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Private Ownership and the Emergence of Field-based Agriculture

Quick update: There is a nicer, fancier article on this very subject on another blog. If for some reason you read my article below, treat yourself and partake of properal's piece too.


There is a paper by Samuel Bowles and Jung-Kyoo Choi called 'Coevolution of farming and private property during the early Holocene' and it is wonderful. It leaves a few stones unturned and its thesis needs to be empirically verified or falsified but it really begins to clarify the intimate relationship between the form of agriculture that we refer to as farming on the one hand and private ownership on the other.

Their thesis is that technology was not the driver that led to long-term (inter-generational) farming, but also that farming did not follow some moment where the folks in a society all said "hey, let's all have private property now!" Rather, what they posit is that farming and private property actually coalesced, ad-hoc and over a multi-generational time-frame, around each other. Thought experiment to follow later.

The importance of institutional frameworks in determining whether or not new practices are taken up is roundly attested in the literature. This also invalidates historical materialism, but that's for another day. The point here is that people do not automatically adopt a technology or a practice just cos they have encountered it.
In many histories of technology, the key event is the invention; the subsequent spread occurs inexorably as the result of its superiority in lessening the toil required to sustain life. This model has been suggested for the Holocene revolution; but it does not work. No invention was necessary. Kent Flannery, who pioneered archaeological studies of the emergence of farming, observed that “we know of no human group on earth so primitive that they are ignorant of the connection between plants and the seeds from which they grow
This means all human societies everywhere are at least technologically sophisticated enough to plant fields. So why don't they? The paper again;
Moreover, foraging and farming populations interacted over long periods in the Levant, India, Scandinavia, and elsewhere. In these cases, those who remained foragers surely knew about the new technology, as did foragers long before the initial spread of farming. In our simulations, as in the archaeological record, groups with substantial fractions of farmers coexist over long periods with groups engaged almost exclusively in foraging.
Cool simulation, right? Of course, it's not enough to be definitive. Treating this as proof that farming and private property grew side by side would be a mistake. But now the case that farming relies upon private property to emerge and become normalised is far more authoritative than any alternative. Let's not go so far as to say that the paper and the other two Santa Fe Institute papers linked below are literally correct.

Let us simply imagine people experimenting amidst their larger societies with crop cultivation. Such experiments last a generation or two and are abandoned when the experimenters die, then someone else tries for a generation or two and gives up, then someone suggests that others respect their 'right' to the land they're cultivating. Those others say no. Nothing violent or brutal necessarily happens. The idea just doesn't catch on. But let's imagine that that scenario plays out multiple times and somewhere, at some time, the folks in a given society who ain't cultivating yet are actually won over and join in, either as farmers themselves or in escalations of the existing division of labour.

Fun thought, right?


I have linked to the same work on a different site in a previous post on this blog.
Which contains a link to the Santa Fe Institute.
Which contains a link to an NPR article by Rhitu Chatterjee.
Which contains two links, one to Samuel Bowles' professional page, and one to Ian Kuijts'.
The paper I linked to at the top of this article draws on previous work by Bowles re productivity of ancient farmers versus their nomadic forebears and contemporaries.


Related literature includes a paper at the Royal Society by Simon T. Powers, Carel P. van Shaik & Laurent Lehman called 'How institutions shaped the last major evolutionary transition to large-scale human societies' which looks at all kinds of constant dealings, not just property.
PNAS is home to two more papers that are also promising from Ullah/Kuijt/Freeman & Gallagher/Shennan/Thomas respectively. Both fit the available data just as Bowles/Choi do, but come with the same proviso due to the same kind of mathematical modelling.

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