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The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire

The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire

By Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus. Pp. xiii + 631, figs. 72. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 2012. $39.95. ISBN 978-0-674-06469-0 (cloth).

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The Creation of Inequality is a substantial undertaking. At 631 pages in five chapters, 54 of which are bibliographic notes, the authors have created an expansive argument that is well thought out and well researched. The absence of in-text citations and the minutiae of finer academic distinction that require them, as well as the accessible style of writing, make the book useful to specialist and nonspecialist alike, as was the authors’ goal. This is not to say that the book is theoretically narrow or empirically shallow. It is neither, which, combined with its accessibility, explains and merits its great length. On theory, Flannery and Marcus follow the advice in the analogy of MacNeish: “Theory is like perfume. Put on the right amount and the suitors will swarm around you. Put on too much and they’ll think you’re covering up the smell of bad data” (xiii). Certainly, there is no malodorous absence here. Instead, the authors cover dozens of societies and the full range of premodern social organization, displaying a dizzying breadth of knowledge. Holding the argument together is middle-range theory, which allows the authors to bring together, for example, the disparate ethnographies of Polynesian islanders with the archaeologically known cultures of central Mexico. Indeed, this theory requires such odd pairings (327).

A curious and telling aspect of the book is the relatively few times that the word “inequality” is actually used. Inequality here means institutional inequality, and the history of inequality is the history of forms of social organization and the iniquities those forms created. What the book is really about is describing how societies change and identifying those mechanisms by which such change can occur. While external forces—changing climate, invasions, and the diffusion of people and ideas—are all given explanative power to affect change, the authors are most interested in internal change: how people choose new leadership forms, how they adapt their cosmologies to change, and why after more than 6,000 generations, humans suddenly invented all the forms of inequality we know today in just more than 400. The authors ask this, as Rousseau did, in words that permeate and frame the book: “Man is born free, and yet we see him everywhere in chains” (v, 563). This volume is about addressing that fact and answering why we let it happen.

Part 1 of The Creation of Inequality takes the reader though Rousseau’s “state of Nature” and sets the baseline in the Paleolithic for the development of inequality. Physical differences had always separated members of species—strength, agility, intelligence—and they form the basis of social organization in our nearest primate kin. Thus, in chimpanzee troupes, the strongest (the alphas) dominate the rest through violence, betas dominate all but the alphas, and so on. The authors compare this “natural” order to the stratification of beings in early cosmologies: gods are all-powerful alphas, ancestors are betas, and humans can only be gammas. What separated humans from chimpanzees and prevented our earliest societies from being ruled by force was our capacity for language. In these first chapters, Flannery and Marcus demonstrate how most early groups used shame, humor, and the clamor of the group to maintain fairness among its members.

Yet the authors argue that while the original social experimenters who first invented groups larger than the extended family (i.e., clans) were solving internal inequality, they were also creating new external forms of exclusion: an “us-versus-them” mentality and a concept of “social substitutability” (40). In these pages are the fascinating first steps toward blood feuds, spiraling through alliances and escalating into warfare. Embedded within these actions are the people who will take up leadership positions, profit from them, and attempt to make their positions hereditary.

The second and third parts of the book explore the multiplicity of ways that achieved-rank leaders attain that power, how they manifest it, and how they at times have attempted to pass it on. Part 2 begins by discussing the invention of agriculture and its social effects. The authors reject the determinism of grand theories of the Neolithic Revolution and instead make good use of particular urban spaces, examining their articulation as a means to materialize social order and to document the changes to that order. Specifically, men’s ritual houses are studied across cultures and across millennia to show the shift from private rituals to more public performances, leading to the quintessential form of monumental public architecture: the temple. These threads culminate in the capital cities of Laphta (Tonga) and La Venta (Mexico), where the competitive building of ancestor mounds and monoliths produced vast and rich sacro-urban landscapes as visual justification for the formal, hierarchical stratification of society.

In the remainder of the book, the authors address the development of kingdoms and their metastasizing into empires. The Hawaiian Islands, where the rich ethnographic and archaeological evidence illustrates the intense and extended competition among hereditary chiefs, generation after generation, set the stage for other famous, first-generation states to be explored: Zulu, Zapotec, Egypt, Uruk. What the Hawaiian example does best is to convey simultaneously the shocking speed with which a state appears to form (including attendant cosmological changes) and the long, messy processes of its adolescence (347). If states are made in the subjugation or annexation of chiefdoms, then empires are made by states swallowing other states. When seen historically as, respectively, a fifth-generation state and second-generation empire, a reconsideration of the traditional histories of the Aztec and Inka is fascinating. Flannery and Marcus persuasively show how states breed new states out of necessity (e.g., threatened chiefdoms join together to fight back against aggressive states), and, once the seeds of this new social organization are sown, how new states can use this new social strategy not only to resist but also to usurp their attackers en route to empire.

In the end, this volume’s greater purpose is beyond academic. Through comparison of past societies comes a clarity of perspective on our own, and the authors rightly place the modern constructs of marriage (182–83) and racial discrimination (10) under the scrutiny of history. Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the book—being transported via vivid passages to these fascinating societies, some distant, some just barely gone, and some still extant—is also one of the most poignant. Finally, the authors warn that there is a cost in our unacknowledged competition for a single, global state. “One day we may discover that preserving the world’s reservoir of diverse social logic was just as important as preserving its biodiversity” (560).

Eric Poehler
Department of Classics
University of Massachusetts Amherst
Amherst, Massachusetts 01003

Book Review of The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire, by Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus

Reviewed by Eric Poehler

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117, No. 4 (October 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1174.Poehler

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