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Development can lead to wealth disparity, study finds

Researchers hope this illuminates modern economic inequalities

TAYLOR CARNESS, Evergreen reporter

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Societies who have access to new technologies can boost their potential wealth, but this also boosts total wealth inequality, a new anthropological study led by WSU researchers found.

Anthropology professor Timothy Kohler, along with a team of researchers from across the U.S. and Europe, led a study looking at how this trend of wealth disparity translates to post-Neolithic Eurasia and parts of North America and Africa.

This began when Kohler did a previous study, with an undergraduate at WSU, which measured the sizes of houses dating back to the Basketmaker III Era, 500 to 750 A.D. and Pueblo I Period, 750 to 900 A.D. in Colorado. During the study they were invited by the Amerind Foundation, a research center and museum, to discuss their work and publish a book, which will be come out in April 2018.

While he was working on creating graphs of data for the last chapter of his book, he noticed housing and wealth patterns that were unexpected.

“I decided to try something different by looking at the date of the houses we measured compared to the date people began to domesticate animals,” Kohler said.

He found that 2,500 years after the development of domesticated plants and animals, the Old World had much higher wealth disparities than the New World.

Kohler and his team analyzed 63 societies from post-Neolithic Eurasia, North America and Africa, representing different levels of civilization, to compare prehistoric wealth disparity based on house sizes and distribution.

The wealth disparity is measured by Gini coefficients – a number between 0 and 1, where 1 is the highest measure of inequality, and 0 means wealth is distributed equally.

They found that the prehistoric bend of wealth inequality began with the development of agriculture. Specifically, it was caused by Old World societies having access to large domesticated mammals that would increase their ability to farm larger amounts of land. These societies were able to quickly expand their wealth, whereas New World societies who did not have these technologies could not. This started the gap between wealth disparities across the region.

The study also suggested that Old World societies that were able to domesticate horses and camels for warfare were able to take over more territory, allowing people of a higher status to increase their wealth even more, and therefore, increase the Gini coefficient for that society.

Though these are prehistoric results, economic inequality and wealth disparity is a modern issue that researchers hope will be influenced by their findings.

Kohler wants to encourage other archeologists to examine their data from this perspective.

“My hope is that archaeology can contribute to more of the important debates in our current society,” Kohler said, “like whether inequality is a bad thing…if we can shed any light on whether high wealth disparity are in some sense bad for society or some sense good for society.”

University of Oxford Professor Amy Bogaard, who participated in this study, said she believes technology instead of livestock drives current global economic inequality.

With this study, being the first and largest comparative survey that quantifies wealth disparity, researchers hope to promote further attempts to look at wealth inequality and its causes, Bogaard said. This new information can potentially influence the way societies and regions look at the importance of distributing technology with equal access.

“The key finding, so far, is that you can have very long term social development, in some cases, without [wealth inequality] becoming radical,” Bogaard said.

She said, in modern times, and with the rise of social technology, information is the tool that companies use to expand their wealth. According to results, this study proved that without equal access to this information or technology, global wealth inequality will continue to increase.

“Future wealth is increasingly going to be about information and access to data that is a valuable resource,” Bogaard said. “If we want to prevent this happening [we need] to give people that access.”

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Development can lead to wealth disparity, study finds