Is Extreme Inequality Inevitable?: What Archaeology Can Tell Us about the 99 Percent.

Rosemary Joyce, Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley

In many people’s minds archaeology is about the search for kings and queens, for treasure and luxuries. It seems as if archaeologists are on the side of rulers, at the expense of the everyday farmer and laborer. And so, archaeological theories about social complexity are interpreted to say that human societies are on an implacable universal road toward exaggerated inequality: extreme inequality is inevitable. But is this true? Or can archaeologists illuminate places and times when society did not spiral into ever-widening inequality?

In this talk, I critically examine the need for archaeology to contest the representation of a global rise in inequality as inevitable, arguing that we have let the allure of certain things enchant us, leading to an over-emphasis on the wealthy and powerful. I draw on my decades-long research on prehispanic Honduras, where for centuries people in towns and villages sustained a lower level of inequality than archaeologists see in the city-states of their Classic Maya neighbors.

Using this case study as a beginning point, I address how archaeology can be and is being used to illuminate the long-term persistence and social contributions of a far more varied range of actors than the few leaders who have often received the greatest attention in our analyses. I sketch out an alternative place for archaeology in the world today, as an ally of new visions of social life that we can say are viable because they have worked already.

Discussant: Dr. Robert Preucel, Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, Brown University

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