Sam Bowles, InSightFoto

It has long been assumed that the advent of farming 12 millennia ago led to the birth of what we now call private property rights. But new data on the productivity of early farming and hunting-gathering, along with new mathematical modeling by SFI researchers, tell a very different story.

In a paper appearing this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, SFI’s Sam Bowles and Kyungpook National University's Jung-Kyoo Choi show that farming, by itself, could not have driven property rights. Nor did property rights alone drive farming. Instead, it looks like farming and private property rights evolved shoulder-to-shoulder: each dependent on the other.

Read the article on NPR's blog "The Salt" (May 13, 2013)

“Our results challenge the one-cause models in which history is driven by advances in technology, population pressure, or other external changes,” says Bowles. “We show how farming and private property rights each provided conditions favorable for the proliferation of the other. We propose that the new property rights and the new way of making a living co-evolved, neither being viable alone but each providing the conditions permitting the advance of the other.”

The revolution started some 12,000 years ago, when agriculture began to take hold and required a very new way of living and distributing labor and food. Before farming, hunter-gatherers almost certainly shared widely what edible plants and meats they gathered. But if a crop or the meat of a domesticated animal had to be shared in the same fashion, late Pleistocene would-be farmers would not have much incentive to clear the land, plant the seeds, sow the crop, store the food, or tend to domestic animals.

Thus, explaining how farming might have begun is a puzzle, one that is deepened by the fact (based on an earlier PNAS paper by Bowles) that the first farmers were almost certainly no more productive (in calories of food produced per hour of labor) than the foragers they eventually replaced.

But farming did succeed, and the researchers’ new modeling shows that it did so because the wealth of farmers – crops, dwellings, and animals – could be clearly demarcated and defended; that is, it could be turned into private rather than communal property. So, according to Bowles and Choi, farming provided the conditions for the new property rights to succeed, and the property rights provided the necessary incentives to farm.

The new study used techniques that can be applied to other technological and institutional revolutions as well, says Bowles, such as the 18th and 19th century industrial revolution and the information revolution under way today.

“Here we have a multi-causal model presented in a formal analysis, more faithful than previous efforts to the likely complexity of the process,” says Bruce Winterhalter, a professor of anthropology at the UC Davis and an editor of the paper. “In the Bowles/Choi model, ecological, economic and social facets come together as a co-evolutionary development. Great theory, great data, and great instincts about the evolutionary mechanism.”

What’s more, says Winterhalter, the results of the model are specific enough that archaeologists can begin to examine how well, and how widely, they fit the evidence coming from excavation – so the results are testable.

Read the paper in PNAS (May 13, 2013)