Inequality persistence circa 5000 BCE


Jason Collins


June 29, 2012

An article by Bentley and colleagues published in PNAS last month points to some very early evidence of persistent inequality. The study headline is the uncovering of the earliest (statistically significant) evidence of status and wealth differences among the first farmers of Neolithic Europe and the existence of a patrilocal kinship system. However, the analysis also suggests that the healthiest farmers when young were also the richest when buried. Early advantage persisted until death.

It takes some reading between the lines in the PNAS article to see this result, but a Guardian piece containing interviews with the study authors is more direct:

Some of the male skeletons were buried with stone adzes – cutting and chopping tools – which were often beautifully polished and made from carefully selected stone, and so were probably also symbols of status and wealth. An analysis of the strontium isotopes in their tooth enamel showed these individuals had lived on food grown in “loess”, the most fertile and productive soil.

Because strontium markers are laid down in tooth enamel in childhood, it seems they hadn’t earned but inherited this richer diet, and the fact that they were buried with the adzes suggests that they died as they had lived: privileged to the end.

“This strongly suggests that access to the best soils was being passed on between generations,” Bickle said. “Thus, while I think it’s not news that status differences and subsistence specialisms date to the Neolithic, this is perhaps the first time we’ve been able to show that inheritance was a large part of this.”

The usual question arises at this point - what mix of genetic endowments, productivity effects related to upbringing (such as the poor health) and resource transfers delivered this result?