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20220205 – Creation of Inequality




This book reviews massive amounts of historical and anthropological data to demonstrate how inequality develops in different societies and the causes of such development. It also suggests that the value of inequality as an effective tool for development is probably exhausted. It is time to start switching back to a more natural mode of human relations that has worked very well for a very long time – an egalitarian society.  


Part l: Starting Out Equal
ONE: Genesis and Exodus
This chapter discusses the origins of humanity in Africa, its distribution worldwide, and the initial development of the surplus either in the form of labor investment into improving gathering opportunities for the next season or fish smocking to save it for later use. Archeologists found these and similar cases dated long before the switch to agriculture. The chapter also describes human colonization of the Earth, its forms in various environments, and its impact on human behavior and DNA that created the varieties of adjustments such as skin color adjusted to the amount of sunlight available in different locations. It then asks why all this started occurring only about 20 000 years ago, while contemporary humans have at least 100,000 years of existence. The answer the author provides: is that it all was linked to the formation of families and then clans, which began competing, including the military, for prestige and possessions. At the end of the chapter, the author notes that society with clans has a greater inequality level than societies without.   

TWO: Rousseau’s “State of Nature”
This chapter begins by referencing Rousseau’s speculative ideas about the state of nature. It proceeds to review how archeological research and real-live hunter/gatherers, observed by anthropologists in recent times, fit into these ideas’ framework. Next, the author discusses several Eskimo tribes, archeological work on prehistoric Folsom culture in Colorado, and several African tribes. The results demonstrated the egalitarian nature of these societies. The author contrasts this to the behavior of our close relatives – chimpanzees who constantly fight for dominance and maintain strict hierarchy even in small groups. 

THREE: Ancestors and Enemies
This chapter discusses the origin of violence and links it mainly to the formation of clans. It notes that individual violence in hunter/gatherer societies is usually regulated quite effectively by revenge, either directly against the perpetrator or via substitution by another member of the perpetrator’s group. The chapter reviews the oldest archeological evidence for group violence from the Nile Valley: Jebel Sahaba, the anthropological research in the Andaman Islands in 1906-1908, and Australian and Tasmanian tribes. The author concludes that despite increased violence due to the emergence of clans, inequality did not significantly increase. The author also points out the emergence of the trade mainly in ritual related goods, accumulation of which could increase the prestige of one induvial comparatively to another. Still, it was far from creating the foundation of severe levels of inequality.

FOUR: Why Our Ancestors Had Religion and the Arts
The author begins this chapter by summarizing a set of typical features of hunter/gathering societies and how they relate to inequality:

1. Generosity is admirable; selfishness is reprehensible.

2. The social relationship created by a gift is more valuable than the gift itself.

3. All gifts should be reciprocated; however, a reasonable delay before reciprocating is acceptable.

4. Names are magic and should not be casually assigned.

5. Since all humans are reincarnated, ancestors’ names should be treated with particular respect.

6. Homicide is unacceptable. A killer’s relatives should either execute him or pay reparations to the victim’s family.

7. Do not commit incest; get your spouse from outside your immediate kin.

8. In return for a bride, the groom should provide her family with services or gifts.

9. Marriage is a flexible economic partnership; it allows for multiple spouses and variations.

In addition to these principles, which imply no inequality among members of society, we also encountered some premises that allowed for a degree of inequality. They were as follows:

10. Men have the capacity to be more virtuous or ritually pure than women.

11. Youths should defer to seniors.

12. Late arrivals should defer to those who were here first.

In those societies that featured lineages, clans, or ancestor-based descent groups, the following new premises appeared:

13. When lineages grow and divide, the junior lineage should defer to the senior lineage, since the latter was here first.

14. You are born into your family, but you must be initiated into your clan.

15. The bad news is that initiation will be an ordeal. The good news is that you will learn ritual secrets, become more fully a member of your ethnic group, and perhaps gain virtue.

16. Any offense against a member of your lineage or clan, such as murder or serious insult, is an offense against that entire social unit. It requires a group response against some member (or members) of the offending group.

17. Any armed conflict should be followed by rituals of peacemaking.

The author then discusses the cosmology and religion of these societies and concludes that the typical ideological setup is the source of difference between human and chimpanzee groups concerning dominance and inequality. Here is how the author formulated this point: “When we look at hunters and gatherers, we see a dominance hierarchy as clear as that of chimpanzees. It is, however, a hierarchy in which the alphas are invisible supernatural beings, too powerful to be overthrown by conspiracy or alliance, and capable of causing great misfortune when disobeyed. The betas are invisible ancestors who do the bidding of the alphas and protect their living descendants from harm. The reason human foragers seem, superficially, to have no dominance hierarchy is because no living human can be considered more than a gamma within this system.”

FIVE: Inequality without Agriculture
This chapter once again refers to Rousseau’s ideas about reasons for the human switch to agriculture and the consequent development of inequality. However, the author points out that inequality is not necessarily linked to agriculture in all cases and reviews many societies from this angle. These are the Chumash of the California coast, the foragers of Vancouver Island, the Historic Nootka, and the History Tlingit of Alaska. The author concludes that because the availability of natural resources is unequal in different places and periods, the hunter/gatherers initially create multiple sharing methods to compensate for this variance. However,

the formation of clans transforms it into a group competition with some groups and lineages rising in prestige and power and some falling. Eventually, it forms hereditary inequality.   

Part II: Balancing Prestige and Equality
SIX: Agriculture and Achieved Renown
This chapter describes several societies in which anthropologists observed the process of the transfer to agriculture. These were Gana of the Kalahari region in the 1960s, Chimbu, and some other tribes in New Guinea. Here is a typical list of changes:

1. The creation myth was revised to claim that spirit ancestors (among their other teachings) showed humans how to garden.

2. Even those tribes with a history of immediate-return economy converted to a delayed-return economy, justifying the investment of labor in clearing and planting gardens.

3. Prohibitions against hoarding were relaxed so that gardeners could begin storing plants such as yams and sweet potatoes.

4. Previous behaviors in which men shared meat with everyone and women collected plants only for their family were modified. Now men pressured their wives to produce surplus plants for lavish feasts to which guests were invited.

5. Bride-price escalated.

The author also describes tribesmen’s recollections of warfare as it existed before colonialist-imposed pacification and the related process of raising “Big Men,” which slowly moved to become a hereditary position. This process was mainly based on achievement at war and accumulating surplice resources to sponsor communal building and rituals.

SEVEN: The Ritual Buildings of Achievement-Based Societies; EIGHT: The Prehistory of the Ritual House

These two chapters describe the structure and use of ritual buildings and how they came into existence. In addition, it provides a pictorial description of a few of them discusses the meanings and implementation of related rituals.

NINE: Prestige and Equality in Four Native American Societies
In this chapter author how some individuals have risen over the others in the traditional communities of the Tewa, Hopi, Mandan, and Hidatsa and the result of this process: “All four groups struck a balance between personal ambition and community spirit. These ethnic groups created a socially accepted way for talented individuals to rise to positions of respect while working to prevent the development of a hereditary nobility.”

Part III: Societies That Made Inequality Hereditary
TEN: The Rise and Fall of Hereditary Inequality in Farming Societies
After stating that archeology provides very little information about the formation of hereditary inequality, this chapter looks at several living societies at different stages of this process. Finally, the author presents the comparison of two cultures: gumlao and gumsa:

The premises of gumlao society were as follows:

1. All lineages are considered equal.

2. All villages in a territory are politically autonomous.

3. Each village has a headman, to whom no tribute is owed.

4. Debts require modest repayment, with what we would call interest. (We discuss this in detail later.)

5. The price for all brides is the same.

6. Men of lineage A marry women of lineage B. Men of lineage B marry women of lineage C. Men of lineage C marry women of lineage A.

7. All siblings are equal. It makes no difference whether one is born first or last.

8. When a lineage grows and divides, there is no senior or junior division; both are equal.

9. One’s loyalty is to the place where one lives.

10. Each headman is to be advised by a council of elders.

11. Land is controlled by all the lineages that originally entered the region. Late arrivals must negotiate for land.

12. Everyone makes sacrifices to his or her household ancestors, to one of the lesser sky spirits, and to one of the lesser earth spirits.

13. The head of each lineage does the above and also makes sacrifices to a regional spirit, to a sky spirit other than the supreme spirit Madai, and to an earth spirit other than the supreme spirit Shadip.

In contrast, the premises of gumsa society were as follows:

1. All lineages are ranked relative to one another.

2. Villages are no longer autonomous; all settlements within a territory are controlled by a single chief.

3. Everyone who does not belong to the chief’s lineage must pay him tribute, usually in the form of a thigh from every animal sacrificed.

4. Individuals of high hereditary rank must pay more compensation (interest) for their debts.

5. Families of elite brides can request a higher bride-price.

6. The giver of the bride is considered superior to the recipient.

7. To encourage older sons to leave home and found a new lineage elsewhere, all property is left to the youngest son.

8. Any lineage that grows and splits results in senior and junior lineages, with the former dominant.

9. One’s loyalty is to one’s lineage rather than to a place.

10. The hereditary chief is to be advised by a council of lineage heads.

11. All land is controlled by the chief’s lineage.

12. Lower-ranking people continue to make sacrifices to their household ancestors, and to lesser sky and earth spirits. Chiefs alone make sacrifices to the regional spirit of their lineage, as well as to the supreme sky spirit Madai, his daughter Hpraw Nga, and the supreme earth spirit Shadip. Chiefs are allowed to sacrifice to the highest spirits of Earth and sky, because those spirits are now considered remote ancestors of the chief’s lineage.

ELEVEN: Three Sources of Power in Chiefly Societies
This chapter uses some Polynesian tribes and rank societies of America and Bemba in Africa to describe the changes in the social logic:

1. Achievement-based groups pursued their own versions of life force. The Naga obtained it from the heads of their enemies. The Mandan obtained it from self-induced suffering. Chiefly Polynesians, however, possessed it from birth and could increase it or lose it depending on their own behavior.

2. Leaders in achievement-based societies had expertise of various kinds. They could memorize thousands of sacred names, like the villagers of Avatip, or develop skills at moka, like the people of Mt. Hagen. They could master ivory carving or eagle trapping. In the chiefly societies of Polynesia, however, certain craftsmen were more respected than others, for example, the makers of war canoes, purveyors of sumptuary goods, or carvers of giant statues such as those on Easter Island.

3. In achievement-based societies, bravery in war was already a path to renown. Chiefly societies converted war to a strategy of territorial expansion. Tired of negotiating for the products of a neighboring region, chiefs might just subjugate the region and demand its products as tribute. This enhanced the value of military prowess.

TWELVE: From Ritual House to Temple in the Americas; THIRTEEN: Aristocracy without Chiefs; FOURTEEN: Temples and Inequality in Early Mesopotamia; FIFTEEN: The Chiefly Societies in Our Backyard; SIXTEEN: How to Turn Rank into Stratification: Tales of the South Pacific

These chapters provide detailed anthropological data about this process in the various societies observed over the last century of research.

Part IV: Inequality in Kingdoms and Empires
SEVENTEEN: How to Create a Kingdom;

In this chapter, the author looks at the logic of creating kingdoms and illustrates it by describing how it happened in Hawaii with Kamehameha, Africa with Shaka Zulu, Hunza in India, and Madagascar tribes in recent times. Generally, this process depends on the ability of a rising chief to do one or more of these things:

1. Step up demand for resources from their own subjects, which may lead to revolt.

2. Intensify production through technological improvement, which will likely increase wealth but not necessarily sociopolitical complexity.

3. Expand the territory from which they get their resources, which will probably require the subjugation of neighbors.

EIGHTEEN: Three of the New World’s First-Generation Kingdoms; NINETEEN: The Land of the Scorpion King; TWENTY: Black Ox Hides and Golden Stools; TWENTY-ONE: The Nursery of Civilization; TWENTY-TWO: Graft and Imperialism; TWENTY-THREE: How New Empires Learn from Old
These chapters retell the stories of well-known ancient kingdoms from Egypt pharaohs to America’s Aztec and Incas, all subjects of massive archeological and historical research.

Part V: Resisting Inequality
TWENTY-FOUR: Inequality and Natural Law

This chapter summarizes the development of inequality by first stating that biological evolution defines success as population growth of the species, and humans succeeded in it by developing agriculture, states, and eventually empires. All this occurred via social development rather than biological change. The author defines the starting point like this:

The logic of small-scale foragers has its own first principles. The following would be typical:

  • There is an invisible life force within us.
  • Certain spirits, places, and objects are sacred.
  • Individuals differ in virtue.
  • Generosity is one of those virtues.
  • Older, initiated people tend to be more virtuous than younger, uninitiated people.
  • Later arrivals in a territory are obliged to defer to earlier arrivals.
  • Our way of life is inherently superior to that of our neighbors.

After that, the humans moved first to achievement-based inequality, which turned into hereditary inequality, and the author recounts evidence of how it happened. Finally, the author laments the current condition of the American society, which moved far away from its origins as an egalitarian society that abolished hereditary privilege. His advice to get to the better place is to put hunter/gatherers in charge or at least emulate their principles.


It is an excellent review of archeological and anthropological research of the appearance and development of inequality. I personally have the simplistic view that natural inequality between individuals is pretty small, not exceeding 30%-60%, something like the difference between 5’10” average person with IQ-100 and 7’ basketball player or MENSA member with IQ=160. The inequality comes from society’s organization, and it is a temporary phenomenon. This phenomenon is operational only while the human society moves from its origins as hunter-gatherers living off the natural environment to its destination. This destination would feature individuals living off the sustainable environment modified to meet human needs and based on the multitude of automated processes and artificially created materials, both organic and non-organic. The main activity of these individuals would be the pursuit of happiness, mainly in the form of psychological satisfaction. This kind of arrangement could not possibly come from a socialist reorganization of the society into one huge bureaucratic hierarchy. The socialist/super bureaucratic state tried and failed each time. The return to equality will come from an ownership-based restructuring of society in such a way that every individual would have clearly defined, unalienable, and sufficient access to resources. It is possible to achieve if everybody pays for everything they use, which belongs equally to everyone. For example, a star basketball player’s compensation would be much higher than a non-star player but not hugely higher if both have to pay the royalty for the invention of basketball, tools, communications, and everything else these players use, which belongs equally to all. By the way, history shows that such star players would still do their best because the fame and prestige proved to be good enough reward by and in itself.    

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