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April 03, 2005

Humans, Neanderthals, and free trade

An interesting new article on TechCentralStation has been posted that discusses the paper, "How Trade Saved Humanity from Biological Exclusion: An Economic Theory of Neanderthal Extinction" (paper is 240 kb, but the server is slow, so give it time). In a good summary of the paper, Jackson Kuhl writes:

To demonstrate that trade might be an innovation that gave humans a competitive advantage, the authors assumed that the primary food of both humans and Neanderthals was meat harvested by hunting. Additionally, they assumed there was a finite amount of available meat ("animal units") for which they both competed. In addition to a non-trading scenario, three trading scenarios develop among humans: one in which skilled hunters hunt and unskilled hunters both hunt and produce other goods; one in which skilled hunters hunt and unskilled hunters only produce other goods; and another in which skilled hunters hunt and produce other goods while unskilled hunters only produce other goods.

In the economists' model, "other goods" may include everything from shelter, clothing, fire, and tools to even intangible services like the spiritual advice and comfort provided by a shaman. Any surplus meat not consumed by the skilled hunters is assumed to go to the unskilled hunters in exchange for their "other goods."

In the latter two scenarios, the authors show that meat consumption rises because the specialization of unskilled hunters solely producing other goods frees the skilled hunters to hunt more. Assuming that increased meat consumption leads to increased fertility which leads to more people hunting, humans who adopted either of these two strategies could have replaced Neanderthals in just a few millennia, even if a biological bias favoring Neanderthals is calculated into the equation.

In a short news article about the paper, "Did Use of Free Trade Cause Neanderthal Extinction?," the authors of the paper state that...

Early humans, the Aurignations and the Gravettians, imported many raw materials over long ranges and their innovations were widely dispersed. Such exchanges of goods and ideas helped early humans to develop “supergroup social mechanisms.” The long-range interchange among different groups kept both cultures going and generated new cultural explosions, Shogren says.

Anthropologists have noted how judicious redistribution of excess resources provides a distinct advantage to “efficient hunters” as measured by factors such as increased survivorship, social prestige, or reproductive opportunities, the researchers say.

“One of the striking features of the archaeological record is that Neanderthal technology was nearly stationary for many thousands of years whereas technology of early humans experienced many innovations,” Shogren says.

So, to put it in the words of Mike Linksvayer, "Anti-trade economics is Neanderthal Economics," and "Anyone who advocates restriction on trade is an Economic Neanderthal."

Hat tips: Arnold Kling

Posted by Arcane at 09:59 PM