The farming-inequality nexus: new insights from ancient Western Eurasia
What is this research about and why did you do it?
When did substantial, durable wealth inequalities first emerge in human history or prehistory? The transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture has long been associated with the emergence of widespread, persistent economic inequality. The archaeological record of farmers in Neolithic Western Asia and Europe, however, exhibits scant evidence for lasting and substantial socio-economic differentiation. We wanted to explore the hypothesis that it was not farming per se that fuelled the emergence of persistent wealth inequality, but rather specific types of farming, which offer different possibilities for accumulating, storing and transmitting wealth.
How did you answer this question?
We collected evidence of wealth inequality - disparities in house sizes, food storage facilities and burial goods - from 39 sites of various dates from the Neolithic to the Iron Age (90 site-phases) in Western Asia and Europe spanning 9000 years (later tenth millennium BC to the early first millennium AD), and adjusted these estimates so as to be comparable across different asset types and population sizes. We matched these data with bioarchaeological and other evidence for the nature of ancient agrosystems, for example to understand how intensively cultivated the land was, and whether oxen and ploughs were used.
What did you find?
A change in farming technology - the introduction of ox drawn ploughs - around 6 thousand years ago was associated with a doubling of the Gini coefficient for household wealth. This labour saving innovation made labour relatively abundant and material capital – land and draught animals – more scarce affecting a shift from what we term a labour limited to a land limited economy.
The frequency distribution of the Gini coefficients for labour- and land-limited economies. The difference in the means of the two farming systems is 0.316, with a 95 per cent confidence interval of (0.256–0.376).
What implications does this have for the research on wealth concentration or economic inequality?
The 9 thousand year time span of our data set captures a dramatic innovation in technology followed by important changes in political systems – the emergence of archaic proto-states and eventually states and slavery. This provides insights for research and teaching opportunities about the importance of technology and institutions in shaping the level of wealth inequality.
What are the next steps in your agenda?
We have expanded our data set to include 8 Neolithic to Iron Age estimates of wealth inequality and the farming system in ancient Thailand. We are also asking what the emergence of systemic wealth inequality in prehistory can teach us about the likely future trajectory of wealth inequality (robots and AI may be the ox drawn ploughs of the present and future).
Citation and related resources
This paper can be cited as follows: Bogaard, A., Fochesato, M. and Bowles, S. (2019) 'The Farming-Inequality Nexus: New Insights from Ancient Western Eurasia.' Antiquity, 93(371), pp. 1129-43.
- Borgerhoff Mulder, M., Bowles, S. et al. (2009) 'Intergenerational Wealth Transmission and the Dynamics of Inequality in Small-Scale Societies.' Science, 326(5953), pp. 682-88.
- Fochesato, M. and Bowles, S. (2015) 'Nordic Exceptionalism? Social Democratic Egalitarianism in World-Historic Perspective.' Journal of Public Economics, 127, pp. 30-44.
- Fochesato, M., Bogaard, A. and Bowles, S. (2019) 'Measuring Ancient Inequality: The Challenges of Comparability, Bias, and Precision.' Antiquity, 93(370), pp. 853-69.