Santa Fe Institute

For earliest farmers, agriculture was a step backward

March 7, 2011 2:04 p.m.

A new study by economist and SFI Professor Sam Bowles suggests that the agricultural revolution that saw the advent of farming and herding 12,000 years ago was, in fact, a step backward technologically.

The traditional view of agriculture's adoption is that hunter-gatherers took up cultivation because it was simply a better way to make a living, Bowles says. Like the bow and arrow, the steam engine, or the computer, in this widely held economic model of technical change, cultivating plants rather than foraging wild species is believed to have raised the productivity of human labor, encouraging adoption of the new technology and allowing farming populations to expand.

Bowles, using archaeological evidence and data about hunting and gathering technologies and primitive farming, estimated the calories produced by an hour of work in both pre-historic farming and foraging. He found that foragers were about 50 percent more productive than farmers.

"It certainly wasn’t a better mouse trap," says Bowles. "Farming did not take off because it lessened the toil of subsistence. Rather, its early success probably had more to do with its social, military, and demographic advantages." 

Read the PNAS paper (March 7, 2011)

Read the USA Today article (March 9, 2011)

Read the ABC News article (March 7, 2011)

Read the Archaeology article (March 8, 2011)

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