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New research claims use of beasts of burden opened the doors to social inequality. Source: Aleksandar Todorovic / Adobe Stock

How Oxen Plowed the Way for Social Inequality

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Inequality became rooted in ancient societies with the rise of ox-drawn plows.

Ancient societies across Eurasia as far back as 7000 years ago experienced the rise of an upper class. And according to a new paper published in the journal  Antiquity by a team of scientists from the University of Oxford, Bocconi University and Sante Fe Institute, inequality originated with the economic divisions caused by the adoption of ox-drawn plows.

Archaeologists and anthropologists generally agree that social inequality began when humans transitioned from hunting and gathering to agricultural lifestyles. But according to this new research paper it wasn’t sparked by “agriculture”, but by land becoming more valuable and substitutes for human labor being found, causing labor to be greatly reduced in value.

Illustrating this result co-author Samuel Bowles said ox-drawn plows were a "labor-saving technology" that separated wealth from labor, “a decoupling fundamental to modern wealth inequality.“

Plowing with horned cattle in ancient Egypt. Painting from the burial chamber of Sennedjem, c. 1200 BC. (Public Domain)

Plowing with horned cattle in ancient Egypt . Painting from the burial chamber of Sennedjem, c. 1200 BC. ( Public Domain )

Ancient Class Struggles

Today’s economists and futurists speculate on what will happen to workforces when we have fully functioning robots driven by artificial, then general intelligence, all controlled by an elite group of people. This new paper highlights a similar situation in pre-history when the ox-drawn plow caused what the scientists call a “great economic disparity” between those who owned the ancient “robots” (ox-drawn plows) and the laborers whose work they displaced.

The researchers present new methods of statistically analyzing wealth inequality across various types of wealth in different ancient societies through history. In the first of two companion papers, an analysis of data from 150 different archaeological sites revealed a steep increase in inequality in Eurasia beginning around 4,000 BC - which is several millennia  after the transition from hunting, gathering and fishing, to agriculture.

Korah-Khoikhoi dismantling their huts, preparing to move to new pastures. Aquatint by Samuel Daniell. 1805. (Public Domain)

Korah-Khoikhoi dismantling their huts, preparing to move to new pastures. Aquatint by Samuel Daniell. 1805. ( Public Domain )

The surprise here, according to lead author Amy Bogaard, an archaeologist based at the University of Oxford and external professor at the Santa Fe Institute, “isn’t so much that inequality takes off later on, it’s that it stayed low for such a long time.” According to co-author Mattia Fochesato, an economist at Bocconi University in a report on University of Oxford News , this means mainstream ideas about inequality rising with agriculture require updating as these new studies demonstrate some agricultural societies were “remarkably egalitarian for thousands of years.”

The Start of Stashing

Traditionally, Neolithic societies across the Middle East and Europe hand-cultivated small plots of land using hoes and grew pulses and grains. Around 4,000 BC certain farmers became resource rich and began raising specialized plow-pulling oxen; and with their increased power and speed they expanded across the landscapes farming on lands and producing in excess of their family requirement - surplus resources.

And to put this expansion in context, one farmer with an ox team could cultivate “ten times or more” land than a hoe farmer, and so arose the concept of owning land. Man-ox teams also began cultivating more stress-tolerant crops, like barley and specific wheats, that required much less manual labor to harvest.

Agriculture: raking rice paddies in China with an ox-drawn plow. Engraving by J. June after Augustin Heckel. (Wellcome Images/CC BY 4.0)

Agriculture: raking rice paddies in China with an ox-drawn plow. Engraving by J. June after Augustin Heckel. (Wellcome Images/ CC BY 4.0 )

By 2000 BC many ancient societies had become deeply divided. Resource rich landowners passed down their land holdings to their children, assuring the retention and expansion of certain families as elites, while the vast majority of families remained landless.

Chance, Force, or Hard Work

The second companion paper provides economic models in which the researchers identify a distinction between farming systems restricted by human labor, versus emerging systems where human labor was less required and land were the two key limiting factors. In the paper, Fochesato explains that labor was once the key input for production, but when this was supplanted by land social differences widened as family wealth was accumulated and passed down the generations.

Who then becomes the elites of society? And how? According to Bogaard in the paper, radical inequality happened by “chance, or force, or hard work,” and one consequence of inequality is that the most socially unequal societies are found to be most “fragile”  and susceptible to changing politics and climate change.

An inhabited initial from a 13th-century French text representing the tripartite social order of the Middle Ages: the ōrātōrēs (those who pray – clerics), bellātōrēs (those who fight – knights, that is, the nobility), and labōrātōrēs (those who work – peasants and members of the lower middle class). (Public Domain)

An inhabited initial from a 13th-century French text representing the tripartite social order of the Middle Ages: the ōrātōrēs (those who pray – clerics), bellātōrēs (those who fight – knights, that is, the nobility), and labōrātōrēs (those who work – peasants and members of the lower middle class). ( Public Domain )

Social Inequality Today - Old Ideas Die Hard

Marxist archaeology is structured around the theory that past societies should be examined through Marxist analysis, thus, ideas about primitive forms of communism: slavery, feudalism, and capitalism, were and are a no-no.

In 1935, archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe visited the Soviet Union and began looking at ancient societies as having developed through economic means and his three excavations at Skara Brae in Orkney concluded that no hierarchal priesthood existed.

The discovery of the vast Neolithic temple complex at Ness of Brodgar , including a “Neolithic cathedral for the north of Scotland” and a high-priests’ residence, completely shatters Childe’s interpretations of the ancient island societies, and this new paper lays it to rest.

Ness of Brodgar dig. (S Marshall/CC BY SA 4.0)

Ness of Brodgar dig. (S Marshall/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

While Skara Brae is on the other side of the world from the focus of the paper, there too, around 4000 BC, a society split and a class of master-farmers, leaders, chiefs, priests, and construction managers emerged and their legacy is still visible in the array of stone circles and burial cairns peppered across the islands.

The takeaway for people today, according to Bogaard in the paper, is that if opportunities arise to monopolize land or other key assets in a production system, people will do it. And without sufficient institutional mechanisms, “inequality is always where we’re going to end up.”

Top Image: New research claims use of beasts of burden opened the doors to social inequality. Source: Aleksandar Todorovic / Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie

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