An integrative approach to estimating productivity in past societies using Seshat: Global History Databank

Turchin, P., Currie, T., Collins, C., Levine, J., Oyebamiji, O., Edwards, N. R., Holden, P. B., Hoyer, D., Feeney, K., François, P., & Whitehouse, H
The Holocene February 22, 2021 Journal Link


This article reports the results of a collaborative effort to estimate agricultural productivities in past societies using Seshat: Global History Databank. We focus on 30 Natural Geographic Areas (NGAs) distributed over 10 major world regions (Europe, Africa, Southwest Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia, Central Eurasia, North America, South America, and Oceania). The conceptual framework that we use to obtain these estimates combines the influences of the production technologies (and how they change with time), climate change, and effects of artificial selection into a Relative Yield Coefficient, indicating how agricultural productivity changed over time in each NGA between the Neolithic and the 20th century. We then use estimates of historical yield in each NGA to translate the Relative Yield Coefficient into an Estimated Yield (tonnes per hectare per year) trajectory. We tested the proposed methodology in two ways. For eight NGAs, in which we had more than one historical yield estimate, we used the earliest estimate to anchor the trajectory and compared the ensuing trajectory to the remaining estimates. We also compared the end points of the estimated NGA trajectories to the earliest (the 1960s decade) FAO data on crop productivities in the modern countries encompassing Seshat NGAs. We discuss the benefits of this methodology over previous efforts to estimate agricultural productivities in world history.
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