Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Cereal crops vs root crops in the development of civilization

Did the potato and other root crops hinder the development of complex societies among those who cultivated it? A group of economists present a case that they did in a recent article, "The sinister, secret history of a food that everybody loves," in the Washington Post. Their thesis in short is that when cereal grains are harvested at the end of a growing season their storage attracts thieves. Those who grow the crop want it protected. Because the stored crop is easily taxed, it encourages the rise of a protector class. Thus cereal crops provide both the demand for protection and the supply of protection. Root crops, on the other hand, are not harvested and stored but are dug and used as needed. Without storage bins full of wealth, there is less temptation for thieves because they would have work digging a crop and they cannot store it. Hence, the demand for protection is less and the way to finance that protection is also more difficult. The result is that societies that grew cereal crops developed complexity and hierarchy that the societies that grew root crops did not.

This is a logical way for economists to view the issue. Not all anthropologists are convinced.

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