Trade Made Farms

In her [1969] book The Economy of Cities, Jane Jacobs makes the controversial claim that city-formation preceded the birth of agriculture.

I’d never heard this before Garret Jones told me a few days ago.  So I read Jacobs’ book, found her theory quite plausible, and then sought criticism online.  I found:

The noted urban critic and scholar Jane Jacobs … argues that cities arose before agriculture. … Jacobs claims that she “asked anthropologists how they know agriculture came before cities” (p.44) but they could not answer her.  Here is the reply … read any introductory textbook in world prehistory.  Agriculture came before cities. Period. End of argument. The evidence is conclusive. Jacobs is wrong. This should be the end of the story. But wait, Jacobs was a popular and controversial figure in urban studies, and many scholars want to accept her arguments.

Seeking such a world prehistory text, I found:

The growth of the cities of Mesopotamia was based on the production of agricultural surplus. This surplus depended on irrigation agriculture, which required the organization of large work crews to build and maintain canals.

OK, so I’ll accept that most texts agree.  But this text just makes a bald claim; it doesn’t offer supporting evidence.  Wikipedia and an ‘05 econ review on farming’s origin both give lists of disparate theories and say none is accepted.  Jacobs’ theory seems better than most, and neither source offers contrary evidence.  In fact:

Evidence indicates that sedentary communities emerged in the Near East up to 3000 years before the birth of agriculture. …  The first domesticates ‘probably appeared near latrines, garbage heaps, forest paths and cooking-places where humans unintentionally had disseminated seeds from their favourite wild grasses, growing nearby’. … There is evidence that … tools for agricultural production were already available to the foragers who eventually took up farming, … that agriculture appeared in relatively complex, affluent societies, where a wide variety of foods were available and that these societies were circumscribed by other societies whose environmental zones were poorer in resources.

These all support Jacobs.  To my mind the main datum needing explanation is the fact that within a few (or at most tens of) thousands of years, human population doubling times went from many tens thousands of years to just a thousand years.  Jacobs proposed that the key change was the creation of large local trading regions around trading hubs, and especially their merging into continent-spanning trade networks.  This allowed innovations to spread far more quickly than among isolated nomadic foragers.  Trade and trade centers were important well before farming, and while farming tricks were among the more important innovations that spread in this new rapid communication system, it is a mistake to see them as fundamental.  The main reason we saw them appear just when many other key changes appeared was because the innovation rate changed.

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  • Farming was invented so many times independently that surely it must be really easy to figure it out compared to things than happened only once like life, language, or industrial revolution, right? None of the sample size=1 problems apply here.

  • William H. Stoddard

    Your thousand-year doubling time seems reasonably consistent with what I’ve seen on agrarian societies, at least as an average. But what’s your source for the doubling time for foraging societies? That figure seems startlingly long by comparison, and I don’t think I’ve seen it elsewhere. I’m not saying that it’s wrong, but I’d like to know where you got it.

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  • Gil

    Of course it can presume that prostitution isn’t the oldest profession because the caveman must have had something worth trading to make it a ‘profession’ thus other professions must have existed to create tradeable items. 😛

    On the subject of farming, obviously a group of people must have found an abundance of wild food that allowed them to stop being nomandic and given them enough time to figure that you can actually grow the wild crops yourself rather than waiting for nature to take its course. However does a sedentary community have to rely on farming? What of a fishing community? Such people are technically relying on a form of hunting, not farming, and are forever hoping that nature takes its course ahead of the amount of fish they take. Hence the first town have started off as relatively sedentary hunters/gatherers in abundant sweet spots which allowed them enough time to figure out how to become farmers of plants and animals. Thusly, ultimately, towns preceded farms. Indeed I believe Old World settlers in the New World had to rely on hunting and gathering until their farms became productive.

    Quckly Easily Done?

  • groo

    I propose to reframe the question:

    What came first:
    The temple or the city?

    It then to me seems plausible/highly probable, that the ‘temple’ came first.

    One then can look at the work done:
    Stonehenge 1: 11 000 hrs (5100 years ago)
    Stonehenge 2: 360 000 hrs
    Stonehenge 3: 1.75 Million hrs (4600 to 4100)

    plus 20Million hrs shaping the stones(?)

    (The numbers are not mentioned in the english w.)

    Now consider Göbekli Tepe (Turkey):
    11500 years ago.

    (I refer to the German wikipedia)
    “Obviously not only agrarian societies were able to construct complex cultic
    sites, but also hunter-gatherer societies…”

    For 5300 years ago paneuropean trade is proven (e.g. ‘Ötzi’),
    but not for 11 000 years ago.
    ZERO evidence, at least to my knowledge.

    To consider ‘trade’ as the primary trigger for building those sites has
    ZERO evidence.

    The ‘logical’ rationale (for me) has to be:
    A surplus of work is needed in any case.

    And it can come from agrarian as well as hunter/gatherer societies.
    Hunter/Gathers have different objectives or spiritual needs (the souls of the beasts) than
    Agrarians (astronomical observations).

    So the primary motivators are to establish a relationship to the basic resources.

    Then one can speculate, what the reasons were, to build cities.
    According to my reasoning it would be to secure the cultic site against destructive forces.

    To argue in favor of ‘trade first’ to me misses the point.

    Wrong question–nonsensical answer.
    Same as it ever was.

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  • Tomasz, we can hope so; William, see here.

    groo, my question is not so much the exact time order as: what was the essential cause of the dramatic increase in growth rates? Perhaps temples helped start the first trading hubs, but then connected hubs are far more plausible causes of the increased growth rate.

  • groo


    is’nt this simple, down to irrelevance?

    I just finished a lengthy response, based on Lewis Mumford.

    Should I post it?

    Your choice.

  • groo


    obviously You did not read the numbers or did not interpret them the same way as I did.

    Stonehenge 1: 11 000 hrs (5100 years ago)
    Stonehenge 2: 360 000 hrs
    Stonehenge 3: 1.75 Million hrs (4600 to 4100)

    The difference is a mere 500-1000 years, and the explosion of effort/work is 100x!

  • bruce

    If that ‘Aquatic Ape’ chick had called her book ‘Riverine Ape’ I’d have believed her implicitly. Grizzly bears use natural fish dams- there’s no way plains apes weren’t doing the same, and adding tinker’s dams to nature’s, a million years ago. Fish dams must either precede human-controlled fire or be double-teamed.

    Agriculture followed ranching. Both were a long way behind fish dams and fire, and you could build a decent-sized village next to a good set of fish dams. You’d have some need for drying racks, more need for fire, great need to defend against carnivores eating the stored fish and fishing families. Fishing and beer go together, thus- invent agriculture for any fruit or grain that can ferment. Fish sauce ferments too, garum and all that. If that’s not an early city, what is?

    Whether you call any ancient building a ‘temple’ or a ‘whorehouse’ is speculation.

  • michael vassar

    Agreed with comments about fishing preceding agriculture.

    Once again, questioning Robin’s claim about ancient population doubling times ad radically opposed to everything I know about ecology and prehistory.
    suggests global populations that had to rise quickly prior to 10K BC.

    MesoAmerican stone-age populations had agriculture and large cities and continent-wide trade prior to Europeans but they had only been in Americas for ~10K years and not that many had presumably crossed.

    Organisms generally rapidly rise in population to reach carrying capacity. Agriculture may have increased the food bottleneck on carrying capacity but not other bottlenecks. Herd sizes and school sizes for wild animals suggest a human carrying capacity of millions for hunter gatherers, as do populations of wild large omnivores.

    • When talking about population trends over millions of years it makes sense to focus on the carrying capacity of the species who fill a niche. Temporary disasters can clearly knock the population way down, but on that timescale they can quickly recover until they reach the carrying capacity.

      • michael vassar

        The human carrying capacity pre-agriculture probably still went up and down over tens of thousands of years as ways of exploiting new prey species were discovered and the species were wiped out or nearly wiped out.

  • groo

    come on!

    Lascaux a whorehouse/cave?

    There probably has been a phallic age, but it seemed to be quite shortlived.

  • groo

    the common myth is, that hunters are the primitive predecessors of agrarians.

    So what is ‘primitive’ anyway?

    A different set of skills in the first place.

    Pilgrim fathers superior to the Indians of the Great Plains?

    The mighty force is what Mumford called the myth of the machine.

    And it is a force bigger than man.

    We rationalize it and worship it, and nowadays call it iPad.


  • groo

    the intrinsic feature of Mumfords ‘machine’ is complexity.

    Division of labour and all that.

    The city is the ancient repository of tools, where ‘might’ assembles structures (man-machines), which are mostly arbitrary.

    Complexity then grows and periodically collapses.
    Because nobody understands the whole edifice!

    Just look at our global economy, money system and so on.

    The role of intellectuals and philosophers –btw– should be, to hint at the vanity of the undertaking.
    Same as it ever was.

    Intrinsically ‘wise’ societies possibly had men and women who warned about that, and their people believed that.

    So Göbekli Tepe possibly was the culmination and turning-point of hunter-gatherer society.

    You understand the irony.

    Nowadays our self-professed intellectual leaders dream of the singularity, because they found out that there is no other way than with the head through the wall.
    Its byproduct is the promise of ‘eternal life’ for the adherents of the cult.

    Excuse me.
    How silly is that?

  • Matt

    When does a settlement become a city? If you game it so that it is specifically something that requires agricultural population density, then you’re not really going to find anything contrary to agriculture preceding cities (or else you are going to have a situation where your “cities” are sporadic developments where hunter-gatherer resources are especially plentiful and which may not fit into any general model of urban development).

    If you don’t have a pre-existing definition of city that distinguishes it from a settlement and that is not wholly of your own imagining prior to asking or even thinking about the question then you can’t meaningfully ask the question.

  • bruce

    Groo- got me on Lascaux. I think the one picture they call ‘guy with antlers and boner’ is really ‘guy with antlers dropping #2’.

    Still, how many old buildings had purposes we are sure of?

  • Mattyoung

    Wow! I need to think about this.

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