When we were more equal

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When we were more equal

Some stories from the surprising history of equality: the Pyramids were pointless and the Roman Empire had a terrible effect on health, by Danny Dorling. Pictures by Ella Furness.

Weapons: a positive view

We now know that people who lived in hunter-gatherer societies needed equality and had to work together as groups to survive. The group sometimes threw out selfish people – they would find it difficult to survive if they did not find another group to join.

Most people now are afraid that other people will think they are selfish, and they are afraid that others will reject them. Because humans had to make tools, they had to develop an equal society. One group of tools were important here: weapons. If they didn’t have weapons, the largest and fittest people were in control. When they had weapons, even small people can kill.

Party for justice!

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Humans also needed more equality to settle in one area. If they wanted to farm the land, they needed to work together. They couldn’t work together well if the strong always attacked the weak. They had to plant crops. They had to store extra food for the winter, to plant the next year, and in case they had a drought.

After they settled, they had to look after the extra food – more than the food the hunter-gatherers could carry around. The extra food some people have gives them power over other people. One way to help with this problem is to often share this extra food with other people. On the American northwest coast, they often had these feasts and parties, called ‘potlatch’. These feasts develop as a way of sharing and celebrating what they had. The oldest map of the world shows folk dancing in a field.

Pyramids and other buildings with no purpose

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Societies that are equal do not usually build buildings with no purpose. In the past, when people lived well, they did not leave so much behind – usually only bones and a few things they needed. A society that is sustainable does not leave much. For example, the Indus Valley civilization of the second and third centuries BCE: it was sustainable and did not leave any palaces. Why would people in an equal spend their life building very big monuments? Groups build monuments when they have workers they do not need for survival, and to show how important they are. If they feel important, they have a reason to control other groups.

Free people would not choose to build a pyramid. You have to make them slaves (physically, economically or emotionally) to make them build very big monuments that have no clear purpose.

What did the Romans do for us?

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Most people think the Roman Empire had a good effect on civilization. But people have found bones that show that people in Roman colonies were shorter and not so healthy. This shows they suffered from disease and starvation. Also, they did not produce so much pottery in the parts of Europe with biggest Roman colonies – this shows they were not so creative.

They did not have so many new ideas in Europe and around the Mediterranean when the Roman Empire was in control. They brought new ideas from outside and did not create them. China was more equal and produced more variety of ideas: the wheelbarrow, printing, gunpowder, new religious beliefs (the East Asian or Taoic religions) and innovations in philosophy and ecology.

Industry brings development

In all human history, inequalities in society increased most in the 19th century – this was most clear in the parts of the world that were becoming industrial and most clearly in those parts of the world that were industrializing. Before industrialization, fashions changed slowly and people did not buy and use so much. Things could not grow so much and people could not keep so many things because they used the power of wind, water and, indirectly, the sun.

It was we started burning coal that we started to make more things. We used steam to drive machines and the machines could quickly change one thing into another: wool into jackets, iron into nails. But the machines could not run themselves; they needed people to look after them. Now there was no limit to what a small group of people could have if they made slaves work for them. If they put those people at machines eg. looms, they could produce so much more.

Early capitalism and people getting shorter

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In Victorian Britain there was a lot of inequality. Life expectancy in the worst parts of Manchester and Glasgow went down to 25 for many decades in the early 19th century. This was the centre of the British Empire. In the 1850s in England, the average height of people was the lowest that century. By 1918, average heights returned to the same as they had been a hundred years before in 1818.

People say that capitalism was a great economic success. But until 1917 it was only a success for people who had a lot of capital. After 1917, the inequality in money started to reduce across the world. And from then on, through to the 1970s, the money that came from the coal-burning factories started to spread to others.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: https://newint.org/features/2017/07/01/equality-history

(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).