Quantitative research offers insights into prehistoric inequalities

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2024-01-03

FILE PHOTO: Objects unearthed from the Chengtoushan Site in Lixian County, Hunan Province

Archaeologists have studied inequality through the years. Over the past century, generations of Chinese archaeologists have, through excavations, accumulated a plethora of materials for researching related issues. Among other materials, tombs are most revealing. Relics in ancient tombs built with countless hours of human labor can all be measured as wealth in the broad sense, so the state of tombs can indicate material wealth of individuals or families and reflect their social status.

China has discovered more than 25,000 tombs dating to the Neolithic Age (c. 7500–2000 BCE). These tombs cover a vast geographical area and are temporally continuous. Systematic and quantitative research using big data can provide profound insights into wealth polarization within ancient society from the dimensions of time and space.

The Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Hong Kong has built a Chinese archaeology database that stores data on over 20,000 Neolithic tombs. With this data, we have conducted interdisciplinary studies of inequalities that existed within China 10,000 years ago, featuring quantitative research on wealth inequality reflected by data from tombs in various regions.

Features of prehistoric inequalities

The extent to which wealth was polarized in prehistoric tombs generally increased, but behind the general trend there are regional disparities. In the Haidai Cultural Region (in modern-day Shandong Province), as well as the Jianghan (central and southern Hubei), Liyang (Hunan), Taihu (Jiangsu and Zhejiang), and Ningshao (northeastern Zhejiang) plains, the wealth gap visible in Neolithic tombs widened to varying degrees over time. In the western Loess Plateau, the gap didn’t grow continually. In the Guanzhong Region, along the middle reaches of the Yellow River, the degree of inequality in tombs of the Early Banpo type and the Shijia type of the Yangshao Culture (c. 5000–3000 BCE) was higher than seen in the Yangguanzhai Cemetery of the Miaodigou type.

In the circum-Songshan Region, Henan Province, which was home to the Erlitou Culture (c. 1735–1530 BCE), wealth in tombs of the Peiligang Culture (c. 6000–5000 BCE) was highly polarized, but the degree of wealth disparity was less evident in tombs from the Yangshao Culture. The small sample of tombs discovered in this region from the Yangshao Culture and the Early Longshan Culture (c. 2500–2000 BCE) is responsible for limited pertinent studies. However, in the Longshan Culture’s middle and late stage, a number of city sites emerged, as wealth inequality increased remarkably, particularly at large sites like Wadian and Meishan, hinting at intensifying social development and widening wealth gulfs.

During the subsequent Erlitou Period, wealth polarization in the Luoyang Basin became more severe, with the Erlitou Site’s polarization index peaking along the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River and the Yangtze River.

According to economic theory, the more total wealth a society has, the higher the inequality index will be. Tomb materials indicate that this theory held true in prehistoric China. The total wealth in prehistoric tombs and the index for wealth polarization were significantly correlated.

The ratio of tombs without burial objects is also indicative of wealth inequality. In the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River, this ratio was markedly lower than that in the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River.

More stable pro-agriculture factors, such as temperate climates and fertile environments, along the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River guaranteed high rice yields, which increased wealth and stabilized wealth accumulation trends, generally improving livelihoods.

Urban settlements, demarcated by defensive facilities like city walls or ditches, were characterized by larger populations, more total wealth, and a higher degree of inequality. Nonetheless, in these settlements, the ratio of tombs without burial objects is significantly lower than that of tombs in dwellings without defensive structures. Despite a higher degree of wealth polarization among urban populations, leading the rich to become richer, ordinary urban residents were more likely to possess more material wealth than their rural counterparts. Therefore, the ratio of tombs without burial objects was lower in urban settlements.

Complication of society

The more complicated a society was, the wider the wealth gap would be, as revealed by information uncovered in tombs. The overall degree of wealth polarization in chiefdoms and early states was significantly higher than that in fishing and hunting, or farming villages. This was because chiefdoms and early states had larger populations with more diversified division of labor and greater wealth overall, which laid the material foundation for elites to amass fortunes. In chiefdoms and states, institutionalized politics, rites, and economic power were largely controlled by upper-class elites, highlighting the connection between wealth and power.

From 3500 to 2300 BCE, in chiefdom societies like Chengtoushan in Lixian County, Hunan Province, and Shijiahe in Tianmen, Hubei Province, both in the middle reaches of the Yangtze River, secularized political power played a dominant role. Tomb wealth of those who held power significantly exceeded the median tomb wealth in each society.

Meanwhile, in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, the Liangzhu Culture (c. 3300–2300 BCE) saw a polity, which had achieved early statehood, established, when rulers wielded most of the political, military, religious, and economic power, resulting in their tomb wealth nearly 100 times the median amount across society. By 1800 BCE, at the Erlitou Site in Yanshi, Henan Province, which was arguably the capital of the late Xia Dynasty (c. 2070–1600 BCE), the figure was hundreds of times more than the average.

Both American anthropologist Leslie White and Australian archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe argued that the shift from hunter-gatherer subsistence to agriculture turned a previously egalitarian society into an unequal one. Indeed, agriculture would, in general, generate more surplus and consequently, inequalities. During the formation of native civilizations around the world, social wealth polarization was primarily grounded in agriculture.

However, the claim that agriculture is the fundamental cause of wealth inequality is hindsight and reductive. Prior to agricultural production in the prehistoric era, wealth gaps suggested by tombs that belonged to some fishing, hunting, and gathering societies had been astonishing.

At the Jiahu Site in Wuyang, Henan, between 7000 and 5500 BCE, wealth was severely polarized, whether in fishing, hunting, and gathering societies in the early period of the site, or the late stage that included agriculture as a form of material production, the degree of tomb wealth polarization was alarmingly high.

In tombs from the Jiahu Site, over 40% of wealth lied with the minority, or 10% of the population. Similar phenomena were also found in other Peiligang Culture sites in the Central Plains. By the metrics established by French economist Thomas Piketty, this distribution of wealth is highly inequitable even today. Therefore, wealth polarization preceded agriculture; agriculture was merely a catalyst for social inequalities, not the root cause.

Multiple factors

Wealth inequality arose and changed for complicated reasons, involving factors such as technology, population size, violence (including war), public engineering, the wealth distribution and redistribution mechanism, and resource pressure.

American archaeologist David Yesner contends that the abundance of material resources contributed to production surplus, and social division including wealth polarization. However, archeologist Gary Feinman, who is now serving the Field Museum in Chicago, pointed out that material resources wouldn’t automatically turn into a surplus or cause institutionalized inequalities, because the existence of material resources doesn’t depend on society.

We are in favor of Feinman’s opinion, and argue, in accordance with renowned British economist Adam Smith’s definition of wealth, that resources only become wealth after human labor is invested, and wealth can only become a cause of inequality after its ownership is defined.

In our research, whether within a fishing, hunting and gathering society, or a farming society, burial objects in tombs and labor for building tombs can be measured as individual or family wealth. Moreover, total wealth and wealth polarization were stably and significantly correlated. This correlation can also be a point of departure for examining general causes of inequality. Hence it is necessary to explore a more universal cause-and-effect relationship, such as the process through which resources turned into wealth and the mechanism for wealth distribution.

In his 2017 book The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, historian Walter Scheidel from Stanford University describes the four “horsemen” of leveling: mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic plagues. Singular archeological cultures within prehistoric sites usually spanned hundreds of years, so the time span of tombs uncovered from these sites should be similarly long. In most cases, it is hard for archaeologists to precisely date these tombs within shorter cultural periods, posing difficulties to observing the impact of the tomb wealth polarization index on the four “horsemen” or short-term leveling factors listed above.

However, data has indeed implied that in certain sites, where humans lived for many years, the index of tomb wealth inequality dropped during certain cultural periods. For instance, the index of tombs dating to the Daxi Phase VI of the Chengtoushan Site was significantly lower than those of Daxi Phase II and III. As Daxi Phase VI also stretched for hundreds of years, we need to integrate multifaceted evidence to investigate whether the decrease of the index resulted from those short-term factors. Thus, studies of wealth leveling factors also are an important component of inequality research.

Social inequalities have a long history. Archaeologists’ quantitative research of wealth inequality through a big data analysis of tomb materials will be illuminating to the source and evolutionary mechanism of inequalities in society, including wealth polarization.


Li Dongdong is an assistant research fellow from the Institute of Archeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Zhiwu Chen is a chair professor from the Faculty of Business and Economics at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), and director of the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences at HKU.

Editor:Yu Hui

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