Andrea Matranga on seasonality and the origins of agriculture

by on June 17, 2017 at 12:23 am in Economics, Food and Drink, History, Uncategorized | Permalink

He has a new paper on that topic, here is the abstract:

During the Neolithic Revolution, seven populations independently invented agriculture. In this paper, I argue that this innovation was a response to a large increase in climatic seasonality. Hunter-gatherers in the most affected regions became sedentary in order to store food and smooth their consumption. I present a model capturing the key incentives for adopting agriculture, and I test the resulting predictions against a global panel dataset of climate conditions and Neolithic adoption dates. I find that invention and adoption were both systematically more likely in places with higher seasonality. The findings of this paper imply that seasonality patterns 10,000 years ago were amongst the major determinants of the present day global distribution of crop productivities, ethnic groups, cultural traditions, and political institutions.

The pointer is from Jesus Alfaro.  And via Kevin Lewis, here is an interesting paper “Geography, Transparency, and Institutions,” by Mayshar, Moav, and Neeman:

We propose a theory in which geographic attributes explain cross-regional institutional differences in (1) the scale of the state, (2) the distribution of power within state hierarchy, and (3) property rights to land. In this theory, geography and technology affect the transparency of farming, and transparency, in turn, affects the elite’s ability to appropriate revenue from the farming sector, thus affecting institutions. We apply the theory to explain differences between the institutions of ancient Egypt, southern Mesopotamia, and northern Mesopotamia, and also discuss its relevance to modern phenomena.

All of a sudden we are seeing ongoing advances, admittedly connected to speculative hypotheses, in our understanding of this era.

1 Milo Fan June 17, 2017 at 12:34 am

The notion that the races diverged from each other tens of thousands of years before the advent of agriculture, then manned to invent it independently 7 times within a timeframe of a few thousand years, has always struck me as BS.


2 Milo Fan June 17, 2017 at 12:35 am

Manned should be managed.


3 Anonymous June 17, 2017 at 11:16 am

Necessity is the mother of invention.


4 Ray Lopez June 17, 2017 at 2:08 am

Unless these races communicated with each other over thousands of miles, and shared ideas, which is my (and TC’s) theory. Great minds think alike. For example, Thailand (!) of all places, which is in the middle of nowhere in terms of ancient civilization pre-Greek Classic era, invented bronze casting at “about” the same time the Egyptians did, roughly 3500 BC to 2000 BC (sic, dates are hard to pin down). See more here on ‘cross-fertilization’ of cultures): Seima-Turbino Phenomenon on Wikipedia.


5 Li Zhi June 17, 2017 at 5:28 pm

I’ll wait until we can say definitively what the population for every square 100 kilometers over the last 300,000 years was and what the technology levels were, as well as the cultural/tribal transfer of knowledge down the generations and the maximal spatial communication between different tribes on a generational basis. I’m not holding my breath. “Agriculture” is a sloppy term which can include both animal husbandry as well as plant harvesting and/or seeding. The push into this area is probably based on the success of historical DNA analysis and is an attempt to push the borders of what can be inferred from the very little we know. I see analogies to the Big Bang: we know more about the expansion of the Universe after the BB, than we do about the initial Creation Event. Similarly, we should be talking about the spread of various agricultural memes, rather than their creation. I don’t think the latter is knowable from the prehistorical evidence, and I doubt we’ll ever have enough evidence to settle the question.


6 Andrea Matranga June 17, 2017 at 4:56 am

That’s exactly the starting point for my paper.


7 Procrustes June 17, 2017 at 6:12 am

Milo Fan, if – as Matt Ridley points out in “The Evolution of Everything” – 23 people besides Edison invented the lightbulb in the 1870s because the pre-conditions were all there, I don’t think it is such a stretch to imagine seven civilisations inventing agriculture at roughly the same time. I’ll read this paper with interest.


8 The Engineer June 17, 2017 at 9:56 am

Yeah, but… that proves the communication thing. Those 23 people and Edison knew of each other’s work. They were just competing to find a filament that lasted long enough to make the bulb practical.


9 Troll Me June 17, 2017 at 8:45 am

They could have had similar pressures in amounts of game and higher population which made agriculture more advantageous compared to the nomadism of the previous 100,000 years.

Or lots of other things.

What else do you suggest? That Martians might have taught them in 7 areas? Or perhaps someone managed to bring farming to South India, the Andes, tropical Africa, China and Europe before there were seaworthy boats?


10 Milo Fan June 17, 2017 at 11:23 am

My suggestion is that it wasn’t independent, that the idea of agriculture spread though trade and migration, though in Mesoamerica it was likely independent.


11 prior_test2 June 17, 2017 at 12:11 pm

Not just likely, but the development of corn shows a completely different path than used in Eurasia – starting with using corn, instead of any variety of grass.


12 Tom Bri June 19, 2017 at 11:32 pm

Corn isn’t a grass?

13 zig June 18, 2017 at 12:07 pm

Maybe ideas were spread but the DNA of groups is divergent so we can rule out mass migration


14 JonFraz June 19, 2017 at 1:13 pm

Most of the original agricultural sites are sufficiently remote from one another that it’s unlikely they were trading with each other. Certainly the New World sites were totally isolated from the Old World sites and New Guinea from Eurasia.


15 William June 17, 2017 at 12:20 pm

It’s this graph

They could always garden, just not in the same place at predictable times for that long until 10k ya


16 Hazel Meade June 17, 2017 at 12:50 pm

That would seem to contradict the theory that races exist. You think they diverged in the last 10K years?


17 Milo Fan June 17, 2017 at 8:38 pm

How you want to interpret the evidence according to your pseudoscientific religion is not something that intrests me very much.


18 M June 18, 2017 at 2:49 am

There will probably be a middle ground. Some genetic and neurological innovations spreading through migration during and just after the Last Glacial Maximum, plus Holocene climate.

Agriculture itself not spreading through migration, but the right skills and technology to lead to agriculture spreading just before.

Most Early-Middle Upper Palaeolithic hunter gatherer groups likely lacked the cognitive-technological toolkit to get the agriculture, until some flow between populations introduced it.


19 ciril June 17, 2017 at 5:17 am

That’s why we need a way to explain it. It is quite surprising, and clearly not a coincidence.


20 prior_test2 June 17, 2017 at 6:39 am

If it wasn’t for the pesky history of the creation of corn, which has no ties to the Eurasian landmass within time frame when agriculture was being developed – and likely happened a couple of thousand years after agriculture started in Eurasia.


21 dearieme June 17, 2017 at 7:45 am

Yeah, and the cultivation of the potato. It’s a pretty good bet that New World agriculture was entirely independent from Old World agriculture. It seems to me much less certain that different Old Work agricultures were all independent. I’d be interested to read a good account of the evidence but I fear that conclusive evidence can never be available, because in part it would be an attempt to prove a negative.

Hey ho. So economists are now mucking around with the sort of question that historians used to mull over before it became unfashionable.


22 Art Deco June 17, 2017 at 1:59 pm

Hey ho. So economists are now mucking around with the sort of question that historians used to mull over before it became unfashionable.

Archaeoogists, and more likely to be ensconced in the anthropology faculty than the history faculty.


23 dearieme June 17, 2017 at 6:09 pm

And historians before them.

24 prior_test2 June 17, 2017 at 6:33 am

What happened to Kevin Lewis’s ‘excellent’?


25 Cptn Obvious June 19, 2017 at 6:04 am

Downgraded to self-recommending.


26 Ted Craig June 17, 2017 at 7:15 am

“All of a sudden we are seeing ongoing advances, admittedly connected to speculative hypotheses, in our understanding of this era.”

Probably due to a shift in academic focus rather than new data. Maybe brought on by the events in the early part of the century.The new focus might have brought forth new or previously ignored data.


27 Artimus June 17, 2017 at 8:10 am

Speculative hypothesis…. my B.S. meter is pegged.


28 Sergey Kurdakov June 17, 2017 at 8:50 am

somehow it does not fit this finding

agriculture was invented much earlier, and probably practiced on small scale by many hunter gatherers for many thousand years


29 Will June 17, 2017 at 11:51 am

They could definitely farm, but not in the same place for long enough.
Over the past 250,000 years global temperature fluctuated wildly on a scale of centuries until an unusually stable period beginning 10,000 years ago after the younger dryas event.
It makes sense to me that humans all over the place always knew how to garden, and a few generations of consistent predictable weather let them settle down and farm in earnest


30 Careless June 18, 2017 at 6:55 am

I’ve heard this before, and it sounds absurd. Yes, you can start farming a couple of miles north every few years if you need to .That’s not an impossible hardship


31 William June 18, 2017 at 4:25 pm

“absurd” says a sedentary blog commenter. the anonymous arrogance..
Does the euphrates valley flood consistently every year or not? Are rainy seasons within a range of predictability?
That’s more than a few miles if not, and at that point you remain itinerant hunter gatherers.


32 Hazel Meade June 17, 2017 at 1:00 pm

My theory is that agriculture on a smaller scale existed for far longer, throughout human societies and across cultures for a lot longer than is generally recognized. We just didn’t get to large scale agriculture until seasonality developed, because seaonality made it easier to take advantage of mass production (so to speak) in preparing large tracts of land for cultivation of a single crop over a single season, weeding and harvesting. Basically, if you have a set time period of the year (i.e. spring) when everyone gets together to till the soil, plant seeds, and another set time of year when you get everyone together to harvest, agriculture becomes a lot more efficient. You can plant one crop over a large area efficiently and the risk of having a failure is much lower, so you don’t put as much at stake.
But well before that, I would guess that tribes would cultivate small crops over shorter time periods – maybe plant several things not knowing what would survive to harvest, experimenting and seeing what produced and what didn’t. So when the climate stablilized, very quickly people would have figured out that they could stay in one place and grow a large amount of food. (Or maybe move every few years to a more fertile area – semi-nomadic.)


33 Nationalist June 17, 2017 at 3:38 pm

Even small scale agriculture leaves a clear archeological signal, it couldn’t have existed much farther back in time than the period the earliest cites have been dated to.

“maybe plant several things not knowing what would survive to harvest”

LOL, I trust you didn’t grow up in a rural area.


34 Hazel Meade June 17, 2017 at 5:18 pm

I didn’t grow up in the paleolithic era, and neither did anyone else alive. Apparently the climate in the paleolithic period was highly variable, which would imply that it would be difficult to predict what crops would survive to harvest.


35 Careless June 18, 2017 at 6:56 am

” which would imply that it would be difficult to predict what crops would survive to harvest.”

wow. Just wow.


36 Will June 18, 2017 at 4:33 pm

Why the nastiness?
Of all the things you could do with your day, especially within this completely benign topic, why decide to be a jerk? The joy of learning has never been easier, just chill out and read something.

37 Hazel Meade June 17, 2017 at 5:20 pm

Even small scale agriculture leaves a clear archeological signal, it couldn’t have existed much farther back in time than the period the earliest cites have been dated to.

Links? I mean, I’m not entirely sure that there is no archeological evidence of small scale agriculture, or that it would have left a clear trace, so it would help if you had some references. We’re talking about stuff that happened 50,000 years ago, so it’s realyl hard to make absolutely statements like “it couldn’t have existed”, unless you have really strong proof.


38 Andrea Matranga June 17, 2017 at 5:46 pm

Though the archaeological record is by definition silent on the topic, I tend to side with Hazel Meade. I find it likely that on some isolated hilltop, farming might indeed have been invented, and perhaps practiced for a few generations. The odds are against us ever finding out. What I am interested is not the invention per se, but the fact that this particular innovation proved so effective and transferable, that it eventually conquered most of the (non desert or tundra) world.


39 dearieme June 17, 2017 at 6:12 pm

You’re the expert: can you tell me why agriculture, as distinct from pastoralism, nearly died out in the British Isles in the later neolithic?

And did it happen anywhere else?

40 Hazel Meade June 17, 2017 at 5:49 pm
41 Andrea Matranga June 18, 2017 at 6:19 am

Dearieme I never came across that fact about Britain late neolithic (however much I read about the Neolithic, its a big planet and it’s a long stretch of history so I’m constantly finding out new stuff). I’ll ping my archeology friends and get back to you. Meanwhile, do you have a reference for that?


42 dearieme June 18, 2017 at 6:49 pm
43 rayward June 17, 2017 at 1:45 pm

And I thought those who resided in tropical/warm climates were stupid because of the heat. Now I know it’s because food was plentiful and they didn’t have to figure out how to store food for the winter and they didn’t have to figure out how to build houses to stay warm in the winter. Sounds like the Garden of Eden, where clothes were optional, sex wasn’t a sin, the food was organic, and life wasn’t stressful.


44 Alex June 17, 2017 at 1:59 pm



45 msgkings June 17, 2017 at 2:03 pm

You need to read Kurt Vonnegut’s “Galapagos”, he agrees with you.

“Stressful” is hard to define though.


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49 Tom Bri June 19, 2017 at 11:36 pm

Carbon dioxide was quite a bit lower in the atmosphere prior to the Holocene. Productivity is lower in low CO2 conditions, and would have made agriculture a poor use of time.


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