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The Great Leveler

Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century

By Walter Scheidel
15-minute read
Audio available
The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century by Walter Scheidel

The Great Leveler (2017) takes a look at the inequality faced by different societies throughout history. It highlights war, plague and other major catastrophes as a leveler of the unequal distribution of power and property, prompting the question: can equality be achieved in a non-violent manner?

  • People interested in the history of inequality
  • Students of politics
  • Those who enjoy learning about different societies

Walter Scheidel holds degrees in both history and biology and is a professor of humanities at Stanford University. He has published many books, including the successful Slavery in the Ancient World.

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The Great Leveler

Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century

By Walter Scheidel
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century by Walter Scheidel
Synopsis

The Great Leveler (2017) takes a look at the inequality faced by different societies throughout history. It highlights war, plague and other major catastrophes as a leveler of the unequal distribution of power and property, prompting the question: can equality be achieved in a non-violent manner?

Key idea 1 of 9

A better quality of life gave rise to inequality, before technological advancements made it worse.

The ice age was a difficult period for humanity. When it finally ended, you’d expect that our lives would’ve gotten better. Yet, while in some ways they did, not all the changes that came with the improved climate were positive.

As the last ice age came to an end some 11,700 years ago, we entered a period of climate stability known as the Holocene. During this time, humans who had settled in Middle East began cultivating the land and producing food, eventually resulting in a surplus. This marked the start of disequalization, as some began to accumulate larger areas of land and more food resources while employing others to work on their property. The structure of society was beginning to take shape.

In contrast to earlier hunter-gatherer societies in which power was spread equally and horizontally, the new society that emerged during the Holocene was structured hierarchically, with stark differences between rich and poor. Evidence for this discrepancy comes from archeological remains dating back 11,000 years, showing for the first time large differences in household sizes. In addition, the fish bones found in the perimeter of the larger households indicate that these people were eating large fish, whereas in the smaller houses, small fish were the norm.

In addition to the increased quality of life, technological improvements also impacted societies for the worse. Not even smaller tribal communities could escape inequality. During the period AD 500-700, the Chumash tribe – who lived on the Californian coast – developed a new type of canoe that increased the number of fishermen journeying out into the deep sea to catch fish. In no time, men, who controlled and managed the canoes, rose to dominate the tribe. Males secured control over tribal land, religious ceremonies and the war-making. As gratitude for their safety, other members of the tribe offered the male chiefs key trade items such as food and shells.

As you can see, inequality has been around for a long time – brought about by increased quality of life as well as technological advancements. In the next blink, we’ll see what continued to drive this divide.

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