By Published: Feb. 17, 2016

Chancellor’s postdoctoral fellow uses archaeology to combat inequality

Economist Thomas Piketty has written about it. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has built a campaign around it. Professional pundits go at each other on talk shows about it.

In the unlikely event you haven’t guessed, “it” is economic inequality, and it’s a hot topic in a presidential election year. Economists, politicians, journalists, sure — but what, exactly, can an archaeologist bring to the discussion?

Sarah Kurnick

Sarah Kurnick

Sarah Kurnick, a Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Colorado Boulder, is glad you asked.

“Archaeology may seem an unlikely ally in the effort to understand contemporary economic inequality,” she writes in “The Origins of Extreme Economic Inequality: An Archaeologist’s Take on a Contemporary Controversy,” a new paper forArchaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress.

“But archaeology is more than stones and bones, shovels and screens.”

The paper, written in a colloquial voice to make it accessible to non-academic audiences, starts with 18th-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s famous “Discourse on the Origins and Basis of Inequality among Men” and the Enlightenment era thought that forms the foundation of contemporary Western civilization.

Rousseau concluded, among other things, that inequality was not inherent to humanity, and indeed that humans are naturally inclined to the opposite. He believed that economic inequality developed as a consequence of private property, technology and agriculture.

In the current way of American thinking, inequality is seen as natural, but most people are not looking at the ways things are done in other places and times. One of the benefits of anthropology is showing how other people do things.”

“Rousseau could only philosophize about what humans were like in a state of nature,” says Kurnick, who is teaching a course on The Archaeology of Inequality this spring. “With archaeology, this doesn’t have to be just a thought experiment any more.”

Through field research into such things as pre-literate burial sites and comparative architecture — for example, pole-and-thatch structures and those made of masonry — archaeology can look much further back than the written record to see evidence of inequality. And since, as Winston Churchill observed, history is written by the “winners,” such evidence can be more reliable than written records.

Kurnick concludes that Rousseau was both right and wrong about inequality. It is not inherent to humanity, but humans are not naturally inclined toward equality, either. More egalitarian societies, such as that of the !Kung people of southwest Africa and contemporary European social-welfare states, don’t happen by accident.

The !Kung, she notes in the paper, have constructed complex “leveling” mechanisms in their culture, such as the practice of denigrating a hunter for bringing in a large supply of meat, to remind him that his feat does not make him better than anyone else.

She also parts ways with Rousseau over the causes of inequality, which she argues emerged from the production and storage of surplus resources and from owner-labor relationships. And once some people control the labor of others, inequality can result.

“The control over the labor of others is arguably a dramatic shift and restructuring in the human past,” Kurnick says. Control of labor is a major key to the problem of inequality, she argues.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

But why would people continue to participate in a system that’s not in their best interests? While laborers may participate in that relationship willingly, believing they are fulfilling an important, perhaps inevitable role, others do so under a kind of duress, fearing negative repercussions such as losing a job or social ostracization. Many people simply cannot imagine any other way of doing things.

“They aren’t able to think of viable alternatives,” Kurnick says. “In the current way of American thinking, inequality is seen as natural, but most people are not looking at the ways things are done in other places and times. One of the benefits of anthropology is showing how other people do things.”

Kurnick wrote the paper in a deliberately accessible style in part because, “People can’t change what they don’t understand. I want them to see other alternatives.” She also pursues “public archaeology,” taking the insights of her field beyond the walls of academia to engage real-world problems.

She is now engaged in a “community archaeology” field project in Mexico, helping residents combat inequality through a local ecotourism project at a Maya architectural site that also is a haven for spider monkeys.

“We are actively trying to combat inequality to a small degree, producing (different forms) of capital, including economic, cultural — knowledge and education — and social capital,” she says.

Clay Evans is a free-lance writer and longtime Boulder journalist.