Which Came First: Settlements or Farming?


The Neolithic Revolution is the time about 12,000 years ago when humans in a number of places independently stopped hunting and gathering and started to farm. As a result, it is said, humans settled down; they stopped being nomadic. But in an article over at Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue that this view is wrong, or at least more complicated.

They point to two settlements—Göbekli Tepe and Çatalhöyük (pictured above)—where the inhabitants where hunters and gatherers. This makes me wonder why people generally think that agriculture caused people to settle down rather than people settling down caused agriculture. Here are two clear cases in which settlements existed without agriculture.

Acemoglu and Robinson are economists. Their point is that institutional innovation generally precedes technological innovation. I find this very compelling. For example, if I’m a solitary hunter and gatherer, any technology I invent will likely be shared by a limited number of people and thus be much less likely to be integrated widely. On the other hand, if I live inside a group of 500 people, it is far more likely that my innovation will become part of the society.

With this idea of the Neolithic Revolution, people built permanent villages from which they ran their hunting and gathering operations. Over time, people noticed things: seeds grow into plants; we can save the seeds from the food we eat; seeds can be put someplace convenient and close by; in time, things we eat will be abundant someplace convenient and close by. That seems much more likely than that people started farming and this caused them to create settlements.

Fascinating stuff!

We’re Doomed

James HansonWhen I was working in the field in the early 1990s, the concentration of carbon-dioxide was roughly 340 ppmv. I knew it was rising, of course; but I was surprised to read today that it is now just short of 400 ppmv. This is worrying enough, but yesterday, that titan of the field, James Hanson, wrote an Op Ed in the New York Times where he said this:

Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.

I don’t have a lot to add. Hanson goes on to say that we know the science and now it is time to work on the politics.

I have one thing to say about that.

We’re doomed.