Production systems, inheritance, and inequality in premodern societies: Conclusions

Eric Alden Smith, Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, Samuel Bowles, Michael Gurven, Tom Hertz, Mary K. Shenk

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

79 Scopus citations


Premodern human societies differ greatly in socioeconomic inequality. Despite much useful theorizing on the causes of these differences, individual-level quantitative data on wealth inequality is lacking. The papers in this special section provide the first comparable estimates of intergenerational wealth transmission and inequality in premodern societies, with data on more than 40 measures of embodied, material, and relational wealth from 21 premodern societies representing four production systems (hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, pastoralists, and agriculturalists). Key findings include (1) the importance of material, embodied, and relational wealth differs significantly across production systems, with material wealth more important in pastoral and agricultural systems; (2) the degree of wealth transmission from parent to offspring is markedly higher for material wealth than embodied and relational wealth; (3) aggregate wealth is transmitted to a higher degree among pastoralists and agriculturalists; (4) the degree of inequality is greater for material wealth; and (5) the degree of intergenerational transmission of wealth is correlated with wealth inequality. Surprisingly, horticulturalists exhibit no greater wealth inequality or intergenerational wealth transmission than do huntergatherers, while pastoralists are very similar to agriculturalists. We discuss how these trends may have favored the emergence of institutionalized inequality, as intensified forms of production madematerial wealth transmission increasingly important.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)85-94
Number of pages10
JournalCurrent anthropology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 1 2010

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Archaeology
  • Anthropology
  • Archaeology


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