Emergence of Inequality

The Emergence of Permanent Economic Inequality and Political Hierarchy
Working Group, February 13-15, 2009

Convener: Samuel Bowles

This meeting of the working group on persistent inequality will bring together about twelve archeologists, anthropologists, economists, and others to explore competing explanations of the Holocene institutional revolution in light of the empirical record. This is the third meeting I have arranged in preparation for my Ulam lectures (the other two being the second meeting of the “Intergenerational Transmission of Wealth and the Dynamics of Inequality” group and the “Inequality, Hierarchy and Egalitarianism in Primates”).

At the end of the Pleistocene and early Holocene politically hierarchical and economically unequal social institutions emerged and eventually came to characterize most human societies, displacing the egalitarian social structures of foragers that had predominated for most of biologically modern humans' existence. This Holocene institutional revolution is one of the two most important innovations in human social structure (the other being the rise of capitalism) yet experienced. Two remarkable characteristics of the new institutions were the dramatic extension of possession-based property rights, allowing private storage, accumulation, and intergenerational transmission of wealth and the emergence of specialized political roles of coordination and coercion associated with chiefdoms, bigmen systems, and eventually states.

These innovations occurred independently in a large number of locations, in some cases long predating the domestication of plants and animals, and in some cases not occurring until long after the agricultural revolution. Prior to the emergence of states, the institutional innovations of the Holocene were not imposed by centralized bodies but emerged from the largely uncoordinated actions of large numbers of people. Thus the Holocene institutional revolution is a rich laboratory in which to explore the dynamics of social structures.

A rich empirical and theoretical literature (mostly by archeologists) has explored these topics. In recent years the field of paleo-economics has emerged, adding mathematical modeling and expanding the use of agent based modeling in this area. Recent explanations have stressed climate change, the fact that domestication facilitated storage and accumulation, steepened the resource gradient, and allowed the unambiguous demarcation of ownership, the possibility that the above developments supported novel equilibrium network structures with highly asymmetrical structures, the change in the nature of wealth that permitted chance differences in individual fortunes to persist across generations, and the role of trade and exotic prestige goods.

The group will meet at the Institute for two and a half days for a mix of presentations and informal working sessions. No joint publication is anticipated.


Mark Nathan Cohen, Archaeology, SUNY
Ken Ames, Archaeology, Portland State
Gregory Dow, Economics, Simon Fraser University
Douglas Kennett, Archaeology, University of Oregon
Robert Boyd, Anthropology, SFI and UCLA
Arthur Robson, Economics Simon Fraser University
Aimee Plourde, Archaeology, UCL
Peter Richerson, Ecology, University of California at Davis
Henry Wright, Archaeology, U of Michigan
Ian Kuijt, Archaeology, Notre Dame
Carles Boix, Political Science Princeton
Tim Kohler, Archaeology, Washington State
Samuel Bowles, Behavioral Sciences, SFI and U of Siena

Background Materials

Raiding for Women in the Pre-Hispanic Northern Pueblo Southwest?.
by Timothy A. Kohler and Kathryn Kramer Turner
Population and Warfare.
by Timothy A. Kohler, Sarah Cole, and Stanca Ciupe
Division of Labor, Economic Specialization, and the Evolution of Social Stratification.
by Joseph Henrich and Robert Boyd
The Nature of Wealth and the Dynamics of Inequality.
by Samuel Bowles
The Emergence of Inequality and Hierarchy: A Network Explanation.
by Samuel Bowles
Bones of Contention: The Political Economy of Height Inequality.
by Charles Boix and Frances Rosenbluth
An Ecological Model for the Emergence of Institutionalized Social Hierarchies on California’s Northern Channel Islands.
by Douglas J. Kennett, Bruce Winterhalder, Jacob Bartruff1, and Jon M. Erlandson
The Archaeology of Rank.
by Kenneth M. Ames
On the Evolution of the Human Capacity for Inequality and/or Egalitarianism,
by Kenneth M. Ames. In Foundations of Inequality, 2nd ed. Edited by T. Douglas Price and Gary Feinman. Springer, In press.
Tempo and Scale in the Evolution of Social Complexity in Western North America: Four Case Studies.
by Kenneth M. Ames
Institutional Evolution in the Holocene: The Rise of Complex Societies.
by Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd
Peter Richerson and Richard McElreath. 2007. Chiefdoms (Lecture).
The Origins of Prestige Goods as Honest Signals of Skill and Knowledge.
by Aimee M. Plourde
Prestige Goods and the Formation of Political Hierarchy --- A Costly Signaling Model.
by Aimee M. Plourde
Demography and Storage Systems During the Southern Levantine Neolithic Demographic Transition.
by Ian Kuijt
People and Space in Early Agricultural Villages: Exploring Daily Lives, Community Size, and Architecture in the Late Pre-Pottery Neolithic.
by Ian Kuijt
Proposed Content for Santa Fe Institute Symposium.
by Mark Nathan Cohen
CID Rethinking the Origins of Agriculture.
by Mark Nathan Cohen
The Emergence of Health and Social Inequalities in the Archaeological Record.
by Mark Nathan Cohen
Appendix from Ancient Health, by M. N. Cohen and G. Crane Kramer. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2007.
by Mark Nathan Cohen
The Origins of Inequality: A Theoretical Framework from Economiccs.
by Gregory K. Dow and Clyde G. Reed