Understanding how systems of political and economic inequality evolved from relatively egalitarian origins has long been a focus of anthropological inquiry. Many hypotheses have been suggested to link socio-ecological features with the rise and spread of inequality, and empirical tests of these hypotheses in prehistoric and extant societies are increasing. In this review, we synthesize several streams of theory relevant to understanding the evolutionary origins, spread, and adaptive significance of inequality. We argue that while inequality may be produced by a variety of localized processes, its evolution is fundamentally dependent on the economic defensibility and transmissibility of wealth. Furthermore, these properties of wealth could become persistent drivers of inequality only following a shift to a more stable climate in the Holocene. We conclude by noting several key areas for future empirical research, emphasizing the need for more analyses of contemporary shifts toward institutionalized inequality as well as prehistoric cases.
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