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Social Complexity and Social Inequality in the Prehistoric Mediterranean

Thomas P. Leppard is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Florida State University (Johnson Building, 2035 East Paul Dirac Drive, Tallahassee, Florida 32310, USA ([[email protected]]).

The complex urban polities developed in the Old World (5500–3500 BP) had several structural features in common, particularly their scale, their cereal agrarianism, and their environmental patterning. Accordingly, the demographic weight borne by agrarian subsistence in these environments is causally associated with emergent social complexity. Yet other Old World contexts also witness the Mid-Late Holocene emergence of socially complex societies, contexts that differ radically from those of the pristine states in their environmental organization. How can we account for this? I suggest that the model developed by Thomas Piketty, in his analysis of emergent wealth inequality in late modernity, has an unappreciated applicability in explaining the development of unequal social systems at larger time scales. I argue that Mediterranean environments are equivalent to the low-growth environments that he demonstrates exaggerate the speed at which wealth inequality grows. This has explanatory potential in the context of the otherwise problematic appearance of social complexity in low-growth environments, which, on the basis of current models orbiting around surplus, we might expect to discourage such emergence. Recognizing that highly varied ecological and economic pathways can lead to ostensibly very similar outcomes poses challenges to how we model emergent complexity in comparative perspective.