A Short History of Wage Inequality


What do politicians, socialists, capitalists, and other idealists argue about almost constantly? The issue of wage inequality. Everywhere you look it seems like there is talk about “income redistribution,” “croney capitalism,” or “predatory financial institutions.” People seem to view the issue of inequality as something novel, something new. Yet, there has always been a war between the Haves and the Have-Nots. Sure, it’s easy enough to trace the history of riches and affluence in civilizations that kept written records. However, there are some anthropologists investigating the history of inequality through other means, as well.

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Differing Societies

Anthropology experts have examined specific characteristics from a wide variety of early civilizations. Sites studied include those inhabited by more nomadic, hunter-gatherer groups; communities that relied on small-scale farming; and early Roman cities. All of them functioned very differently from one another. Their means of survival and relationships with one another regularly dictated the likelihood of inequality.

What Led to Inequality?

Evidence suggests that in antiquity, much like today, inequality was the result of amassing resources for survival. As nomadic, hunting societies dwindled, so did an equal playing field. Hunting and gathering gave way to farming. This meant that people were better equipped to store their belonging and crops, raise cattle, and create a true sense of ownership.

For reasons that were once hard to discern, the advent of agriculture marked the first time in human history where things became seriously unequal. Permanent settlements and livestock turned into physical representations of wealth. This trend persisted for millennia until explorers left Europe, Africa, and Asia to travel to the New World. There, intrepid settlers once again found themselves on equal footing.

Research carried out in search of inequality’s origins focuses on a relatively small portion of ancient populations. Investigators hope to continue their explorations into ancient civilizations to see if the trend of agriculture leading to inequality holds true for other, possibly more isolated, communities. Some of them believe that societies all inevitably lead to differences in economic affluence. Others hope to see proof that there are ways for human beings to live in mutually beneficial communities.

How do you feel about this historical understanding of inequality? Do you think that there are some societies that existed that transcended the need for personal gain with which everyone is so familiar? What do you think it would take to make modern civilizations more equal? Is it wrong for experts to delve into the anthropology of inequality to serve a political agenda? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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