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How Did Social Inequality Arise?

We look at one theory of the origins of hierarchy and social inequality

In The Creation of Inequality: how our prehistoric ancestors set the stage for monarchy, slavery, and empire Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus begin with the notion that the fields of Anthropology and Archaeology should inform one another. Anthropology learns from humans within living memory what they think and feel; while archaeology provides silent clues to the past: buildings, tools or bones.

They build a detailed account of how over the last five thousand or so years, humans have built unequal societies. They examine the underlying cultural logic of different social formations to show how inequality, and subsequent formations, can arise. They deny any straight line model of social development, that one stage leads to another, but rather that each stage can allow the next development. They also note that it isn’t a given level of technology or natural abundance that gives rise to different social formations (they note how the Andes, where the wheel was never even invented, can be seen as the graveyard of such theories). They suggest that over millennia, societies have oscillated between relatively equal or unequal forms, following ‘social logic’.


They begin with the most equal form of society: the nomadic extended kin group (such as has been encountered in the Arctic within historic memory). They observe that these groups of hunter/gatherers are relatively egalitarian, without formal leaders or classes. They also note that this distinguishes humans from our near primate relatives, who in similar bands operate either with alpha males or an alpha male/beta male coalition. They propose, though, that such dominance hierarchies and behavioural traits do remain in human communities; but that, rather, the function of the alpha male has been replaced by ‘God' with beta coalitions replaced by interceding ancestors and spirits.

That is, people treat the deity and ancestors as if they were above them in a dominance hierarchy (such as, by adopting submission positions), and thinking of themselves as subordinates to these entities. All living humans thus become gammas, in effect equal in subordination. Religion, they suggest, is accompanied by collective ritual, and by inducement of euphoric states to reinforce its effects.

As an aside, this is a fascinating concept, firstly because it does provide for the notion that there was a positive evolutionary reason for the development of the idea of god (which rebuts the arguments of some pro-theists who suggest the disutility of the idea as evidence for some real basis for religion). Secondly, it suggests a useful interpretation of contemporary political psychology. When dictators and their boot boys elevate themselves to godlike status or servants of god, they free themselves from the constraints imposed by such submission. As we shall see, below, the development of inequality was in part about the appropriation of divine sanction.

The hunter gatherer bands may have engaged in gift relations with other nearby bands. As the authors note, the emphasis would have been on seeking and maintaining social relations and retaining the possibility of help and assistance when things may have gone bad. They suggest that, rather than developing language to assist in practical tasks, language and symbolic thinking emerged as a means of coalition building and enabling links between extended kin groups. A development of this, for example, was the nomination of special friends for young males. They give the example of an Eskimo tribe, whose boys had friends allocated parts of a slaughtered seal, indicating their sharing of the goods. They also note the ‘magic of names’ where a bond is assumed between people sharing a name, even beyond a kinship relation.

They conjecture that it was such behaviour that gave rise to the extended clan-based society. A key feature of such a society is the notion of social substitutability. If a person commits a murder, say, it becomes acceptable to kill one of their clan as a substitute for retaliating directly against them individually.

Clan-based societies

Clan-based societies can be very complex. Often, they are divided into two moieties, and the members of one clan from one moiety cannot marry with the members of clans from that same moiety. This can be further complicated by lineages within clans, and much more specific clan-marriage-based arrangements (such as members of clan A always marry into clan D but not clan C).

Flannery and Marcus identify two important features of the cultural logic of such societies. The first is the principle of ‘We were here first’. This has repercussions as certain clans begin to claim pre-ordinance based on clans that are putatively descendants of later arrivers. The second is that individuals may have or acquire virtue. At first, this may be simply the difference between initiated men and un-initiated boys, later there may be stages to initiation, so that even some full grown men may lack virtue. They also note, by reference to Australian aboriginal tribes, that some clans can lay claim to a certain copyright of prestigious rites and rituals.

This sets the scene for the development of the next stage, the achievement-based societies. In hunter-gatherer and tribal societies, anyone getting too big for their boots and bossing others around would be quietly taken into a field and murdered. They also note that mockery, too, was a powerful tool for curbing ambition. In achievement based-societies, an individual could achieve the rank of chief, through a number of routes: success in warfare, or religious/ritual means being among them. The achievement at this stage is individual, and the chief is required to maintain their position through feasts and gift giving. Rank does not pass automatically to off-spring, but chiefs can take steps to try and confer honour on their children and put them in a strong position to achieve rank themselves.

The archaeological evidence at this stage consists of the examination of grave goods. The general absence of children with expensive funeral goods indicates that people did not have exalted status from birth, for example. A common feature of early human societies is the men’s hut, a place where men go and perform rituals (possibly a development from the men staying together while hunting). In achievement societies this becomes the chief’s hut, and the gradations within the men become apparent based on their sleeping position (the lowest ranked sleeping next to the door, thus being most at risk of being killed in a sneak attack).

Entire groups of people become known as ‘Nothing men’ with no status and no property to live off. The chief controls the land and natural resources: sumptuary goods come into existence, in the form of jade, gold or certain shells.

As the authors note, a feature of early human religion was that it could be frequently rewritten, based on new experiences and circumstances. In achievement societies, the leading members of society try to cast themselves as nearer to god (or descended from god) and, often, as different from the rest of humanity. A part of this attempted appropriation, they suggest, is the gradual transformation of the men’s hut into the public temple, and so that building becomes a key archaeological indicator of the development of hierarchy within a society.

Hereditary rulers

At its most fully developed, chiefly rank becomes hereditary. The chief becomes taboo, and no one may look at or touch him (often meaning foreigners have to be employed to assassinate him). Even his waste becomes charged with dangerous levels of virtue, and has to be safely disposed of. Instead of commanding great skill himself, he controls craftsmen who produce status goods, which he can distribute.

At this point, it should be noted, the authors present evidence of societies oscillating between equality and hierarchy, and elite groups lose their grasp on power (through incompetence, or in-fighting, or both). It should also be noted that these developments are not dependent on the state of agriculture or prevailing techniques of production, and seem to stem as much from the capacity of individuals at the right time taking chances and staking a claim to pre-eminence.

This is certainly the case for their model of the emergence of kingship: a distinct caste apart with an hereditary leader. Their basic model is that kingdom’s emergence comes from a usurper taking control of a tribe and annexing nearby groups, in short, through a sort of revolution. They produce examples from African and Polynesian anthropology and history. They note that as hereditary rule emerges within one society, neighbouring societies begin to adopt more and more of its attributes, as a defensive mechanism. As with the move from achievement society to hereditary society, they suggest that multiple attempts to assert sovereignty may have been tried and failed before any given monarch ascended to the purple.

Empires continue the process of creating inequality, by denuding local elites of their power/virtue and creating a hierarchy of civic centres, with each successive layer subordinated to the centre and the king. Multiple strategies can be employed to achieve this (as can be said of each of the previous stages). Often, empires were born out of the ruins of preceding empires (as in the Andes), with successive waves of domination refining the process of conquering and absorbing neighbours.

If there is a flaw with the book, it lies in one of its great strengths. There is a wealth of detail about a great many societies, but the continued listing of the dimensions of huts does get slightly in the way of progressing the book’s points (and may inhibit its utility as a popular book).

Throughout there is a running side argument, around the nature of marriage. They note that historically it was a primarily economic arrangement, and they list at least seven different permutations of marriage (one man two women; one man one woman, two men, one woman, etc.) Their argument is very much with the so-called traditionalists whose model of marriage, they note, goes all the way back to the particular bureaucratic conditions of ancient Sumeria. Marriage, though, is often a route towards hierarchy, with control of marriage between people of high status being a means to create and sustain inequality.

They also touch on ancient warfare. They note how in clan societies, it has been known for the victors in a war to compensate the defeated for their dead, as a means of retaining social bonds and preventing conflict continuation. They show, through anthropological data from Polynesia, that tribal warfare was particularly brutal, with the sneak attack and massacre being favoured (the other evidence they have for this is the increasing incidence of defences around settlements as they develop). They point to Mesoamerican carvings to show how captives were taken and tortured in public display in kingdoms there.

The book does not conclude with any political programme. They do note that the attempt to impose hierarchy has been resisted at every stage. The nearest they come to a suggestion is an anecdote about an archaeologist whose proposal was to ‘put hunter gatherers in charge’.

Overall, this is a worthwhile and important book in the description and articulation of how we came to be where we are. At the very least, it is an eye-opening description of the amazing and varied forms of human society. If nothing else, you can finally discover exactly what a Big Kahuna was.