The Neolithic Revolution and Human Societies: Diverse Origins and Development Paths
Many economists have recently tried to explain the diverse levels of economic development of countries by studying their trajectories during past eras and in recent history. Special attention has been given to the influences on contemporary societies of relevant developments in prehistory and more particularly, those arising from the Neolithic revolution, i.e. the transition from foraging to farming. This transition from simple to complex hunting and gathering and then to farming is a sequence couched in social evolutionary terms. It suggests a pattern of progressive development resulting in increasing cultural complexity. In this evolutionary scheme, simple hunter-gatherers develop into complex hunters and collectors, whose critical economic decisions are a consequence of climatic changes that inevitably lead them to irreversibly adopt agriculture. Although this pattern of development is widely accepted, we challenge it. Studies of past and recent hunting and gathering societies show an incredible diversity of human social organization through time. Similarly, the various centers where agriculture started during the Neolithic period display great diversity in terms of their genesis, nature and consequences. The nature of the spread of agriculture from the Levant to Europe displays diversity. Demic diffusion and cultural diffusion were both present, and generated a variety of diffusion processes. This diversity of human societies is not easily accounted for by social evolutionary processes; indeed, people’s understanding of the world directly influences the economic decisions they make. The development of agriculture eventually generated an economic surplus. This (combined with increasing social and economic inequalities), another feature of the Neolithic revolution, led to economic growth and therefore to the long-term dominance of agropastoralists societies. Inequality (the appropriation by dominant classes of the economic surplus generated by agropastoralism and by stemming economic developments) was therefore a necessary early condition for increasing the chances of the survival and development of these societies; otherwise they would all have been caught in the Malthusian trap.
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