Why some ancient societies were more unequal than others

This kind of first-degree offspring is extraordinary, only having been cited in royal families of the past headed by god-kings such as the Egyptian pharaohs seeking to maintain a pure dynastic bloodline. (It is known, for instance, that Akhenaten married his eldest daughter, Meritaten, and much later, Ptolemy II married his sister, Arsinoe II – hence his nickname, “Philadelphus” or “sibling loving.”) It has been suggested that this Neolithic elite may have claimed to possess divine powers to ensure the continuity of agricultural cycles by keeping the Sun’s movements going.

The findings support the notion that these Neolithic communities were socially stratified and that the massive stone structures were used to bury transgenerational patrilineal members of these clans. Perhaps equally interesting is the fact that in one case relatives were separated by up to 12 generations, pointing to an unusual stability through time of both the funerary tradition and the stratified society where they lived.

We have seen several case studies of past inequality correlating funerary archeology with genetics that might no longer apply today, where legal regulations (and also the exponential increase of cremations) represent a certain degree of standardization in funeral practices. Nevertheless, an opposite trend could shape the future of the archeology of death: the trend toward personalized coffins, unconventional funerary memorials, and special grave goods. One way or another, mortuary archeology will always be an important subfield of this discipline, and one that will need to rely on the hard sciences such as genetics and forensics.

Perhaps one encouraging conclusion is that despite what we have seen on the archeology of past inequality, societies have been able to evolve and change their social stratifications. One example is Iceland – the country has become one of the most egalitarian societies in the world. In 2018, Iceland passed a law that all companies employing more than 25 people will have four years to ensure gender-equal payment because, according to the head of the Equality Unit at Iceland’s Welfare Ministry, “equality won’t come about by itself, from the bottom up alone “.

* This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in The MIT Press Reader, and is republished with permission.

Carles Lalueza-Fox is Research Professor and Director of the Paleogenomics Lab at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (CSIC-Universitat Pompeu Fabra) in Barcelona. He participated in the Neanderthal Genome Project and led the first retrieval of the genome of an 8,000-year-old European hunter-gatherer. He is the author of Inequality: A Genetic Historyfrom which this article is adapted (this is an edited version of the original MIT Reader piece).

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