Challenges Conventional Theory: Research Sheds New Light on the Origin of Civilization

Research challenges the conventional theory that the transition from foraging to farming drove the development of complex, hierarchical societies by creating agricultural surplus, finds the adoption of cereal crops is the key factor.

  • The research sheds new light on the mechanisms by which the adoption of agriculture led to complex hierarchies and states.
  • By theoretical arguments and empirical analysis, it challenges the conventional “productivity theory” which holds 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 reliance on easily portable cereals.
  • The primary finding is that the key factor in state development is the suitability of land to cereal farming and not to root and tuber crops.

New research challenges the conventional theory that the transition from foraging to farming drove the development of complex, hierarchical societies by creating agricultural surplus in areas of fertile land. The work was conducted by the 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 theorize that this is because the nature of cereals requires that they be harvested and stored in accessible locations, making them easier to appropriate as tax than root crops which remain in the ground, and are less storable.

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

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

Underpinning the study, Mayshar, Moav, and Pascali developed and examined a large number of data sets including the level of hierarchical complexity in society; the geographic distribution of wild relatives of domesticated plants; and land suitability for various crops to explore why in some regions, despite thousands of years of successful farming, well-functioning states did not emerge, while states that could tax and provide protection to lives and property emerged elsewhere.

Professor Pascali said: “Using these novel data, we were able to show that complex hierarchies, like complex chiefdoms and states, arose in areas in which cereal crops, which are easy to tax and to expropriate, were de-facto the only available crops. Paradoxically, the most productive lands, those in which not only cereals but also roots and tubers were available and productive, did not experience the same political developments.”

They also employed the natural experiment of the Columbian Exchange, the interchange of crops between the New World and the Old World in the late 15th century which radically changed land productivity and the productivity advantage of cereals over roots and tubers in most countries in the world.

Professor Pascali said “Constructing these new data sets, investigating case studies, and developing the theory and empirical strategy took us nearly a decade of hard work. We are very pleased to see that the paper is finally printed in a journal with the standing of the JPE”

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

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

Professor Mayshar added: “We challenge the conventional productivity theory, contending that it was not an increase in food production that led to complex hierarchies and states, but rather the transition to reliance on appropriable cereal grains that facilitate taxation by the emerging elite. When it became possible to appropriate crops, a taxing elite emerged, and this led to the state.

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

“Suitability of highly productive roots and tubers is in fact a curse of plenty, which prevented the emergence of states and impeded economic development.”

Reference: “The Origin of the State: Land Productivity or Appropriability?” by Joram Mayshar, Omer Moav and Luigi Pascali, 8 March 2022, Journal of Political Economy.
DOI: 10.1086/718372

AgricultureEconomicsUniversity of Warwick
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  • Gordon Chamberlain

    I would like to comment on the image that I see above that being a poster with an individual with a partially shaved head, tattoos on his head, with a needle, while in front of him is a man with a ball cap, with his hands up in the air. While the poster states I will not comply?
    Who sponsored this poster? Does the organizers of this web side support vaccines against deadly diseases? How are criminal sociopaths behaving during the pandemic?

  • Americity Jones

    The Aztec, Inca, and Maya find this analysis humorous.

  • Wil Nusser

    @Americity Jones
    Well, the Aztecs principal agricultural product was maize, which is a cereal grain, as was the principle “taxable” agricultural product of the Mayans. That leaves the Inca, whose economy was based on labor obligations as a form of “taxation” and on a particular innovation developed by Andean peoples well before the Inca Empire arrived on the scene, chuño, which is essentially a naturally freeze-dried potato product that, like cereals, can be stored for long periods of time.

    I think it is more likely that they’d find this analysis to be quite accurate, with the caveat that some root products in the right environment (dry, high altitude, cold nights) can have similar potability and storability to grains.

  • Kevin A Williams

    This article ends by suggesting that an appropriating elite initiated a state/government. A possibly greater impetus for state formation might have been protection from marauding bands – an impetus for the agricultural producers themselves, rather than any elite, to share in “military” protection. Interesting that, seemingly at least, tuber producers (perhaps also salmon harvesters of NW North America) did not(?) have government by elites, and were therefore (?) nowhere near as militaristic.

  • Person

    A curse of plenty is only a curse to those wishing to subjugate others. There’s nothing wrong with less advanced civilization. In fact, possibly its the opposite, seeing as how more advanced societies screw the earth.

  • Matthew

    Omg, these guys are missing it completely.

    The reason societies using grains had economies is because grains would very quickly become your universal currency. Roots and tubers couldn’t be because the quickly perish. The use of metals and the technology to use them would have to have come later.

    Grain as currency is vastly superior to any other means of barter available to early man.

    I applaud the researchers for their research but they’ve completely misunderstood the significance of it.

  • Ursula

    Everyone really ought to read The Dawn of Everything. It goes in very deep to the formation of hierarchies and states.

    • Peter D

      Not really. Because “The Dawn of Everything” is a biased disingenuous account of human history (www.persuasion.community/p/a-flawed-history-of-humanity ) that spreads fake hope (the authors of “The Dawn” claim human history has not “progressed” in stages, or linearly, and must not end in inequality and hierarchy as with our current system… so there’s hope for us now that it could get different/better again). As a result of this fake hope porn it has been widely praised. It conveniently serves the profoundly sick industrialized world of fakes and criminals. The book’s dishonest fake grandiose title shows already that this work is a FOR-PROFIT, instead a FOR-TRUTH, endeavor geared at the (ignorant gullible) masses.

      Fact is human history has “progressed” by and large in linear stages, especially since the dawn of agriculture (www.focaalblog.com/2021/12/22/chris-knight-wrong-about-almost-everything ). The book’s alleged major “fundamental” insight is “the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently” (the first part of that statement is hardly a great insight because a perceptive child can recognize that) YET fails to answer why we do NOT make it differently than it is now if we, supposedly can make it “EASILY” different, why we’ve been “stuck” in this destructive system for a very long time. THAT is really where “the ultimate, hidden truth” is buried and the answer is… it is because of the enduring hegemony of “The 2 Married Pink Elephants In The Historical Room” (www.rolf-hefti.com/covid-19-coronavirus.html ) which the fake hope-giving authors of “The Dawn” entirely ignore naturally (no one can write a legitimate human history without understanding the nature of humans)

      A good example that one of the authors, Graeber, has no real idea what world we’ve been living in and about the nature of humans is his last brief article on Covid where his ignorance shines bright already at the title of his article, “After the Pandemic, We Can’t Go Back to Sleep.” Apparently he doesn’t know that most people WANT to be asleep, and that they’ve been wanting that for thousands of years (and that’s not the only ignorant notion in the title) — see last cited source above. Yet he (and his partner) is the sort of person who thinks he can teach you something authentically truthful about human history and whom you should be trusting along those terms. Ridiculous!

      “The Dawn” is just another fantasy, or ideology, cloaked in a hue of cherry-picked “science,” served lucratively to the gullible ignorant underclasses who crave myths and fairy tales.

      “The evil, fake book of anthropology, “The Dawn of Everything,” … just so happened to be the most marketed anthropology book ever. Hmmmmm.” — Unknown

  • Jim Holloway

    It seems to me to be not “challenging” the conventional theory, buy rather refining it. Rather than being the total agricultural productivity that counts, they claim to have identified that it’s the productivity of cereals that enables state formation, which indeed seems very plausible. Root crops and also fruits are not easily storable; what about nuts? Meat is storable in the form of livestock, but are less concentrated and inconveniently mobile for taxation purposes.

  • Henker

    Farmers are producers. Government is a parasite. Death To Tyrants!