Surprise! Inequality began with civilization.

From Science Magazine, one of the most prestigious academic journals in the world:

Seek the richest family in a traditional camp of the Ju/’hoansi/!Kung people of the Kalahari Desert in Africa, and you will almost surely fail. There is no such thing. These hunter-gatherers traditionally moved periodically and had few possessions. What they had, they shared—food, weapons, property, even territory. The poorest looking hut in a camp likely belonged to the leader, explains anthropologist Richard Lee, a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto in Canada, because leaders try to avoid looking superior.

Many anthropologists think this egalitarian lifestyle was an essential feature of hunting and gathering societies. In contrast with both today’s titans of Wall Street and the alpha males of the great apes, people in these societies “had an ethic of sharing that was central to their way of life,” Lee says. “No one takes precedence over anyone else.”

Our species has lived as hunter-gatherers for more than 90% of our history, Lee notes. Today’s economic inequality goes back thousands of years (see main story, p. 822) but in evolutionary time it is relatively recent. Although some of our great ape cousins and arguably our ape ancestors lived in sometimes brutal hierarchies, humans adopted an egalitarian way of life for all but the last 10,000 years.


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