter and work harder. While it is true that later on, they make some of this money more easily because they already have wealth, in the beginning, it's the people with intelligence and drive that get ahead. It's been this way since the beginning. It's only in the last 100 years that the state has tried to equalize things by re-distributing wealth among people incapable of earning their own.

May 11, 2019
Meanwhile, on Earth, fast-growing economies reward the innovative and smart, whereas slow-growing economies reward the corrupt, further slowing the economy.

May 11, 2019
How au courant! And, how over-thunk!
"Wealth inequality" is a 19th century economic value judgment which Prof. Picketty famously misapplied to 21st century economic conditions. Here, Dr Leppard analyzes pre-capitalist societies using a Marxist social topology modeled on early capitalism. Academia lags once again. That Marxism was clearly wrong was evident by about 1905, even to some Marxists, so forget that nonsense and move on:
Fundamental to wealth creation is a fungible way to store value --- e.g., gold. In pre-monetary societies, the only store of wealth was the king's grain silo. Common folks bartered amongst themselves. The meaning and utility of wealth therefore were quite different. Wealth, fungible or not, does not precipitate hierarchies; these result from the hard-wiring inherent in all social mammals. Hierarchies will form, regardless of capital or "wealth inequality." The role of "wealth" is to entrench them.

May 11, 2019
present-day wealth inequality

Is now based on working hard or being lazy.
The square root of the number of people do half of all the productivity.

May 12, 2019
how over-thunk

I have no specific wish to defend US "anthropology", since they mix soft sciences into the paleontology and archaeology, as much as the latter is hard, which the rest of the world does not.

But hard or sift, the paper theory explain observations by shoring up the use of a specific economy theory. I don't see over thinking as a scientific response, in fact I don't see any competing explanation (there might be one) - specifically not published by you - so how can it be overly complex?

I had to browse Picketty, and one of several influences is Marx [ https://en.wikipe..._Piketty ].

But wealth inequality is not Marxist, the Gini index is routinely used for observing it [ https://en.wikipe...fficient ]. "According to UNICEF, Latin America and the Caribbean region had the highest net income Gini index in the world at 48.3, on unweighted average basis in 2008. ,,, "

May 12, 2019
The square root of the number of people do half of all the productivity.
Regardless of the system. This phenonenon is a basic fact of human nature not in any Marx text.

May 12, 2019
The problem today isn't so much wealth inequality, as it is financialization. Capitalism has mutated from the medium necessary for a functioning market, to the production of money as the end goal.
Money is a contract, with one side an asset and the other a debt, but since we value the asset side, manufacturing it means creating effectively equal amounts of debt. One way is for the government to borrow up excess money and spend it in ways the private sector would never dream, such as paying people not to work and blowing up the occasional country. Neither of which will prove to be wise assets, as government goes bankrupt.
Where would that 20 trillion have gone otherwise? Derivatives? Apple stock?
Serious deficit spending started with the New Deal. Roosevelt wasn't just putting unemployed labor to work, but unemployed capital, as well.
Eventually those with the most bonds are going to be trading them for remaining public properties and the oligarchy won't bother to hide.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more