Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences

, Volume 11, Issue 9, pp 4947–4958 | Cite as

Inferring inequality in prehistoric societies from grave sizes: a methodological framework

  • Shi-Yong YuEmail author
  • Xue-Xiang Chen
  • Hui FangEmail author
Original Paper


Although there is little question that societal scale and mode of production from foraging to farming correlate with increases in economic inequality, there is no consensus over the relative importance of those factors or the role of institutions in the variance of inequality across time and space. To better understand the dynamics of economic inequality, it is necessary to expand our analytical horizon beyond the present into the deeper past. However, an analytical protocol especially oriented towards the systematic study of economic inequality with archaeological data is lacking. Here we propose the utility of grave size as a reliable proxy for estimating prehistoric social inequality and provide a methodological framework for analyzing this type of data. Our case studies using grave-size data from two Neolithic settlements in North and East China suggest that the asymmetric double Pareto distribution can be used as an alternative model to fit to the size distribution of grave wealth usually skewed and long-tailed. Based on the analytical connection between the probability density function and the Lorenz curve, a parsimonious algebraic expression of the Gini coefficient was derived. This analytical protocol also can serve as a convenient tool for quantifying economic inequality in prehistoric societies using other types of archaeological data such as land and house areas.


Grave size Economic inequality Prehistoric societies Asymmetric double Pareto distribution Lorenz curve Gini coefficient 


Funding information

This work was supported by the Priority Academic Program Development of Jiangsu Higher Education Institutions, the Taishan Scholar Program of Shandong Province, and the Chinese Program to Introduce Disciplinary Talents to Universities (No. 111-2-09).

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Copyright information

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Geography, Geomatics, and PlanningJiangsu Normal UniversityXuzhouChina
  2. 2.Joint International Research Laboratory for Environmental and Social ArchaeologyShandong UniversityJinanChina

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