Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Your Turn to Wear the Grass Trousers

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Your Turn to Wear the Grass Trousers

Article excerpt

Egalitarianism is hard to find if you pass over anthropology for archaeology, argues Chris Knight.

The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire

By Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus

Harvard University Press

635pp, Pounds 29.95

ISBN 9780674064690

Published 31 May 2012

Man is born free, yet we see him everywhere in chains." When Jean-Jacques Rousseau uttered these words, they smouldered for a while before igniting the French Revolution. Archaeologists Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus present The Creation of Inequality as an expansion and updating of Rousseau's Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality among Men (1753). But, they hasten to reassure us, their new version "allows for alternatives to bloody revolution. If inequality is the result of incremental changes in social logic - and if those changes can be reconstructed - might we not be able to return society to equality just as incrementally, beginning with the most recent changes and working back?" A quick calculation suggests that this revolution won't be completed for 15,000 years - the time that has elapsed since the end of the last Ice Age.

A first step, they suggest, might be to "put hunter-gatherers in charge". This, they explain, "would reduce inequality overnight". Their reasoning here is that hunter-gatherers would be refreshingly intolerant of greedy stockbrokers and financiers. "Bernie Madoff would simply have been lured into the wilderness and shot with poisoned arrows," they explain. So while bloody revolution should be avoided, the quiet use of poison would seem to be OK.

The authors are critical of social anthropologists, accusing them of treating the past as "merely a 'text' that we can interpret any way we want". Archaeologists, the authors claim, are denied this luxury by "the brute facts of physical remains". While not ignoring the work of social anthropologists, Flannery and Marcus have chosen - from among the hundreds of studies available - only those applicable to "the archaeological evidence". A consequence is that where no traces are left in the ground, anthropological phenomena are ignored.

Unfortunately, this decision excludes precisely the hunter-gatherer studies that are vital to an understanding of how egalitarianism is practised. The results are most apparent in their extended survey of "men's houses" as precursors of temples, cathedrals, palaces and fortresses across the world. From this book, you would be forgiven for thinking that men's houses had existed since the earliest emergence of religion and symbolic culture. …

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