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Prosperity, Property, or Beer? What Drove Human Agriculture?

May 20, 2013

agricultural_revolutionRhitu Chatterjee, blogging at NPR’s The Salt, posted a fascinating story about the earliest human agriculture this morning.  I had always thought that people first took up agriculture for two reasons: because it created a more stable food supply, and because people really like beer. It turns out the first reason was likely incorrect.

According to an article by Samuel Bowles and Jung-Kyoo Choi published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,

The advent of farming around 12 millennia ago was a cultural as well as technological revolution, requiring a new system of property rights. Among mobile hunter–gatherers during the late Pleistocene, food was almost certainly widely shared as it was acquired. If a harvested crop or the meat of a domesticated animal were to have been distributed to other group members, a late Pleistocene would-be farmer would have had little incentive to engage in the required investments in clearing, cultivation, animal tending, and storage. However, the new property rights that farming required—secure individual claims to the products of one’s labor—were infeasible because most of the mobile and dispersed resources of a forager economy could not cost-effectively be delimited and defended…This Holocene revolution was not sparked by a superior technology. It occurred because possession of the wealth of farmers—crops, dwellings, and animals—could be unambiguously demarcated and defended. This facilitated the spread of new property rights that were advantageous to the groups adopting them.

In other words, it was not the technological superiority of farming that facilitated human settlement and the agricultural revolution. Rather, it was the ability to establish and protect property that drove the process.

It’s an interesting hypothesis, but my money is still on the beer.



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