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April 2018
University of Arizona Press

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Ten Thousand Years of Inequality

The Archaeology of Wealth Differences
Edited by: 
Timothy A. Kohler
Michael E. Smith

Is wealth inequality a universal feature of human societies, or did early peoples live an egalitarian existence? How did inequality develop before the modern era? Did inequalities in wealth increase as people settled into a way of life dominated by farming and herding? Why in general do such disparities increase, and how recent are the high levels of wealth inequality now experienced in many developed nations? How can archaeologists tell?

"Ten Thousand Years of Inequality" addresses these and other questions by presenting the first set of consistent quantitative measurements of ancient wealth inequality. The authors are archaeologists who have adapted the Gini index, a statistical measure of wealth distribution often used by economists to measure contemporary inequality, and applied it to house-size distributions over time and around the world. Clear descriptions of methods and assumptions serve as a model for other archaeologists and historians who want to document past patterns of wealth disparity.

The chapters cover a variety of ancient cases, including early hunter-­gatherers, farmer villages, and agrarian states and empires. The final chapter synthesizes and compares the results. Among the new and notable outcomes, the authors report a systematic difference between higher levels of inequality in ancient Old World societies and lower levels in their New World counterparts.


Michael E. Smith, a professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at ASU, is an archaeologist with two research themes: the Aztecs, Teotihuacan and other societies in ancient central Mexico; and comparative urbanism. He has directed fieldwork projects at numerous sites in the provinces of the Aztec empire in central Mexico.

Praise for this book

“The findings add to our knowledge of history’s haves and have-nots, an urgent concern as the gulf between the one percent of ultra-rich and the rest of us continues to grow.”

Archaeology of Wealth

“A rigorous and highly original contribution to the heated debates, both inside and outside the academy, on inequality, showing that archaeology can extend analysis across the entire planet and back through thousands of years.”

Ian Morris, author of Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve