"Plowing Ox" by Rudolph Koller

A three-day working group at SFI meets August 23-25 to explore a leading theory about wealth disparity variation between the Old and the New Worlds. 

Archaeologists use household size as a measure of historic wealth. Since around 4,000 B.C., many societies across Eurasia showed significant Ginis, indicating wide wealth disparities. Some members of those societies amassed a lot of wealth while others had little. 

In a workshop last year, a group of archaeologists compared this old World data to assessments of the New World—societies from North- and Meso-America. What they found surprised them, says SFI External Professor and Science Board Member Tim Kohler: New World societies had much smaller wealth disparities than those in the Old World. 

The prevailing theory about why this difference exists revolves around large draft animals like sheep, goats, cattle and pigs, which were domesticated by around 8,000 B.C. 

“In the Old World, draft animals like oxen make it possible to do an extensification of farming,” says Kohler. Land owners could begin to farm larger areas further from their residences. “ This can tie wealth to income. It’s expensive to maintain a team of oxen, but if you have them, you can till your own land and you can also rent them out.” And because farming extensification is land-hungry, it can create a class of landless peasants. 

“None of this ever happens in the New World before the arrival of Columbus. There was no landless peasantry, and there were no large, traction animals,” says Kohler. 

Kohler has invited specialists to the August meeting to test the robustness of the theory.  The working group will also explore what models might work best to describe this phenomenon and identify what additional data might help clarify the theory. 

Read more about the working group "Explaining Significant Household Gini Disparities between the Old and New Worlds in Prehistory".

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