How Oxen Plowed the Way for Social Inequality

How Oxen Plowed the Way for Social Inequality

Inequality became rooted in ancient societies with the rise of ox-drawn plows.

Ancient societies across Eurasia as far back as 7000 years ago experienced the rise of an upper class. And according to a new paper published in the journal Antiquity by a team of scientists from the University of Oxford, Bocconi University and Sante Fe Institute, inequality originated with the economic divisions caused by the adoption of ox-drawn plows.

Archaeologists and anthropologists generally agree that social inequality began when humans transitioned from hunting and gathering to agricultural lifestyles. But according to this new research paper it wasn’t sparked by “agriculture”, but by land becoming more valuable and substitutes for human labor being found, causing labor to be greatly reduced in value.

Illustrating this result co-author Samuel Bowles said ox-drawn plows were a "labor-saving technology" that separated wealth from labor, “a decoupling fundamental to modern wealth inequality.“

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Plowing with horned cattle in ancient Egypt . Painting from the burial chamber of Sennedjem, c. 1200 BC. ( )

Ancient Class Struggles

Today’s economists and futurists speculate on what will happen to workforces when we have fully functioning robots driven by artificial, then general intelligence, all controlled by an elite group of people. This new paper highlights a similar situation in pre-history when the ox-drawn plow caused what the scientists call a “great economic disparity” between those who owned the ancient “robots” (ox-drawn plows) and the laborers whose work they displaced.

The researchers present new methods of statistically analyzing wealth inequality across various types of wealth in different ancient societies through history. In the first of two companion papers, an analysis of data from 150 different archaeological sites revealed a steep increase in inequality in Eurasia beginning around 4,000 BC - which is several millennia after the transition from hunting, gathering and fishing, to agriculture.

Korah-Khoikhoi dismantling their huts, preparing to move to new pastures. Aquatint by Samuel Daniell. 1805.

The surprise here, according to lead author Amy Bogaard, an archaeologist based at the University of Oxford and external professor at the Santa Fe Institute, “isn’t so much that inequality takes off later on, it’s that it stayed low for such a long time.” According to co-author Mattia Fochesato, an economist at Bocconi University in a report on University of Oxford News , this means mainstream ideas about inequality rising with agriculture require updating as these new studies demonstrate some agricultural societies were “remarkably egalitarian for thousands of years.”

The Start of Stashing

Traditionally, Neolithic societies across the Middle East and Europe hand-cultivated small plots of land using hoes and grew pulses and grains. Around 4,000 BC certain farmers became resource rich and began raising specialized plow-pulling oxen; and with their increased power and speed they expanded across the landscapes farming on lands and producing in excess of their family requirement - surplus resources.

And to put this expansion in context, one farmer with an ox team could cultivate “ten times or more” land than a hoe farmer, and so arose the concept of owning land. Man-ox teams also began cultivating more stress-tolerant crops, like barley and specific wheats, that required much less manual labor to harvest.

Agriculture: raking rice paddies in China with an ox-drawn plow. Engraving by J. June after Augustin Heckel. (Wellcome Images/ CC BY 4.0 )

By 2000 BC many ancient societies had become deeply divided. Resource rich landowners passed down their land holdings to their children, assuring the retention and expansion of certain families as elites, while the vast majority of families remained landless.

Chance, Force, or Hard Work

The second companion paper provides economic models in which the researchers identify a distinction between farming systems restricted by human labor, versus emerging systems where human labor was less required and land were the two key limiting factors. In the paper, Fochesato explains that labor was once the key input for production, but when this was supplanted by land social differences widened as family wealth was accumulated and passed down the generations.

Who then becomes the elites of society? And how? According to Bogaard in the paper, radical inequality happened by “chance, or force, or hard work,” and one consequence of inequality is that the most socially unequal societies are found to be most “fragile” and susceptible to changing politics and climate change.

An inhabited initial from a 13th-century French text representing the tripartite social order of the Middle Ages: the ōrātōrēs (those who pray – clerics), bellātōrēs (those who fight – knights, that is, the nobility), and labōrātōrēs (those who work – peasants and members of the lower middle class).

Social Inequality Today - Old Ideas Die Hard

Marxist archaeology is structured around the theory that past societies should be examined through Marxist analysis, thus, ideas about primitive forms of communism: slavery, feudalism, and capitalism, were and are a no-no.

In 1935, archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe visited the Soviet Union and began looking at ancient societies as having developed through economic means and his three excavations at Skara Brae in Orkney concluded that no hierarchal priesthood existed.

The discovery of the vast Neolithic temple complex at Ness of Brodgar , including a “Neolithic cathedral for the north of Scotland” and a high-priests’ residence, completely shatters Childe’s interpretations of the ancient island societies, and this new paper lays it to rest.

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Ness of Brodgar dig. (S Marshall/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

While Skara Brae is on the other side of the world from the focus of the paper, there too, around 4000 BC, a society split and a class of master-farmers, leaders, chiefs, priests, and construction managers emerged and their legacy is still visible in the array of stone circles and burial cairns peppered across the islands.

The takeaway for people today, according to Bogaard in the paper, is that if opportunities arise to monopolize land or other key assets in a production system, people will do it. And without sufficient institutional mechanisms, “inequality is always where we’re going to end up.”


A plough or plow (US both / p l aʊ / ) is a farm tool for loosening or turning the soil before sowing seed or planting. [1] Ploughs were traditionally drawn by oxen and horses, but in modern farms are drawn by tractors. A plough may have a wooden, iron or steel frame, with a blade attached to cut and loosen the soil. It has been fundamental to farming for most of history. [2] The earliest ploughs had no wheels such a plough was known to the Romans as an aratrum. Celtic peoples first came to use wheeled ploughs in the Roman era. [3]

The prime purpose of ploughing is to turn over the uppermost soil, [4] bringing fresh nutrients to the surface [5] while burying weeds and crop remains to decay. Trenches cut by the plough are called furrows. In modern use, a ploughed field is normally left to dry and then harrowed before planting. Ploughing and cultivating soil evens the content of the upper 12 to 25 centimetres (5 to 10 in) layer of soil, where most plant-feeder roots grow.

Ploughs were initially powered by humans, but the use of farm animals was considerably more efficient. The earliest animals worked were oxen. Later, horses and mules were used in many areas. With the industrial revolution came the possibility of steam engines to pull ploughs. These in turn were superseded by internal-combustion-powered tractors in the early 20th century.

Use of the traditional plough has decreased in some areas threatened by soil damage and erosion. Used instead is shallower ploughing or other less-invasive conservation tillage.

Two Oxen Ahead: Pre-Mechanized Farming in the Mediterranean

It may surprise readers who have any familiarity with Paul Halstead’s research and my own that I asked to review this book. To be honest, having already read the ebook, the only version available at my library, and borrowed the print version from ILL, I wanted a copy. Halstead describes his own scholarship on his website: “My research has focussed chronologically and geographically on the later prehistory (Neolithic and Bronze Age) of Greece, thematically on the relationship between farming economies and social change, and methodologically on the contributions of zooarchaeology and ethnoarchaeology to the study of past animal and crop husbandry.” Many of his article titles are intimidating to the philologist, such as (with R. Fraser, A. Bogaard et al.), “Manuring and stable nitrogen isotope ratios in cereals and pulses: towards a new archaeobotanical approach to the inference of land use and dietary practices.” This book, though, is ethnoarchaeology with the weight on the ethno-. Although it keeps prehistory and classical antiquity in view, its main concern is the recent past. I read it because I am working on Hesiod’s Works and Days, but I think I would be glad that I had read it even if I were not. I could perhaps have learned some of the material that it covers in other ways, but not nearly so conveniently, or so enjoyably. I have learned a great deal about Hesiod from this book, even though he is never mentioned. Indeed, the early Iron Age, for which zooarchaeological data are thin, is lacking, while references to Neolithic, Bronze Age, classical, and Roman evidence are not. Halstead’s farmers operate in a far more developed market system than anyone thinks any ancient economy had, and grow crops that Hesiod never knew, like maize and potatoes, but the book is still full of material to think with. There are aspects that I am not at all competent to evaluate, and I certainly cannot helpfully locate this book within archaeological debates, but I hoped that my enthusiasm would have value precisely because this is not what I do. Archaeologists and social-economic historians are unlikely to need my recommendation, but many of us (readers of BMCR) know very little of farming, even modern farming, and our students know even less. Students in my Homer class did not know what winnowing is, so the winnowing-fan of Tiresias’ prophecy in the Odyssey was completely obscure to them, and others have no idea of the difference between wheat and barley. A colleague in English once asked me to explain what hay is.

The book is based largely on conversations with older farmers (including many women), mostly in various locations around Greece, but also in Italy, Provence, Andalucia, and Asturias in Northern Spain. Halstead looks at the varying strategies and practices of people who farmed without modern machinery. The book is permeated by his respect for his informants, whose voices come through clearly and whose resilience always impresses. The author’s voice is distinct, too (in the preface he explains why he did not obtain “informed consent” and the acknowledgements thank “infant passports to households closed to unaccompanied adults,” both named Halstead: ethnography has its tricky aspects). The informants, however, are by no means the only source: citation of scholarship is abundant, with references listed at the end of each chapter. Illustrations are small and not beautiful, but sometimes very useful, like the series of photographs of winnowing on Amorgos (Figures 4.2 and 4.3).

It is very readable and approachable: a short glossary aids readers who enter as ignorant as I did of basic terms like “glume” and “maslin.” It is full of detail that is fascinating even when not especially relevant for the classicist, like the bakers on Crete who produce a barley bread with a little chaff and awn (bristles) in it, to give an impression of authentic rusticity, in contrast with an anecdote from the desperate early 1940s about a woman whose poverty is revealed when she pays back a borrowed loaf of bread to a neighbor, and the flour has been stretched with bitter vetch, normally only an animal fodder (164-6). Some passages illuminate antiquity even when it is not mentioned. On 335-6, Halstead discusses how communities praised neat farm work, even when it was more precise than was practically necessary, and how the cultural capital produced by skill or extra effort (or lost owing to sloppiness) had material effects. The respected farmer would find it easier to conduct business, whether finding a partner or marrying a child.

The material is initially divided by the cycle of tasks, very much like the Works and Days : plowing and sowing, harvest, and threshing and sorting. One chapter considers the annual strategies for avoiding failure and promoting success: crop rotation and fallow, manuring, irrigation, and weeding. The next looks at longer-term planning: clearing land, terracing, drainage, balancing subsistence and cash crops, livestock, the domestic cycle (from having young children to support to having surplus labor from teenagers and young adults), negotiating with the larger community, and the last chapter addresses the value of comparison for understanding the past. Throughout, Halstead emphasizes the variety of strategies employed under different conditions, including the nature of the land, the livestock and labor available, and the circumstances of particular years. A small and irregular plot will be cultivated by hand with a hoe, and the seed dibbled or planted in a row a larger field is plowed and the sower broadcasts. He also addresses the complexity of the farmer’s risks. If a grain grows too quickly, it is vulnerable to frost in some areas and to “lodging,” stem collapse. Sheep can be lightly grazed on such a crop so that it does not grow too high, but then if the spring rains are not good, the crop may not recover.

Halstead argues that local variation has always been greater than the changes in Mediterranean conditions over time, and that changes in vegetation and soil can be documented and incorporated in our understanding of date, but that the basic challenges of farming are still comparable. Farmers are more rational than scholars have often thought—farmers who explicitly base their practice on tradition are often selecting among alternatives and basing their decisions both on experience and on a varied repertory of traditional sayings. Modern analogy is to be used heuristically. It does not tell us what people did in the past, but helps formulate questions and provide possible interpretations of the evidence. He lists ten issues (349-353) that analogy usefully illuminates: the flexibility of actual farming practice how a decision at one stage of production has effects through the cycle how complex the calculations of costs and benefits can be the importance of scale buffering strategies, since production is uncertain year to year how the cycle of family life brings both difficulties and opportunities the integral role of livestock the importance of exchanges of labor, livestock, land, and food the way markets can increase inequality the hierarchy of grain crops may be a better example of diffusion than developments in technology (I am not sure about this last). Inequality is a concern throughout.

One of Halstead’s informants defines “farmer” as two oxen ahead and one behind” (“dumb as an ox” rather than “strong as an ox” is the relevant saying). The book shows just how false that is.

Inequality: What we've learned from the 'Robots of the late Neolithic'

Seven thousand years ago, societies across Eurasia began to show signs of lasting divisions between haves and have-nots. In new research published in the journal Antiquity, scientists chart the precipitous surge of prehistoric inequality and trace its economic origins back to the adoption of ox-drawn plows.

Their findings challenge a long-held view that inequality arose when human societies first transitioned from hunting and gathering to agriculture. According to the researchers, it was not agriculture per se that ushered in substantial wealth inequalities, but instead a transformation of farming that made land more valuable and labor less so.

"Ox drawn plows were the robots of the late Neolithic," explains co-author Samuel Bowles, an economist at the Santa Fe Institute. The oxen were a form of labor-saving technology that led to a decoupling of wealth from labor - a decoupling fundamental to modern wealth inequality. "The effect was the same as today: growing economic disparities between those who owned the robots and those whose work the robots displaced."

In the first of two companion papers, the researchers present new statistical methods for comparing wealth inequality across different kinds of wealth, different societies, in different regions, at different times in history. Their analysis of data from 150 archeological sites reveals a steep increase in inequality in Eurasia from around 4,000 BC -- several millennia after the advent of agriculture.

"The surprise here isn't so much that inequality takes off later on, it's that it stayed low for such a long time," says lead author Amy Bogaard, an archaeologist based at the University of Oxford who is also an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute.

"The usual story -- that the societies that adopted agriculture became more unequal -- is no longer valid because we observed that some societies who adopted agriculture were remarkably egalitarian for thousands of years," says co-author Mattia Fochesato, an economist at Bocconi University.

Before around 4,000 BC, societies across the Middle East and Europe cultivated a patchwork of small garden plots, which Bogaard likens to present-day "allotments" in the UK. Families would have grown a variety cereal grains, as well as lentils, peas, and other pulse crops that needed to be harvested by hand. Notably, they would have tilled the soil by hand using hoes, in some cases also with the help of unspecialized cattle (such as aging milk cows) to pull plows, and carefully monitored their gardens during the growing season to protect them from wild animals. "It was quite a busy landscape, with lots of people working in and around these garden plots."

Then something changed. Farmers who were well resourced enough to raise and maintain specialized plow oxen saw new opportunities in farming additional land. A single farmer with an ox team could cultivate ten times or more land than a hoe farmer, and would begin to acquire more and more land to cultivate. Those who owned land and ox teams also began to opt for more stress-tolerant crops, like barley or certain kinds of wheat, that didn't require much labor.

By the second millennium BC in many farming landscapes fields stretched to the horizon, and societies were deeply divided between wealthy landowners, who passed their holdings on to their children, and land-poor or landless families.

The mechanism that drove this change is detailed in an economic model in the researchers' second paper. It reveals a key distinction between farming systems where human labor was the limiting factor for production, versus systems where human labor was more expendable, and where land was the limiting factor.

"So long as labor was the key input for production, inequality was limited because families did not differ much in how much labor they could deploy to produce crops, " Fochesato explains. "But when the most important input became land, differences between families widened because land and other material forms of wealth could be accumulated and transmitted over generations. By chance, or force, or hard work, some families came to have a lot more than others. Then radical inequality arose."

The two new papers are part of a growing body of scientific research that is applying comparative economic measures to the archaeological record. Much of the work is part of Bowles' long-running series of interdisciplinary workshops on the origins of wealth inequality, which convene annually at the Santa Fe Institute. The new research supports previous findings by archaeologist Tim Kohler et al (Nature, 2017), which drew attention to a markedly greater wealth inequality in post-Neolithic Eurasia than in the Americas, where domesticated draft animals would not have been available.

One consequence of inequality, Bogaard notes, is that the most unequal societies tended to be more fragile and susceptible to political upheaval or climate change.

The takeaway for people today is that "if there are opportunities to monopolize land or other key assets in a production system, people will. And if there aren't institutional or other redistributive mechanisms, inequality is always where we're going to end up." Land is still a relevant asset, Bogaard says, "but there are many other kinds of assets now that we should think about people's capacity to own and benefit from."

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.

How the Civil War Changed the Way Americans Thought About Economic Inequality

I n the run-up to the 2020 election, some Americans are increasingly worried about the immense power that wealth plays in the country&rsquos democracy. Those concerns would not have surprised Americans in 1776 &mdash they assumed that property and political power were intertwined. Indeed, one had to own property to vote, although in America (unlike England) landholding was widespread and therefore most free men could vote. But even as Americans praised their new republic as uniquely egalitarian, they worried that a future aristocracy of wealth would corrupt its politics. Some even called for legal limits on property ownership. After 1800 the country changed markedly, as individual property rights became increasingly sacred, wage labor became increasingly common, and the gap between rich and poor widened. States gave voting rights to all white men, making race instead of property the foundation of politics. But the tradition of American economic equality persisted in the Workingmen&rsquos parties of the 1820s and the communitarian movement of the 1840s.

That egalitarian tradition surged during the Civil War. As the war became a campaign to end slavery, some leading Republicans envisioned using confiscation to reshape the aristocratic South into a more equal society in terms of property ownership and power. As growing numbers of black people fled slavery, Union officers offered those refugees land on abandoned plantations. Egalitarian land reform became official policy in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation, as President Lincoln issued an order allowing freedmen to claim up to 40 acres of abandoned or confiscated land for $1.25/acre.

Northern reformers saw redistribution as linking the egalitarian tradition of the American Revolution to the needs of emancipated Americans. The abolitionist Wendell Phillips told an enthusiastic crowd that &ldquoIf the people own the land, it is a democracy if a few men own it, it is an oligarchy,&rdquo and that since the U.S. for generations had robbed millions of men of their lives and labor, it &ldquoowes to the negro not merely freedom &mdash it owes to him land&rdquo &mdash reflecting the view dating back to John Locke that a man&rsquos labor gave value to the land. In early 1864, Congress considered a bill that would have allowed freedmen to claim up to 160 acres of confiscated lands in the South. Although the bill failed, its goal was applauded by many. The New Orleans Tribune, the first black-owned newspaper in the South, insisted that &ldquono true republican government&rdquo could exist &ldquounless the land and wealth in general, are distributed among the great mass of the inhabitants&rdquo and that &ldquoan oligarch of slaveholders or property holders&rdquo had no place in America.

At this point, the U.S. Army, for practical reasons, instituted confiscation and redistribution. As General Sherman&rsquos forces cut a devastating swath through the southeast, they were joined by many people who were fleeing slavery with few possessions. On Jan. 12, 1865, after Sherman took Savannah, he met with 20 African American leaders, who emphasized their desire &ldquoto have land, and turn it and till it&rdquo &mdash the right to vote was much further down their list. Four days later, Sherman issued Special Field Order 15, confiscating 400,000 acres of fertile land along the coast and redistributing it to freedmen families in 40-acre allotments, with Army mules to help them plow &mdash the famous &ldquo40 Acres and a Mule.&rdquo In March, before adjourning for the year, Congress created the Freedman&rsquos Bureau within the War Department and gave it the task of renting or selling abandoned or confiscated land to freedmen at low rates.

Throughout the occupied South, former slaves took control of plantations abandoned by Confederate owners. They claimed freedom from dependency as well as from slavery, planting food and sometimes a little cotton. They created governing councils, churches and schools, and in various ways sought to control their land. When plantation heirs tried to reclaim the land, freedmen forcefully resisted. Observers throughout the South, like the Freedmen’s Bureau official in South Carolina, reported the “wide spread opinion amongst these people that the land of their former masters belongs to them, that they have worked on it all of their lives without pay and it is now theirs as a compensation for such work.&rdquo

The situation darkened with Lincoln&rsquos assassination on April 14, 1865. The new president, Andrew Johnson, thought black people should remain dependent laborers and offered amnesty to all Confederates leaders. Yet through the end of the year, freedmen continued to believe that the U.S. would confiscate rebel-owned plantations and redistribute it in 40-acre parcels, and they were encouraged by calls for such action by leading Congressmen like Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania. By the fall, rumors spread that this would happen between Christmas and New Year&rsquos Day, and in some places these rumors took on the mystical tinge of the biblical Great Jubilee and Revelations. Unfortunately, freedmen were disappointed as federal officials moved reluctantly to enforce Johnson&rsquos policies.

Confiscation and redistribution again seemed possible when radical Republicans gained power with the November 1866 elections and renewed those efforts. Stevens in the House told his colleagues that, for freedmen, homesteads were &ldquofar more valuable&rdquo than the vote as a way to avoid future servitude, and Charles Sumner in the Senate insisted that black Americans needed farms to exercise effective political clout. But their party was increasingly focused on social stability, defending prewar property rights, and ending military occupation of the South. At the end, Congress insisted that freedmen only needed the vote, which it (supposedly) guaranteed with the 15th Amendment.

Congress&rsquos refusal to confiscate and redistribute land highlighted the new assumptions that political and economic power were distinct, private property sacred, and wage labor virtuous. Until the 1800s, Americans assumed that a citizen needed economic independence in order to exercise their proper political role in a virtuous republic. By the end of the Civil War they overwhelmingly believed that citizens needed only the vote. Unfortunately, that assumption would allow Southern reactionaries to regain power and shove African Americans back into poverty. It would also fail to prevent great wealth from mushrooming and playing an increasingly dominant role in American politics, which was precisely what the Founders feared.

Industrial Societies

Industrial societies emerged in the 1700s as the development of machines and then factories replaced the plow and other agricultural equipment as the primary mode of production. The first machines were steam- and water-powered, but eventually, of course, electricity became the main source of power. The growth of industrial societies marked such a great transformation in many of the world’s societies that we now call the period from about 1750 to the late 1800s the Industrial Revolution. This revolution has had enormous consequences in almost every aspect of society, some for the better and some for the worse.

On the positive side, industrialization brought about technological advances that improved people’s health and expanded their life spans. As noted earlier, there is also a greater emphasis in industrial societies on individualism, and people in these societies typically enjoy greater political freedom than those in older societies. Compared to agricultural societies, industrial societies also have lowered economic and gender inequality. In industrial societies, people do have a greater chance to pull themselves up by their bootstraps than was true in earlier societies, and rags-to-riches stories continue to illustrate the opportunity available under industrialization. That said, we will see in later chapters that economic and gender inequality remains substantial in many industrial societies.

On the negative side, industrialization meant the rise and growth of large cities and concentrated poverty and degrading conditions in these cities, as the novels of Charles Dickens poignantly remind us. This urbanization changed the character of social life by creating a more impersonal and less traditional Gesellschaft society. It also led to riots and other urban violence that, among other things, helped fuel the rise of the modern police force and forced factory owners to improve workplace conditions. Today industrial societies consume most of the world’s resources, pollute its environment to an unprecedented degree, and have compiled nuclear arsenals that could undo thousands of years of human society in an instant.

A Brief Economic History of Time

Capitalism changed how humans perceive the passage of hours, days, and weeks. This made people more productive, but did it make them any happier?

What is an economy? You might say it is how people who cannot predict the future deal with it.

People save money to protect themselves from calamity. Banks charge interest to account for risk. People trade stocks to bet on the earnings trajectory of a company. The first taxes were levied to support standing armies that could fight in the event of an invasion.

Time’s unknowable perils contributed to the flourishing of economic thought. But then something interesting happened. The creature became the creator: The economy re-invented time. Or, to put things less obliquely, the age of exploration and the industrial revolution completely changed the way people measure time, understand time, and feel and talk about time.

Just think: What do you look forward to when you’re at work? Maybe it’s a happy hour, the weekend, or, in the more distant future, retirement. Each of these are distinct periods of time, and each is an invention of the last 150 years of economic change.

The word weekend is a creation of the industrial revolution, since a discrete working week doesn't make much sense on a farm that needs constant tending. Retirement, as a term, dates back to the 1600s, as it relates to army service, but its modern usage only became mainstream after the move to an industrial economy. Happy hour is a neologism from the 1950s, a heyday for workplace optimism. The equally hopeful T.G.I.F. acronym comes from the post-World War II era.

Three forces contributed to the modern invention of time. First, the conquest of foreign territories across the ocean required precise navigation with accurate timepieces. Second, the invention of the railroad required the standardization of time across countries, replacing the local system of keeping time using shadows and sundials. Third, the industrial economy necessitated new labor laws, which changed the way people think about work.

1. The Emperor’s New Clocks

The history of timepieces is a history of empires.

Long before the modern clock used springs and familiar markings, just about every great civilization had attempted to measure time, with each one failing in its own special way. In ancient Egypt, China, and Mesopotamia, sundials, or “shadow clocks,” all required bright sunlight to count the hours, which wasn't of much use on overcast days. To work around this problem, some of these ancient civilizations used a “water clock,” or clepsydra, a device that steadily dripped water through a small hole into a container with lines painted around the side to represent the passage of time. But slight changes in temperature could change the viscosity of water and the rate of drips. On a cold day, the water might freeze, and so would time.

The most important breakthroughs in the history of horology required the incentives and resources of a global empire. Toward the end of the Exploration Age, the great powers like England, France, and Spain struggled to navigate the oceans, because they couldn’t accurately measure longitude, or their progress east or west of their site of departure. As a result, they would crash into rocks or get lost and run out of food.

To some, this seemed like a problem of orientation. To John Harrison, an English carpenter, it was clearly a problem of time. Imagine that a ship departs from London for Jamaica with two clocks. The first clock keeps perfect London time throughout the journey. The second clock is reset to noon each day on the ocean when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky. As a result, the time difference between the two clocks grows as the ship sails toward the Americas. As you know, the earth rotates 360 degrees every 24 hours. That means 15 degrees every hour. So, for each hour that the two clocks were apart, the ship had traveled 15 degrees west—or about 900 nautical miles, which is roughly the distance between New York City and Missouri a time zone.

The scenario above isn’t a hypothetical it’s precisely the calculation that Harrison made. The subject of the classic book Longitude by Dava Sobel, Harrison became famous for building the two most advanced clocks (technically: chronometers) of all time. His timepieces didn’t rely on the dripping of water, flow of sand, or even the swinging of heavy pendula. They were precise and durable enough to withstand the ricketty journey across the ocean. For his pains—he spent about 30 years designing and tweaking the timepieces—he won a luxurious prize from the British government.

The British Empire didn’t merely help perfect the modern timepiece but also helped to popularize the watch. In the late 1800s, watches were considered to be feminine jewelry men kept their timepieces tucked away in pockets. But in colonial campaigns like the First Boer War and the Third Burmese War, British commanders tied little clocks to their soldiers’ wrists. Going into battle with feminine jewelry might have struck the men of war as uniform malfunction. But the innovation proved extremely useful for coordinating troop movements.

By World War I, watches were standard-issue gear for soldiers in the trenches. When the men who survived came home, they retained the habit. Thus the wristwatch, conceived as a piece of jewelry for women, was re-marketed through colonial warfare as a thoroughly masculine fashion. By the 1930s, wristwatches were the norm and the pocket watch was an anachronism. Time, itself, had become a human appendage.

2. Time-Zone Travel

Time and space are connected, not only in the fabric of the universe, but also in our idioms. We talk about time as an interval applying both to moments (“It’s fifteen minutes to five”) and to geography (“I’m fifteen minutes from Five Guys”). Perhaps this is why the invention of a machine to zoom through space, the train, inspired the idea that a machine might travel through time.

The rise of the railroad in the 1800s startled the era’s scientists and inspired a new ecstatic language of progress. In 1864’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, Jules Verne imagined a machine that, rather than navigate the circumference of the earth, departed along the perpendicular axis to travel inward through the mantle of its sphere. In 1895’s The Time Machine, H.G. Wells’ protagonist embarks along another dimension, time, as if history itself were a navigable rail line stretching from past to future. Humans had been trying to predict the future since before the Oracle of Delphi. Only after the invention of trains did they imagine visiting it.

The discovery of machine-power was, in many ways, the discovery of the future. “Travelers riding in steam-driven railroad trains looked out their windows onto a landscape where oxen plowed the fields as they had done in medieval times, horses still hauled and harrowed, yet telegraph wires split the sky,” James Gleick writes in Time Travel, his wondrous interdisciplinary history of the subject. (Those interested in a simpler history of time might also enjoy the delightful young-adult book This Book Is About Time.) “This caused a new kind of confusion or dissociation,” Gleick wrote. “Call it temporal dissonance.”

Dissonance is right. The railroad created a crisis of time management unlike anything human beings had ever experienced. In the pre-train age, all time was local, divined mostly by the angle of the sun in the sky. If Philadelphia and Harrisburg had different times, nobody noticed, because a Philly resident couldn’t reach Harrisburg by phone or rail to tell the difference. As a result there were hundreds of local times in the United States.

Local time was perfectly suitable for a local agrarian economy. But for a railroad company and its customers, it was a nightmare. Imagine walking through an airport terminal (already logistical chaos) and learning that Delta and United now operate by entirely separate time schedules: A United flight that takes off, on-time, at 1pm leaves at the same time as a Delta flight departing on-time at 2pm, and the clocks on the wall correspond to neither Delta nor United.

That sounds ludicrous. But for the first railroad travelers, this scenario was commonplace. In Buffalo’s train station, each railroad company used its own time schedule. The New York Central Railroad ran on New York time. The Michigan Southern Railroad schedule ran on the local time of Columbus, Ohio. And both of those clocks were distinct from the clock that represented local Buffalo time.

As Gleick writes, “railroads made time zones inevitable.” The railroad companies finally got together in the 1880s and decided to divide the U.S. into four standard time zones: eastern, central, mountain, pacific. This required local communities to forfeit their control of time, which didn’t go over well in a country founded on federalist principles. To many, the standardization of time seemed like a national takeover. Others accused jewelers of orchestrating the time-zone revolution to make people buy new clocks and watches.

The four zones were set on November 18, 1883. The precise times were dictated by another new technology that seemed to pierce the boundary of space and time, the telegraph. The following year, the International Time Conference established the plan for global time zones, which included an International Date Line. And so, wristwatches and standard time—perhaps the two most famous icons of horology—were both children of travel.

Nobody complains much about time zones any more, unless they’re whining about jet lag. Instead, we reserve our hate for Daylight Saving Time (DST). Initially instituted by Germany to save fuel during World War I, DST was first proposed in the U.S. during the same war. Contrary to the popular idea that daylight saving time was a carrot to farmers, it was urban retailers looking to save artificial light costs who were among the staunchest advocates. Farmers actually led a national effort to repeal national daylight saving time in 1919. Year-long DST returned in 1942, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted “War Time,” two months after Pearl Harbor, and only returned to normal standard time in 1945. Time waits for no man, but when a nation is at war, it gets pushed around quite a bit.

Beyond standard time, the subtler impact of railroads was their invention of the 21st-century concept of a career. The word itself comes from the French carriere, meaning a racetrack. To achieve its modern meaning, however, work required an element of vocational progress. Farm workers reached peak earnings as early as their 20s. But it took decades for railroad employees to earn their highest wages even in the late-1800s, as late as their 40s.

As the economy shifted from plows to rails, it changed the shape one’s lifetime earnings. Rather than a wage progression resembling a great plain—a flat, unchanging (or, perhaps, unpredictable) salary for many decades—the industrial revolution delivered the familiar curve of income that modern workers recognize, with gradually rising wages until middle-age followed by a slow decline. And so, the industrial economy invented the very concept of a modern career, making the passage of time a materially significant matter for turn-of-the-century workers. (In fact, even the term “turn of the century” was only invented at the dawn of the 20th before that, presumably, the centuries faded, like the shadow of sundials, or ran dry, like water clocks.)

3. Working for the Weekend

It is one of the most common questions imaginable in a modern workplace. But if you asked somebody in the 1400s or 1700s, she would have no idea what you were talking about. The English word schedule dates back to the middle ages, when for hundreds of years it merely signified a slip of paper. But the modern definition—an orderly sequence of events and times—is a far more recent invention, coming from the late 1800s. The word first applied to a railroad company’s list of train departures. (As does the word commute, derived from a “commutation ticket” or a season pass to a streetcar or railroad.)

For the next half century, American industrialists become obsessed with optimizing, well, schedules. If the late 19th century turned time into a cultural fascination, the 20th century turned it into an economic denominator.

The 1910s saw Henry Ford’s Model-T assembly line and Frederick Winslow Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management. Taylor’s productivity treatise divided labor into discrete activities—open the mail, hammer the nail—and encouraged maximizing production over time (while often minimizing wages over time). The first use of time clocks to mark workers’ hours of arrival grew in tandem with Taylor’s scientific management theories. Once a tool of military coordination, watches had become keepers of factory efficiency. Even their manufacturers advertised time-clocks as tools for a “profitable” employee.

As for the workers, the long history of the U.S. labor movement has been in many ways an attempt to move from an open-ended commitment to work as long as possible to a legal framework to limit the workday and workweek—a protest to reclaim time. Some of the first American labor protests called for a 10-hour work day, something today’s workers would consider horrific.

But they had to start somewhere, since it wasn’t uncommon for early-1800s textile employees to work 12 hours daily. In 1840, Martin Van Buren signed an executive order for a 10-hour day. By the 1860s, the Grand Eight Hours Leagues and the Knights of Labor were pushing to shave another two hours off the workweek. In 1868, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a proclamation instituting an eight-hour work day for government employees. It was extended to railroad workers in 1915 and then to the entire private sector under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1937. Soon the labor movement’s attention turned from the workday to the workweek, advocating for a two-day weekend. Between 1920 and 1927 the number of large companies with official five-day workweeks increased by a factor of eight.

All told, in the last century and a half, the workweek has shrunk from 10 hours a day, six days a week, in the 1880s, to eight hours a day, five days a week—a 33 percent reduction. Where did the extra time go? Much went to leisure. The whole mountain of media that has grown in the last century—including weekly magazines, movies, radio, television, cable, and social media—relies on a resource, mass attention, that became abundant only as work declined as a share of the week.

4. The House of Time

The quantum physicists say that past and future are illusions. They say time is more like space. It something that merely exists rather than unfolds. Imagine a house. All of the rooms are simply there, and it is an illusion that one room comes “after” or “before” another room. Instead, each individual’s consciousness passing through the house creates the illusion that there is an inviolable sequence of rooms.

The quantum theory of time would seem to have nothing to do with our economic history of horology. Some scientists say time doesn’t technically exist? you might think. Who cares, it sure as heck exists for me! Normal people experience time as a flow, an infinite cascade of falling dominos, a chain of cause-and-effect events that neither leaps forward several moments nor suddenly reverses, but rather passes with the predictable click-click-click of now moments falling into the next with a steady cadence.

The purpose of an economy is to manage the perils of the future, to make sense of time, to make it work for us. In the 1930s, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that future economic productivity would reduce the long workweek to just 15 hours. So it’s ironic that after several millennia of economic thought and evolution, some of the richest Americans haven’t used their wealth to buy downtime. They’ve used it to buy more work. The richest Americans now work longer hours than they did a few decades ago.

As I’ve written, rich American men, in particular, are the world’s chief workaholics, putting in longer hours than both rich people overseas and lower-income Americans. It’s hard to say why. Perhaps mobile phones are an unbreakable leash. Perhaps the hunt for status and wealth among the plutocracy is yet another tether. Or perhaps rich people just love working (“building wealth to them is a creative process, and the closest thing they have to fun,” as the economist Robert Frank wrote).

Being Unequally Yoked

Has anyone ever wondered how many people really understand this verse: “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness”

2 Corinthians 6:14, NIV? Well, the truth is that many people usually cite this verse, when they are speaking about a man and woman uniting in marriage. But is an unsuitable marriage specifically what Apostle Paul is speaking about in the above verse?

Certainly, if marriage, per se, were what the apostle had in mind when he warns the Corinthian believers about not being “unequally yoked,” he would not just mean that a believer should not be married to an unbeliever. Being “unequally yoked” also would have to mean that a believer should not marry anyone who is NOT at the same spiritual level as he or she is. This interpretation of what the apostle’s “unequally yoke” phrase would mean, if he were talking about married Christians, is supported by the Old Testament Scriptures that the apostle is alluding to in 2 Corinthians 6:14. The Apostle Paul’s “unequally yoked” metaphor comes from the Law, in particular, from Deuteronomy 22:10 and Leviticus 19:19.

In Deuteronomy 22:10, God says: “Do not plow with an ox and a donkey yoked together,” and this command is repeated from Leviticus 19:19, in which this command is the first of three similar commands. In both of these mentioned verses, God not only is teaching His chosen people about the difference in kind, but also about inequality. Indeed, it is absolutely unfair, and essentially inhumane, to expect two different kinds of animals, having opposing characters, to work affably and enthusiastically together, while they pull a plow or a wagon. Because, when the donkey, the lighter and shorter beast of burden, is bound (tied yoked) to the ox, which is the heavier and taller draft animal, the donkey won’t be able to keep up with the ox.

Since an ox and a donkey are different species with unequal strength, disposition, and ability, God is teaching His chosen children that the plowing of a field would be made far more difficult than would be necessary, all because these dissimilar animals cannot work comfortably or cheerfully together. Thus, yoking them together for the purpose of drawing a plow or a wagon, and so forth, would mean that the ox inevitably would overpower the donkey—the much smaller and shorter animal. This “unequally yoking” also means that the donkey’s pace would be slower, because he would be receiving an inequitable load, as his strength and size in no way match those of the more physically powerful ox.

In Deuteronomy, the command to not yoke a donkey and an ox together comes right after the command to “…not plant two kinds of seed in your vineyard if you do, not only will the crops you plant but also the fruit of the vineyard will be defiled” (v. 9). In the Leviticus verse, this particular “don’t” is the second of three commands. In both verses, God is teaching about the difference in kind. He’s specifically dealing with how planting the mixture of seeds in a vineyard pertains to committing a sin against nature, and against God.

For sure, God wants His chosen people to know that it is spiritually and agriculturally incorrect to plant two different kinds of seeds in a vineyard (field). For example, if oats and wheat were sown together in a vineyard, the oats and wheat not only would yield a mixed grain but also the PURITY of the oats and wheat plants, and the PURITY of the grapes on the vines would not be preserved. Instead, the mixed grain crop, the vineyard’s product (grapes), and the vineyard would be ruined—the vines would spoil the grain and the mixed grain would spoil the vines, plus the over-cultivated vineyard also would be damaged.

In other words, God is saying that there would be no chance that the oats and wheat seeds, which have been sown together in a vineyard, would reap both a separate “good” crop of oats and a separate “good” crop of wheat, and no chance that the vineyard grapes would be a “good crop,” either! For sure, breaking God’s laws against the over-cultivation of a circumscribed area (i.e., the separated vineyard) will result in the premature exhaustion of the vineyard’s soil, thereby also damaging the yield from the mixed seed crop and the product (grapes) from the vineyard and forfeiting them (invalidating them making them all of no value or no use), because they all have been corrupted (made impure).

The bottom line, then, is that the outcome of such a union (combining mix seeds then planting them in a vineyard) would be the same result that yoking two diverse kinds of animals together would achieve—corruption. The truth is that each unalike seed needs to be planted in a different field, and each dissimilar draft animal (an animal used to pull heavy loads) needs to plow alongside of the SAME kind of animal. For these reasons, if the Apostle Paul’s “unequally yoked” metaphor pertains to marriages, then the spiritual application of the apostle’s phrase is that a believer not only should marry another believer, but also that a believer should marry someone who spiritually can keep up with him or her. Put differently, a believer should marry someone who is plowing at the same pace and in the same field!

Getting back to what Apostle Paul principally means in 2 Corinthians 6:14, it is important to note here that the apostle’s focus throughout his letters to the Corinthians has been on the “church,” as a whole, and not on individual believers. That is why it is clear that his “unequally yoked” phrase has a broader implication than just suggesting that believers should not be “mismated.” The wisdom in his “unequally yoked” metaphor strongly recommends that believers should not be in any intimate union that is not effortlessly harmonious or not absolutely godly. Such an unsuitable relationship would be the case when a believer is married to either a believer who is not on the same spiritual level, or married to an unsaved unbeliever.

However, the truth of the matter is that the apostle really is warning the Corinthian Christians about the clear and present dangers that are upon them, because of their mismatched associations or partnerships with Corinthian unbelievers. The Apostle Paul is pointing out the Corinthian believers’ ill-advised inclination, that of trying to mix (blend combine) the worship of God with the pagan worship activities that were going on in Corinth’s temples. If such a mixture were to succeed, then, as with the unpleasant and disharmonious yoking of a donkey and an ox, God’s sanctified or separated children’s lifestyle also would not be able to work harmoniously with the Corinthian unbelievers’ lifestyle. Likewise, as with the mixture of seeds and the fact that farmers would not be able to preserve the purity of each seed’s species, God’s sanctified or separated children also would not be able to preserve their spiritual purity—their holiness—once they mix their lifestyle with the Corinthian unbelievers’ lifestyle.

Corinthian believers’ attempt to mix their holiness and righteousness Christian lifestyle with Corinthian unbelievers’ polluted and corrupt pagan lifestyle is why the Apostle Paul not only is saying that believers have NOTHING in common with unbelievers and, thus, should not fellowship with each other, but also why he is saying, in 2 Corinthians 6:15, that believers and unbelievers are not “spiritually” in agreement. Corinthian Christians’ are not in harmony with Corinthian unbelievers, because the two of them are “spiritual” opposites. For these reasons, Apostle Paul tells the Corinthian believers to: “Therefore, ‘Come out from them, and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you” (2 Corinthians 6:17, NIV cf. Isaiah 52:11 Ezekiel 20:34,41).

If we are being observant 21st-century believers, then we have noticed that a sign of the times is the Holy Spirit SEPARATING the real Body of Christ from the institutional church, in which there are genuine believers in partnerships and fellowships with unbelievers—carnal believers, who have disbelief and unbelief and unsaved unbelievers. As a result of modern-day believers’ unsuitable relationships, many of today’s true believers are at risk of being fed the doctrine of secular humanism, as well as other false doctrines.

By institutional church, this blogger means those numerous physical, conventional ‘church’ buildings in which believers congregate, take on a name (for example, Missionary Baptists, Pentecostals, Apostolics, Methodists, Catholics, COGICs, and so forth), have a leadership structure, offer services and programs, and support ONLY THEIR members and THEIR members’ communities). By Body of Christ, this blogger means God’s “household of faith” sons and daughters, who are the “called-out” ones (the assembly/congregation … ekklesia) of the living God. This definition means the New Testament’s Body of Christ only can be the real family of God—a SINGLE congregation or assembly comprised of ONLY believers who worship in a house not made by human hands, because they ARE the temple of the living God (cf. 2 Corinthians 6:16b)!

To be honest, Christ NEVER says that He is building His “church”—a physical structure. What Christ says is that He is “building” His ekklesia, which means He is gathering His congregation or assembly of “called-out ones.” To do so, the Lord intentionally separates His congregation or assembly of believers from the unbelievers, primarily for the purposes of worship, edification, and spiritual growth. Because of this separation, it is ONLY Jesus the Christ who adds to His ekklesia, which is why in the first century His ekklesia consisted of ONLY those believers who were born again, saved/justified, and full of the Holy Spirit!

For these reasons, in 2 Corinthians 6:15-17, the Apostle Paul is emphasizing the Lord’s pure motive behind His decision to separate believers from unsaved unbelievers. That chief reason for this separation is because there is no way to justify believers being in partnership with lawlessness—unrighteousness. Put differently, there is no reason for light and darkness to fellowship together.

That’s why the apostle is discouraging Corinthian Christians from allowing themselves to associated with (be in partnership with, . . . to MIX with) unsaved Corinthians, because there always is the clear and present danger of possibly being influenced by Corinthian unbelievers’ strong opposing pagan worship and/or pagan morality and ethics. There, indeed, also is the clear and present danger that if allowed to mix with Corinthian believers, Corinthian unbelievers might end up overpowering Corinthian believers, after influencing these believers to mix pagan Corinthian practices with Corinthian Christians’ worship of God, edification of other believers, and individual and collective spiritual growth. Inevitably, the mixing of these two spiritual “opposites”—Corinthian Christians and Corinthian unbelievers—definitely would cause Corinthian believers to be contaminated by the Corinthian unbelievers’ pagan temple beliefs and activities.

Since the apostle makes it clear in the letters to the Corinthians that it does matter what believers do with their bodies, then 21st-Christians also must never allow any unbeliever, whether saved but carnal, or unsaved, to have any control over us. The Apostle Paul makes this last point clear in his series of contrasts: believers vs. unbelievers, righteousness vs. wickedness and light vs. darkness (v. 14) Christ vs. Belial (v. 15) faithful vs. infidels (v. 15) and temple of God vs. temple of idols (v. 16). Certainly, we must avoid, or remove ourselves from these “unequally yoked” alliances.

Indeed, as Christians, we are to avoid being in an intimate relationship with unbelievers, wickedness, darkness, Belial (Satan), infidels, and idols. Here we should note that the apostle is not saying that we must avoid ever coming in contact with opposing people or conflicting behaviors, because never having any contact with the aforesaid opposites is impossible. We live in a fallen world therefore, we are surrounded by “unholiness and unrighteousness.” Now, there can be no doubt that the “evil one” would be influencing many, if not all, unsuitable relationships. Still, our Lord Himself, while knowing that we would inevitably have contact with the evil one, and his unbelieving children, asks God to not take us out of the world, but while we are in this world to keep us safe from the evil one (cf. John 17:15).

Be that as it may, what the Apostle Paul actually means, then, when he says to not be “unequally yoked” (to not mix with to not form an alliance), is that believers should avoid teaming up with anyone whose goal is to corrupt or to restrain believers from fulfilling their God-given purpose. Put differently, believers must avoid being bound (tied to yoked) together with anyone who doesn’t make working for the Lord a pleasantly productive spiritual activity. For sure, we are to avoid not only anyone who causes the kind of conflict that impedes evangelistic labor and/or chokes godly direction or purpose, but also we must avoid any person who seeks to entangle us with their impurity and lawlessness (sinfulness)—their lust, greed, idolatry, evil desire(s), and so forth.

In a nutshell, it is very crucial that we avoid the aforementioned kinds of entanglements (compromising relationships). Equally important, we should apply this “unequally yoked” biblical principle to every one of our daily activities: to our church, ministry, and other “religious” organization partnerships, to our business associations, to our personal relationships, to our marital union, and to every other alliance that would involve us being bound to, or us establishing a partnership with, anyone whose primary goal in life does not involve glorifying Father God. AMEN!

How Oxen Plowed the Way for Social Inequality - History

Though there is far less economic inequality in America than at any point in history - poor people in America live in more square footage per person than the middle class in France, not to mention the low cost of food, TVs, and cell phones - there is a longing in some quarters to reduce it at the fringes. There are complaints, for example, that the .00001 running companies make high multiples of what the average employee gets.

Yet economic inequality has been around for as long as humans have done more than forage for food. Some even insist that economic inequality happened because of agriculture. Yet the evidence does not show that to be true. The surge in prehistoric inequality does trace its economic origins back to the adoption of ox-drawn plows, which some take as an indictment of agriculture, but it was not agriculture per se that ushered in substantial wealth inequalities, it was instead instead that a transformation of farming made land more valuable and labor less so.

Oxen were the robots taking jobs from people 7,000 years ago

Ox drawn plows mindlessly did the jobs of up to 10 people and 7,000 years ago they caused a decoupling of wealth from labor - which led to wealth inequality. If you worked on a farm prior to that, you were vital, but with oxen the land was valuable, and fewer people were needed.

Say hello to your neolithic robot. Credit: Amy Bogaard

If it sounds silly today to lament that oxen were taking the jobs of people 7,000 years ago, it is easy to see why robot concerns are equally mundane. Human progress did not collapse due to oxen, food instead became cheaper and when that basic necessity was met we got written language and then art and culture.

Agriculture did not create inequality - it's instead what kept things equal for so long

Oxen displaced human workers, so they brought economic inequality. When all people worked in the field or in hunting, there was no economic weight to any individual. The labor of one person might be more than another, but not enough to change economies. Yet an ox allowed one person to work 10X as much land, which made the land and the ox the asset. If you didn't have those, you were a have not economically. By the time the Assyrians had a giant army to feed, agriculture was booming and people who didn't own the oxen managed them, or built stuff for people who owned them. But the steep increase in inequality in Eurasia was much earlier, around 4,000 BC -- and that was several millennia after the advent of agriculture.

"The surprise here isn't so much that inequality takes off later on, it's that it stayed low for such a long time," says lead author Amy Bogaard, an archaeologist based at the University of Oxford who is also an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute.

"The usual story -- that the societies that adopted agriculture became more unequal -- is no longer valid because we observed that some societies who adopted agriculture were remarkably egalitarian for thousands of years," says co-author Mattia Fochesato, an economist at Bocconi University.

Before around 4,000 BC, societies across the Middle East and Europe cultivated a patchwork of small garden plots, which Bogaard likens to present-day "allotments" in the UK. Families would have grown a variety cereal grains, as well as lentils, peas, and other pulse crops that needed to be harvested by hand. Notably, they would have tilled the soil by hand using hoes, in some cases also with the help of unspecialized cattle (such as aging milk cows) to pull plows, and carefully monitored their gardens during the growing season to protect them from wild animals. "It was quite a busy landscape, with lots of people working in and around these garden plots."

Then something changed. Farmers who were well resourced enough to raise and maintain specialized plow oxen saw new opportunities in farming additional land. A single farmer with an ox team could cultivate ten times or more land than a hoe farmer, and would begin to acquire more and more land to cultivate. Those who owned land and ox teams also began to opt for more stress-tolerant crops, like barley or certain kinds of wheat, that didn't require much labor.

By the second millennium BC in many farming landscapes fields stretched to the horizon, and societies were deeply divided between wealthy landowners, who passed their holdings on to their children, and land-poor or landless families.

The mechanism that drove this change is detailed in an economic model in the researchers' second paper. It reveals a key distinction between farming systems where human labor was the limiting factor for production, versus systems where human labor was more expendable, and where land was the limiting factor.

"So long as labor was the key input for production, inequality was limited because families did not differ much in how much labor they could deploy to produce crops, " Fochesato explains. "But when the most important input became land, differences between families widened because land and other material forms of wealth could be accumulated and transmitted over generations. By chance, or force, or hard work, some families came to have a lot more than others. Then radical inequality arose."

The Evolution of Social Power

We are all enmeshed in fascinating and often daunting webs of social power. From laws to police and prisons, to armies and weaponry, to fame and high political office, to paychecks and taxes, to debt and credit, to advertising and public relations, to propaganda, to household and workplace gender dynamics, to organizational chains of command, to extremes of wealth and poverty, people have found endless ways of modifying one another’s behavior to suit their wants and needs.

These proliferating abilities to influence others are rooted in nature. All social animals have hierarchies (like the pecking order in my backyard flock of hens), and some animals are territorial, excluding others of their kind from access to mating opportunities or food. Some creatures (like ants) have even evolved a clearly defined division of labor. But we humans have managed to take social organization to extremes, empowering some and disempowering others in ways that are sometimes brutal beyond comprehension. How and why have we done this?

As a result of decades of work by anthropologists, archaeologists, psychologists, and biologists, answers are falling into place. It turns out that the chief initial players in the drama of evolving social power were language, food, fighting, and reproduction.

When we speak of social power, we’re usually referring to vertical power—in which one person, or a group, influences the behavior of others through incentives and disincentives (i.e., bribes and threats). This kind of power evolved in discrete stages starting about 11,000 years ago. More on that in a moment.

Prior to that, however, and for the vast majority of our existence as a species, we lived as hunter-gatherers, among whom power was typically distributed more horizontally. That is, nearly everyone took part in decisions, and authority was situational, based on demonstrated skill or knowledge. Women and men had somewhat different spheres of activity, but they respected each other’s contributions to the group. No doubt, groups differed significantly in terms of how people treated one another, largely depending on how they adapted themselves to obtaining local food. But, as far as we can tell, vertical social power was minimal.

Nevertheless, this wasn’t a peaceful Eden. The latest archaeological evidence suggests that life in pre-agricultural societies was fairly violent. Within groups, disagreements over sex or food could occasionally result in a beating or worse (there’s abundant proof that, throughout history, the great majority of violent acts have been committed by men rather than women). However, most casualties came not from family squabbles, but from raids and counter-raids between groups competing for access to the best foraging space. Over time, competition between societies resulted in more cooperation within societies. Increased cooperation was facilitated by the ongoing development of language, which enabled people to coordinate their behavior, ask questions, and teach complicated sequences of tasks. Increased cooperation provided the means for societies to grow in size and complexity—thereby, again, enabling them to compete more successfully with their neighbors.

Population growth, crowding, and fighting ultimately drove two key, related developments: the adoption of field agriculture based on grain crops, and the formation of the first states (which in turn led to more population growth, crowding, and fighting). Grains permitted more intensive food production they also could be stored, and could therefore be taxed. Taxation enabled leaders to put surplus aside in case of poor harvests in years to come—while also allowing them to enrich themselves, to pay for palaces and temples, and to hire teams of full-time specialists in violence (i.e., soldiers) to raid other, neighboring societies or to defend against raids. As urban centers grew, some people began to specialize as blacksmiths, accountants, priests, and merchants but the great bulk of the populace remained tied to the land as farmer-peasants.

The long, slow development of grain agriculture entailed the domestication both of crop varieties and of animals bred for food, traction, and pest control. Gradually, some people began to apply the techniques of animal domestication to other people. Women and children started to be treated essentially as household domesticates, while war captives were pressed into slavery (which was universally practiced in early state societies). As rigid social castes emerged, humanity—a single species—divided itself into groups that acted more predator-like or more prey-like with respect to other groups. This was vertical social power in its rawest form.

Because farmers tended to stay in one place, rather than following the seasonal movements of game animals like many of their hunter-gatherer forebears, they started to divide and fence land. As the notion of land ownership emerged, exclusionary power (also seen in the territorial behavior of animals like badgers, spiders, and hummingbirds) took strange new forms, with some people claiming ownership of other people, and kings claiming ownership of the entire state.

With people living closer together, it became easier to share new ideas and teach new skills. Key inventions included improved weapons (e.g., swords and armor), farming tools (notably, the plow), money, and writing. Money served as a storable, transferrable token of social power while communication technologies (starting with writing) enabled a few to influence the minds of many.

Cities offered opportunities for invention and wealth creation, but they were places of disease and high mortality rates. Therefore, they had to be continually supplied with more human beings from the countryside or from military conquest. Women in early state societies were tasked with birthing and raising as many children as possible.

Money, debt, and taxes created a new social phenomenon: the wealth pump, which continually funneled wealth originating with nature to farmers, miners, and craftspeople, and hence to soldiers, merchants, priests, and kings. Society became a pyramid of economic and political power, a self-regulating system of wealth and poverty. But there was a cost to this sorting process: the ongoing degradation of nature (damage to soil or overharvesting of trees) destabilized the system, as did the continual impoverishment of people at the bottom of the social structure—who could be taxed no further once they were starving. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of people wanted to be at the top of the pyramid so, in moments of crisis, factions of elite aspirants sought to sway the masses in different directions, leading to coups and revolutions.

In sum, vertical social power evolved together with population growth, war, communication technology, and food production. It came with obvious drawbacks (who would want to be a slave or even a peasant, and who would want to live through a period of grave societal instability or collapse?), but such societies survived and proliferated because they were collectively powerful in relation to other societies.

But that’s not the end of the story of social power’s evolution. Two big turning points came later, when everything changed.

The first occurred about 3,000 years ago, when animal-herding tribes of the great Eurasian Steppe, stretching from modern Ukraine to Manchuria, began using the horse (domesticated around 5,500 years ago) in warfare. Using horse-drawn chariots and saddle-seated cavalry, the Steppe dwellers swooped down on early kingdoms, toppling one after another. The latter needed to do something to respond and survive, and their solution involved even greater social complexity. Empires emerged, with larger land areas and populations. Having more citizens gave them a bigger tax base, so they could afford to build long, high walls and hire bigger armies, with chariots and cavalry of their own. But empires faced an internal problem: their citizenry was drawn from peoples with differing customs, religions, and languages. How to keep everyone on the same page?

Social evolution provided a solution: Big God moralizing religions. Previously, religion had little to do with morality it served a range of other social and psychological functions. Big God religions implanted a moral watcher in each person’s head, which proved to be an effective and economical means of social control. Knowing that others worshipped the same moralizing deity increased trust and cooperation, thereby facilitating trade and public order. The idea of heaven made these religions attractive to non-believers, while the idea of hell discouraged backsliders. You could easily identify whom you could count on, because all adherents to the religion were required to perform personally costly public demonstrations of loyalty, such as church attendance, tithing, and pilgrimages. Unfortunately, dispensing torture and death to nonbelievers was another way of showing commitment to the Big God. These religions also reinforced women’s burden of producing as many offspring as possible: population growth was seen as a source of social power to be wielded by each religion’s adherents against all competing religious groups.

The second turning point came much later, just a couple of centuries ago, with the advent of fossil fuels. Energy is what empowers us to do anything whatsoever with more energy, we can do more things. Fossil fuels represented millions of years of stored ancient sunlight, available cheaply and in seemingly endless quantities. Over the last 200 years, humanity’s annual energy usage has grown by a staggering 4,000 percent, with some societies and individuals using far more than others. Suddenly it became possible to do everything faster and on a bigger scale—including farming, mining, manufacturing, transporting, and fighting. Applied to agriculture, fossil fuels plus technology reduced the number of full-time farm laborers to a tiny fraction of the populace. People left the countryside and moved to cities, creating a new middle class of employees jostling for jobs in manufacturing, sales, advertising, and dozens of industries that had barely existed a century or two earlier. With more available food, and fossil-fuel-based medicines and sanitation chemicals, cities became safer, and the human population exploded from 1 billion in 1820 to nearly 8 billion in 2021. Whereas agricultural life favored a division of labor between women and men, the overwhelming majority of urban factory and office work could be done equally well by people of any gender. Hence came organizing efforts to obtain voting rights and equal pay for women.

The initial phase of the fossil-fuel energy transition centered on coal. For the first time in history, coal “energy slaves” could supplant the forced labor of millions of human beings. This development (plus the multi-racial, morally-based abolitionist movement and a Civil War) led to the end of state-sanctioned slavery. Unlike the previous agricultural economy, the new coal-powered industrial system employed specialized workers at key nodes along society’s energy supply routes, and these workers were frequently abused, underpaid, and subjected to dangerous and unhealthy conditions. The coal economy thus became the perfect breeding ground for a new kind of political power characterized by trade unions, strikes, and the spread of both democracy and progressive economic reforms. At the same time, however, in international relations coal led to steamboat colonialism and more deadly wars for control of sources of raw materials.

The next phase of the fossil energy transition flowed from oil, which was more energy-dense and portable than coal. Petroleum introduced transportation via automobiles and trucks as a consequence, cities were redesigned around highway systems. Meanwhile, petroleum-fueled aviation, which started as a dangerous hobby, quickly became a routine mode of long-distance mass travel.

Because oil was easily moved via pipeline and tanker, petroleum revenue streams were often global in nature. Further, while the United States was the world’s superpower of oil production during the first half of the 20 th century, pumping over half the world’s petroleum in most years, even larger amounts of oil and gas happened to be located in poor nations in the Middle East. Thus, the unfolding story of oil would hinge on US geopolitics, which itself depended largely on the maintenance of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency and as the currency of account for the international oil trade.

Oil-age weapons led to industrial-scale killing. World War II—which was fought with oil, and, to a large extent, for access to oil—took roughly 60 million lives and incentivized the development of weapons capable of destroying entire cities in an instant.

Fossil fuels enabled so much resource extraction and manufacturing as to provoke a new kind of economic problem—the overproduction of goods, which was one of the causes of the Great Depression. Industrial and government managers came up with a solution that combined advertising, planned obsolescence, and consumer credit. It amounted to a new kind of economy—the consumer economy—which is managed via interest rates and measured by GDP. Its primary goal is growth, on which jobs, government revenues, and investor profits all depend.

By the late 20 th century, global trade and communications had created a kind, and a level, of species-wide economic integration never before seen. Humanity had become a Superorganism with a global metabolism: minerals extracted on one continent are now processed on another, integrated into a manufactured product on another, sold to an end user on still another, then eventually shipped across an ocean to be recycled or dumped in a waste heap.

By 2007, for the first time in history, more people lived within cities rather than outside them. Among other things, the trend toward urbanization resulted in a subtle disconnection of people’s lives and thoughts from land and nature. People’s immediate welfare now depends more on paychecks, investment returns, and government programs their deeper dependency on natural systems and cycles is simply taken for granted and unexamined. We are obsessed with economic gyrations and political intrigues, as well as proliferating entertainment options thus, few people notice as other species disappear, the climate changes, and the oceans die.

Watch the video: Social Inequality