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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 prehistoric foragers turned down agriculture in the first place. Estimates of population growth before and after farming, however, in the light of the present framework seem to suggest that hunters were pulled rather than pushed into agriculture.

Suggested Citation

  • Weisdorf, Jacob, 2009. "Why did the first farmers toil? Human metabolism and the origins of agriculture," European Review of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 13(02), pages 157-172, August.
  • Handle: RePEc:cup:ereveh:v:13:y:2009:i:02:p:157-172_00
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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 2003-2041, August.
    2. Quamrul Ashraf & Stelios Michalopoulos, 2015. "Climatic Fluctuations and the Diffusion of Agriculture," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 97(3), pages 589-609, July.
    3. Lemin Wu & Rohan Dutta & David K Levine & Nicholas W Papageorge, 2014. "Entertaining Malthus: Bread, Circuses and Economic Growth," Levine's Bibliography 786969000000000853, UCLA Department of Economics.
    4. Sara LaLumia & James Sallee, 2013. "The value of honesty: empirical estimates from the case of the missing children," International Tax and Public Finance, Springer;International Institute of Public Finance, vol. 20(2), pages 192-224, April.
    5. 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.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • J22 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demand and Supply of Labor - - - Time Allocation and Labor Supply
    • Q56 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Environmental Economics - - - Environment and Development; Environment and Trade; Sustainability; Environmental Accounts and Accounting; Environmental Equity; Population Growth
    • O10 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economic Development - - - General

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