Study: Social Inequality Has Been Around Since the Stone Age

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A team of archaeologists finds the earliest evidence of differential land access among European farmers in the Neolithic era.

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PROBLEM: The custom of inheriting land and livestock engendered the ever-present issue of social inequality. When did this practice begin?

METHODOLOGY: Archaeologists from the Universities of Bristol, Cardiff and Oxford studied more than 300 human skeletons from sites across central Europe. They used strontium isotope analysis to help determine the origin of the remains.

RESULTS: Men buried with distinctive Neolithic stone adzes, which are tools used for smoothing or carving wood, had less variable isotope signatures than men buried without adzes. This suggests that those equipped with the stone tools had access to closer, more fertile land than those buried without. Moreover, early Neolithic women were more likely than men to have originated from areas outside those where their bodies were found, suggesting patrilocality or the male-centered kinship system where females move to reside in the location of the males when they marry.

CONCLUSION: Hereditary inequality appears to have begun over 7,000 years ago in the early Neolithic era. Lead author R. Alexander Bentley says in a statement, "[T]here was no looking back: through the Bronze Age, Iron Age and Industrial era wealth inequality increased but the 'seeds' of inequality were sown way back in the Neolithic."

SOURCE: The full study, "Community Differentiation and Kinship Among Europe's First Farmers," is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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