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Economic principles in the emergence of humankind; presidential address to the Western Economic Association, June 30, 1991.




This essay is about who we were in prehistory, and how we were shaped by economic principles. Of the many models that one encounters in the antiquities literature of humankind, unabashedly economic models are rare. Such models are easily dismissed as reductionist economic determinism because they appear not to account for the richness of culture. This audience is likely to be more receptive to economic interpretations--even of prehistory--and the tale of humankind that I will relate will be a relatively simple model of the influence of opportunity cost and human capital accumulation on our genesis from bipedalism through tool manufacturing to modern Homo Sapiens, big game hunting, art, language, and the beginning of agriculture. I think it is an exciting story, perhaps humanity's most important story; it may even be true!


The Earth and our solar system are about 4.5 billion years old. Elementary life forms appear 3.8-3.5 billion years before present (B.P.)--about as early as life as we know it could have emerged. But multicellular animals are not found in the fossil record until 650 million years B.P. Those of modern form that are antecedents of humankind appear about 550 million years B.P.

In Africa, sometime between 10 and 6 million years ago, bipedal protohumans split off from the forerunners of today's chimpanzee and gorilla. This is indicated by the fossil record and by genetic comparisons between living people and other primates. During this period a globally cooler and drier climate shrunk forests in favor of grasslands and savannas. Grassland ungulates increased in number and diversity as the cost of harvesting their food declined, and the resulting economic stress on forest dwellers brought the extinction of many ape species. But at least one ape species in Africa adapted by becoming more of a ground dweller. These environmental changes may have made bipedalism an economizing response in several ways: it was easier to carry food and young; heat stress would have been reduced by exposing less body surface to direct sunlight; the freeing of hands for using, carrying, and later fabricating, tools; the decreased energy requirements of locomotion; and, finally, improved ability to see over obstructions, grass and shrubs. Although bipedalism predates the earliest recorded stone tools, early humankind may have used wood, bamboo, and other perishable material for simple tools, much as chimpanzees will make, transport and use sticks to reach for food.

If our ancestral protohumans were adaptively attempting bipedalism as grasslands expanded, then mutations favoring bipedalism would have economic value. The cooler, dryer trend in climate that is associated with the emergence of bipedalism accelerated from 2.5 to 2 million years B.P. This coincided with rapid evolutionary change in hominids and other African mammals leading to a more carnivorous, larger-brained, and more tool-dependent lineage of Homo whose expanding niche may explain the decline of other African carnivores. The earliest firmly documented stone tools are found at the Hadar site in Ethiopia adjacent to the Red Sea; they are dated at 2.5-2.4 million years B.P. This and other sites show that stone tools were widely used in Southern and Eastern Africa by 2 million years B.P. Early tools were diverse, but the diversity appears to have been controlled by the random shape of the original blank not by deliberate design. The combination of such stone tools with animal bone artifacts demonstrate the increased interest in meat by H. habilis over earlier hominids.

At the beginning of the Pleistocene, approximately 1.8-1.7 million years ago, H. habilis was replaced by H. erectus, generally thought to be the direct ancestor of H. sapiens and of you and me. We are still in the Pleistocene Epoch enjoying a warming interglacial period which began about 14,000 years B.P. The significance of the Pleistocene is that the evolutionary, cultural and economic development of humankind was accelerated during the ebb and flow of the earth's cycles in glaciation. At the peak glaciation nearly a third of the earth's surface was covered by ice sheets; and the sea level dropped by 400-500 feet. This caused land masses to join that were isolated in the warm stages: Siberia with Alaska, Australia with New Guinea and Southeast Asia with Java. Gulfs such as the Persian were river valleys above sea level. Within the past one million years interglaciations as warm as the one we are now experiencing have lasted only about 10,000 years whereas the periods of glaciation have lasted more like 100,000 years. (Perhaps this will comfort those concerned with global warming.) Consequently, our ancestral development occurred under mostly glacial conditions, to which we adapted well. During these cycles of glaciation a world-wide redistribution of plants, animals, and humankind occurred.


A contemporary view of the emergence of modern humans is the "out-of-Africa model" in which humankind first evolved in Africa then spread throughout Eurasia in an initial wave beginning about one million years B.P. In Africa the displacement of H. habilis by H. erectus may be explained by the increased emphasis on tool use and by carnivory. H. erectus was much better endowed with a locomotor skeleton, had a larger brain plus the typically human external nose. These endowments suggest improved exertion capacity and hunting and gathering skill. The greater adaptability of H. erectus is demonstrated by this people's colonization of previously unoccupied dry regions of Africa about 1.5 million years B.P. and by their dispersal to Northern Africa and thence into colder regions such as Eurasia and China, and to Java after one million years B.P. Generally, in the African and eastward expansion paths of H. erectus one finds evidence of tool use which required more investment in human capital--planning, foresight, and preparation effort--than is associated with H. habilis. Thus the finding that most of our current growth is due to investment in human capital probably applies with comparable force to the last two million years of hominid development. The tool kit now includes hand axes, cleavers and other large bifacial tools used for butchery, bone breaking and perhaps wood working. Also it is likely that H. erectus could control the use of fire; the oldest evidence is 1.5 to 1.4 million years B.P.

A long standing puzzle is the geographical distribution of these tools in Southeast Asia; here the tools are less standardized and there are few hand axes. At one time this led to the conclusion that H. erectus was culturally retarded. A solution to the puzzle is now offered by the observation that the line across Southeast Asia below which one finds alleged "cultural retardation" corresponds to the distribution of naturally occurring bamboo. This is an area which today contains over 1000 species of bamboo, a raw material that can be fabricated into knives, spears, projectile points, and traps. It would appear that H. erectus was not culturally degenerate in bambooland, but was simply substituting a lower-cost raw material for stone.


Up to about 500-400,000 years B.P., most human fossils are those of H. erectus in Java, China and Africa. The exceptions are assigned to early Homo sapiens. The European fossils suggest an anticipation of the later Neanderthals. The trend was different in Africa where H. erectus appears to have evolved in the direction of modern H. sapiens. Neanderthals--traditionally believed to be our immediate ancestors--are thought to be a Eurasian descendant of H. erectus. They appeared 130,000 years ago or earlier, had a brain case at least as large as living people, and, judging from the skeleton and muscle/ligament markings on the bones, had exceptional physical strength. They were adapted to cold climate, and made tools of wood and stone. They cared for family members who were handicapped or incapacitated, and were the first people who practiced intentional burial. But their unusual adaptation was not viable, and they disappeared about 30,000 years ago.

Although modern H. sapiens or Cro-Magnons traditionally had been thought to originate 50-40,000 years B.P., recent claims find modern humans as early as 90,000 years B.P. Thus Neanderthals may have overlapped Cro-Magnon for over 50,000 years, and are probably not central stock but a side branch. Prior to Cro-Magnon time, body form and behavior (based on tool assemblages) evolved together. Subsequently, behavioral evolution accelerated, within a constant bodily form. "The people of Cro-Magnon carved intricate figures of horses and deer and painted their caves with an esthetic power never exceeded in the history of human art (Gould [1988, 16])." After 40-35,000 years ago, artifact assemblages varied tremendously across neighboring regions, and the pace of change accelerated dramatically. Cro-Magnon fashioned bone, ivory and antler into projectile points, awls, punches, needles and art objects. Their stone crafts included numerous shouldered projectile points of the kind suitable for spears, arrows and darts. Also graves, houses and fireplaces were more elaborate. Ceramic fired clay appears about 28,000 years B.P. Eurasian Cro-Magnon hunted in savannas and grasslands principally for mammoth, bison, reindeer, antelope and horse that provided meat, hide, and sinew, as well as bone, antler and ivory. After 20,000 years B.P. the artifacts include spear throwers, stone inserts in antlers, harpoons, leisters, eyed needles, all manner of clothing, and the bow and arrow.

In Europe 34,000-11,000 years B.P. there is widespread evidence that humankind had the means of making multiple kills. The staples were reindeer, red deer, horse, ibex and bison. Evidence of the mass slaughter of horse and reindeer suggest they were driven into cliff-enclosed canyons, or off "jumps." The Cro-Magnon were adept at driving or stampeding game and using pit traps.


Modern H. sapiens spread from Africa through Europe and Asia in the last 50,000 years, jumped to Australia by about 40,000 years B.P., entered Alaska by 14-12,000 B.P., had spread into the United States by 12,000 B.P., and in the next 1000 years reached the southern tip of South America. The last stages of this world-wide expansion were Madagascar, and New Zealand in the last 1000 years.

A plausible theoretical hypothesis is that North America was discovered by advanced Paleolithic people who crossed the exposed Bering land bridge, connecting Asia with Alaska, about 14,000 years ago. Their descendants found an exposed land corridor into Montana, then spread South and East throughout the United States. As suggested by Paul Martin, they entered a continent that was an unprecedented "home-on-the-range" for now extinct mammoth, mastodon, ground sloth, two species of extinct bear, a cheetah, the giant beaver, horse, tapir, two species of peccary, camel, llama, two species of extinct deer, the stag moose, pronghorn, shrub ox, two species of musk ox, yak, two subspecies of bison, the dire wolf, a saber-toothed and a scimitar-toothed "tiger," and more. Many of these animals, such as the ground sloth, were slow and would have been easily hunted, or like the mammoth, mastodon and horse were large, gregarious, herding animals. The herding behavior of these great animals implied low search cost for hunting parties armed with stone projectile points and strategic knowledge of animal behavior; their great size meant high value per kill; while some prey, such as the extinct plains bison, may have been easy to stampede into arroyos. Since there were no property rights in live animals, only in harvested animals, there was no incentive to stay the spear in anticipation of tomorrow's reproductive value as with modern domesticated cattle. The resulting mass harvesting pressure on animals may have caused or contributed to the extensive megafauna loss on the North American continent by 11,000 years B.P. Their hunting parties left behind the fine-crafted Clovis fluted point found from Florida to Nova Scotia, in the high plains, the Southwest, across the Midwest, and in the South.

That Clovis hunters killed mammoth is well documented; also that these animals had become extinct by 11,000 years B.P., although they had been in America for over one million years. Some sites also contain the bones of camel and horse, but no incontrovertible evidence exists that these animals were hunted in North America. The horse became extinct in North America only about 10-8000 years B.P. It was reintroduced by the Spanish in the 16th century and has thrived in the wild down to the present.

The Clovis point was replaced by smaller points between 11,000 and 9,000 years B.P. and used to kill the extinct Bison antiquus, and Bison Occidentalis, both larger than the surviving bison. It appears likely that Paleoindian procurement of Bison occurred in mass kills, sometimes of several hundred animals at a time. This is illustrated at the Olsen-Chubbuck site in Colorado where, 8500 years B.P., 200 B. Occidentalis were stampeded into an arroyo five to seven feet deep and dispatched with projectile points. Apparently at least fifty of the animals represented a wastage kill since they showed no evidence of butchery for consumption. Dozens of such kill-butchery sites are found in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Nebraska. Many sites are stampede jumps or traps, with several thousand years of use. But the species survived in the form of the smaller plains bison. It is possible that they survived by dwarfing; indeed this could have been an adaptive response to the greater vulnerability of the larger subspecies to predation. In any case, by historical times the enormous carrying capacity of the land from Alberta to Texas was supporting far fewer species, but perhaps sixty million bison.

Martin has summarized the evidence for the world-wide extinction of late Pleistocene megafauna. In Africa and Asia 15-20 percent of the genera disappeared 80-60,000 years B.P.; in Australia 94 percent were lost from 40-15,000 years B.P.; North and South America experienced a 70-80 percent loss in the last 15,000 years. This world-wide pattern correlates suspiciously with the chronology of human colonization, leading to Martin's hypothesis that extinction was directly or indirectly due to "overkill" by exceptionally competent hunter cultures. This model explains the light extinctions in Africa and Asia where modern humankind "grew up," allowing gradual adaptation to humankind's accumulating proficiency as a superpredator; it explains the abrupt massive losses in Australia and the Americas--the only habitable continents in history that were colonized suddenly by advanced stone-age humans. But the control cases for this "experiment" are the large oceanic islands such as Madagascar and New Zealand; both were colonized roughly 1000 years B.P. and both suffered a wave of extinctions at this time. One wonders, if extinction was due to climatic change why Madagascar extinctions were not coincident with those of Africa 220 miles away; and why European and Ukrainian mammoths became extinct 13,000 years B.P. while in North America they survived another 2000 years. Previous great extinction waves had affected plants and small animals as well as large animals, but the late Pleistocene extinctions are concentrated on the large, gregarious, herding, or slow moving, animals--the ideal prey of human hunters. Such large genera are also the animals that are slower growing, have longer gestation periods, require longer periods of maternal care and live longer. Consequently they were more vulnerable to hunting pressure because reductions in biomass require more time to recover. Moreover, in the absence of private property, there is no intertemporal incentive to avoid the kind of waste associated with mass kills. A counter argument finds it incomprehensible that mere bands of men could have wiped out the great mammoth and two subspecies of bison, since modern bison and African elephants react violently when threatened. Such observations may simply tell us that these particular subspecies have survived because they were selected for these defensive characteristics. We know nothing of the behavioral properties of extinct species which may have been more approachable than their surviving relatives. While the African and Indian elephants are both members of the same genus, their fossil similarities fail to inform us that the Indian elephant is docile and easily trained for circus display, while the African elephant is much too unruly for this occupation. No one has successfully domesticated the zebra; in contrast the horse has been domesticated since ancient times.


Several principles and hypotheses stem from our brief survey of the prehistorical record.

(1) Hunting and gathering provided the technology and institutions for the first affluent society. One of the great myths of modern humankind is the belief that life in the Paleolithic was intolerably harsh, or as presumed by Hobbes, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." It may have been none of these. What is more likely is that hunting and gathering provided the first affluent society; it sustained and promoted humankind for almost all of their 2.5 million years of existence. The Hobbessian belief obscures the striking continuity in the ability of prehistoric humans to adapt to changes in their environment by substituting new inputs of capital, labor and knowledge for old, and to fabricate new products when effort prices were altered by the environment, or by new learning. Historically, among the hunting and fishing peoples of the world, malnutrition, starvation and chronic diseases were rare or infrequent. Studies of the African Kung Bushman show that these people worked only twelve to nineteen hours per week; their hunting and gathering activities scored well on several measures of nutritional adequacy; and their labor bought much leisure in the form of resting, visiting, entertaining and trance dancing. Similarly, the African Hazda hunters worked no more than two hours per day, with plenty of time left for gambling and other social activities.

(2) Opportunity cost has conditioned the cultural and economic development of humankind. This principle was articulated succinctly by the Kung bushman who was asked by an anthropologist why he had not turned to agriculture as his neighbors had done. His reply: "Why should we plant when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?" Why indeed, unless tastes and opportunity cost combine to demand it? The great migrations out of Africa, the invention of weapons for big game hunting, Eskimo adaptation to hunting sea mammals, humankind's eventual turn to agriculture; these can all be interpreted as responses to changes in opportunity cost whether driven by environmental change, by human learning, or their conjunction. A telling example of the influence of effort prices on prehistoric human choice is found in Lee's [1968] study of fifty-eight extant hunter-gather societies the world over. There is a strong correlation between a society's distance from the equator and the relative importance of hunting over gathering in its diet. In the Arctic the hunting of land and sea-mammals predominated, while in the temperate latitudes up to 39 from the equator, gathering was much the more important economic activity.

Economic models of human development and change are often held suspect because they appear not to account for the richness of culture. But culture can be interpreted as providing the information system for transmitting the learning embodied in the social response to opportunity cost. Thus hunter cultures use elaborate ceremony and ritual to enhance recognition of the value and significance of the chase and its technology of execution; to transmit human capital from one generation to the next; to form in the young an indelible impression of the hunt. The magnificent Cro-Magnon art preserved on the walls deep in the narrow crawl spaces of French and Spanish caves have been interpreted as a means of "... piling special effect on special effect in an effort to ensure the preservation and transmission of the tribal encyclopedia" (Pfeiffer [1982, 132]).

Another example of the hidden economic function of culture is the magical practice of the Naskapi Indians of Labrador, who, when the caribou were scarce and the tribe hungry, resorted to scapulimacy, a divination in which the shoulder blade bone of a caribou was heated by fire until it cracked. As cracks appeared they were interpreted by a diviner in terms of the local geography as caribou trails, one of which the hunter should follow if he was to be successful. All this is commonly interpreted as showing the capacity of the Naskapi for belief in magic. But is scapulimacy functional? One function is to sharpen the hunter's concentration, and to impress upon the all need for great dedication. But another effect was to cause the hunter to choose a random route, steering him away from previously successful hunting routes, and preventing the caribou from being sensitized to regularities in hunter behavior. This is precisely the normative argument for using mixed strategies in certain games of conflict. What the Naskapi in effect seem to have discovered was that reading shoulder blades had survival value. "People are capable of formulating any number of strange ideas, not necessarily directed towards any particular end, but if they do have a practical application and are successful, they may persist. And if they persist long enough people will begin to believe in them" (Reader [1988, 139]). They will also be incorporated into educational rituals so that the tribal learning is not lost to each new generation.

(3) Prehistoric H. Sapiens Accumulated Human Capital. Economic success as a hunter-gather required an endowment of human capital normally associated only with the agricultural and industrial revolutions: learning, knowledge transfer, tool fabrication skill and design, and social organization. The aboriginal use of fire for game and plant management demonstrates that prehistoric humans possessed intricate knowledge of the phenology of trees, shrubs, and herbs, and used fire to enhance the growth and flowering of food plants, and to discourage the growth of competitors. Effective game and wild plant management required people to know where, when, how and with what frequency to burn. Aboriginals knew that the growing season for wild plants can be advanced by spring burns designed to warm the earth, that in dry weather fires should be ignited at the top of hills to prevent wild fires but in damp conditions they should be set in depressions to avoid being extinguished, that the burning of underbrush aided the production of acorns, and attracted moose, deer and other animals who feed on the tender new shoots that follow a burn. How sad that this knowledge was unavailable for the management of Yellowstone Park in the half century preceding the holocaust of 1988.

The life of a hunter-gatherer is one of commitment to an intellectually and physically demanding activity requiring skill, technology, social organization, division of labor, knowledge of plant and animal behavior, of climate, seasons, and winds, the habit of close observation, inventiveness, problem solving, risk bearing and high motivation. These demands would have been selective in humankind's cultural and biological evolution, and helped to develop the human capital and genetic equipment needed to create modern civilization. The aboriginal practice of awarding more wives to the most successful hunters would have favored the genetic selection of these traits.

It was as a hunter-gather that humankind learned to learn: young hunters needed to be imbued with knowledge of animal behavior and anatomy, with the habit of goal-oriented observation, to learn that ungulates often travel in an arc so that success could be increased by traversing the chord, and so on. Knowledge of animal behavior could substitute for weapon development. From knowledge of animal anatomy it was but a short step to curiosity about human anatomy, the discovery that we are one with the animals, and to the first practice of medicine.

(4) Property Rights Are Likely of Ancient Origin. Although aboriginals everywhere have had sophisticated property rights and trading traditions, there is no direct evidence that prehistoric peoples maintained such traditions. But the similarities between the cultural materials of late-Pleistocene and aboriginal peoples suggest that such social traditions originated at least as early as the period 40,000-20,000 years B.P. Before the first agriculture the archaeological record shows a vast increase in property: spears, atlatls, seed grinding stones, boiling and storage vessels, kilns for firing clay, boats, houses, villages, the bow and arrow, animal-drawn sledges, and the domesticated wolf. New tools and techniques allowed new products of the hunt to substitute for the loss of big game. Previously, gathering emphasized the seeds and plants that could be eaten while on the move. Now the seeds gathered were inedible without soaking, grinding and boiling. This upsurge in personal paraphernalia implies more sedentary, less nomadic, hunting and gathering. Knowledge of the seasonal cycles of plants and animals, of the use of fire in resource management, of techniques of storing, drying and preserving foods, all combine to make life more sedentary. But with the accumulation of personal property and real estate would come more complex property rights and contracting arrangements. George Dalton [1977] has summarized the economic, but also the important political function, of the ceremonial exchanges of Northwest America and Melanesia, such as the potlatch, kula, moka and abutu, which in substance are elaborate multilateral contracting mechanisms. The valuables exchanged bought not only other commodities in ordinary exchange; they bought kinship ties with the exchange of daughters, military assistance if attacked, the right of refuge if homes and property had to be abandoned, and emergency assistance in the event of poor harvest, hunting or fishing. They bought political stability in stateless societies, and a property-right environment that facilitated specialization and ordinary exchange. Property rights thus precede the state, and property included private goods such as land, fishing sites, livestock, and cemetery plots, but also public goods such as crests, names, dances, rituals and trade routes that could be assigned to more than one individual or group.

Evidence for the existence of property rights and social contracting in stateless societies is incontrovertible. In North America the private ownership of fishing and hunting grounds, nut trees, and seed-gathering areas was common. Owning the right to fish a particular eddy or channel of a river was independent of who owned the land along the river, and the right was transferable by bequest or sale. Similarly, an individual would own sealing rights to a particular coastal rock. The Eskimos had a simple incentive compatible rule of allocation among hunters when the prey was the dangerous polar bear: "The hunter who fixed his spear first in the bear gets the upper part. That is the finest part, for it includes the forelegs with the long mane hairs that are so much desired to border women's kamiks (boots) with."

(5) Humankind Was An Intense User of the Environment for Self-Interested Ends. Although today we associate environmental damage, including extinction, with the advent of industrial society and human population growth, it is likely that prehistoric humans had a comparable if not more severe impact on their environment. This is because the species that have survived to the present represent the less vulnerable plants and animals. If it is true that the wave of animal extinctions beginning with the "invasion" of Australia 40-30,000 years B.P. and ending with the occupation of Madagascar and New Zealand, were of anthropogenic origin, then the losses were of species that had inadequate defensive capabilities. The winnowing left the more stubbornly resistant species, able to survive all but major destructions of habitat.

A second source of ecological change induced by prehistorical peoples was their transportation of seeds in hunter-gatherer migrations throughout the world. The introduction of botanical exotics into new regions has often been noted by archaeologists who have observed the association of various plants with campsites and dwellings.

Finally, the human use of fire had a profound effect on the ecology of the environment. Many authors who have studied patterns of land burning by primitive peoples have concluded that many of the great grasslands were produced by periodic burning. Where tree growth is favored by weather conditions, periodic burning will select for particular species such as the pine forests in southern New York, and to the West, which have been attributed to Indian burning. Similarly, the disappearing grassland areas in Northern Alberta are attributed to Canadian restrictions on traditional Indian burning.

(6) Long Plateaus Without Change Are Punctuated with Revolutionary Leaps in Biological and Economic Development. There were essentially three prehistoric revolutions in the development of mankind, prior to the agricultural revolution: bipedalism, the invention and development of tools, including fire, and the explosive accumulation of human capital by Cro-Magnon peoples. The Cro-Magnons produced an astonishing creative outburst--in tools, art and hunting-gathering techniques--beginning sometime after 40,000 years B.P. This great acceleration in human capital formation, and Cro-Magnon's rapid spread throughout all the major continents, set the stage for the agricultural revolution. It did this partly by giving our immediate ancestors the knowledge of animals and seeds required by the agricultural way of life, but probably also by hastening the demise of the megafauna that were the favored game of the chase, and thus tipping the opportunity cost balance in favor of tilling the soil.

What accounts for the sudden acceleration of human economic and cultural development 30-10,000 years B.P? Cro-Magnon people had already been firmly established in Africa for perhaps 60,000 years and had already begun their spread throughout the world. I believe the most likely cause is the emergence of language. The ability to communicate effectively by the spoken word would make possible the accumulation and diffusion of knowledge on an unprecedented scale. The experience and knowledge of the elderly would be a valued source of information. Since this human capital needed to be preserved and drawn upon, it explains why older and incapacitated people were cared for, and their value recognized by proper burial and enshrined in art. In aboriginal societies the medicine man or woman was often a person handicapped from birth or crippled by injury. Thus, "Kokopelli," widely revered in Southwestern and Mexican rock art is depicted as a hunchbacked arthritic figure who plays a flute. With the advent of spoken language the value of information relative to physical strength would have changed dramatically.

The affluence made possible by improvements in food acquisition methods would have provided the released time necessary to give attention to language development and to the rituals, ceremony and socializing that demand communication capacity. Big game hunting placed new demands on planning, organization, coordination and cooperation that depended on communication. It was the spoken word that allowed ideas and complex thought to be externalized. Memory, operated on by ritual, allowed knowledge to be preserved and accumulated. Writing, invented by 5000 years B.P., vastly accelerated the human capacity to preserve and accumulate thought. But by this time humankind's vast knowledge of seeds, eggs and animals had already fomented the agricultural revolution made all the more necessary by the disappearance of so many of the great game animals.


In the Near East, beginning about 10,000 years ago, our ancestors abandoned the hunter-gatherer way of life that had served them so well over the vast stretch of at least three million years. Apparently sheep were domesticated first about 10,000 B.P., followed by several early Neolithic farming villages dated from 9500 to 9000 years B.P. Domesticated plants consisted of only eight or nine species of local grains. About 3000 years after grain agriculture, various fruits--olive, grape and fig--are cultivated. The earliest wine appears around 5500 B.P., while beer was made earlier. The plants were domesticated forms of the wild varieties that were indigenous to the area. Evidence for agriculture in New Guinea, where there were no animals suitable for hunting, is dated 9000 years ago. In North America the earliest evidence of agriculture is in Mexico 10-9,000 years B.P., but products were added slowly, one by one, over thousands of years as if cultivation were a hobby used to supplement hunting and gathering. When the first Europeans arrived in the 15th and 16th centuries there was great variability among the North American tribes in their dependence on agriculture versus hunting and gathering. In California acorns and hunting were important means of subsistence. In the Pacific Northwest salmon fishing supplemented by gathering was paramount. On the Great Plains many tribes, such as the Pawnee, Cheyenne and Arapahoe, had well-developed horticulture and pottery arts. The peaceful Pueblos of the Southwest grew cotton, corn, beans, tobacco and squash.

The influence of opportunity cost on tribal choice of culture is well illustrated by the effect of the reintroduction of the horse to North America by the Spanish. The Spanish mustang--a docile and easily domesticated member of the Equus family--was a revolutionary innovation to the Plains Indian, causing many tribes to revert to the bison hunt as a permanent way of life. The Cheyenne and Arapahoe abandoned their villages, agriculture, and pottery arts to become bison hunters.

Although Cornado and other conquistadors lost or abandoned horses in the 16th century, it was not until the permanent colonization of New Mexico in the first half of the 17th century that peaceful Indians, forced to tend their horses, learned horsemanship from the Spanish. During this period, horses and knowledge of them were acquired by various tribes, and by the 1650s the colonial settlements faced the formidable Apaches, on horseback, whose raids became legend. All the power of Spain in America failed to subdue them. Then out of the Rocky Mountain headwaters of the Arkansas River appeared a little-known tribe of hunter-gatherers who abandoned their homelands and took to the Plains on horseback. They became great bison hunters and by 1725 invaded the Apache lands of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and West Texas. Entire tribes of Apache, who had been the scourge of the Spanish, disappeared. The invading Comanches exterminated the Eastern tribes and drove the Western tribes into Arizona and New Mexico. The Comanches were the greatest warriors ever to ride the high plains and plateaus of Texas, and were without peer on horseback, with men, women and children skilled in the saddle. Their raiding parties ranged up to 1000 miles, and across the Rio Grande into Mexico; their loot sometimes consisted of hundreds of horses in a single moonlight raid. They were known for their boast that the warrior tribes permitted Spanish settlements to exist on the fringes of Comanche territory only to raise horses for them. The Spanish were never again to control West Texas; nor were the Americans able finally to control bison country until 1875 when the remnants of the Comanche tribes finally surrendered at Fort Sill, and the bison were all but exterminated and replaced by the long horn steer. For a century and a half the history of the American West was a history of fear and terror of the Comanches who, prior to the arrival of the mustang, had picked berries and dug roots while hunting miscellaneous game in the Eastern Rockies, and were a threat to no one.


The remnants of our prehistoric past that reside in our cultural traditions today is well illustrated by a fascinating interpretation of Genesis as a myth of conflict between the agricultural and hunter-gatherer way of life, written from the perspective of the latter. According to this reconstruction the Garden of Eden represents the economic affluence achieved by humans as hunter-gatherers who lived abundantly on the plants, animals and fishes placed on Earth by God for the benefit of humankind. Then Eve broke the cultural command not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge. But what "knowledge" was contained in this fruit? It was knowledge of the reproductive cycles of seeds, eggs and animals, which was the human capital foundation of agriculture. Some were already practicing agriculture and departing from their ancestral imperative. The warning against this dangerous turn is expressed in the punishment of Adam and Eve: "... cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it ... Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field" (Genesis, 3:17-18).

Eve bore two sons who were split on the ancestral imperative: Cain became a tiller, while Abel was a herder of sheep. (Not quite a hunter-gatherer so the allegory here is weak, but Abel was a nomad nonetheless. Sheep herding does appear to be an intermediate step in the turn from hunting.) Cain made offerings of the fruit of the ground to the Lord, while Abel offered the first of his flock. Abel's offering was respected by God, but Cain's was not. So Cain killed Abel, implying that the culture was in danger of losing the skills of the hunter-gatherer in which case there could be no turning back from the world of thistles and thorns. Then came the flood, all the game animals are in danger of extinction, and so on.

This allegory is plausible in many ways. The timing is right. The location is right. And the events described correlate with what is known about this period and region. The first evidence of agriculture appears about 9500 years B.P. in the fertile crescent of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Surely this was not an unclimactic event after humankind's long and very successful adaptation to hunting and gathering. Moreover, the Sumerians invented and were using the first written cuneiform language 6-5000 years B.P., a language which produced many epic poems that obviously influenced the Hebrew story of Genesis. The Sumerians had a cuneiform word for "Adam" which meant "settlement on the plain." They also had a word for "Eden" which meant a "fertile plain." Interestingly there was no word for "Eve," but their word "ti" had two meanings: "rib" and "to make live." The Hebrew scholars, not appreciating this play on words, concocted their story that God gave life to Adam's rib creating the first woman. The Sumerian tablets also tell us of a Great Flood and of their King Gilgamesh who went down to the Gulf in search of the Tree of eternal life. (Incidentally, he found it, but it was stolen from him by a serpent!) It is known that there was a sudden warming trend 7-6000 years B.P., shrinking the ice caps and raising the sea level. The Persian Gulf would have filled with water during this period reaching its current level about 6000 years B.P. These considerations have suggested to Juris Zarins the hypothesis that the Garden of Eden was located at the upper end of the Persian Gulf, for it is written: "and a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became of four heads ... the ... Pison ... Gihon, Tigris ... and ... Euphrates." (Genesis 2:10-14). Of course the Tigris and Euphrates still flow, while the Pison and Gihon probably refer respectively to the Wadi Batin, a fossil river in Iraq, and the intermittently flowing Karun river in Iran.


The significance of prehistory to humankind, circa 2000, is that all we are today--our great cultural attainments, and ever growing potential, our biological and human capital achievements--are a product of that prehistory. If there is much that is new in historical time it is because we have continued what began in prehistory, but have had so many millennia to accumulate the human capital made possible once our hunter-gatherer ancestors learned to learn. If we are a kinder and gentler species today than were our ancestors who slaughtered the great mammoth and bison; if we can care enough to launch a massive effort to save three great whales trapped under the Arctic ice; if we can debate reintroducing the timber wolf into Yellowstone Park; it is because we can now afford to do all these things and have learned to treasure the value and power of individual responsibility for preserving and managing natural resources.

But growth has been episodic, not linear, as we have leaped from one long confining plateau to another less than a half-dozen times since we escaped--so improbably--the primate origins which took three billion years of sporadic change to create. Through all these sweeping changes is discernable the blurred unconscious outline of continuity in humankind's development of the capacity to respond to effort prices, to create cheaper techniques and products to substitute for dearer ones, and to accumulate and preserve knowledge, our most precious capital asset.


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VERNON L. SMITH(*) President address delivered on June 30, 1991 in Seattle, Washington at the annual meeting of the Western Economic Association. A much longer version with detailed documentation will appear under a title of the form "Humankind in Prehistory: Economy, Ecology and Institutions" in a conference volume The Political Economy of Customs and Culture edited by Terry Anderson and Randy Simmons (Rowman and Littlefield Press).
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Author:Smith, Vernon L.
Publication:Economic Inquiry
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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