Bowles and co-author Jung-Kyoo Choi, an economist at Kyungpook National University in South Korea, use both evolutionary game theory and archaeological evidence to propose a new interpretation1 of the Neolithic. Based on their model, a system of mutually recognized private property rights was both a precondition for farming and also a means of limiting costly conflicts among members of a population. While rare among foragers, private property did exist among a few groups of sedentary hunter-gatherers. Among them, farming could have benefited the first adopters because it would have been easier to establish the private possession of cultivated crops and domesticated animals than for the diffuse wild resources on which hunter-gatherers relied.
"It is a lot easier to define and defend property rights in a domesticated cow than in a wild kudu," says Choi. "Farming initially succeeded because it facilitated a broader application of private property rights, not because it lightened the toil of making a living."
- 1. Prior studies, including those of human and animal bones, suggest that farming actually took an extreme nutritional toll on early adopters and their livestock. So why farm in the first place?
Some have suggested an inferior technology could have been imposed by political elites as a strategy for extracting taxes, tribute, or rents. But farming was independently adopted millennia before the emergence of governments or political elites capable of imposing a new way of life on heavily-armed foraging communities.
Samuel Bowles et al, The Neolithic Agricultural Revolution and the Origins of Private Property, Journal of Political Economy (2018).
Familiar explanations of why hunter-gatherers first took up farming—superior labor productivity, population pressure, or adverse climate—receive little support from recent evidence. Farming would be an unlikely choice without possession-based private property, which appears to have existed among rare groups of sedentary hunter-gatherers who became the first farmers. Our model shows that among them, farming could have benefited first adopters because private possession was more readily established and defended for cultivated crops and domesticated animals than for the diffuse wild resources on which hunter-gatherers relied, thus explaining how farming could have been introduced even without a productivity advantage.