Where does social inequality come from? Hunter-Gatherer to Agriculture

“Lets start at the very beginning, a very good place to start”. The big bang happened, dinosaurs ruled the earth and were later wiped out by a comet. Fishes started to go up on land, gorillas became humans. You know the evolution theory. There is no written record of this but thanks to archeology and paleobiology we can make valid assumptions, but as I am no scientist feel free to make your own assumptions of how the world was created and what happened up until humans began to develop and expand on earth.

This series begins at the Paleolithic era where humans lived in nomadic hunter -gatherer societies. They were not settled in a specific spot but rather moved between different areas to find food for survival. Hunters chased and killed animals for protein – the main pre-historic hunting was fishing, and gatherers picked berries, nuts, grains and other resources found in nature. This explains to a large extent why humans pre-historically lived near the shores of the earth.

During this stage inequality was largely absent, whilst men performed most of the hunting and women carried out most of the gathering the small sizes of the group formations prevented this from becoming a gender inequality issue. Instead gender inequality can be traced to the development of agrarian societies. In the qualitative change to an agrarian society women maintained their roles as farmers and raised the children. Men on the other hand no longer needed to hunt: and could find new roles in the denser settlements. In the agrarian societies many social positions were created and because the men could leave their households to a larger extent they filled these positions and gained power within the society. As the communities grew larger men asserted their power through the wealth created by agriculture.

As Jared Diamond argues in his book ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’, unequal development of regions can be traced through agriculture and the rage of animals and species available to domesticate defined the initial development and climate. This created preconditions for agricultural developments based on high protein vegetation, climate suitable for storage and availability of domesticated animals to be used for transportation. Thus, according to Jared Diamond inequality is an accident of geography and weather that created preconditions for agriculture that lead to unequal distribution of power and wealth in the worlds today. Rather than the Eurocentric and traditional explanations regarding differences in intelligence his thesis is founded upon a linkage between environmental determinism (climatic and geographical) and limitations to human social development. Hence, a civilization is not shaped out of differences in genetics but a result of a chain of preconditions affecting development.

David Christian continues this thesis of pre-adapted species and argued that pre-adapted domestication of certain species and sedentism created a pull towards agriculture. Christians argument is that agriculture emerged autonomously throughout the world and traces the developments of extracting recourses and domestication in different regions. To explain the evolutionary transformation of settlements Christian first points to transferable skills from the nomadic stages and the existence of plants and animal species to domesticate. The Neolithic revolution were defined by the ‘trap of sedentism’ where the population forgot their nomadic skills and became bound to the agricultural lifestyle. Rapid population growth lead to specialization and former inherent skills were forgotten. The population pressure intensified the exchange of ideas and technology and later on the invention of social structures.  This trap of sedentism may very well be the base for a trap of inequality.

The innovations of new tools and technologies intensified the agricultural development through for example irrigation, further domestication and trade. Through these advancements agricultural settlements grew larger and specialization occurred for the first time as the society became denser and new social roles were invented. The division of labor lead to the first social hierarchies within settlements. The value imbedded in the agricultural produce became a declining commodity as the new social roles gained power. More specifically, when humans were able to store their surplus the social structure automatically change. For the first time there was potential for economic gain (here in the form of yield). Through this development some families became richer than others. This also led to the question of ownership, as the leaders grew wealthier they could delegate power. This evolvement of a hierarchy within societies (rich and poor) paved the way to totalitarian regimes. The elites were able to convince or coerce their followers. Hence, agriculture gave rise to ‘the state’ and within the state there became a competition for resources. The elites reinforced their power through the management of these resources. The social power was in other words concentrated with the elites. This lead to extreme forms of class differentiation where elites used slaves for energy to maintain their agricultural wealth. Agricultural societies were able to support their elite leaders, priests and soldiers which created more social differentiation. This generated social inequality and expanded the division of labor, furthermore during this time housing inequality, health inequality and height inequality as a result of the former was of primary concern.

Thus, the agricultural revolution sparked social inequality though state oppression (by elites), gender oppression, and division of labor (priests, kings, professional warriors). But is this explanation enough to explain todays racial, gender and social inequality? Can we really argue that the transition from hunter-gatherer to agricultural settlements is the reason for inequality? Hopefully, in a few posts – we will find out!


Want to learn more? Check this out!
David Christian on TED – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqc9zX04DXs and the book Maps of Time: https://books.google.co.uk/booksid=7RdVmDjwTtQC&pg=PA207&lpg=PA207&dq=david+christian+Intensification+and+the+origins+of+agriculture&source=bl&ots=2jxoiE910&sig=xj_yR6nYpP_j_Y4hhngdqhrMtqY&hl=en&sa=X&ei=jh7MVI78BsjhaIWIgbAM&ved=0CCMQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=david%20christian%20Intensification%20and%20the%20origins%20of%20agriculture&f=false

Jared Daimond – Guns Germs and Steel: http://www.amazon.com/Guns-Germs-Steel-Fates-Societies/dp/0393317552 http://www.ias.ac.in/resonance/Volumes/06/01/0084-0088.pdf


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