April 18, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

John Bader
27th April, 2022

It’s funny to think that current complex societal hierarchies and civilizations once depended on what type of food they produced and stored. According to multiple data sets, it’s most likely to be the case, and cereal produce is the secret ingredient to a great civilisation. 

The conventional hypothesis relating the rise of civilisations to farming has been around for ages. The hypothesis is based on the “productivity-and-surplus” explanation for the emergence of hierarchies and civilisations. The explanation highlights the importance of surplus in produce in driving the development of a civilization. The more food produced, the more likely a civilisation would develop. 

However, this view has been contested by a number of researchers claiming that it is not about the amount of food, rather about its appropriability, its capacity to be stored or hoarded. The comparison is carried out between regions where cereal, like maize and wheat, is the main produce, as opposed to roots and tubers, like potatoes and yams. 

Cereal crops have higher appropriability than roots and tubers, since they can be stored for longer periods. Thus, creating an “elite” layer of the society that has the capacity to store the produce and tax it later on. The new hypothesis posits that regions with cereal as the main produce have developed into complex civilisations with hierarchical societies beyond basic chiefdom. 

“Using these novel data, we were able to show that complex hierarchies, like complex chiefdoms and states, arose in areas in which cereal crops, which are easy to tax and to expropriate, were de-facto the only available crops.”

Economist Luigi Pascali from Pompeu Fabra University in Spain. 

The hypothesis is backed by multiple examples of regions where this pattern applies. One of which is the Fertile Crescent, a region spanning over modern-time Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. This region was highly dependent on cereal crops and is said to be the cradle of human civilization. 

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Well, turns out, we actually are what we eat!

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John Bader is the News Editor for I,Science and is studying an MSc in Science Media Production at Imperial College London