Conditions for slavery: New study sheds light on the development of early social hierarchies

December 16, 2005

An important new study argues that inconsistent weather and spotty resources prevented enduring inequality from emerging in some early hunter-gatherer societies. By contrast, pre-colonial indigenous societies of the northwest coast of North America and the American southeast are notable for their marked social hierarchies, including chiefdoms and, in some cases, slavery.

"The conditions for the development of marked inequality [in North America] included reliable and prolific resources such as salmon, relatively high population densities, and the defense of territories and their resources," explains Ian Keen (Australian National University).

In the forthcoming issue of Current Anthropology, Keen compares complex hunter-gatherer societies in North America and Australia. Despite considerable variation in environments and resources, nowhere in Australia did "enduring inequality" such as ranked lineage or chiefly office prevail. However, Australian Aboriginal societies on the tropical northern coast were marked by "transient inequality" arising from high levels of polygyny, with some older men claiming more than twenty wives.

"The major constraint on the development of enduring inequality was the unpredictability of climates and resources," writes Keen. "Polygyny [in Australian Aboriginal societies] was only possible where resources were relatively plentiful and population density relatively high."
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Sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, Current Anthropology is a prestigious transnational journal devoted to research on humankind, encompassing the full range of anthropological scholarship on human cultures and on the human and other primate species. For more information, please visit www.journals.uchicago.edu/CA

Ian Keen. "Constraints on the Development of Enduring Inequalities in Late Holocene Australia." Current Anthropology 47:1.

University of Chicago Press Journals

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