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.
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