Agriculture and Social Complexity. Durations and productivities of farming: a Sufficient Explanation for the Rise of Large-Scale Societies?



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I have just concluded a very intense ‘micro-workshop’ (only five participants) that I convened in Storrs over the weekend. We have been brainstorming to develop approaches to estimating crop productivities in historical societies going all the way back to the rise of agriculture. Ultimately, we would like to construct a historical GIS of crop productivities. This is a question of utmost importance in social evolution.

There is no question that agriculture is a necessary condition for the evolution of truly complex societies. Yes, some societies of hunter-gatherers living in very productive environments (for example, the Pacific Northwest) have achieved a remarkable degree of cultural complexity.

Northwest Indians: culturally complex, yet small-scale societies (photograph by the author)

However, these groups numbered in thousands (at most). Large-scale societies, those encompassing millions of individuals and more, can exist only on the basis of intensive agriculture. There are no exceptions.

But if agriculture is a necessary condition, one may ask whether it is also a sufficient one. If food-producing technology becomes sophisticated enough, is the rise of large-scale societies – macrostates and empires – simply a matter of time? Is it in some sense inevitable? This may be called the ‘bottom-up’ hypothesis: the complexity of a society is ultimately determined by the productivity of agriculture.

Most archaeologists hold this view implicitly, although you will not necessarily get them to admit it out loud. This theory is implicit in the works of such luminaries as Lewis Morgan and Leslie White, Elman Service and Marshal Sahlins, and, most recently, Jared Diamond.

Diamond’s view is stated very clearly in his recent review of Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson ((see also response by Acemoglu and Robinson). I haven’t yet read this important book, but will blog about it when I do.

In his review, Jared Diamond states:

The various durations of government around the world are linked to the various durations and productivities of farming that was the prerequisite for the rise of governments. For example, Europe began to acquire highly productive agriculture 9,000 years ago and state government by at least 4,000 years ago, but subequatorial Africa acquired less productive agriculture only between 2,000 and 1,800 years ago and state government even more recently. Those historical differences prove to have huge effects on the modern distribution of wealth.

This is a very strong statement of the hypothesis, and one that can be, and should be tested empirically. And that is why we were brainstorming in my lab last weekend:

(photograph by the author)

Although I agree that agriculture is a necessary condition, within agricultural areas the durations and productivities of farming seem to do a poor job of explaining the rise of large states. Let’s take Europe, the example that Diamond uses. But it wasn’t ‘Europe’ that acquired productive agriculture beginning 9,000 years ago. It was the Mediterranean belt.

As Diamond himself proposed in Guns, Germs, and Steel, cultivars and agriculture in general spread much more easily in east-west directions, where climates and ecological communities are similar. Spreading north or south, across different climatic and ecological zones, is much more difficult.

While agriculture spread West from the Fertile Crescent and reached Spain quite readily, moving North into central and northern Europe was much more difficult. Plant cultivars had to adapt to very different climates and soils and that takes time.

For many millennia the economy of central and northern Europe was based on agropastoralism, with a heavy emphasis on animal husbandry supplemented, probably, by hunting and gathering. In eastern Europe agriculture appeared only during the first millennium CE, a mere 1.5 thousand years ago. Even in northwestern Europe agriculture was still very unproductive in the first millennium. Historical evidence from Carolingian manses (eighth and ninth century CE) points to really appalling yields, two seeds for each planted one. As recently as in the Middle Ages the yields increased only to 3–4:1, while in medieval Russia, which has even worse climate, they still were closer to 2:1. Compare this to yields of around 10:1 for Mediterranean regions in antiquity – not surprising, as wheat and other cereals were pre-adapted to such environments.

Cereals growing wild near Ephesus, Turkey (photograph by the author)

But today the most effective large-scale societies are found not in the Mediterranean Europe. Greece is essentially a basket case, and everybody is waiting with bated breath when Spain will enact its own Greek tragedy. Effective governments are found in areas that only two thousand years ago did not have productive agriculture – Germany and Scandinavia.

Going back in history, if we look where really large-scale societies appeared, we observe Russia and Mongolia – at certain times the largest empires on Earth (in terms of territory controlled). Yet, Ulan Bator and Moscow are the numbers 1 and 2 in the sad list of national capitals ranked from the least productive environments (for growing crops) up.

Now I agree that such ‘point comparisons’ are not the best way to test scientific hypotheses. One can always be accused of selecting cases to prove one’s point. Fine. So we need a systematic dataset of durations and productivities of farming for the whole world, or at least those regions where agriculture is in principle possible.

An appeal to colleagues: if you know of any datasets or techniques that could be useful in this research, we would really appreciate learning about it.

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Charles Weber

Dear Peter Turchin,
Agriculture is not the only determinant of the success of societies. Poisons in their environment also can have a profound affect. Ten generations of Roman aristocracy died out from lead poisoning from lead plumbing and lead capped wine bottles. I suspect that the Mayans died out from capsaicin poison in Chili pepper causing diabetes when it arrived from Bolivia (see ).
Nutrition can be also important. I suspect the Chinese were badly damaged by reliance on rice, especially if they removed the germ.
Disease is also important. The so called “developing” countries are all in the tropics where tropical diseases are ruinous. There are no brilliantly successful societies in central Africa.
Our civilization may be at risk from some of the above as well. Our health care costs are atrocious. The only thing that has saved us so far is that we are probably 20 times as productive as 200 years ago, and that married to much more elaborate medical know how. We remove the germ from our wheat, we lose potassium from processed food (see )we add poisonous fluoride to most of our water (see ), we add aluminum and numerous other poisons to our food, we add mercury to our vaccines, and etc. A pervasive copper deficiency causes 200 billion dollars of destruction each year from herniated discs alone (see ). I have an uneasy feeling that we will not be able to continue this insane behavior much longer, even if we institute birth control to keep our population from rising to more than a billion 100 years down the road. If I were forced to bet, I would not be willing to bet on more than another 200 years. Luckily I have no more than another ten years to live according to the actuary tables, so I won’t see it. But I am uneasy about my grandchildren.
Sincerely, Charles Weber

Peter Turchin

As I discussed in my post on the Dark Side of Cultural Evolution, it is ironic that the rise of civilization is associated with eating poisonous foods. Wheat is probably the most toxic of major foods consumed by humans today, and one that is eaten by the majority of humanity, yet it is also one most associated with the earliest and largest empires (the second contender, rice, is apparently a much more benign food, especially if you eat it as polished white rice). So eating toxic foods does not have any deletrious effects on building complex societies – just on people themselves.

Charles Weber

Dear Peter Turchin
I do not believe that wheat is unusually toxic for most people, and should not be a significant problem if it makes up 5% or so of the calories. It could make up more than that if they would breed a variety with much more of the germ. As for polished rice, that is ruinous. Even much more important than the concept of freedom from poisons is food containing sufficient essential nutrients. I suspect that beri-beri is only one of the diseases polished rice is responsible for and not even the worst one. Heart disease can also be triggered, especially if associated with sufficient potassium (see ).
If toxic foods hurt people, you can rest assured that they will hurt societies. And if they are toxic and adequate enough, they will be ruinous to society. There is no substitute for not being crippled. It is true that keeping the poison very low, as is done with fluoride in water, for instance, will postpone the disaster into old age when it is least damaging to society. But even then it will have damaging affects on society. We would be well advised to keep all poisons out of our internal organs. Even greater financial efficiency in agriculture is not sufficient reason for ingesting most poison. We have plenty of unemployed people to man our farms. As for furnishing poison to keep people compliant and sedated such as is and has been done with alcohol and opium for instance, is insane.
Sincerely, Charles Weber

John Lilburne

Greg Clark in his book farewell to alms(probably better called the evolution of the bourgeoisie) gives many long term agricultural and economic databases.
He in may ways disagrees with Acemoglu that institutions are all you need to create economic lift-off.
Resources, a quality population, elite self control , progressive religion /culture and strong institutions all appear necessary for economic growth

Peter Turchin

I read Clark’s book and a number of his articles. When he stayed within his field of economic history, it was very good. But the main idea of The Farewell to the Alms just does not make sense from the evolutionary point of view. I probably need to blog about this book…


“I probably need to blog about this book…”

I vote for this as a blog topic.

Martin Hewson

“within agricultural areas the durations and productivities of farming seem to do a poor job of explaining the rise of large states”

I completely agree.

One only needs to compare the fast evolution from farming to complexity in North America to the non-evolution from farming to complexity in tropical Africa or New Guinea. In North America it took only centuries to go from farming to complexity (then collapse), in tropical Africa and New Guinea even after millennia of farming there was no real move to complexity.

If there really is a link between tropical agriculture (Africa, New Guinea) and not evolving toward complexity, my guess would be that it has something to do with: women doing the field work, which allows higher levels of polygyny, plus less selection pressure for cognitive ability and future time-orientation in the tropics because of the lack of cold winters.

Peter Turchin

An additional problem for the tropical regions, which Diamond invokes, is the parasite and pathogen loads.

Richerson, Peter J


Rob and I wrote an essay more than ten years ago the included a speculative list of the factors that might have limited the “tempo and mode” of institutional evolution in the Holocene. See the last third or so of it.

Many cereal and other variety collections maintain antique domesticates and proto domesticates in their collections. Lots of hobbyists are interested in antique technology. If one could stimulate enough popular interest, one might be able to persuade agricultural re-enactors to generate the requisite productivity estimates. There are also places, like the Andean Highlands where subsistence producers still use antique techniques and cultivars.


Peter J. Richerson, Distinguished Professor Emeritus
Visiting Professor, Institute of Archaeology, University College London
Department of Environmental Science andPolicy
3146 Wickson Hall
University of California—Davis 95618
530 756-5054 LL, 530 400-4061 Cell, (0) 7919 418 621 England

Peter Turchin

Pete, can you send me the article by e-mail? Thanks.

As to utilizing fossil grains, here’s an interesting article suggesting that we can estimate their productivities without actually growing them:

And on pre-modern agriculture, we have located lots of historical records – the accounts of traveling eighteenth-century British gentlemen-farmers are particularly useful. But someone needs to collate and analyze all that information.

Alexander Sadykov

There are several detailed databases of tree-rings, which are used as a proxy for climate for last two millenniums.

In turn, these proxies can be used for the retrospective assessment of agricultural productivity. At first glance, one can see that even significant jumps of agricultural productivity in European states did not have a significant impact on their population.
This is in stark contrast to the wars, epidemics, technological and institutional development.

Peter Turchin

The problem is that simply primary productivity, for which we do have good GIS data, is not pertinent to the productivity of grasses, which most major crops are. Tree rings give you a good proxy for climate, but not for crop productivity. Grasses need to get their precipitation at certain times, and preciptation at the wrong time is actually harmful (at harvest). So distribution of rainfall within the year affects trees and grasses very differently.

These are the kinds of complications one needs to deal with. Many people don’t understand such all important subtleties, and that is why their inferences about the influence of cliamte onhistory can be way off.


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