Inequality: What we've learned from the 'Robots of the late Neolithic'

phys.org | 5/10/2019 | Staff
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Seven thousand years ago, societies across Eurasia began to show signs of lasting divisions between haves and have-nots. In new research published in the journal Antiquity, scientists chart the precipitous surge of prehistoric inequality and trace its economic origins back to the adoption of ox-drawn plows.

Their findings challenge a long-held view that inequality arose when human societies first transitioned from hunting and gathering to agriculture. According to the researchers, it was not agriculture per se that ushered in substantial wealth inequalities, but instead a transformation of farming that made land more valuable and labor less so.

Ox - Drawn - Plows - Robots - Neolithic

"Ox drawn plows were the robots of the late Neolithic," explains co-author Samuel Bowles, an economist at the Santa Fe Institute. The oxen were a form of labor-saving technology that led to a decoupling of wealth from labor—a decoupling fundamental to modern wealth inequality. "The effect was the same as today: growing economic disparities between those who owned the robots and those whose work the robots displaced."

In the first of two companion papers, the researchers present new statistical methods for comparing wealth inequality across different kinds of wealth, different societies, in different regions, at different times in history. Their analysis of data from 150 archeological sites reveals a steep increase in inequality in Eurasia from around 4,000 BC—several millennia after the advent of agriculture.

Surprise - Inequality - Time - Lead - Author

"The surprise here isn't so much that inequality takes off later on, it's that it stayed low for such a long time," says lead author Amy Bogaard, an archaeologist based at the University of Oxford who is also an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute.

"The usual story—that the societies that adopted agriculture became more unequal—is no longer valid because we observed that some societies who adopted agriculture were remarkably egalitarian for thousands of years," says co-author Mattia Fochesato, an economist at...
(Excerpt) Read more at: phys.org
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