From Cattle To Capital: How Agriculture Bred Ancient Inequality : The Salt Archaeologists say early civilizations in North and Central America were more egalitarian than the societies of Eurasia — and they think it's because early Americans didn't have cattle or horses.
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From Cattle To Capital: How Agriculture Bred Ancient Inequality

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From Cattle To Capital: How Agriculture Bred Ancient Inequality

From Cattle To Capital: How Agriculture Bred Ancient Inequality

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ELISE HU, HOST:

Politicians, economists - lots of people these days are talking about the wealth gap between the rich and poor. This worry is even driving archaeologists to examine wealth disparities in ancient societies. And they found apparently early civilizations in the Americas were more egalitarian than those in Europe or Asia. Here's NPR's Dan Charles.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Archaeologist Timothy Kohler at Washington State University says studying the ancient world can provide insights about current affairs.

TIMOTHY KOHLER: That's what's so fun about it. It widens our perspectives and allows us to see that the way things are organized now is not the only possible way for things to be organized.

CHARLES: Measuring inequality in societies that didn't leave written records is hard, of course, but physical ruins remain, and Kohler thought even back then, the richer you were, probably the bigger your house was. So he and his colleagues collected measurements of homes from all over.

KOHLER: We have some teepee rings from Wyoming.

CHARLES: Roman ruins, Mesopotamian settlements - 63 sites in all. He reports this week in the journal Nature that increasing inequality arrived with agriculture. When people started growing more crops, settling down and building cities, organizing states, the rich usually got much richer compared to the poor.

KOHLER: But after that period, for some reason, wealth gets much more unequally distributed in the Old World, in Europe and Asia, than it does in the New World. This was a total surprise.

CHARLES: Kohler is not sure why this happened, but he has some ideas.

KOHLER: Now, think about it. You know that animals like cows, oxen, horses, sheep, goats, pigs are all Old World domesticates.

CHARLES: They simply didn't exist in the Americas before Columbus arrived, so it was only in the Old World that ancient farmers could use oxen to plough more fields and expand production and get richer compared to poorer farmers who couldn't afford those animals. They were accumulating wealth, economic capital.

KOHLER: Our word capital comes from the same Proto-Indo-European root as our word for a head of cattle does.

CHARLES: Now, there's debate about whether this ancient history is even relevant to current affairs. But archaeologist Michelle Elliott, who teaches at the Sorbonne University in Paris, says a lot of archaeologists believe it is.

MICHELLE ELLIOTT: Because they feel like we have these data about, you know, our species that go back to its origins.

CHARLES: And it would be nice, she says, if that data could help us understand problems today. Dan Charles, NPR News.

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