by Jan Bartek
April 11, 2022
in the lower Euphrates valley
Credit: Sergeant James
A new study challenges the conventional theory
that the transition
from foraging to farming
drove the development of complex,
by creating agricultural surplus in areas of
The new study, conducted
by scientists from
the University of Warwick, the Hebrew University
Reichman University, Universitat Pompeu Fabra
Barcelona School of Economics
was published in the Journal of
In "The Origin of the State
- Land Productivity or Appropriability?,"
published in the April issue of the Journal of Political Economy,
Professors Joram Mayshar, Omer Moav and Luigi
Pascali show that high land productivity on its own does not
lead to the development of tax-levying states.
It is the adoption of cereal crops that is the key factor for the
emergence of hierarchy.
Professor Moav explains
in this short video:
The authors theorize that this is because the nature of cereals
require that they be harvested and stored in accessible locations,
making them easier to appropriate as tax than root crops which
remain in the ground, and are less storable.
The researchers demonstrate a causal effect of cereal cultivation on
the emergence of hierarchy using empirical evidence drawn from
multiple data sets spanning several millennia, and find no similar
effect for land productivity.
Professor Mayshar said:
"A theory linking
land productivity and surplus to the emergence of hierarchy has
developed over a few centuries and became conventional in
thousands of books and articles.
We show, both
theoretically and empirically, that this theory is flawed."
Underpinning the study,
Mayshar, Moav and Pascali developed and examined a large number of
data sets including,
the level of
hierarchical complexity in society
distribution of wild relatives of domesticated plants
for various crops to explore why in some regions, despite
thousands of years of successful farming, well-functioning
states did not emerge, while states that could tax and
provide protection to lives and property emerged
Professor Pascali said:
"Using these novel
data, we were able to show that complex hierarchies, like
complex chiefdoms and states, arose in areas in which cereal
crops, which are easy to tax and to expropriate, were de-facto
the only available crops.
most productive lands, those in which not only cereals but also
roots and tubers were available and productive, did not
experience the same political developments."
They also employed the
natural experiment of the Columbian Exchange, the interchange of
crops between the New World and the Old World in the late 15th
century which radically changed land productivity and the
productivity advantage of cereals over roots and tubers in most
countries in the world.
Professor Pascali said,
new data sets, investigating case studies, and developing the
theory and empirical strategy took us nearly a decade of hard
We are very pleased to see that the paper is finally
printed in a journal with the standing of the JPE."
Professor Moav said:
transition from foraging to farming, hierarchical societies and,
eventually, tax-levying states have emerged.
These states played
a crucial role in economic development by providing protection,
law and order, which eventually enabled industrialization and
the unprecedented welfare enjoyed today in many countries."
"The conventional theory is that this disparity is due to
differences in land productivity.
The conventional argument is
that food surplus must be produced before a state can tax
farmers' crops, and therefore that high land productivity plays
the key role."
Credit: University of Warwick
Professor Mayshar added:
"We challenge the
conventional productivity theory, contending that it was not an
increase in food production that led to complex hierarchies and
states, but rather the transition to reliance on appropriable
cereal grains that facilitate taxation by the emerging elite.
When it became
possible to appropriate crops, a taxing elite emerged, and this
led to the state.
"Only where the climate and geography favored cereals, was
hierarchy likely to develop. Our data shows that the greater the
productivity advantage of cereals over tubers, the greater the
likelihood of hierarchy emerging.
"Suitability of highly productive roots and tubers is in fact a
curse of plenty, which prevented the emergence of states and
impeded economic development."