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Bigger, More Competitive, More Complex

Sirio Canos i Donnay

BritishKent Flannery and Joyce Marcus
The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors
Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery and Empire
Harvard University Press, 2012
635 pages
ISBN 9780674064690


In 1754, the Academy of Dijon launched an essay competition with the question: “What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorised by natural law?” The most famous entry, albeit not the winning one, was Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality. In it, Rousseau provided a framework for the development of human society, from a “state of nature” in which inequality was restricted to differences in strength or intelligence and characterised by self-respect, to modern societies defined by self-love and greater moral and political inequalities.

In their new book, Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus aim to build upon Rousseau’s work with the aid of the archaeological and ethnographic information made available since the publication of his Discourse. Between them, Flannery and Marcus have over 50 years of research under their belts. Both are world-renowned archaeologists whose work on Mesoamerican civilisations and on theories of socio-political change are major points of reference in and beyond their field. Flannery in particular is considered a key figure of the New Archaeology (aka processual archaeology), a movement which from the 1960s argued for more scientific, systematic, and anthropological approaches. With a focus on the establishment of universal laws of human behaviour, it aimed to effect a contribution to the understanding of humanity as a whole. But despite their processual roots, both Flannery and Marcus have repeatedly gone beyond traditional processual issues and incorporated social concerns and humanistic approaches, as this book clearly reflects.

Flannery and Marcus share Rousseau’s goal: to understand how inequality arose in human societies. They seek to do this by comparative analysing a vast array of case studies, both archaeological and ethnographic in origin. These case studies are presented and interpreted in order, ranging from simple to complex and in increasing degrees of inequality. Special attention is paid to the “social logics” behind each societal type and to the processes and changes that led to the transition between them. The authors argue that inequality is never solely the product of population increases or new technologies, but that it always requires the active manipulation of existing logics by certain groups or individuals.

Their account starts with a description of egalitarian groups of hunter-gatherers or foragers, for whom generosity and humbleness are basic social principles. Flannery and Marcus argue, however, that these groups already incorporate a hierarchy within their social logic because ancestors and other metaphysical forces are considered as a social elite to which all other members of society are subordinated. Consequently, the subsequent development of social inequalities should be understood as resulting not from the development of new logical principles, but from the manipulation of existing ones.

In the second part of the book, Flannery and Joyce address how the development of clans—permanent groups of people who consider themselves related—leads to the emergence of an “us versus them” mentality which justifies previously absent forms of competition, such as raiding. Another common development is the appearance of achieved inequality—privileges which are not inherited but obtained by certain individuals through their actions and skills. In some cases, societies with achieved inequality manage to strike a balance between personal ambition and public good, and these constitute the most stable social forms historically known. In other cases, however, elites manage to make their privileges hereditary, leading to social stratification. As the break between rulers and ruled becomes sharper, stratification turns into rank, leading to the appearance of chiefdoms.

When chiefdoms become bigger and their elites more competitive, some might absorb others, subordinating their elites and leading to the formation of states. These larger, more competitive polities require new technologies, such as bureaucratic systems, and more complex state ideologies, as well as a monopoly over the use of force. Continuous growth and the subordination of competing states leads in turn to the development of empires, with which inequality reaches its greatest extent.

Flannery and Marcus manage to weave together an impressive range of case studies. The studies are well researched, taking recent discoveries into account, and well explained, being both accessible to the general public and interesting to the specialist reader. They illustrate nicely both the diversity of human socio-political arrangements and their commonalities. Archaeological and anthropological data are beautifully integrated, demonstrating the potential of combining the two disciplines in order to gain richer, more complex understandings. Finally, the authors’ focus on changes in, and manipulation of, social logics, provides a very interesting and unusual perspective on social change and agency.

Nevertheless, as well-researched and interesting as the book is, it fails at three levels. First, it is not an easy read. The succession of case studies makes it very dry: they come one after another, with very little narrative or theoretical elaboration other than in the preface and the last chapter. As individually fascinating as the studies are, their relentless succession makes it very difficult for the reader to absorb enough information to remain attentive.

There is also a theoretical objection to be made. Although the authors are very careful to state that the classes of society they describe are not inevitable stages, that “more complex” does not necessarily mean “better”, and that “devolution” is not only possible but in fact common, their account remains very rooted in societal evolutionism. They describe four types of societies: egalitarian; achieved inequality; ranked/chiefdoms; and stratified/states/empires. These coincide with Elman Service’s highly criticised, but widely used, societal evolutionary stages of band, tribe, chiefdom, and state. Like Service, Flannery and Joyce present these societal types as objectified and distinct realities and focus on studying the transitions between them. Yet it has been amply demonstrated that technological, economic, social, and political changes do not always go hand in hand. It is incorrect to assume that a society with a given political system will necessarily have a specific subsistence base or social structure. Aggravating this problem is the fact that nowhere in the book are these terms—nor “inequality” itself—defined.

Finally, in their constant search for universal principles, Flannery and Joyce overlook some important aspects of archaeological interpretation. For example, because certain archaeological patterns resemble the material traces left by living groups, it does not automatically follow that they meant the same and had the same function. Different types of social behaviour can produce very similar material by-products. The urge to develop universal rules for the identification of societal stages or categories also leads to some incorrect inferences. For instance, the equation of wealthy child burials with inherited inequality entirely overlooks the fact that such burials can result also from various forms of ritual activity, and that burial personae are ideological and not necessarily a reflection of a person’s life.

Flannery and Joyce offer an excellent collection of case studies on different past and present forms of socio-political organisation. Unfortunately, their insistence on fitting everything into universalising and social evolutionary strait-jackets detracts from what could have been an enlightening analysis of different forms of inequality, and the various ways in which it is implemented and justified in human societies.

Sirio Canos i Donnay [1] is studying Anthropology at University College London.