A stone-age aristocracy?

The egalitarianism of Upper Paleolithic societies in question


In a book published ten years ago, Brian Hayden suggested the possibility that all or parts of the people of the Eurasian upper Palaeolithic lived in societies marked by wealth inequalities. More recently, a convergent hypothesis was put forth, claiming that the exceptional expertise of the Chauvet or Lascaux painters can only be explained by a long-term apprenticeship, already implying a form of social division of labour unknown in economically egalitarian societies.

Ethnology has long shown the existence of hunters-gatherers displaying socio-economic inequalities and which could be qualified as “ploutocracies”. Yet, this configuration contrasts with the social model traditionally assigned to Upper Paleolithic populations. According to archaeology, wealth inequalities only emerged in Europe as a gradual and more or less remote consequence of the innovations related to the Neolithic.

Yet, various forms of evidence such as the richly endowed burials of Sungir or the pavlovian huts made of mammoth bones have intrigued scholars. During the last years, other elements, potentially contradicting the egalitarian model, seem to have accumulated, either from new discoveries or from the reassessment of already known record.

If it is probably not possible for the time being to decide between both hypothesis, but we consider it urgent to proceed to a critical survey of the archeological data (habitat, burials, technical and symbolical productions…) that can shed a light on the major issue of social evolution. This is the purpose of this conference, which intends to gather renowned specialists in order to take stock of the current state of knowledge, to assess its relevance and, as far as possible, to consider new lines of inquiry.

Références :

[1] Hayden B., L’Homme et l’inégalité, l’origine de la hiérarchie à la préhistoire, Cnrs édition, 2008.

[2] Guy E., Ce que l’art préhistorique dit de nos origines, Flammarion, 2017.

[3] Testart A., Les chasseurs-cueilleurs ou l’origine des inégalités, Société d’ethnographie, 1982.

Call for Contributions

People wishing to take part during the conference "A Stone-Age Aristocracy?" are asked to send a title and a summary (about 200 to 300 words) before May, 31th 2019 to


The scientific committee will favour propositions that may inform the question directly, whether from an archaeological or an ethnological point of view. It will give preference to synthetic contributions, which cover a large period or geographic area, or address a general methodological question, rather than to narrow monographies.