Super-rich shown to have grown out of ancient farming
“The only large animals in the New World were dogs and turkeys and you cannot do a lot of ploughing with them,” said another study scientist, Professor Michael Smith of Arizona State University.
Scientists have traced the rise of the super-rich deep into our historical past to uncover the ancient source of social inequality. Their conclusion? Thousands of years ago, it was the use of large farm animals – horses and oxen that could pull ploughs – which created the equivalent of our multi-billionaire entrepreneurs today.
The research, published in Nature, is the first attempt to assess how significant wealth gaps arose among our ancestors. These began when farming first established the idea of land ownership – although only mild disparities resulted from the sowing and reaping of crops.
It was only with the domestication of cattle and horses – sometimes thousands of years after land cultivation had begun – that serious divisions between societies’ haves and have-nots began to emerge, eventually creating the ancient equivalent of today’s island-owning, jet-setting billionaires.
“It became possible to extend fields far from a farmhouse by using plough animals, especially oxen, to break up the soil and so plant more crops,” said project leader Professor Tim Kohler, of Washington State University in Pullman. “Some farmers were able to raise productivity significantly and became very rich.”
However, animals such as the horse or ox were not available in the New World – where farming appeared independently of its arrival in the Middle East. As a result, this extension of farms did not occur and wealth disparities in societies were less pronounced.
“The only large animals in the New World were dogs and turkeys and you cannot do a lot of ploughing with them,” said another study scientist, Professor Michael Smith of Arizona State University, in Tempe. “In the end, that had a significant impact on societies. They had less inequality.”
To measure relative wealth in a society, the team worked with archaeologists studying 62 different societies in Europe, Asia and North America. Some of these were up to 10,000 years old and included digs in ancient Babylonia, Catalhoyuk (now in Turkey) and Pompeii.
Researchers analysed the sizes of houses at these sites and used these as indicators of the variations of wealth that existed there at any one time. “House size gives a very good indication of wealth,” said Smith. This point was backed by Kohler. “We consider house size to be a proxy for wealth.”
The figures produced by these analyses provided the team with an indication of a particular society’s wealth. The greater the diversity in house size, the greater the inequality. In turn this disparity was measured using a system based on the Gini coefficient.
“Gini coefficients range from zero for societies in which each person has exactly the same amount of wealth to a society in which a single person owns the resources of an entire society. Such a society would have a Gini coefficient of one,” Kohler said.
The team found that ancient farming societies had an inequality with a coefficient of around 0.35. That is a higher level of inequality than the level that is likely to have existed in earlier millennia when humans lived as hunter gatherers and shared many resources.
“However, this inequality among these, the first farmers, is an awful lot less than the inequality you find in the US today,” said Kohler. “Here we have a Gini coefficient of around 0.8 today.”
In the ancient farms of the New World, inequality stayed more or less the same. However, in Eurasia it started to climb over time until it reached levels of around 0.6 a few thousand years ago. This rise coincides with the introduction of oxen and horses and their exploitation in the ploughing of fields.
“In the Old World, having draft animals to pull your ploughs really lets you expand your production without a massive increase in the energy that you are putting into it,” said Smith. “Since then, inequality in countries has varied considerably,” added Kohler. “As measured by Gini coefficients it was low from the 1930s to the 1960s on both sides of the Atlantic, for example, with women taking up factory jobs during the war and taxes remaining high for the very rich.
“On the other hand, in the US wealth inequality was high in the 1920s and also high in Britain in Victorian times. Serious wealth inequality has fluctuated a great deal since it first emerged.”
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