Cereals, Appropriability, and Hierarchy

Lambert here: Confirming the view that this whole agriculture thing was a terrible mistake….

Interestingly, the article title is as you see. The HTML page title at VoxEU, and the URL, are “The Neolithic roots of economic institutions.” Which do you prefer?

By Joram Mayshar, Professor Emeritus in Economics, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Omer Moav, Professor of Economics, University of Warwick and Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, Zvika Neeman, Professor of Economics at the Berglas School of Economics, Tel Aviv University, and Luigi Pascali, Assistant Professor, University of Warwick and Pompeu Fabra University. Originally published by VoxEU.

Conventional theory suggests that hierarchy and state institutions emerged due to increased productivity following the Neolithic transition to farming. This column argues that these social developments were a result of an increase in the ability of both robbers and the emergent elite to appropriate crops. Hierarchy and state institutions developed, therefore, only in regions where appropriable cereal crops had sufficient productivity advantage over non-appropriable roots and tubers.

What Explains Underdevelopment?

One of the most pressing problems of our age is the underdevelopment of countries in which government malfunction seems endemic. Many of these countries are located close to the Equator.1 Acemoglu et al. (2001) point to extractive institutions as the root cause for underdevelopment. Besley and Persson (2014) emphasise the persistent effects of low fiscal capacity in underdeveloped countries. On the other hand, Diamond (1997) argues that it is geographical factors that explain why some regions of the world remain underdeveloped. In particular, he argues that the east-west orientation of Eurasia resulted in greater variety and productivity of cultivable crops, and in larger economic surplus, which facilitated the development of state institutions in this major landmass. Less fortunate regions, including New Guinea and sub-Saharan Africa, were left underdeveloped due to low land productivity.

In a recent paper (Mayshar et al. 2015), we contend that fiscal capacity and viable state institutions are conditioned to a major extent by geography. Thus, like Diamond, we argue that geography matters a great deal. But in contrast to Diamond, and against conventional opinion, we contend that it is not high farming productivity and the availability of food surplus that accounts for the economic success of Eurasia.

  • We propose an alternative mechanism by which environmental factors imply the appropriability of crops and thereby the emergence of complex social institutions.

To understand why surplus is neither necessary nor sufficient for the emergence of hierarchy, consider a hypothetical community of farmers who cultivate cassava (a major source of calories in sub-Saharan Africa, and the main crop cultivated in Nigeria), and assume that the annual output is well above subsistence. Cassava is a perennial root that is highly perishable upon harvest. Since this crop rots shortly after harvest, it isn’t stored and it is thus difficult to steal or confiscate. As a result, the assumed available surplus would not facilitate the emergence of a non-food producing elite, and may be expected to lead to a population increase.

Consider now another hypothetical farming community that grows a cereal grain – such as wheat, rice or maize – yet with an annual produce that just meets each family’s subsistence needs, without any surplus. Since the grain has to be harvested within a short period and then stored until the next harvest, a visiting robber or tax collector could readily confiscate part of the stored produce. Such ongoing confiscation may be expected to lead to a downward adjustment in population density, but it will nevertheless facilitate the emergence of non-producing elite, even though there was no surplus.

Emergence of Fiscal Capacity and Hierarchy and the Cultivation of Cereals

This simple scenario shows that surplus isn’t a precondition for taxation. It also illustrates our alternative theory that the transition to agriculture enabled hierarchy to emerge only where the cultivated crops were vulnerable to appropriation.

  • In particular, we contend that the Neolithic emergence of fiscal capacity and hierarchy was conditioned on the cultivation of appropriable cereals as the staple crops, in contrast to less appropriable staples such as roots and tubers.

According to this theory, complex hierarchy did not emerge among hunter-gatherers because hunter-gatherers essentially live from hand-to-mouth, with little that can be expropriated from them to feed a would-be elite.2

  • Thus, rather than surplus facilitating the emergence of the elite, we argue that the elite only emerged when and where it was possible to expropriate crops.

Due to increasing returns to scale in the provision of protection from theft, early farmers had to aggregate and to cooperate to defend their stored grains. Food storage and the demand for protection thus led to population agglomeration in villages and to the creation of a non-food producing elite that oversaw the provision of protection. Once a group became larger than a few dozen immediate kin, it is unlikely that those who sought protection services were as forthcoming in financing the security they desired. This public-good nature of protection was resolved by the ability of those in charge of protecting the stored food to appropriate the necessary means.

  • That is, we argue that it was this transformation of the appropriation technology, due to the transition to cereals, which created both the demand for protection and the means for its provision.

This is how we explain the emergence of complex and hereditary social hierarchy, and eventually the state.

Applied to Diamond’s prototypic contrast between Eurasia and New Guinea, our theory suggests that the crucial distinction between these two regions is that farming in Eurasia relied on the cultivation of cereals, while in New Guinea it relied mostly on the cultivation of tubers (yam and taro, and, more recently, sweet potato) and bananas, where long-term storage is neither feasible (due to perishability) nor necessary (because harvesting is essentially non-seasonal). This provided farmers in New Guinea with sufficient immunity against bandits and potential tax collectors. More generally, we contend that the underdevelopment of tropical areas is not due to low land fertility but rather the reverse. Farmers in the tropics can choose to cultivate highly productive, non-appropriable tuber crops. This inhibits both the demand for socially provided protection and the emergence of a protection-providing elite. It is a curse of plenty.

In the empirical section of our paper we demonstrate that, contrary to the standard productivity-and-surplus theory, land productivity per se has no direct effect on hierarchy. We also show that, consistent with our theory, the cultivation of roots or tubers is indeed detrimental to hierarchy.

Empirical Findings

These results are established by employing two datasets with information on social hierarchy: a cross section and a panel of countries. For our cross-sectional analysis we use Murdock’s (1967) Ethnographic Atlas, which contains information on cultural, institutional, and economic features of 1,267 societies from around the world at an idealised time period of first contact with Europeans. Our main outcome variable is ‘jurisdictional hierarchy beyond the local community’. The Ethnographic Atlas also provides information on the major crop type grown by societies that practice agriculture.

Since the cultivated crop is a decision variable, we instrument for the crop type by using data on land suitability for different crops from the Food and Agriculture Organisation. We first show that the decision whether to cultivate cereals as a main crop depends positively on the productivity advantage of cereals over roots and tubers (in terms of potential caloric yields per hectare). We then find that societies tend to have a more complex hierarchal organisation where the productivity advantage of cereals over roots and tubers is higher, as predicted by our theory. Furthermore, we find that societies that practice agriculture are more hierarchical only where they cultivate cereals. This means that societies that cultivate roots and tubers have similar levels of hierarchy to those of pastoral or foraging societies.

We also show that land productivity, measured by the potential yield of calories per acre of the most productive crop in each area, does not affect hierarchy once we control for the productivity advantage of cereals. Thus, our empirical findings challenge the conventional argument that it is increased land productivity that leads to more hierarchical societies.

Although this cross-sectional analysis accounts for a wide range of confounding factors, we cannot rule out completely that omitted variables may bias the estimates. To overcome this concern, we employ another dataset compiled by Borcan et al. (2014). This is a panel, based on present-day boundaries of 159 countries, with institutional information every five decades over the last millennium. This panel enables us to exploit the ‘Columbian exchange’ of crops across continents as a natural experiment. The new crops that became available after 1492 in the New and the Old World changed both the productivity of land and the productivity advantage of cereals over roots and tubers in the majority of the countries in the sample. Consistent with our theory, the panel regressions confirm that an increase in the productivity advantage of cereals over roots and tubers has a positive impact on hierarchical complexity, while an increase in land productivity does not.

Concluding Remarks

These findings support our theory that it is not agricultural productivity and surplus per se that explains more complex hierarchical societies, but rather the productivity advantage of cereals over roots and tubers, the type of crop that is cultivated as a result, and the appropriability of the crop type. Given that the productivity of roots and tubers is typically high in the tropics, these results also support the claim that deep-rooted geographical factors may explain the current weakness of state institutions in these regions.


Acemoglu, D, S Johnson and J A Robinson (2001), “The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation,” American Economic Review, 91, 1369-1401.

Besley, T and T Persson (2014), “Why Do Developing Countries Tax So Little?” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 28, 99-120.

Borcan, O, O Olsson and L Putterman, (2014), “State History and Economic Development: Evidence from Six Millennia.” Brown University – Department of Economics -Working Paper Series.

Diamond, J (1997) Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Norton, New York.

Mayshar, J, O Moav, Z Neeman, Z and L Pascali (2015), “Cereals, Appropriability and Hierarchy,” CEPR Discussion Paper 10742.

Murdock, G P (1967) Ethnographic Atlas, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh.

Spolaore, E and R Wacziarg (2013), “How Deep Are the Roots of Economic Development?” Journal of Economic Literature, 51, 1-45.


1 See Spolaore and Wacziarg (2013) for a survey.

2 In the paper, we provide evidence that hunter-gatherers who used storage developed hierarchies similar to those of early farmers.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. PlutoniumKun

    Interesting idea. I can’t help thinking about the example of 18th Century Ireland where there were two main crops – grains and potatoes. The grain was almost exclusively an export crop and was the basis for the great wealth of the aristocracy, while the potato essentially fed the workers who harvested the grain. While potatoes are less perishable than most tubers, they would still not be as storable or tradable as grain, or as useful for other products (such as beers and whiskey).

    1. Lona_P

      Some actual data on the perishability of food would help in making this case. I remember reading accounts of the Chinese cultural revolution where all they had to eat was sweet potatoes, presumably stored. I am also thinking of the root cellar – a good way to store roots. I’m not sure about how common worldwide root cellars are but it seems like the contents could be easily appropriated.

      1. Oregoncharles

        Tubers are much heavier per calorie than grain, because they contain water. So considerably harder to haul away – or to trade, another factor.

        They can be dried – the Inca certainly dried potatoes. That’s a lot of extra trouble, though, so the farmers don’t generally make a practice of it. I suspect cassava, which has to be drained of its poisonous juice, is frequently made into dried breads or cakes. In fact, I’ve seen this done on TV. Dried, it would be easy to appropriate.

        Seems to me most of these fine details don’t have much effect on a big-picture theory. What matters is the predominant mode.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          There simply isn’t enough sun in Ireland to dry potatoes. The only way to store them is literally in the ground or in aired sheds. Despite their love of potatoes Irish farmers never worked out many ways to make them into something that would last. Potato cakes of various forms can last a few days, but not much more. From what I know, ‘year round’ food for most farmers in Ireland in the 19th Century was more likely to be bought in grains and preserved meats (for those who could afford it). Traditionally, in the Alps and Pyrenees, pickled and smoked foods were what they survived on over the winter.

    2. ambrit

      I’m not sure when it was perfected, but potato vodka is deadly.
      I’ve been told that, in the ‘good old’ days of the State Socialism in the East, potato vodka was made very strong so as to escape prohibitive taxation. Roughly, the dividing line was if the potation could run an internal combustion engine when poured in the carburetor. Thus, if it ran the tractor, it was taxed as an agricultural fuel, very low rate of taxation. If it didn’t run the tractor, it was booze and taxed to death. A friend who spent time in Poland during the ‘old days’ stated that one acquired this fiery liquid in the local farmers market by asking for “Tractor Fuel.”

      1. PlutoniumKun

        In Ireland, poteen (illegal whiskey) was often made with potatoes, but only in desperation (such as during the war years) – the good stuff was always based on malted barley and other grains or sometimes sugar beet. I think the starch content in potatoes makes it very strong, but also, shall we say, lacking subtlety.

            1. ambrit

              Aaaah. Flavoured vodka. I didn’t think of that, being a rather traditional drinker. (One’s my limit now. Age does not increase one’s capacity; quite the opposite.)

  2. Disturbed Voter

    Score another point for St Augustine of Hippo … the city, and non-agricultural economics … is a great theft. But with benefits ;-)

  3. david battabong

    This confirms my theory that human beings, when given the opportunity, will choose to be lying, thieving bastards. All in the name of Progress.

    1. Bob San Socie

      Dear Mr. Battabong, you speak truth. Government IE “Regulation” is needed to keep the worst of the bastards in line ! Cheers :)

  4. Flatstanley

    Agreed, definitely an interesting idea. It made me think immediately of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and the construct of feudal societies; basically Neolithic in form but with better technology. It would be interesting to see if this theory could map to what states emerged quickly and in strength after the fall of Rome in the West, for example.

    1. Shash

      In South India, for a very long time – that is, until the Green Revolution in the 60s, rice was the stuff of the elite, while the tillers generally drank porridge made of millets. While millets are still a grain, they’re a “lesser” grain than the rice. Here too, it’s basically as you describe – Neolithic form for the most part, roughly feudal in that there’s a land-holder who charges the tenants and pays taxes to the king. There were several petty kingdoms that allied themselves to one sovereign or another, often switching sides.

      That, and PlutoniumKun’s comment above

      I think there may be something to it…

    2. PlutoniumKun

      Funnily enough, it got me thinking about Seven Samurai too! Especially the famous speech in the middle where the fake Samurai (from a farming background) decried the weakness and lying nature of farmers – but then finished with ‘but you Samurai made them like that’. For much of history, peasant farmers were just cows for milking for the rich and powerful. If course, in the film the bandit won’t attack the peasants early, because all they would have is millet, what they want is the mountain barley and rice, which the farmers have carefully hidden away.

  5. Ruben

    The hypothesis of the role of agriculture in the origin of the State is not original. A paper published in the top American scientific journal (not cited in this VoxE post) by Robert L. Carneiro in 1970 established that the state originated by coercion, as opposed to voluntarily. Carneiro’s treatment of the issue is more complete and elaborate, also explaining the when and the where of the different State hierarchies and why it didn’t protrude (hehe) in places like the Amazonian.




  6. Beans

    This is an interesting explanation of cultural development. The curse of plenty, indeed.
    The hierarchy in the West, particularly US institutions, seems to me to be more a case of cultural acceptance of hierarchies than a general acceptance of the need for protection of surplus these days, particularly if you substitute dollars for cereals. On the heels of multiple stock market corrections and economic recessions, why we have accepted the notion, and worse, mandated through federal tax law that it is wise to entrust our retirement savings to self appointed financial experts instead of the individuals actually saving for retirement is inexplicable.
    As a dentist, I cannot invest my retirement funds in my business, despite a proven track record of steady financial gains. The same goes for anyone who is, or wants to be self employed. We all must fork over our meager retirement savings to Wall Street since only those financial geniuses can be trusted to protect our saving which we hayseeds would undoubtly blow without guidance. Of course, we can invest our retirement savings in our corporate competitor’s office – private equity ownership of dental offices is standard operating procedure in nearly every state – but we cannot invest in our own.
    I resent the heck out of being forced to pay for the so-called protection of my surplus. Perhaps cereals to dollars is too big of a jump, but it is the first thing that came to mind upon reading this piece.

  7. Gerard Pierce

    There is something missing here. There was a book published some time in the last ten years that among other things described the development of maize or corn somewhere in South America.

    This new crop was exported worldwide. Among the theories in the book that described this was that once corn became a basic food in Africa it was possible to develop a surplus population composed of people who would have otherwise starved to death.

    The thesis was that this surviving surplus population became the basis for slavery.

    1. ambrit

      (Second try at a response.)
      As PlutoniumKun mentioned above, the potatoes feed the agricultural ‘masses’ while the cereal grains go to support the ‘elites.’
      Parenthetically, Amaranth varieties were as important, if not more important than, maize in the food supply of the New World. Amaranth was so important to the Aztecs, both as the primary grain source, and for religious reasons, that the Spanish Conquerors banned it’s cultivation as a means of control. As long as a culture grows a variety of long term storable grain, the race for primacy is on.
      Also, the experience of the Irish Potato Famine is a cautionary tale showing the insanity of monocropping. When the Olagalla aquifer eventually runs dry, how much of the worlds cereal grain production will disappear? More importantly, who is doing the work to perfect dry land cropping techniques to take up the slack?
      The Human Comedy; we lurch from one entirely avoidable crisis to the next.

      1. Terence Ddoge

        Is there any example of “avoidable crisis” ( Rational/reasonable/forward planning behavior is the rare/extreme behavior, denial/avoidance is “normative” ).

        If it was avoided it was not a crisis. No robber barons no cultures other than Neolithic extended families with a life expectancy of what?

        And as nothing is provable via these conjectures/hypothesis(s) ( offer theory, find the space and the volunteers and come back “X” generations later for the “TV show? ).

        1. ambrit

          I’ll give it a try.
          In theory, any crisis is avoidable. True, that posits ideal conditions, so, we step it down to ‘rational expectations.’ Given what is generally known about any situation, (special and secret knowledge is another class of experience entirely,) feasible counter measures or avoidance strategies can be inferred. The implementation of the optimal strategy becomes a combined technical and political task. The technical tasks are the easy parts. The real difficulties come with the political implementation.
          One example should suffice. Urban congestion and environment degradation. Dense pack cities seem to function best under mass transit conditions. Streetcars and trollys perform the best. Being run on permanent infrastructure with externally supplied energy sources, such as electric streetcars, (which I observed and used when we lived in New Orleans,) create the least generalized quality of life problems. No internal combustion engines in the inner city equals better air quality, few to no automobiles means pedestrian safe and friendly streets, the walk required from dwelling to streetcar line, and from said to destination produce benefits associated with daily exercise, and the quieter and less dangerous street environment is conducive to calmer and simpler daily lives. (I have read how dangerous Dickensian London, or Ancient Rome streets could be. Hopefully, we aren’t reverting to Robber Baron days.)
          As for life expectancy differences, outside of traditional rural Neolithic conditions, the extension of life expectancies has mainly been the result of two forces: modern medicine, and public sanitation. Each factor can be, and is, manipulated. Again, politics comes into play as the mediating factor concerning the allocation of resources.
          Finally, I hope you are not positing “perfect” knowledge in your last sentence. Ultimately, nothing is absolutely provable. The cosmos is too large and complex for any finite being to apprehend it in it’s totality. We make do with the best hypothesis available until one superior comes along, and makes itself known. The ‘time machine’ you suggest, (somewhat in jest I suspect,) would be history and verifiable data from times past. There is your ‘time traveler.’ Match the best historical data you have against todays analogue and do the work.

    2. BananaBreakfast

      Agriculturalists on the altiplano did and still do have techniques for the long term storage of potatoes. They can be, effectively, freeze-dried and/or bleached in water and sunlight and then stored for years and rehydrated or made into flour. The economic system of the Andes took advantage of the relatively short distances between disparate agricultural reasons to cultivate a lot of different crops – a state of even moderate size would have also had reserves of quinoa and other chenopods, amaranth, ulluco and other tubers, and maize, as well as calorie storage in camelids.

        1. Harold

          They ate guinea pigs and capybaras, in fact these were their main source of meat, I have been told. Perhaps they ate llamas as well.

          1. Banana Breakfast

            Capybaras were not domesticated and as such were not widely available outside the lower elevation rain forest contexts in which they could be harvested wild.

            The relative importance of guinea pigs versus camelids is tricky, because for the most part isotopic studies of paleodiet can only distinguish between terrestrial and marine protein sources (or between protein sources with different diets, but camelids and domesticated caviidae were probably fed about the same stuff). We definitely find a lot more faunal remains of camelids than caviidae, but then again camelids have much more robust bones and they preserve better. Nevertheless, even in sites where guinea pigs are in evidence they’re generally outnumbered by camelids, and my colleagues who specialize in Andean archaeology all seem to be in agreement that camelids were the main terrestrial faunal food source for the great majority of prehispanic Andean cultures.

  8. jgordon

    Closely reading this post reveals that all the original governments of humanity were composed of ultra-violent robbers.

    Well, at least they’re consistent.

  9. JEHR

    What struck me is that farmers did not raise just one crop, but both root crops and cereals. They also raised chickens, geese, pigs, cows, etc., so that they would have had a very good diet even though they were farmers.

    I think the argument is weak and not universally applicable.

    1. ambrit

      I disagree. As long as there was an expropriable and storable food crop, the elite hierarchy would develop, to fill the vacuum, as it were.
      One of the main drivers of the evil side of the Irish Potato Famine was the absentee landlord’s continued insistence on the production, and export, of the grain portion of the crop mix. To that end, the workers of the soil were forced to grow crops they couldn’t eat, when they needed those calories the most. The crop mix was out of the hands of the actual farmers. Being not tied intimately to the peasantry, the absentee landlords could, and did, place profit above human life. That was the tragedy of the Famine. It starkly exposed the evil side of Capitalism.

  10. JCC

    Interesting. You may want to read some R Buckminster Fuller, too. He wrote about this idea over 60 years ago in some short essays. Among other shorter essays, the Operating Manual For Spaceship Earth (available for free on the ‘net) is one written around 1968 where he discusses this framework… not specifically regarding grains, but surplus in general.

    His discussion comes from where he gained his primary scientific knowledge, the US Navy, and so, accordingly, he proposed in the Operating Manual that the modern state rose from early sea power and the “Great Pirates”. Other earlier essays of his discussed farming in general (not just grains farming) and “protection” as the primal cause. I’m sure he would have greatly appreciated the above article and wholeheartedly agreed.

    It’s too bad he’s not well known. He was ahead of his time in technology and social/govt politics regarding our natural environment.

    1. BananaBreakfast

      Shocker, economists don’t read other disciplines. Mashyar could have yelled down the hall and asked the archaeology professors at the Hebrew University, like Gideon Shelach, and learned that this is boilerplate, no nuance consensus in studies of early agriculture and the emergence of social complexity. Of course, this is a goofball attempt to quantify it – besides the fact that there’s no clear methodology for measuring “hierarchical complexity”, and their data sources on subsistence sources are woefully inadequate (there is no one good source for this kind of thing). Plenty of much better research has been done on the emergence of hierarchy and complexity, anyone interested should look into e.g. Tim Earle (How Chiefs Come to Power, 1997, etc), Brian Hayden (“Pathways to power: Principles for creating socioeconomic inequalities.” 1995, etc), or Robert Santley (Redistribution vs The Great Provider Model, 1993) for starters, and people like Kenneth Ames, Susan and Roderick MacIntosh, or Robert Drennan for examples of alternative routes to complexity.

      1. su

        ‘Shocker, economists don’t read other disciplines.’

        You know what else is shocking? The authors did present this paper in a seminar in the Archaeology Department at HU. It may have been a one off event but for the record, the archaeology audience thought it was really interesting and liked seeing how economists tackle the same questions they are engaged with.

  11. Socalrhino

    Working from memory, but I think the author mistakes Diamond’s point in Guns, Germs, and Steel. That talked about the food packages available in different regions, their nutritional density, and their transportability along similar latitudes given consistent climate zones. It wasn’t the productivity of the land, it was the natural occurrence of plants. All of the most dense cereals originated in a small area in a laterally oriented continent. Sweet potatoes have a small fraction of the nutritional density of a wheat.

  12. Je' Czaja

    This theory is almost exactly what Jared Diamond said in Guns, Germs and Steel. Of course others raided and stole if they could get away with it. Of course the loot needed to be portable and valuable-otherwise, why take the risk?

    They were cooperative and shared and resolved conflicts within their own group. Strangers were (and are still) regarded with suspicion-sometimes for valid reasons. My question is: by what mechanism did land that had belonged to the whole tribe become the exclusive property of those elite?

    1. ambrit

      As the English Enclosure Movement showed, the elites first abrogated to the government the “legitimate” use of force. Then the elite perfected control of the government. Then, the elite used the coercive power of the government to force the peasants off of the formerly common lands. Then the elites used their control of the government to award the expropriated lands to themselves.
      It all comes down to the use of force; which force does not need be physical.

    2. Oregoncharles

      Conquest, usually.

      I don’t remember the author’s name, but this reminds me of a study years ago into why pastoralists almost always go in for raiding (which, in turn, makes them militarily formidable).

      After much study, she concluded that it was easier to steal a cow (horse, sheep, goat) than to raise one. Also more exciting. But this process doesn’t really lead to elites, unless one tribe proves much better at it than others – eg, the Sauds creating Saudi Arabia.

  13. Carlos

    Also think the argument is a bit weak.

    1. Diamond says the New Guineans feed excess tubers to Pigs and so store the surplus as pig fat. Hence bandit raids on a mans pigs all the time.

    2. Glaringly omit there is much less seasonality effecting food production in the equatorial regions/ tropics, plant a root crop almost any time of the year it grows. It’s a much bigger deal to have one or two crops a year a to store food over a long winter. Not so much cereals vs roots.

    Good effort but the theory needs more work.

  14. Lyle

    The article omits the point that to farm cereals in the Fertile Crescent and Indus Valleys you have to irrigate which is in general an operation that requires collective effort to make work. The elite arose to manage this effort which lead to the surpluses that the gathered up. A lot of areas in Africa did not require large scale irrigation systems being in wetter climates. The folks in the fertile crescent where also always being attacked by nomads from the Persian Steppes and it took a collective effort to defend against this, thus the rise of government in what is today Iraq (and some of Iran).

    1. evodevo

      The idea of having to maintain irrigation sounds much more plausible than the authors’ hypothesis. A hierarchical society arose in Peru – several times – and the surrounding area, and again there is the issue of scarce water supply, labor for terracing and inhospitable weather. The land is so diverse that they raised a wide variety of crops, especially potatoes and quinoa. Doesn’t match up too well with the article’s assumptions. Also you can’t really compare the Mayans and Aztecs with Peru since they depended on maize, a cereal grain. I guess that example coincides more closely with the authors’ idea.

      1. Lyle

        It is interesting if you look at where government evolved in the old world, its areas where Irrigation was required i.e. Egypt, the Fertile Crescent and the Indus Valley. Egypt is perhaps the purest case since it did not have as much trouble with nomads as the Fertile Crescent, since much of the country surrounding the Nile Valley is desert. It appears from this link: http://www.chinacultures.com/2014/09/irrigation-projects-of-ancient-china.html that irrigation was important in China also This is reinforced since Chinese civilization developed in the north of china and around the Yellow river where water contol works were required to control flooding (the yellow river has always carried lots of silt). Civilization moved south over time in china in particular south of the Yangtze where rice growing did not require the work of large number of folks to survive.

  15. DJG

    Where are the tabled data? Where are the graphs? I’m not persuaded either. Small farms owned by peasants produce all kinds of crops, not just cereals and roots. I’m reminded of the importance of the yearly pig slaughter in China, France, Italy, Spain and elsewhere. I’m reminded that even settled peasants still foraged for weeds and mushrooms to eat. Chestnuts tided them over between harvests, for instance. The cultivation of the olive is often the more “remunerative” crop around the Mediterrean, given that grain traditionally was broadcast rather than planted in rows. (The Chinese were brilliant at agricultural techniques like planting intensely, which supported a large population. These techniques diffused throughout the world.)

    I got a distinct whiff of “city people writing about farming problems.” Yes, Monsanto has produced problems in U.S. farming, and resultant anxiety about sustainability, but modern U.S. farming is an outlier in many respects.

  16. Chauncey Gardiner

    Interesting article, but I wonder where it is leading? I felt that the post would benefit from discussion of reliance on oil in modern grain and soybean production, transport and storage; as well as the emergence of large multinational corporations that supply GMO seeds and agricultural chemicals for control of weeds and pests in order to increase yields, and for specific crop characteristics. The ties of these corporations to governments and their influence on nations’ agricultural and environmental policies, and the mechanisms through which they exert that influence, is a subject of great significance IMO.

  17. Mickey Marzick in Akron, Ohio

    “Due to increasing returns to scale in the provision of protection from theft, early farmers had to aggregate and to cooperate to defend their stored grains. Food storage and the demand for protection thus led to population agglomeration in villages and to the creation of a non-food producing elite that oversaw the provision of protection.”

    I do not take issue with the “protection racket” thesis per se or its underlying prerequisites. But I do have difficulty with how the division of labor came about between early farmers and this non-producing elite. That’s what requires explanation. What drove some individuals – increasingly male – to specialize in protection in return for their ever-growing appetites? While perhaps symbiotic initially, it has become even more oppressive over time as the surplus has increased!

    Where do nomadic pastoralists fit into this picture? Herding sheep and goats is a surplus on hooves so long as there is enough land and water to graze on. It also explains why pastoralists were always on the move – following the herds. It’s the latter which, in many ways, drove this nomadic mobility. But there would still be the need to protect this surplus on the hoof from predators – wolves, lions, leopards, etc., and other marauding “pastoralists” on the hunt for an easy meal. Were shepherds protecting their flocks the missing link that would evolve into this nonproducing elite?

    The linearity implied is admittedly not as clear cut as stated. I suspect it was more mixed along the way and evolved into a community in which both animal husbandry and cereal production came to exist side by side. But pastoralists would have understood the relationship between their herds, land, and water and the importance of controlling all three in maintaining their surplus on the hoof. Would this knowledge have been lost on early farmers whose parents or grandparents may have been pastoralists at one time? Then too, the conflict between pastoralists and early farmers may not have existed or been so pronounced as long as there was an abundance of fertile land and water. It was predation on both that gave rise to the need for protection.

    The resultant division of labor and the displacement of matriarchy by patriarchy is not coincidental and cannot be overlooked in this regard. If the division of labor evolved in such a way that men tended to the flocks and women tended to the fields, the protection of the former may have provided the impetus whereby the latter became subjugated to domination by males. Of course, if women tended to the flocks as well, how men came to dominate still requires explanation. Child rearing also has to be factored into the equation. Biological differences notwithstanding, there’s more to it than the production of a surplus.

    Admittedly, these themes take us beyond the scope of the authors’ thesis but NC has always excelled in this capacity, allowing the commentariat to run with a topic. When commentary was suspended I was not surprised since I had stopped visiting NC years ago because the quality and tone of the discussion had declined from that witnessed in earlier years. Back then we focused on the substance of the argument made and its merit. Yves did not have to “police” the commentariat and had more time to participate in the discussion. This is my first post on NC in years and suspect my posting won’t be as frequent. But I can only hope it was worth reading.

    1. ambrit

      I suspect that much of it had to do with the increasingly complex tool kit humans were developing. Past a certain level of complexity, specialization must arise. Many specialty skills require time and concentration that otherwise would have been devoted to food gathering. These skill masters thus require outside assistance in food procurement. This begins a self reinforcing cycle of increasing complexity of skills and divisions of labour. As I’ve been taken to task before about, the divisions of labour do not necessarily fall out along purely gender based lines. Except for the actual process’s of gestation and childbirth, most skills can be androgynously apportioned. (The most efficient deer hunter I ever encountered was a short red headed woman. She had been in the Army and hunted with a Chilean Mauser converted to 7.62x51mm NATO. She was a deadly shot.)

    2. Oregoncharles

      About pastoralists: First, they’re usually fairly egalitarian, for the reasons you described. they do have chiefs, though when associated with civilizations; hence the Sauds.

      Many years ago now, Isaw a paper by an anthropologist on why raiding is so common among pastoralists. After diligent study, she concluded it was easier to steal livestock than to raise it – as well as more exciting. Doesn’t necessarily lead to a hierarchy, though, unless somebody gets the upper hand. Often it’s more of a rather violent exchange.

  18. TheCatSaid

    Fascinating, thanks for posting this.

    I wonder what the authors’ views might be about pastoral societies? There are various ways to store meat–would the results of these societies be consistent with the hierarchies where land is suited to grain?

    Allan Savory’s latest developments lead me to reflect on this.

  19. ex-PFC Chuck

    In Sex At Dawn authors Ryan and Jetha argue that patriarchy emerged at the dawn of agriculture when men saw an advantage in assuring that their offspring would continue to have access to the same productive plots of land that had their own livelihoods. The obvious way of achieving this was to assure that their offsprings’ mothers didn’t copulate with anyone but themselves. They assert that Garden of Eden legend has it backwards. They weren’t kicked out of a garden; they were kicked into one.

  20. gordon

    So civilisation depends on war. You have to protect your appropriable crops from those evil robbers, so you need to raise an army and build walls and make or buy weapons and so forth. Sounds like a narrative which would go down well in Israel.

    I would like to see some evidence of this which isn’t just data-mining by a few academics with time on their hands and access to some big databases.

    In particular, the early Neolithic settlement of Catal Huyuk in SE Turkey (about 7th millennium BC) relied to a substantial extent (but not exclusively) on grain cultivation, but there is no evidence of a ruling class. Not much evidence of a ruling class in the Uruk period of Mesopotamia (4th millennium BC) either, so far as I recall, and they cultivated grain (among other things).

    Advocates of hierarchy and ruling classes like to say “It’s always been this way”, because examples of non-hierarchical forms of organisation make them uneasy. So far as I’m aware, there is just as much evidence for non-hierarchical organisation at the beginnings of civilisation as there is of hierarchical organisation – maybe more. But ultimately this sort of argument isn’t about the Neolithic and the earliest civilisations, it’s about the present, and using examples from the past to fortify some argument about the present and the future.

  21. Oregoncharles

    Thanks for an extremely interesting article. This kind of thing used to be called anthropology; the grand master of this economic approach was called Marvin Harris. I have one of this books.

    And of course, the insight that livelihood ultimately drives and limits both ideology and organization goes back to Marx.

  22. Thure Meyer

    This kind of reminds me of what Steve J Gould used to call just-so stories, where we make up a theory to fit the facts (as we see them). But it is not explanatory and not very good theory since it is not testable.

    What goes missing in this type of research is a discussion of the underlying assumptions around expropriation, i.e., is this some sort of evolutionary imperative, an inevitable part of “human nature”?

    I think a lot of research in the past has actually shown that co-operation may be much more important in human communities.

    I’m always very suspicious of research that reinforces the status quo by positing their results as inevitable.

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