822 23 MAY 2014 • VOL 344 ISSUE 6186 sciencemag.org SCIENCE
By Heather Pringle
In 79 C.E., the year Mount Vesuvius de- stroyed it, Pompeii was not one city but two. Its wealthiest families owned slaves and lived in multistoried, sea- side mansions, one of which was more than half the size of the White House.
They dined in rooms with costly frescoes,
strolled in private gardens, and soaked
in private baths. Meanwhile, at least one-third of all Pompeiian households scraped
to make ends meet, with families dwelling
in single rooms behind workshops, in dark
service quarters, or in small houses. Such
economic disparities were common in the
Roman Empire, where 1.5% of the empire’s
households controlled 20% of the income
by the late 2nd century C.E., according to
one recent study.
Inequality has deep archaeological roots.
Yet if existing traditional societies are any
guide, our hunter-gatherer ancestors were
mostly egalitarian (see sidebar, p. 824). How
and when did a few members of society be-
gin to amass wealth?
Farming has long been blamed for the rise
of inequality. Relying on evidence from the
Near East, researchers suggested that the
earliest elites emerged after 10,500 years
ago, when people successfully domesticated
plants and animals and settled in large permanent villages. In this view, agriculture led
to the production of surpluses and the emergence of managers, craftspeople, and other
specialists, who eventually gained control
over extra resources.
Now, analyses of archaeological sites as
well as ethnographies of traditional societies
are etching a more complex picture, suggesting that some ancient hunter-gatherers may
have accumulated wealth and political clout
by taking control of concentrated patches
of wild foods. In this view, it is the ownership of small, resource-rich areas—and the
ease of bestowing them on descendants—
that fosters inequality, rather than agriculture itself.
The transition from egalitarianism to
societies rife with economic competition
and inequality was “the single most critical watershed in the last 2.5 million years
of human history,” says archaeologist Brian
Hayden of Simon Fraser University (SFU),
Burnaby, in Canada. Over time, it paved
the way for the development of “chiefdoms,
states, and ultimately industrial empires.”
BEFORE FARMING. Archaeologists have
spotted the earliest glimmers of inequality
among the Natufians of the Eastern Mediterranean, one of the first peoples to embark
on the long transition to farming. Beginning
some 14,500 years ago, the Natufians began
settling at least part-time in small villages
amid rich food resources, regularly supplementing their diet of wild game, fruits, and
nuts with wild cereals—a lifestyle that ultimately led to agriculture.
Natufians left some traces of inequality
behind. Archaeologists T. Douglas Price of
the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and PH
A Pompeiian fresco
shows the Roman 1%
living the good life.
Don’t blame farming. Inequality got its start among resource-rich hunter-gatherers
The ancient roots of the 1%