Creation of Inequality

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* Book: The Creation of Inequality. How Our Prehistorical Ancestors set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire. by Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus (Harvard University Press, 2012)



1. Peter Turchin:

"In most American universities archaeologists and anthropologists are typically housed within the same department. Yet, as archaeologists Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus write in the preface to their new book, The Creation of Inequality, the relationship between archaeology and social anthropology “over the years has been uneasy at best.” Reconstructing past societies from scant physical remains is a tough job, and surely it can be made easier by using ethnographically attested societies as models. But when archaeologists make comparisons between ancient and recent societies, they usually do it in an haphazard, anecdotal way. And if archaeologists at least realize that they need social anthropologists, the reverse is often not true. “Many social anthropologists … cannot imagine that there is anything to learn from archaeology.”

The basic premise of The Creation of Inequality is “that archaeology and social anthropology contribute more when they work together.” Flannery and Marcus’ ambitious, and in many ways ground-breaking book practices what they preach. However, I should warn the reader that, despite its title, the main focus of the book is really on the evolution of complex societies.

Flannery and Marcus want to the understand the hows and whys of major evolutionary transitions in human history: from egalitarian to achievement-based societies, from those to chiefdoms with hereditary inequality, and subsequently to states and empires. Inequality is certainly part of the story (and the authors periodically come back to it), but it seems to be a consequence of the growth of complexity and sheer scale of human societies, rather than one of the causal mechanisms. "


2. by Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale:

" In 2012, the archaeologists Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus published a brilliant book on The Creation of Inequality. They trace the ways that agriculture has led to inequality in many different parts of the world.

But they insist the association was not automatic. Agriculture made class possible, but many farmers lived in egalitarian societies. In some places the gap between the invention of farming and the invention of class was measured in centuries and in some places in thousands of years.

Flannery and Marcus also show, through careful examples, that where local thugs or lords did seize power, like as not they were later overthrown. In many towns and cities, elites appear in the archaeological record, then disappear for decades, the appear again. In effect, the class struggle never stops."



Peter Turchin:

"The book has four parts. The first deals with egalitarian societies, and the following parts each with one of the three major transitions. Flannery and Marcus typically start by reviewing empirical patterns in a number of ethnographically attested societies. These data are then boiled down to a set of general principles: “social logic” governing the dynamics of these societies. As they explain, “for social anthropologists and archaeologists, the printout of any society’s logic would be analogous to having its DNA profile.” Once such general principles have been deduced, the authors used them to make sense of evolutionary transitions in the past, illustrating their approach on societies for which we only have archaeological data." (


Peter Turchin:

"One well-developed example in the book is the investigation of the role played by the men’s house in achievement-based societies. Such societies permit ambitious individuals (often called ‘Big Men’) to attain leadership positions and accumulate high prestige and social status. However, the authority of Big Men is limited and is ultimately based on their ability to persuade others. Additionally, they cannot pass high social status on to their sons, who must qualify for leadership roles through their own efforts. Flannery and Marcus discuss in detail such ethnographic case-studies as the Ao Naga of Assam, the Mountain Ok of New Guinea, and the Siuai of the Solomon Islands. One of the most widespread institutions in these societies was the men’s house. These ritual buildings had certain features, such as “benches for sitting or sleeping, curated skulls and skeletal parts, sunken floors, white plastered surfaces” that were not shared with residential houses. Remarkably, ancient societies in the Near East, Mexico, and Peru built very similar structures. It stands to reason that their form probably reflected their function. An approach melding social anthropology with archaeology, thus, yields insights into how ancient societies might have worked.

Perhaps the best part of the book is the one that addresses the transitions to state-level societies. Again, the authors begin by reviewing the rise of early states in recent societies: the unifications of Hawai’i by Kamehameha, of the Zulu by Shaka, of the Hunza (northern Pakistan) by Mir Silim Khan, and of Madagascar by Andrianampoinimerina. In all these cases the main sources for transitions to state-level societies are historical, rather than ethnographic.

This review suggests to Flannery and Marcus the following general principle:

- In the four cases we examined, not one kingdom was the offspring of a rank society that simply got bigger. … Instead, all four kingdoms arose through the forced unification of competing rank societies. It would seem that competition among chiefs … was one of the engines driving the process.

In many parts of the ancient word, including Alabama and Panama and Colombia, such chiefly competition continued indefinitely. In Hawai’i, Natal, Madagascar, and the Hunza Valley one of the competing societies eventually gained an advantage. The advantage could be new weaponry, new military strategy, a new irrigation system, or thousands of new rice paddies.

I think this is right as far as it goes, but what happens after the unification? The problem with initial advantages is that they eventually dissipate. Military technologies and strategies can be copied, and what would prevent other societies from building new irrigation systems and rice paddies? How does the center counteract centrifugal tendencies of the subordinate units once the initial advantage is gone? What prevents kingdoms from splitting apart into a congerie of squabbling chiefdoms? In fact, kingdoms that didn’t outlast their founders were a common occurrence in history.

The answer, I believe, lies again in competition – not between chiefdoms, but at a higher level of social organization, between kingdoms (each a conglomerate of chiefdoms). In other words, it is the outside threat that counteracts the centrifugal tendencies within a kingdom. As Flannery and Marcus point out (following American anthropologist Robert Carneiro), “most societies do not surrender their autonomy willingly.” But smaller-scale societies are much more likely to submit to the authority of a chief or king when they are threatened by hostile neighbors." (