Agriculture matters, the past matters

We match individual-level survey data with information on the historical lifeways of ancestors, focusing on Africa, where the transition away from such modes of production began only recently. Within enumeration areas and occupational groups, we find that individuals from ethnicities that derived a larger share of subsistence from agriculture in the pre-colonial era are today more educated and wealthy. A tentative exploration of channels suggests that differences in attitudes and beliefs as well as differential treatment by others, including less political power, may contribute to these divergent outcomes.

That is from a recent paper by Michalopoulos, Putterman, and Weil.  Here are video and ungated versions.


Hunter gatherer societies don't see to have transitioned so well into modernity in the Americas either.

It's the unfortunate result of when a more advanced, sedentary society brushes up against a less advanced, more nomadic society. The latter always loses.

Unfortunate how? For whom?

Well, the hunter gatherers of course. How? They get fenced in and lose their way of life, all they know. Just another case of persecution by the dominant. You may need psychiatric treatment.

Better to starve by ones own means than feast by anothers?

But at least you recognize that people do the suffering, rather than imagining a Tournament of Societies. The decline of hunter-gatherer societies is a loss mainly to anthropology, and a vast boon to those who get a different life, perhaps in later generations. Shed no tears for the demise of the Wild West.

@Dzhaughn - anthropologist grave digging shows the hunter-gatherers were more healthy than the farmers (Able the hunter, as his name implies, was more able than Cain, the farmer who killed him). But farming supports higher densities, which enables non-rival goods like intellectual property to be discovered (innovation is a function of population: the bigger the population, the more Einsteins you get). But, since most innovators are not rewarded sufficiently, but get ripped off by the rest of society, this too is a form of exploitation.

The Blacks have it right: the entire history of 'progress' is built on oppression and exploitation. Like a pyramid scheme, only the very top benefit the most (the rest get enough crumbs sufficient to keep the scheme going). I'm not complaining, as my family is in the 1%.

"Motivated by a large literature in social sciences stressing the beneficial influence of agricultural transition on contemporary economic performance at the level of countries, we examine the relative status of descendants of agriculturalists vs. pastoralists. "

I think the study is about farmers vs. herders, no farmers vs. hunter gatherers.

In Eurasia and Middle East, herders (germans, arabs, magyars, mongols, etc.) have a long history of conquering farmers.

Pastoralists systematically losing is only about 500 years old. Prior to that it really varied with each type of society generally winning on ground suitable to its do I ant mode if production - farmers lost on the steppes and in the deserts, pastoral nomads in areas that could support dense agriculture.

The Mongols fully approve of this observation.

Farmer privilege.

Awesome. I might have to start telling facebook friends to check their farmer privilege.

That is fascinating, because over a longer historical period, pastoralists tended to conquer and rule over agriculturalists. (Think Macedonians, Israelites, Arabs, Mongols, etc.)

This sort of "barbarian advantage" is a staple in history books, but I wonder if it is overrated.

Pastoralists raided agricultural neighbours all the time, but large invasions were rare events that happened only when they unified politically. Then if they invaded and conquered, their culture lost its advantage and they started to act like agriculturilist nobles -- only weaker than usual.

There might have been many times when the boot was on the other foot and some emperor went off and successfully wiped out a tribe or three -- but that leaves little impression on the history books.

Because of the reduced Malthusian forces, I would guess that technological development was more prevalent in pastoral societies than in agricultural ones. The room to experiment with new ideas is just not there in a agricultural society where most people are living just on the edges of starvation. If you are wrong you die. Whereas in a pastoral or even hunter-gather society there is a calorie surplus most of the time for people who make it to adulthood. Which allows them to compete and evolve better technologies for warfare and other purposes.

It was the Chinese and not the Mongols who invented gunpowder. And look who is on top now.

gated and ungated links are the same

This was also brought up on EconLog by Bryan Caplan, who missed the obvious point that perhaps there is an independent factor, such as genetics, that drives the success of the populations. Isn't t plausible that exposure to agriculture for sustained periods has different selection effects than remaining a hunter-gatherer, and people from those populations do better in the modern world? How is genetics not mentioned despite it being so incredibly obvious it may play a large role?

Certainly. Agriculture and later urbanization greatly changed the genetics of populations. A classic example is tolerance for alcohol. I'd be shocked if people living in denser societies didn't evolve to favor more social dispositions.

It is funny how Nordic tribes could select for Bloody Vikings, and then again for Socialist Idealists, in such a short time. (They did drink all through it though.)

Compare the farmers of England to the sheep herders of Scottish highlands and Wales. Which group dominated that island?

The nomadic peoples of the world have been fighting a rear guard action against modernity for millennia and it is not going well for them.

But how do the hunters fare compared to the gatherers?

Soil quality is a big deal in places where most people are either farmers or herders. Sub-Saharan Africa doesn't have a high percentage of places with rich soil for farming.

As the population increases, increasing the density of goats on a patch of poor soil grassland can cause erosion and desertification. (Cattle are less of a problem because they don't eat the roots.)

What is your point?

I keep reading that hunter gatherers were supposedly better off than ancient farmers. Does a timeline matter here? When they were contemporaries, who was better off?

Or is this, as I suspect, matching fitness to environment in a manner which equivocates environment with reality? Farmers, like rodents, are bland and robust. Farmers are more like robots than hunter gatherers. Since thriving on capitalism is about being energetic but boring yeah, farmers

Farmers not only create surplus food (wealth) enabling non-farming occupations but require complex social systems for organising harvests, storing food, trade and early project financing for things like land clearance, irrigation and roads to markets.

Markets are also places to exchange and synthesize ideas.

Sure, herders like the Mongols learned skills that favoured military success but they were usually changed by the farmers they conquered. Kublai was effectively a Chinese emperor.

Chip - most farming societies are Malthusian, and thus most populations are on the edge of starvation. It is hunter gather societies and pastorialists that have the surplus calories because they control their population by accidents, warfare and animal attacks. It was only when England started to develop industry and moved out of the Malthusian trap that way that innovation really started to take off.

You're reversing cause and effect. England started to develop industry, which lifted innovation, and England moved out of the Malthusian trap.

All farming societies were innovating, just at such a slow pace they couldn't possibly create surplus living standards for the common person.

ADBG - I was trying to say the same thing as you said, obviously failed.

I read once that the potato led to oppression wherever it was introduced, because it needed so *few* hours of labor for calories returned. Easy excess calories for rulers to appropriate.

... as well as differential treatment by others, including less political power, may contribute to these divergent outcomes.

The abstract doesn't make it clear: who has less political power, the successful farmers or the unsuccessful nomads? To put this in perspective: black Americans have far more political power than Asian ones; but which group is more successful?

The ungated 2014 draft says they did not find any relationship at between political power and ancestral life-ways, I suppose they found some new data.

This study somewhat conflicts with other studies that determined that agriculture based economies lag behind economic development of industrial based economies. I suppose this study contrasts agriculture based economies with hunter-gatherer economies. In that context, agriculture has the advantage because its focus is on the future: save (plant) today and reap rewards tomorrow; by contrast, hunter-gatherers are all about current gratification. Moreover, agriculture requires more complex markets because of its focus on the future. Indeed, the greatest innovation in markets was in agriculture: futures markets in rice. What the futures markets in rice achieved was less volatility in both supply and price, an innovation that continues to provide enormous benefits today in markets for everything. Finally, an agricultural society is less likely to engage in conflict with neighbors; by contrast, hunter-gatherers compete with neighbors for the same goods, increasing the likelihood of conflict with neighbors and wasting time and resources that could have been devoted to more productive endeavors.

There'll be a podcast coming out about this paper and an interview with Stelios at that'll be released two weeks from tomorrow.

Comments for this post are closed