Research sheds new light on origin of civilization

The research challenges the conventional theory that the transition from foraging to agriculture led to the development of complex, hierarchical societies by creating an agricultural surplus, finds the adoption of cereal crops to be the key factor.

  • The research sheds new light on the mechanisms by which the adoption of agriculture has led to complex hierarchies and states.
  • Through theoretical arguments and empirical analysis, it challenges conventional “productivity theory” that regional differences in land productivity explain regional disparities in the development of hierarchies and states.
  • Scientists find that it was not an increase in food production that led to complex hierarchies and states, but rather the transition to a reliance on easily transportable grains.
  • The main conclusion is that the key factor in the development of the state is the suitability of land for cereal cultivation, and not for root and tuber crops.

New research challenges the conventional theory that the transition from foraging to farming led to the development of complex, hierarchical societies by creating agricultural surplus in areas of fertile land. The work was carried out by the[{” attribute=””>University of Warwick, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Reichman University, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, and the Barcelona School of Economics.

Professors Joram Mayshar, Omer Moav, and Luigi Pascali show that high land productivity on its own does not lead to the development of tax-levying states in their paper, “In The Origin of the State: Land Productivity or Appropriability?” published in the April issue of the Journal of Political Economy – one of the oldest and most prestigious journals in economics.

The key factor for the emergence of hierarchy is the adoption of cereal crops. In this short video, Professor Moav explains:

The researchers hypothesize that this is because the nature of cereals requires that they be harvested and stored in accessible places, making them easier to appropriate as a tax than root crops that remain in soil and are less storable.

The researchers demonstrate a causal effect of cereal cultivation on the emergence of the hierarchy using empirical evidence drawn from multiple datasets spanning several millennia, and find no similar effect for land productivity.

Professor Mayshar said: “A theory linking productivity and land surplus to the emergence of hierarchy has developed over a few centuries and has become mainstream in thousands of books and articles. We show, both theoretically and empirically, that this theory is wrong.

As a basis for the study, Mayshar, Moav and Pascali developed and examined a large number of data sets, including the level of hierarchical complexity in society; the geographical distribution of wild relatives of domesticated plants; and the suitability of land for various crops to explore why in some areas, despite thousands of years of successful agriculture, well-functioning states have not emerged, while states that could tax and protect lives and property emerged elsewhere.

Professor Pascali said: “With this new data, we were able to show that complex hierarchies, such as chiefdoms and complex states, emerged in areas where cereal crops, easy to tax and expropriate, were de facto the only crops available. . Paradoxically, the most productive lands, those where not only cereals but also roots and tubers were available and productive, did not experience the same political evolutions.

They also used the natural experiment of the Columbian Exchange, the exchange of cultures between the New World and the Old World at the end of the 15e century that radically changed land productivity and the productivity advantage of cereals over roots and tubers in most countries of the world.

Professor Pascali said: “Building these new datasets, investigating case studies and developing the theory and empirical strategy took us nearly a decade of hard work. We are very happy to see that the paper is finally printed in a newspaper with the status of the JPE”

Professor Moav said: “After the transition from foraging to farming, hierarchical societies and eventually tax-raising states emerged. These states played a crucial role in economic development by providing protection, law and order, which ultimately enabled the unprecedented industrialization and welfare that many countries enjoy today.

“The conventional theory is that this disparity is due to differences in land productivity. The classic argument is that a food surplus must be produced before a state can tax farmers’ crops, and thus high land productivity plays the key role.

Professor Mayshar added: “We challenge the conventional theory of productivity, arguing that it was not an increase in food production that led to complex hierarchies and states, but rather the transition to dependence on regard to appropriable cereals that facilitate taxation by the emerging elite. When it became possible to appropriate cultures, a taxing elite emerged, which led to the state.

“It was only where the climate and geography favored cereals that the hierarchy was likely to develop. Our data show that the greater the productivity advantage of cereals over tubers, the greater the likelihood of a hierarchy emerging.

“The relevance of highly productive roots and tubers is in fact a curse of abundance, which has prevented the emergence of states and hindered economic development.”

Reference: “The origin of the state: productivity or land appropriation? by Joram Mayshar, Omer Moav and Luigi Pascali, March 8, 2022, Journal of Political Economy.
DOI: 10.1086/718372

Sharon D. Cole