Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Sungir: Inequality in the Old Stone Age

Sungir is an archaeological site in Russia, about 120 miles (200 km) east of Moscow. It was discovered by clay miners in 1955 and excavated between 1957 and 1977. The best radiocarbon dates come out around 32,050 to 28,550 BC.

The site is large, complex, and fascinating, but today I will focus on the two famous burials.

The first was a middle aged man adorned with ‘stunning signs of honor’: bracelets of polished mammoth-ivory, a diadem or cap of fox’s teeth, and nearly 3,000 laboriously carved and polished ivory beads.

Reconstruction of the man's clothing.

Nearby was an even more amazing burial of two children laid head to head. The latest thinking is that both were boys, one about 13 and the other about 10, decked with 5,000 beads and a long lance carved from a mammoth tusk. DNA analysis suggests that while all six of the analyzed skeletons from the site were from the same population, they were not closely related. The two children were first or second cousins, and even less closely related to the older man.

Reconstruction. The best guess is that all the beads from these three burials would have taken 10,000 hours to produce.

The reason this site has been in many articles recently concerns the origins of economic and political inequality. Most people looking at this site have concluded that there was already serious inequality among this group of people 35,000 years ago. Despite that you still regularly see the claim that inequality began with agriculture, or specifically with the ownership of land. Based on this site, probably not.

On the other hand the evidence of inequality in the Old Stone Age is pretty thin, missing from most millennia in most places. So there is also evidence for egalitarian bands of the kind we know from some contemporary hunter-gatherers. As always the lesson is that humans are stunningly diverse: you simply cannot point to any period or region and say "everybody was like this," not even 35,000 years ago.


Shadow said...

That first photo would make a great book cover for a horror novel.

G. Verloren said...

"Despite that you still regularly see the claim that inequality began with agriculture, or specifically with the ownership of land. Based on this site, probably not."

I can only assume that the sort of people who would make such a claim must have little knowledge of how our closest ape relatives behave.

Chimpanzees, for example, demonstrate virtually all of our own worst vices and societal ills. Inequality is clearly visible in their populations, along with murder, rape, tyrannical despotic rule by the powerful, collective punishment, genocide, warfare, and all the rest.

That said, your own point about non-universality applies even to our ape brethren. Some tribes of chimpanzees are much more egalitarian than others, relying far less on aggression and violence, and far more on cooperation and fair treatment.

But the point still stands that these are not uniquely human behaviors, and that it is almost certain that both we and chimpanizees inherited such behaviors from our common ancestors.