Income Inequality and the Horse It Rode In On

The state of the universe.
July 30 2012 6:20 AM

The First 1 Percent

Horses may be the source of humans’ oldest social stratifications.

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The Old Europeans boasted dazzling copper craftsmanship and painted pottery rich with symbols of animals, dancers, abstract whorls, meanders, snakes, and watching eyes. These people helpfully left us scale models of their two-story houses and a multitude of female figurines testifying to the worship of a goddess deity.

They were completely unprepared when Dnieper steppe people penetrated the Danube Basin as early as 4200 B.C. Within a few hundred years, 600 villages were burned and abandoned in what has been called “a catastrophe of colossal scope.” Anthropologist David Anthony argues in his 2007 book, The Horse, The Wheel and Language, that the marauders arrived on horseback, pushing the first riding date even deeper into the past, perhaps as early as 4500 B.C. on the Volga River.

Anthony also argues that the first horse riders were the mysterious speakers of proto-Indo-European, the mother tongue of many of the world’s languages, including English. Scholars have been looking for the source of those original speakers since the 18th century, when they discovered the similarities among Sanskrit, Latin, and Greek.              

The Danube invaders, like prehistoric Bain Capital-ists, rewarded themselves handsomely for their plunder. Old European copper and fine pottery had great value back in the steppe, as did rustled livestock. Some of the primordial Indo-European myths are about cattle raiding. In addition to wealth, successful raiders and warriors won “fame everlasting” and the honor of starring in their own epic poem. These tales were declaimed by bards at feasts for so many centuries that some endured into historical times, in ancient texts like the Iliad and Rig Veda.

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It’s hard to believe today, but naked self-aggrandizement was a new development. We know this in part from graves, which reflect a person’s station in life. For nearly all of prehistory, the graves that have been found were communal and equal. No person stood out. (There are a few exceptions, such as a man and two children buried with thousands of ivory beads near Moscow 24,000 years ago.) 

Old Europe didn’t leave many graves, but nearly all of those were collective.  Inequalities in life surely existed: Some dwellings had finer pottery and tools than others, for instance. A collection of sumptuous gold burials in Varna, Bulgaria, from about 4300 B.C. demonstrated inequalities in the possession of precious metal. But necessities like land, timber, and labor were evidently freely shared.

The last of the Old European cultures built giant towns on the west bank of the Dnieper River around 3500 B.C., apparently in defense against the horse riders. The towns contained up to 7,000 people—more than any settlements on Earth at the time. But all of the dwellings were the same size. If there were social inequalities, they were downplayed. One theory holds that the Old European goddess religion frowned on displays of personal wealth. 

East of the Dnieper, in the steppes, the horse riders’ society evidently demanded the opposite. Flaunting wealth—measured in the quantity of baubles and the size of herds of cattle, sheep, and horses—became de rigueur.

Rich chiefs were buried in individual graves, marked with earthen mounds called kurgans and filled with polished stone maces shaped like horse heads, ornaments of tusk and bone, and Old European pottery and copper. (The steppe people had no demand for the Old Europeans’ goddess figurines. Their gods were male.)

The giant towns didn’t prevent Old Europe’s eventual extinction. Bronze Age kurgan makers carried their culture and their Indo-European dialects across Europe and as far as China and India, where rich men were buried alongside horse and cattle sacrifices. Even their wives were sacrificed, in the earliest known examples of the patriarchal practice of suttee.

Anthony speculates that the earliest chiefs kept large herds of livestock to build status by giving away meat at feasts, where the heroic poems were recited and much beer and mead were drunk. They may also have loaned out livestock when someone from the 99 percent needed it for survival, creating one of the earliest forms of debtor relations. 

Still, he sees a big difference between the 1 percent then and now. “Then, they were supposed to give it away and be generous in proportion to their wealth. Feasting and gift-giving were the paths to power. Now, it’s not done that way.”

Actually, that is how it’s done, except today’s 1 percent invite only one another to parties and give their gifts to super PACs. And they still display their wealth with ostentatiously expensive hobbies. But even if horses are the original source of social stratification, please, don’t hold it against them.

Go, Rafalca!

Mary Mycio is a Slate contributor. Her most recent book is Doing Bizness: A Nuclear Thriller, about Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament in the 1990s.