Book Review

KENT FLANNERY & JOYCE MARCUS. The creation of inequality: how our prehistoric ancestors set the stage for monarchy, slavery, and empire. xiv+631 pages, 72 illustrations. 2012. Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press; 978-0-674-06469-0 hardback $39.95 & £29.95.

Review by Trevor Watkins
School of History, Classics and Archaeology, University of Edinburgh, UK

Watkins image

The authors of this book are both distinguished professors, Flannery of anthropological archaeology, and Marcus of social evolution, at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Over a number of years, they have worked together as leaders of a programme of field research in Mexico that has aimed to chart the story of human settlement from the earliest hunter-gatherers at the end of the Pleistocene to the time when the Mayan cities were overrun by Spanish conquest. Joyce Marcus has also worked on the formative state in Peru; Kent Flannery started out working with Robert Braidwood in his quest for the origins of agriculture, and went on to co-direct a programme of field research in south-west Iran with Frank Hole, out of which experience he formulated his influential 'broad spectrum revolution' theory. They together share an interest in seeking to understand the process of social evolution; Flannery's early prehistoric interests complement Marcus' expertise in state formation.

For this book, the authors have ranged far beyond those geographical regions where their own fieldwork makes them expert, referring to aspects of societies ancient and ethnographically recent across the world. They also range bravely over a great span of time, from the later Palaeolithic to early states and empires. Their purpose is to trace how prehistoric egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups became 'achievement-based' societies, within which a man—the word is chosen accurately—might earn prestige and influence; and how achievement and prestige might become institutionalised into power and wealth in the hands of hereditary elites. They say they want to show that these developments were not simply the result of population increase, or the ability to accumulate a food or other surplus. Rather, their case is that there is an inevitable social logic that lies at the core of every human group.

Intriguingly, the Preface opens with Rousseau's 'A Discourse on the Origins of Inequality Among Men', which failed to win an essay competition organised by the Academy of Dijon in 1753, but which nevertheless has influenced thinking on social affairs and social evolution more than most of us can recognise. Rousseau's ideas on the origins of inequality reappear throughout the book, as the authors seek to shift the reader gently away from some deeply embedded ideas that we may have, for example, about fundamental differences between hunter-gatherers and the societies of farmers. Perhaps many archaeologists today do not need to be shown that some of these ideas are outdated; but the authors did not write the book for their professional anthropological and archaeological colleagues. It was written for the curious (and hardy) general reader. At more than 600 pages of densely packed information, ideas and discussion it is not lightweight, although it is always highly readable, and laced with the barbs of wit and imaginative humour that have characterised Flannery's work since the 1960s.

Writing for a non-professional readership (and there will be few professional academics with a knowledge wide and deep enough to read this whole book critically), the authors have avoided academic jargon. They have also made the text flow smooth and fast by not having any in-text references. Instead, where one would expect to find the bibliography, there are more than 40 pages of bibliographical notes.

The text moves from descriptions of key features at one archaeological site after another, and from ethnographic accounts of a colourful range of examples, first on this continent, then on that. So it is easy—as with a TV documentary—to be drawn along at the authors' pace, and not take time to think about the questions in one's own mind. There is no discussion, for example, of two important starting points: what do the authors mean by 'egalitarian' societies and 'inequality'? By default, it becomes clear that they are interested in the inequality of personal prestige that can be converted into authority, because their end point is the development of political power and authority. Because they set themselves a start-date of around 15 000 BC, which is just in time for the colonisation of the Americas by egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups, they do not give consideration to the hundreds of thousands, and millions, of years of egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups in the Old World. And, while they insist that the emergence of inequality is not to be explained by population levels or the ability to accumulate surplus, they do not review and refute the theories of others.

The authors want us to be clear that the evolutionary process was neither unilinear nor inevitable. They show with their examples that, for all the farmers and horticulturalists who classify in terms of lineages, clans or moieties, there are others who keep things simple, recognising only close kin relationships. And vice versa with hunter-gatherer societies, some of which were or are socially extraordinarily complex. Further, there is nothing inevitable about the transition from achievement-based societies and prestigious individuals to societies in which status and power is inherited; they show us societies where—at least within a certain time-frame—prestige for some and egalitarianism for all are held in balance. The authors want us to think about the 'social logic' that has tripped development in a particular direction in some situations, but not in others. And the occasional and, sometimes, barbed allusions to our contemporary world show us that they also want us to reflect on what all this analysis of the past can teach us in today's world.

In the part of the book where the subject matter is the area of my own knowledge—the final Pleistocene and early Holocene in south-west Asia—I am uneasy with the authors' treatment. Perhaps if I knew more about Central and North American archaeology, I might feel uncomfortable with their handling of the archaeology of that region, too. Of course, I can say that the authors should have included reference to another site, rather than the site that they chose to describe; and I can quibble about details (and regret their use of dates that seem to be based on uncalibrated radiocarbon chronology BP, which puts their account at odds with the standard literature). But that is nit-picking. I am, however, uneasy about their labelling of certain buildings within a number of sites of the late Epipalaeolithic (Natufian) and early Neolithic as 'men's houses'. How did they come to such an understanding? Certainly not from any of the archaeologists who have excavated these buildings, such as the so-called 'Skull Building' at Çayönü Tepesi, or what Klaus Schmidt has daringly suggested may be temples at Göbekli Tepe—both in south-east Turkey—or Danielle Stordeur has termed communal buildings at Jerf el Ahmar on the Euphrates in northern Syria.

Where do the 'men's houses' come from, then? Disarmingly, in the Preface, the authors assure the reader that the book will not be loaded with theoretical stuff—"there is probably no bigger 'buzz kill' than a long, ponderous chapter on competing hypotheses". The theory and method on which the book's thesis is based is very simple: among ethnographically documented hunter-gatherers, they differentiate those societies that are egalitarian, and lacking social institutions beyond close kin relations, and those that recognise clans. Clans involve people thinking in terms of 'us' and 'them', and therefore, sometimes, of 'us' versus 'them', which can result in acts of violence. Their chosen examples of such societies are seen to have cosmological myths and ritual practices—and men's houses (are there really no women's houses?).

Just as zoology and palaeontology interlock—the one supplying the kind of information that is deficient in the other—so, the authors tell us, anthropology and prehistoric archaeology can work together. Therefore, in prehistoric situations where there is evidence for violence amounting to acts of ambush or violent death, or protective walls around the settlement, and where there are also buildings that are large, central, non-domestic, or full of symbolic representations, those buildings can be said to be 'men's houses'. Methodologically, we are a long way from the scientific processualism of Flannery's youth.

Caveat lector. That said, the book is a pleasure to read, simply and attractively written, full of illuminating material collected from a huge variety of sources. For the general reader for whom it is intended, it will be both informative and enjoyable. Its final chapter seeks to relate the emergence of inequality to our present world, where inequality is a matter of great concern to many. Its ideas are provocative, to be sure. Their account should make archaeologists think about matters such as achievement-based societies in which prestige and reputation are important, and their 'social logic'. The authors recognise that their account is sometimes sketchy, and the archaeological evidence may be over-interpreted, and they challenge us to do better with the new and important questions that it raises.