The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire

Egalitarianism is hard to find if you pass over anthropology for archaeology, argues Chris Knight

May 24, 2012

"Man is born free, yet we see him everywhere in chains." When Jean-Jacques Rousseau uttered these words, they smouldered for a while before igniting the French Revolution. Archaeologists Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus present The Creation of Inequality as an expansion and updating of Rousseau's Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality among Men (1753). But, they hasten to reassure us, their new version "allows for alternatives to bloody revolution. If inequality is the result of incremental changes in social logic - and if those changes can be reconstructed - might we not be able to return society to equality just as incrementally, beginning with the most recent changes and working back?" A quick calculation suggests that this revolution won't be completed for 15,000 years - the time that has elapsed since the end of the last Ice Age.

A first step, they suggest, might be to "put hunter-gatherers in charge". This, they explain, "would reduce inequality overnight". Their reasoning here is that hunter-gatherers would be refreshingly intolerant of greedy stockbrokers and financiers. "Bernie Madoff would simply have been lured into the wilderness and shot with poisoned arrows," they explain. So while bloody revolution should be avoided, the quiet use of poison would seem to be OK.

The authors are critical of social anthropologists, accusing them of treating the past as "merely a 'text' that we can interpret any way we want". Archaeologists, the authors claim, are denied this luxury by "the brute facts of physical remains". While not ignoring the work of social anthropologists, Flannery and Marcus have chosen - from among the hundreds of studies available - only those applicable to "the archaeological evidence". A consequence is that where no traces are left in the ground, anthropological phenomena are ignored.

Unfortunately, this decision excludes precisely the hunter-gatherer studies that are vital to an understanding of how egalitarianism is practised. The results are most apparent in their extended survey of "men's houses" as precursors of temples, cathedrals, palaces and fortresses across the world. From this book, you would be forgiven for thinking that men's houses had existed since the earliest emergence of religion and symbolic culture. The fact that such buildings are invariably modelled on a precursor structure attributed to women is completely overlooked.

Such gender-blindness is an inevitable consequence of misusing ethnography in this way. Take, for example, the Mbuti hunter-gatherers of Central Africa. The elima is the largest communal structure they ever build. A place of assembly for women, it's the focal point of their most socially unifying ritual, a celebration of a girl's first menstruation. The entire women's community is boisterously in charge, but only temporarily - that's why they build their house only of grass. Comparable periodicity is characteristic of all African hunter-gatherers: men prevail on some ritual occasions, women on others. Across the continent, the primary emphasis is consistently female initiation. Flannery and Marcus aren't interested. Since the grass structure leaves no trace, its very existence escapes the archaeologists' grasp.

The outcome is a weirdly one-sided picture in which hunter-gatherer men monopolise ritual power, keep that power and then - with the development of sedentism and farming - progressively tighten their grip on it. This logic prevails throughout the entire span of history. Look through the ground plans in the first part of the book. The authors offer a succession of what they term "men's houses". Over the millennia, such buildings become ever more substantial, eventually turning into those temples, cathedrals, palaces, fortresses and so forth. Men are invariably in charge. So, despite the book's title, it seems inequality did not need to be created. It was there from the start.

I don't want to rubbish this book. The authors are hugely knowledgeable and have surveyed a vast array of...men's houses. If you are new to world archaeology, this must be one of the most comprehensive and up-to-date surveys available. But why call it The Creation of Inequality? An understanding of that question would surely entail a prior exploration of the internal logic of equality. Through what specific mechanisms do hunter-gatherers maintain their egalitarianism? Women's rituals, grass huts, dance steps and ribaldry are part of the answer. Such things may not leave an archaeological trace, but that's no excuse for forgetting.

The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire

By Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus

Harvard University Press

635pp, £29.95

ISBN 9780674064690

Published 31 May 2012

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