Inequality: Why Egalitarian Societies Died Out
FOR 5000 years, humans have grown accustomed to living in societies dominated by the privileged few. But it wasn’t always this way. For tens of thousands of years, egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies were widespread. And as a large body of anthropological research shows, long before we organised ourselves into hierarchies of wealth, social status and power, these groups rigorously enforced norms that prevented any individual or group from acquiring more status, authority or resources than others.*
Decision-making was decentralised and leadership ad hoc; there weren’t any chiefs. There were sporadic hot-blooded fights between individuals, of course, but there was no organised conflict between groups. Nor were there strong notions of private property and therefore any need for territorial defence. These social norms affected gender roles as well; women were important producers and relatively empowered, and marriages were typically monogamous.
Keeping the playing field level was a matter of survival. These small-scale, nomadic foraging groups didn’t stock up much surplus food, and given the high-risk nature of hunting - the fact that on any given day or week you may come back empty-handed - sharing and cooperation were required to ensure everyone got enough to eat. Anyone who made a bid for higher status or attempted to take more than their share would be ridiculed or ostracised for their audacity. Suppressing our primate ancestors’ dominance hierarchies by enforcing these egalitarian norms was a central adaptation of human evolution, argues social anthropologist Christopher Boehm. It enhanced cooperation and lowered risk as small, isolated bands of humans spread into new habitats and regions across the world, and was likely crucial to our survival and success.