Rich Man, Poor Man

Archaeologists are taking the study of wealth inequality into the distant past.

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This elite residence at Teotihuacan was only slightly larger than the standard commoner residence found there. Credit: MICHAEL E. SMITH.

Summer 2018: By Wayne Curtis.

In the first half of the first millennium A.D., Teotihuacan in central Mexico was the largest city in the western hemisphere. At its peak, it had about 125,000 residents and was estimated to be the sixth largest city in the world. Among its features were a number of elaborate “apartment complexes” dotting the site, with clusters of three to ten households each sharing a central courtyard. “These were large, walled compounds and each one had several apartments,” said Michael Smith, an Arizona State University archaeologist and Director of the Teotihuacan Research Laboratory. “If I had excavated this apartment compound at one of the Aztec sites I’ve excavated, I’d say this is a noble’s house for sure—it’s so big and luxurious and fancy,” he said.

But it wasn’t for nobility. “That was the standard form at Teotihuacan,” said Smith. While future excavations may show a less affluent class lived more humbly nearby, currently the evidence suggests a society where the gulf between the richest and poorest was relatively narrow compared to other cultures at the time. Among those other contemporaneous cultures was the Roman Empire, which was flourishing on the other side of the Atlantic. The gulf between rich and poor was markedly larger there, perhaps most famously at Pompeii, where the evidence of how people lived was preserved following the catastrophic volcanic explosion.

Wealth distribution among modern societies has been subject to increased scrutiny in recent years. Statistics focusing on the gap between rich and poor have become a mainstay of news accounts—the richest one percent of the world’s households own a little more than half the world’s wealth. “Social inequality is one of the big issues that we’re grappling with today,” said David Carballo, an archaeologist at Boston University, whose work has focused on pre-Hispanic civilizations of central Mexico, including Teotihuacan. And while most studies have looked at trends in wealth concentration over the past two centuries, thanks to copious written records, others are examining inequality deeper in the past, examining the story as told by the archaeological record. “In archaeology we have the vantage of deep time,” said Carballo. “I think we as archaeologists should have a seat at the table, and be using our data set—which is the deep history of humankind—to understand those issues.”

Read More in our SUMMER 2018 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 21 No. 1.             Browse Content of this Issue: SUMMER 2018.

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