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Why did the first farmers toil? Human metabolism and the origins of agriculture

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  • WEISDORF, JACOB

Abstract

Time-budget studies done among contemporary primitive people suggest that the first farmers worked harder to attain subsistence than their foraging predecessors. This makes the adoption of agriculture in the Stone Age one of the major curiosities in human cultural history. Theories offered by economists and economic historians largely fail to capture work-intensification among early farmers. Attributing a key role to human metabolism, this study provides a simple framework for analysing the adoption of agriculture. It demonstrates how the additional output that farming offered could have lured people into agriculture, but that subsequent population increase would eventually have swallowed up its benefits, forcing early farmers into an irreversible trap, where they had to do more work to attain subsistence compared to their foraging ancestors. The framework draws attention to the fact that, if agriculture arose out of need, as some scholars have suggested, then this was because pre-historic foragers turned down agriculture in the first place. Estimates of population growth before and after farming, however, in light of the present framework seem to suggest that hunters were pulled rather than pushed into agriculture.

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Bibliographic Info

Article provided by Cambridge University Press in its journal European Review of Economic History.

Volume (Year): 13 (2009)
Issue (Month): 02 (August)
Pages: 157-172

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Handle: RePEc:cup:ereveh:v:13:y:2009:i:02:p:157-172_00

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  1. Gregory Clark, 2007. "Introduction to A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World
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Cited by:
  1. Quamrul Ashraf & Oded Galor, 2011. "Dynamics and Stagnation in the Malthusian Epoch," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 101(5), pages 2003-41, August.
  2. Guzmán, Ricardo Andrés & Weisdorf, Jacob, 2011. "The Neolithic Revolution from a price-theoretic perspective," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 96(2), pages 209-219, November.
  3. Sara LaLumia & James M. Sallee, 2011. "The Value of Honesty: Empirical Estimates from the Case of the Missing Children," NBER Working Papers 17247, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. Rowthorn, Robert & Seabright, Paul, 2010. "Property Rights, Warfare and the Neolithic Transition," TSE Working Papers 10-207, Toulouse School of Economics (TSE).

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