Foragers to farmers: a tale of collective action?

By Razib Khan | March 18, 2011 1:46 am

The economist Samuel Bowles recently had a paper out in PNAS which caught my attention, Cultivation of cereals by the first farmers was not more productive than foraging. This naturally begs the question: why did farming conquer foraging as a lifestyle? First, let’s look at the abstract:

Did foragers become farmers because cultivation of crops was simply a better way to make a living? If so, what is arguably the greatest ever revolution in human livelihoods is readily explained. To answer the question, I estimate the caloric returns per hour of labor devoted to foraging wild species and cultivating the cereals exploited by the first farmers, using data on foragers and land-abundant hand-tool farmers in the ethnographic and historical record, as well as archaeological evidence. A convincing answer must account not only for the work of foraging and cultivation but also for storage, processing, and other indirect labor, and for the costs associated with the delayed nature of agricultural production and the greater exposure to risk of those whose livelihoods depended on a few cultivars rather than a larger number of wild species. Notwithstanding the considerable uncertainty to which these estimates inevitably are subject, the evidence is inconsistent with the hypothesis that the productivity of the first farmers exceeded that of early Holocene foragers. Social and demographic aspects of farming, rather than its productivity, may have been essential to its emergence and spread. Prominent among these aspects may have been the contribution of farming to population growth and to military prowess, both promoting the spread of farming as a livelihood.

My own working assumption is that the “first farmers” existed in a state of land surplus, and so like the medieval peasants in the wake of the Black Death found themselves released from Malthusian constraints, at least until their natural increase swallowed up their affluence. Bowles gives several reasons to be skeptical of this conjecture. The list in table 2 shows the positive and negative biases in the model when one back-projects later stages of farming to the initial period. Metal tools, well developed distribution channels, and more productive varieties, were features of mature agricultural societies. On the time-insensitive scale the necessity of planning ahead and waiting patiently for the crop to be ripe count against the gains of the farming way of life as well. The main variable which would weight in favor of farming is the land surplus alone, though Bowels argues that the ethnographic data as to the benefits of a surfeit of this input factor of production is mixed. I am skeptical of this point, though I can’t say I’ve dug deeply into the literature.

There are other factors, such as the fact that farmers were immobile, and so subject to attack. A shift toward a few crops also reduced the diversity of the diet, and therefore entailed a trade off between a diet rich in micronutrients, fiber, protein, and fat, to one overloaded on carbohydrates. Finally, a reliance on a few crops also means heightened “tail risk.” Think of the Irish potato blight. Hunter-gatherer populations would usually have a more diverse portfolio, and so be buffered more from environmental shocks.

One thing to add though is that the productivity of farming vs. foraging differs on the margin. Farming as a complement to foraging can be highly productive, as one substitutes labor hours devoted to low gain foraging to high gain farming. The key is that as farming comes to be the dominant strategy the low hanging fruit is picked, and one has to squeeze the same, or less, production out of a greater number of hours. So why farming and not foraging? I find Bowels conclusion rather cryptic:

However, an evolutionary argument may be able explain the eventual spread of farming once it was adopted in a few places. Because of extraordinary spatial and temporal variations in weather, soil quality, scarcity of wild species, and other conditions that could make farming rather than foraging an efficient provisioning strategy, it is likely that a few groups would have found it advantageous (by the marginal conditions above) to take up farming as their primary livelihood. Then, in order for farming subsequently to be adopted by other groups—the evolutionary problem—farming need not have lessened the toil of subsistence. Even if health status and stature declined, the lesser mobility of farmers would have lowered the costs of child rearing (41). This lowering could have contributed to the dramatic increase in population associated with cultivation (7) and, hence, to the spread of farming (12). Or the fact that agricultural wealth (stored goods and livestock particularly) was more subject to looting may have induced farming groups to invest more heavily in arms and to exploit their greater population densities, allowing them to encroach on and eventually replace neighboring groups (11).

I think this suggests is that farming vs. foraging is a tale of quantity vs. quality. But well mobilized quantity can be quality. The disciplined phalanxes of ancient Greece and the legions of Rome were those of peasant farmers. They may have been relatively lacking in meat and milk, and therefore muscle, in comparison to aristocratic Gaulish and Persian levies, but they made up for it in cohesiveness of collective action and singularity of political purpose. The static immobility and density of farmers may have made them more susceptible to the institutions and ideology which bind a society together, and so allowed a group of villages to operate almost as an organismic whole. Against this mass action the forager clans, effective as individual units, but unable to coordinate, may have been impotent.

Therefore, the rise of farming may have been accompanied by the first demagogues and the blitzkrieg.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Culture
  • John Emerson

    I haven’t read the Bowles. A few things:

    There’s an intermediate stage between foraging and agriculture — when forgers go to a good stand of wild edible plants and weed it (pull out competing plants) and plant or transplant more of the desired plants. Hunting and gathering wasn’t strictly hit and miss — foragers knew which plants / animals were found in which area, so tending the plants i a certain area was a logical next step.

    Some of the shifting cultivation called slash and burn (swidden) sort of merges into hunting and gathering this way.

    In other words, “foragers” and “agriculturalists” are ideal types, with pure agriculturalists a late development and perhaps the imposition of a parasitical military elite. (If you throw in pastoralism, pastoralism was usually symbiotic with agriculture and also with hunting in some places. The Mongols farthest from civilization were often agriculturalists in part, and nomads on the edge of the forest were also hunters, and some were all three.

    Finally, Athens in its great age was enough of a trade society (and a slave society) that it shouldn’t be thought of as a peasant society. Sparta was parasitical on an agricultural slave people, the Messenians, who were unarmed and not a military resource. So the actual Athenian and Spartan soldiers were probably well-fed, whereas the slaves were not.

  • Doug

    Please don’t use the phrase “begs the question” this way. That’s the only way we have to refer to a common fallacy. Use “invites the question” or “raises the question” instead.
    The question is a very perplexing one!

  • John

    I think there’s also something to be said about the risk of not having food season to season. I would think that primitive agriculture may have a lower expected output year to year, but less variance in output. Though, bimodal, given the risk of crop failure. It’s possible that the first farmers, or horticultural foragers (see above) lacked the ability to accurately account for that risk, with more conservative communities overstating the risk of crop failure with others overstating the risk of not finding anything while foraging.

  • James

    One word: Beer.

  • Brent Michael Krupp

    What about the beer hypothesis? That is, that farming allowed consumption of specific desirable foods that the foragers didn’t have access to. A great just so story, in any case.

  • Caledonian

    Wildfires do not spread because they are more ecologically fit than forests and grasslands.

    Cancers do not occur because cancer-ridden bodies are healthier than those without.

    Perhaps the unspoken underlying assumptions behind the questions being asked need to be examined, yes?

  • Fred

    “They may have been relatively lacking in meat and milk, and therefore muscle, in comparison to aristocratic Gaulish and Persian levies, but they made up for it in cohesiveness of collective action and singularity of political purpose”

    Like in “The Other Greeks”? I guess the Greeks were doing some farming for a long time before they developed the phalanx, but not on the appropriate scale until after the dark ages?

    Mr. Emerson: In The Other Greeks, Hanson argues that neither Athens nor Sparta (in Classical Greece) were representative of the polis, and most other Greek cities were composed largely of independent farmers. On the other hand, he doesn’t want to call any Greek polis a peasant society.

    Also, I remember in Gregory Clark’s paper on the domestication of man he cited enormous productivity gains for maize cultivation by the Mikea in Madagascar. Was he just not taking into account all the qualifications Bowles introduces in this paper, or was the environment for the first farmers very different from what the Mikea face today?

  • ohwilleke

    It seems to me that one of the big benefits of farming over foraging is diet predictability.

    While both foragers and farmers stored foods (and even made flours), the farmer is in a much better position to store large quantities of food than the forager. The defining structures of early agricultural societies were grain warehouses, the domestication of the cat to protect those warehouses comes close in time to the appearance of these warehouses, and the earliest evidences of writing include a lot of food ration accounting documents.

    What matters from a survival perspective is not average caloric returns to labor (note that both foreagers and farmers both worked far fewer hours than people in modern industrial nations, so by our standards there was excess available labor), but minimum sustained caloric returns per day per person. Efficiency with respect to slack resources isn’t that important.

    A foreager with limited food stores is more likely to go three weeks with little to eat than a farmer in the winter with a warehouse when there are fewer edible plants to gather, because of bad luck in hunting. The story of agriculture’s success is Aesop’s tale of the ant and the grasshopper.

  • Zachary Kurtz

    I think the idea of collective action is dead right, and weaponry is the most obvious cause.

    This idea is well covered by Paul M Bingham:;2-X/abstract

    His idea is that all major swings in human evolution is preceded by the development of a different variation on the same theme to solve the collection action problem: the ability to exert life-threatening force from a distance.

    Youtube lecture:

  • iron0037

    I agree with the various comments about farming evolving from gardening and initially supplementing a forager lifestyle. One item that I haven’t seen brought up yet is the fact that farming provides more calories per acre of land. Sure, it takes more effort per calorie than foraging, but you need the requisite space to collect all that food. If your tribe has a limited territory and your population is expanding, you have two choices. You can either attack your neighbors and take their land, or you can increase the yield of your land. If you go the second route, you can support a higher population density and overwhelm your less densely populated neighbors more easily down the road. Didn’t Jared Diamond say something to the effect that ten scrawny farmers can overwhelm five buff hunter-gatherers?

  • Leviticus

    I don’t know if we can assume that farmers lived in a state of land surplus. Land must be developed, even fertile, well-watered land. One of the great, often lamented, yet underestimated ecological changes associated with the spread of farming was clearing land. The earliest farmers were limited technologically and demographically. I wouldn’t want to clear forest land with a stone axe and burning won’t get rid of large trees.

    Even in the US, where settlers were operating on a technological level superior to that of the neolithic farmers and where labor sources (landless peasants and African slaves) were much larger, settlers usually first settled on “old Indian fields” whenever possible. They also used short cuts like “ringing” trees rather than chopping them down because the labor requirements for clearing land were so intense.

  • Razib Khan

    the rule of thumb i’ve read is that farming = 1 order of magnitude more calories per unit of land.

  • John Emerson

    #3 John’s point is good. Foragers had trouble storing food, so a group living in a rich area might starve during midwinter or during a drought. I remember reading of Inuit that they had a protocol for deciding who who starve to death first, starting with the elderly and continuing stepwise to the leading hunter.

  • John Emerson

    “Land surplus” was developable land. The time scale was a decade or so, not this year. New land would be developed when the fathers didn’t have enough land for his sons. Otherwise the plots would grow smaller and smaller, or else some of the sons would be encouraged to go out and seek their fortune.

    “Land surplus” was especially relevant to the question of whether oppressed and overtaxed peasants could migrate or not. If there was no developable land, they couldn’t. The settling of America, Australia, and Canada in the 19th century was just a special case of a historically significant type of migration (which did involve military superiority).

    Even the settlement of the steppe under the Russian Empire was regarded as an escape from the old oppression, though the Czar eventually reimposed it.

  • RedRat

    Over 30 years ago there was a book written by a U. Calif prof, George Pimentel (sp?) about this very same topic. He examined the movement from hunting-gathering to an stable agriculture based society. He based his arguments on caloric intake and expenditures. Basically, his argument was that foraging made much larger caloric demands but the return was poor, requiring almost constant foraging.

    The book also looks at modern food production and processing. Sorry I can’t remember the exact name of the book, but I think it contained something about “nuts fruits and berries”.

  • Steve F.

    Consider the:

    “Mistery of the Tower of Jericho”

    “…….The people who built this tower about 11,000 years ago were settled hunter-gatherers on the threshold of the transition to agriculture. Unlike their ancestors, they could no longer pack up and leave in times of danger or uncertainty.

    The tower’s construction may be related to the primeval fears and cosmological beliefs of the villagers, the archaeologists speculate, though they have no scientific evidence of such.

    “This was a time when hierarchy began and leadership was established,” Barkai told the Jerusalem Post. “We believe this tower was one of the mechanisms to motivate people to take part in a communal lifestyle.” ……………….”

    The ideas ventured was that “elites” tried to prevent the disintegration of the recently formed village
    and to scare the villagers to stay put and not return to foraging…


  • RedRat

    OK, I attributed it to the wrong author in my post above. Try this one:
    Food, Energy, and Society, Third Edition [Hardcover]
    David Pimentel Ph.D. (Editor), Marcia H. Pimentel M.S. (Editor)

    It was not George Pimentel of U Cal Berkeley, but David Pimentel of Cornell. Sorry for the mistake.

  • ohwilleke

    Leviticus overstates how hard it is to clear land. Take the case of Ohio. When European farmers arrived, it was almost entirely forested (and much of the rest was swamp). Today, there aren’t 40 acres of virgin forest left in the entire state and the swamps have been drained. Almost all of that was done with homesteader labor from the owner’s of the land using hand tools (and domesticated animals) in the span of about a century. Admittedly, a metal ax is better than a stone ax. But, much of the area the first farmers encountered was nowhere near as heavily forested as Ohio was when it was cleared.

  • ohwilleke

    “I would think that primitive agriculture may have a lower expected output year to year, but less variance in output. Though, bimodal, given the risk of crop failure.”

    Suppose there is a crop failure. Farmers can relatively easily revert to hunting and gathering, abandon their village, and survive. If you revert back and forth often enough it starts to look not much different than a transhumance food production pattern. In good years you go farm in the valley, in bad years you hunt and gather and live off your remaining domesticated animals in the hills.

    But, if the hunter-gatherers fail to find food, they can not easily become farmers. The situation is asymmetric. Farmers have a backup plan, while hunter-gatherers do not.

  • Diogenes

    Here’s a very speculative idea. Just for fun. Correct me if I’m missing something.

    For the Near East, I think the “Garden of Eden” (pre-flooded Persian Gulf marshes) hypothesis offers interesting conditions.
    This environment likely was optimal for unusually high populations of hunter-gatherers, probably better than even the Pacific Northeastcoast of North America?
    High densities of people in Malthusian balance leads to fast evolution (both cultural and genetic and one feeds the other), since most of the Malthusian crashes and expansions were due to very large but temporary depletions of resources in a world in climatic revolution (end of Ice Age). Foragers in poorer environments would have smaller temporary losses of resources with change, and likely could move to other poor regions which became more productive from it more easily. They wouldn’t have such a pressing evolutionary need for insurance.

    In such a rich unstable environment, adaptations to higher density and cooperation within larger groups would likely occur, and there would be large benefits for groups that took greater care of food producing plants in their territories (especially women as men hunted). Also for seed storage and redistributing such plants to the environment after weather calamities. Group competition ensures a certain homogeneity in advantageous alleles/know-how.
    High-cost insurance only pays off when instability is sufficiently great.
    Traditional surrounding hunter-gatherer groups would maybe have no advantage in these adaptations.

    People assume a model of similar traditional hunter-gatherer groups in similar environments competing with each other, and one of them for some reason invents agriculture. If it was so it would probably indeed spread to other groups, as advantages would necessarily have to accreate gradually over foraging everywhere.

    Eve ate the Apple! And condemned us all to that miserly life. At least till recently, in some places already.

  • Leviticus


    I used the US and perhaps I shouldn’t have. Considering the rapid development of land in a place like Ohio we must remember that Commercial Capitalism and Calvinism were strong drivers along with technology and demographic pressures. Neolithic farming expansion, I’d imagine, was much slower, far less driven by external factors. There were no burgeoning industrial centers demanding and willing to pay neolithic farmers for their products. There was no state organizing principle, enabling and encouraging Neolithic societies, presumably atomistic or chiefdoms, to clear land.

    Did Neolithic man have a work ethic? Speaking about the US, places without a strong work ethic (see Frederick Law Olmstead’s observations about the South) were less developed. My point was, even in a place like the US where there were strong economic and cultural drivers, clearing land was still a huge undertaking.

  • Brian Schmidt

    While very productive habitats allowed permanent settlements for foragers, many areas didn’t. A combination of foraging and agriculture made many more areas available for permanent settlement with its associated advantages (food storage, self-defense, larger populations).

    Technological improvements in foraging progressed very slowly in this long-understood area, while agriculture was a brand new arena with lots of new opportunities. It’s not surprising that the pace of technological improvements in agriculture would be faster, leading more people to become primarily agricultural in their work.

  • AlchemistGeorge

    I want to add to the chorus that says the answer is “beer.” Or that beer was, at least, a major factor.

    I’ve seen a couple of closely reasoned speculative essays that farming began so that humans could grow cereal grains (ie barley) in order to make alcohol.

    “According to one prominent anthropologist, what lured our ancient ancestors out of their caves may not have been a thirst for knowledge, but a thirst for beer. Dr. Solomon Katz theorizes that when man learned to ferment grain into beer more than 10,000 years ago, it became one of his most important sources of nutrition. Beer gave people protein that unfermented grain couldn’t supply. And besides, it tasted a whole lot better than the unfermented grain did. But in order to have a steady supply of beer, it was necessary to have a steady supply of beer’s ingredients. Man had to give up his nomadic ways, settle down, and begin farming. And once he did, civilization was just a stone’s throw away. After civilization got rolling, beer was always an important part of it. Noah carried beer on the ark. Sumerian laborers received rations of it. Egyptians made it from barley, Babylonians made it from wheat, and Incas made it from corn. ” – downloadable pdf of Dr. Katz’s article ‘beer and bread’

    “There is no doubt that barley was domesticated to make beer,” said Dr. Patrick Hayes, Professor of Food Science at Oregon State University.”

    Here are some more links:

    google ‘civilization begin beer’ and you will be highly entertained.

  • Tomasz R.

    There’s also theory that agriculture won, because of civilization-helping features of grains: they could be used as money to hire people (eg. Roman soldiers got their pay in wheat or barley) thanks to both easiness to divide or add via weight combined with long life time and having intristic value (unlike modern fiat money). The fact that it could be stored for long time, allowed for collection of taxes, and accumulation of wealth creating both government and rich elites. Meat and fruit don’t have these properties as they spoil easily, are difficult to divide and transport.

    This was at the cost of both lowering health of agriculturalist compared to hunter-gatherers, and ecological catastrophe. Today one of the most popular movements for achieving better health is so called pale diet, trying to emulate old eating habits.

    Worth reading:


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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