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Why Some Ancient Societies Were More Unequal Than Others


This kind of first-degree offspring is extraordinary, having only been cited in royal families of the past led by god-kings such as the Egyptian pharaohs seeking to maintain a pure dynastic lineage. (It is known, for example, that Akhenaton married his eldest daughter, Meritaton, and much later Ptolemy II married his sister, Arsinoe II – hence his nickname, “Philadelphus” or “loving brother”.) He has been suggested that the Neolithic elite may have claimed to possess divine powers to ensure the continuity of agricultural cycles by maintaining the movements of the Sun.

The findings support the idea 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 the parents were separated by up to 12 generations, indicating an unusual stability over time of both the burial tradition and the stratified society in which they lived. .

We have seen several case studies of past inequalities correlating burial archeology to genetics that may no longer apply today, where legal regulations (but also the exponential increase in cremations) represent some standardization of practices funeral. Nevertheless, an opposite trend could shape future of death archeology: the trend towards personalized caskets, unconventional grave monuments 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 draw on the hard sciences such as genetics and forensics.

A perhaps encouraging conclusion is that despite what we have seen about the archeology of past inequalities, societies have been able to evolve and change their social stratifications. An example is Iceland – the country has become one of the most equal societies in the world. In 2018, Iceland passed a law according to which all companies employing more than 25 people will have four years to guarantee equal pay between the sexes because, according to the head of the equality unit at the Icelandic Ministry of social affairs, “equality will not happen by itself, from the bottom up on its own”.

* 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 laboratory at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (CSIC-Universitat Pompeu Fabra) in Barcelona. He participated in the Neanderthal Genome Project and led the first genome recovery of an 8,000-year-old European hunter-gatherer. He is the author of Inequality: a genetic storyfrom which this article is adapted (this is an edited version of the original MIT Reader article).

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