Study challenges widely-believed theory on origins of civilization

COVENTRY, United Kingdom — How did our ancestors go from hunting wild game to working in an office? A popular school of thought is that once humans discovered farming, they no longer had to forage for food every day. To manage fertile lands and the surplus of food, humans began to create complex hierarchical societies. However, a new study suggests this widely-held belief is not true. Rather, it was the adoption of cereal crops such as wheat, corn, and oats that propelled humanity into an ordered society.

The international team suggests that because people harvest and store cereal crops in other areas, they are an easy tool to collect as taxes than root crops that are less storable. This debunks the theory that high land productivity on its own did not lead to the formation of tax-levying states.

“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,” says Luigi Pascali, a professor at Universitat Pompeu Fabra, in a university release.

The growth of society is about what you can tax?

The researchers studied multiple datasets including the level of hierarchical complexity in society, the geographic distribution of wild relatives of domesticated plants, and land suitability for several crops to explore why some farming areas became taxable states while others did not. They also looked at the natural experiment of the Columbian Exchange, where there was crop trading between the New World and the Old World in the late 15th century.

Climates and geographical areas that favored cereal crops were more likely to develop in more refined and hierarchical societies. However, if farming produced a lot of roots and tuber crops which aren’t easy to store and keep fresh, they would not be suitable items for tax collection. This likely explains why some areas showed slow economic development toward a hierarchical society.

“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,” explains co-author Omer Moav.

The study is published in the Journal of Political Economy.

About the Author

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor’s of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women’s health.

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Comments

  1. Hierarchic societies have lower average individual competence than egalitarian individualist societies of hunters, truck farmers and traders.

  2. How does he explain the rise of hierarchy and complexity among the Quechua (Inca) whose staple crop was potatoes?

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