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!

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