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Private property, not productivity, precipitated Neolithic agricultural revolution


Humankind first started farming in Mesopotamia about 11,500 years ago. Subsequently, the practices of cultivating crops and raising livestock emerged independently at perhaps a dozen other places around the world, in what archaeologists call the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution. It's one of the most thoroughly-studied episodes in prehistory - but a new paper in the Journal of Political Economy shows that most explanations for it don't agree with the evidence, and offers a new interpretation.

Private property, not productivity, precipitated Neolithic agricultural revolution
Cave painting of cow & horses, Lascaux, France [Credit: Alamy]
With farming came a vast expansion of the realm over which private property governed access to valued goods, replacing the forager social norms around sharing food upon acquisition. A common explanation is that farming increased labor productivity, which then encouraged the adoption of private property by providing incentives for the long-term investments required in a farming economy.


"But it's not what the data are telling us", says Santa Fe Institute economist Samuel Bowles, a co-author of the paper. "It is very unlikely that the number of calories acquired from a day's work at the advent of farming made it a better option than hunting and gathering and it could well have been quite a bit worse."

Prior studies, including those of human and animal bones, suggest that farming actually took an extreme nutritional toll on early adopters and their livestock. So why farm in the first place?

Some have suggested an inferior technology could have been imposed by political elites as a strategy for extracting taxes, tribute, or rents. But farming was independently adopted millennia before the emergence of governments or political elites capable of imposing a new way of life on heavily-armed foraging communities.


Bowles and co-author Jung-Kyoo Choi, an economist at Kyungpook National University in South Korea, use both evolutionary game theory and archaeological evidence to propose a new interpretation of the Neolithic. Based on their model, a system of mutually recognized private property rights was both a precondition for farming and also a means of limiting costly conflicts among members of a population.

While rare among foragers, private property did exist among a few groups of sedentary hunter-gatherers. Among them, farming could have benefited the first adopters because it would have been easier to establish the private possession of cultivated crops and domesticated animals than for the diffuse wild resources on which hunter-gatherers relied.

"It is a lot easier to define and defend property rights in a domesticated cow than in a wild kudu," says Choi. "Farming initially succeeded because it facilitated a broader application of private property rights, not because it lightened the toil of making a living."

Source: Santa Fe Institute [October 11, 2019]

TANN

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3 comments :

  1. "Farming initially succeeded because it facilitated a broader application of private property rights, not because it lightened the toil of making a living."
    I don't believe that theory at all. It sounds like some right-wing libertarian political propaganda. The meltdown of the Ice Age brought on the Agricultural Revolution. The Ice Age didn't simply melt down. It collapsed. Many species went extinct. A bunch of our Stone Age ancestors' economies crashed. They turned to agriculture to survive. Farming didn't lighten the toil of making a living – it greatly increased it. Private property came long afterward.

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  2. Please read the long established, peer-reviewed, scientific study of the 4500 year transition from hunter-gatherer to full agriculturist detailed in "A Village on the Euphrates". Here we have the ONLY uninterrupted human habitation ever found, and it clearly shows not a revolution but a transition to agriculture, and not in the Neolithic, but in the Epipaleolithic period. Hunter-gatherers started the transition to full time residence when they landed at the perfect crossroads of gazelle migrations, multiple water sources, plentiful wild grains, nuts, legumes and fruits at the edge of a moist steppe and a river valley, which was covered by an alluvial fan. When the Younger-Dryer cool down interrupted the warming after the last ice age, 11,500 years ago, the climate changed and gazelles were gradually replaced by goats and sheep, while wild grasses and grains were replanted in newly drying lands near the settlement as they dried up on the steppe where they had been growing for so long. By 10,500 years ago the "seeds" of agriculture and husbandry were germinating nicely. Human, not natural selection, insured that little by little, ruminant sizes were reduced to make them easier to keep nearby. Grains with the most durable but brittle racci's and largest seeds with the thinnest shells were selected for ease of processing. Agriculture offered food certainty and less exposure to the elements and predators at the price of a life of toil. Less walking and chasing meant less risk, even if it led to arthritis and bone deformation from daily grinding of grains for bread. Sendentary lifestyle allowed the specialization of labor in the Neolithic, which led to pottery (from baskets), which made cooking, storage, and trade easier. The wheel (at first for pottery) and animal labor would finally shift the calculus to the point where agriculture was both easier and more productive than hunting & gathering.

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