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Wealth Inequality Increased in Ancient Times with Animal Domestication


Wealth inequality increased over the past 11,000 years and was tied to the rise of animal domestication, according to an analysis by a team of international scientists, including Elizabeth Stone from Stony Brook’s Department of Anthropology.

Elizabeth Stone
Professor Elizabeth Stone examines artifacts from an archaeological dig in Iraq.

Published in Nature, the study focused on 63 archeological sites across North America, Europe, Asia and Africa, using house size as a measure of wealth. The sites included a range of economic systems – from ancient cities to hunter-gatherer communities – and spanned the past 11,000 years.

“The houses that I looked at often have cuneiform tablets within them which document the inheritance, sale and exchange of real estate, including houses,” Stone said. “From my data it is clear that house size reflected both wealth and the maturity of the family living in it.”

Stone explains that the team expected wealth inequality to increase over time as societies and ruling systems developed but found Old Word societies experienced more wealth inequality than those in the New World. And unexpectedly, this inequality increased much more in Eurasia than in North America.

The reason for this disparity, according to the authors, is the presence of large domesticated animals, such as horses and cattle that were present in Eurasia but absent in North America in Old World societies. Such animals provided the abilities to plow fields for food product and transportation to move, develop and create mounted armies, all of which enabled Eurasian Old Word societies to extend territory and acquire wealth. The research was supported in part by the National Science Foundation.


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