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November 16, 2003

History far & wide

I earlier made an allusion to the fact that I recently read The Human Web by William & John McNeill. It was a short but dense book-and the ideas are rich enough that I'm still processing them and so delaying a book review. But here is one nugget of information that I found fascinating:

  • Why is it that the highlanders of Papua New Guniea never developed complex and centralized polities despite high population densities due to their gardening cultivation system? The answer: unlike grains, garden crops can not be dried and stored in centralized locations easily (they must be consumed quickly). In other words, excess production could not be siphoned off to cities which could serve as a parasitic nexus for a central polity!

That is the sort of history that is interesting-rather than dates of battles or the events in one day in 1941....

Update: Here is the exact quote from page 34:

Yet even if tropical gardening antedated grainfields by thousands of years, as seems likely, it remained comparatively insignificant for human history as a whole. That is because tropical tropical gardeners leave roots and fruits where they grow until ready for consumption. Grains that ripen all at once must be harvested and stored; and the consequent availability of concentrated supplies of food in farmers' storage bins and jars made the rise of states and cities possible. Priests and soldiers could demand and get part of the grain harvest from those who had raised it as a price for protection from supernatural and human harm. But without storage, massive and regular transfer of food from farmers to city folk was impracticable, inhibiting social and occupational differentiation. Consequently, the specialized skills of urban life could not arise on the basis of tropical gardening, however productive it might be.

My paraphrase initially was incorrect in the emphasis. Though tropical garnders could store their yield, they were not compelled to by the nature of the crop as much as grain farmers. Therefore, they were protected from the rise of extorting ruling classes as they were not easy targets for reallocation and seizure. Of course, this short term freedom came at the price of eventual conquest and domination by societies that were mobilized by extorting elites toward wars of conquest and expansionism to acquire more surplus goods.

Posted by razib at 07:57 PM