When we were more equal

A few fragments from the surprising history of equality – from the pointlessness of the Pyramids to the Roman Empire’s disastrous impact on health, by Danny Dorling. Cartoons by Ella Furness.

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Weapons: a positive view

It is now well established that hunter-gatherer societies relied on relationships of equality and group co-operation to survive. Individuals who acted in selfish ways could be ostracized and would not be likely to survive if they did not find another group to join.

Fear of being seen as selfish and of being rejected by others is innate in humans who are not psychologically damaged. It was partly tool-making that resulted in humans evolving to favour the survival of those among them who were more inclined to be egalitarian and one particular group of tools may have been key: weapons. Without weapons, the largest and fittest tend to dominate. With weapons, even the smallest can be a killer.

Party for justice!

Greater equality was also a prerequisite for human settlement. To settle in an area, and especially to farm it, requires a degree of co-operation that cannot easily be sustained if the strong are constantly pouncing on the weak. Crops have to be planted. A small surplus needs to be stored and respected to get through the winter, to sow next year’s harvest, and in case of drought.

However, once settled, a degree of surplus can be amassed that hunter-gatherers would never have been able to carry around with them. If not dissipated, a surplus creates a problem because it gives the people who hold it power over others.

One way to deal with this is to redistribute the surplus regularly. Potlatch was the name given to those gatherings routinely held around the American Pacific northwest coast to feast and party. Such feasting was developed as a way of redistributing wealth while coming together in celebration. The world’s earliest surviving map is of folk dancing in a field.

Pyramids and other follies

Early unions

Equitable societies tend not to leave follies behind. Throughout history, where people lived well they left the least traces – generally just their bones and a few essential possessions. A sustainable society leaves as little trace of its existence as possible. The Indus Valley civilization of the second and third centuries BCE, for example, is famed for both its sustainability and for leaving no palaces. Why would people in an equitable society waste their lives building enormous monuments? Monuments are built both to soak up surplus labour and to demonstrate superiority. With superiority comes a rationale for conquest.

You could not persuade a set of free-minded people to build a pyramid. You would have to enslave the labourers either physically, economically or emotionally to get them to work on huge monuments that serve no obvious utilitarian purpose or are unnecessarily grandiose.

What did the Romans do for us?

The Romans

The standard view of the Roman Empire is of a civilizing force for good. Yet skeletons found from times and places of Roman colonization have indicated that people were shorter and in a worse state of health, with the bones showing evidence of increased disease and starvation. There is even evidence of a curtailing of creativity in the diminishing quality of pottery found in those parts of Europe most effectively colonized by the Romans.

Innovation in general stalled in Europe and around the Mediterranean under the yoke of the Roman Empire. Inventions were largely imported from outside rather than created within. More egalitarian China produced a far greater variety than did subjugated Europe; from the wheelbarrow to printing and gunpowder, from new religious beliefs (the East Asian or Taoic religions) to innovations in both philosophy and ecology.

Industry ups the ante

In all of human history, social inequalities rose most abruptly during the 19th century – and most clearly in those parts of the world that were industrializing. Before industrialization, fashions changed slowly and the consumption of material goods was low. There were limits to both growth and to the wealth that could be accumulated when people relied on wind, water and, indirectly, the sun as their primary sources of power.

It was when the more natural and sustainable power sources were replaced by burning coal that many more ‘goods’ could first be made. Steam was generated to drive machines that could more quickly transform one commodity into another: wool into jackets, iron into nails. But the machines could not run themselves. They needed people to tend them. There was suddenly no limit to what could be accumulated by a small group of people who enslaved another group to work for them, magnifying the effects of that labour by attaching human beings to looms and all manner of other machines.

Early capitalism and shrinking people


Victorian Britain was a place of extremely, if not unprecedentedly, high inequality. Life expectancy in the worst parts of Manchester and Glasgow fell to be as low as 25 years of age for decade after decade in the early 19th century, and this was from within the powerhouses of the British Empire. By the 1850s in England, people’s average heights were at an all-time low. They recovered only slowly. By 1918, average heights were only back to where they had been a century earlier in 1818.

The rise of capitalism is often heralded as a great economic success, but until 1917 it was only a success for those who owned great amounts of capital. Only after that year did economic inequalities begin to reduce across the world. Only from then onwards, right through to the 1970s, did the wealth generated in factories powered by burning coal begin to be spread.