(ORDO NEWS) — The dawn of human civilization is often associated with the rise of agriculture. As food production increased, so did the population, trade, and taxes. This is the prevailing version of history.
Economists have now come up with a competing hypothesis, and it suggests that food surplus alone was not enough to drive the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to hierarchical states that eventually led to civilization as we know it.
On the contrary, numerous datasets spanning several thousand years show that this reigning theory is empirically flawed.
Even when some parts of the world mastered agriculture and began to produce a surplus of food, this did not necessarily lead to complex hierarchies or taxed states.
Only when people began to grow food that could be stored, divided, traded, and taxed did social structures begin to take shape.
Perhaps this is why crops such as wheat, barley, and rice, rather than taro, yams, or potatoes, underlie virtually all classical civilizations. If the land was capable of growing grain, the data show that it was much more likely to develop complex social structures.
“The relative ease of confiscation of stored grains, their high energy density and longevity increase the possibility of their appropriation, thus contributing to the emergence of tax-collecting elites,” the authors of the hypothesis write.
“Roots and tubers, by contrast, tend to be perennial and do not need to be harvested in a specific period, but are quite perishable once harvested.”
In some areas of South America, for example, perennial root vegetables such as cassava can be harvested all year round. Unfortunately, however, cassava rots easily and is difficult to transport.
The researchers suggest that this is why cassava-dependent societies did not develop a hierarchy beyond chiefdom, even if there were more than enough roots to feed everyone.
On the other hand, the Maya were one of the most dominant and complex civilizations in Central America, however this ancient society did not rely solely on root crops. Instead, this civilization was heavily dependent on corn.
The same can be said about the Incas in the Andes.
The type of food the peasants grew was clearly more important to society than how much was produced.
The various social effects of root crops and crops may help explain why some civilizations have become more complex while other societies have remained local communities or chiefdoms. It may also explain why the abundance of food in a hunter-gatherer society did not necessarily lead to the development of civilizations.
Farming was obviously a necessary step to improve food production, but the researchers suspect that only those crops that could be easily confiscated led to the emergence of an elite class.
If an influential echelon of society began to collect a tax in the form of grain from the peasants who did not have extra food on their hands, then the agricultural communities would not be able to support such a large number of the population.
As a result, their numbers would most likely be reduced, leading to a surplus of food that could be given to the more elite classes.
If these farmers weren’t protecting the elite, the elite wouldn’t be protecting their food supplies from bandits. Stealing grain is, after all, much more valuable than stealing perishable food.
“Thus,” write the authors of the new hypothesis, “we agree with the usual productivity theory that farmers in hierarchical societies produce surpluses, but our contention is that it is not surpluses that generate elites, but that elites generate food surpluses on which they can flourish as soon as the opportunity arises to appropriate them.
The Atlas of Human Cultures, for example, shows that the largest number of wild cereal relatives can be found in the Fertile Crescent, often called the cradle of human civilization.
Historical societies that practiced no form of agriculture are found in Northwest America, Central Asia, Australia, and Southwest Africa. These societies also lacked complex hierarchical structures.
Data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations provide additional evidence for the new hypothesis. According to her, regions where cereals are more productive than roots and tubers are more likely to be organized as states with higher tax rates.
Meanwhile, root crops and tubers are not associated with more complex social hierarchies, even if they are grown on highly productive agricultural land.
“Using this new data, we were able to show that complex hierarchies, such as complex chiefdoms and states, arose in areas where crops that are easy to tax and expropriate were de facto the only available crops,” explains economist Luigi Pascali. from Pompeu Fabra University in Spain.
“Paradoxically, the most productive lands, those where not only grains but also roots and tubers were available and productive, did not experience the same political changes.”
Pascali’s co-author, economist Joram Meishar, calls this the “abundance curse.” Without this kind of food that can be hoarded and protected by an elite, there is no ranked society of givers and takers, controlled by law and order.
Ultimately, Meishar says, this reliance on root crops appears to have thwarted statehood and economic development in parts of the world, such as the South Pacific islands.
None of the empirical studies outlined in the recent paper can fully prove or disprove the new hypothesis. But the authors argue that their results are strong enough to “challenge the prevailing productivity and surplus explanation for the rise of the hierarchy.” They found no evidence for this oft-cited hypothesis.
“Only where the climate and geography favored crop production could a hierarchy develop,” says Meishar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“Our data shows that the greater the productivity advantage of cereals over tubers, the greater the likelihood of a hierarchy emerging.”
The old adage “we are what we eat” may be truer than we thought.”
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