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Centers of Progress, Pt. 1: Jericho (Agriculture)

Blog Post | Economic Growth

Centers of Progress, Pt. 1: Jericho (Agriculture)

Neolithic Jericho was the site of two decisive events in the history of civilization: permanent settlement and the beginnings of agriculture.

Today marks the launch of a new series of articles by HumanProgress.org called Centers of Progress. Where does progress happen? The story of civilization is in many ways the story of the city. It is the city that has helped to create and define the modern world. This bi-weekly column will give a short overview of urban centers that were the sites of pivotal advances in culture, economics, politics, technology, etc.

Our first Center of Progress is Jericho. Jericho is thought by many scholars to be the worlds oldest city. It was first settled sometime around 9000 BC. The people who lived in Jericho and surrounding areas may have been among the first humans to give up their hunter-gatherer ways, domesticate plants and become farmers.

The invention of agriculture, often called the First Agricultural Revolution or the Neolithic Revolution, was a decisive turning point in our species’ history. It dramatically changed the way that we live. By producing a surplus of food that could be stored for difficult times ahead or traded for other goods, agriculture ultimately allowed for far greater prosperity than hunting and gathering ever could.

Today, Jericho is a tourist-oriented city in the Jordan River Valley and is frequented by religious pilgrims and history buffs. It is relatively small, with a population of just over 20,000 people. The city is located in a natural oasis in the desert, thus earning its nickname in the Hebrew Bible—the City of Palm Trees. The city is home to various cafes selling shawarma and falafel, as well as many historic ruins. Jericho is also the site of near-constant archeological digs, as we try to deepen our knowledge of the citys past.

If you were to visit Neolithic Jericho, you may have been able to observe two decisive events in the history of civilization: permanent settlement and the beginnings of agriculture.

Imagine a group of hunter-gatherers—dubbed Natufians” by todays archeologists—walking through the wilderness. They would have carried hunting weapons such as spears, and they would have worn leather made from the hides of mountain gazelles and beaded jewelry made of gazelle bones. They would have carried food and supplies in baskets and animal skins. They would also have had domesticated dogs walking alongside them, perhaps looking something like the modern-day basenji hound.

You would have seen them coming upon a natural oasis bursting with freshwater springs in the middle of the wilderness and settling down to rest. You would have watched this group of hunter-gatherers coming to a momentous decision as they resolved, perhaps after some spirited discussion in a long-dead language, to build a permanent camp at the oasis and end their nomadic wanderings.

Of course, the decision was probably gradual, with the Natufians camping out at the oasis for longer and longer periods each year, until the settlement became their home year-round. But at some point, the decision was made to remain there permanently. In any case, the Natufians built a number of semi-subterranean oval-shaped stone dwellings to form a village that would grow into the worlds first city. Thus the story of Jericho began.

The first people to inhabit what would become Jericho had long survived by hunting animals such as gazelles, and eating wild cereals and other wild plants. But a shift in the climate, which became less rainy and more desert-like, may have helped to prompt a change in the Natufian survival strategy.

How did that happen? Maybe the Natufians noticed that edible plants sprouted in places where those plants’ seeds had been scattered before. Perhaps inspired by that observation, an enterprising individual (or multiple individuals) must have, at some point, proposed deliberately planting the seeds of the plants that the Natufians ate. When the Natufians began to plant seeds intentionally, they set humanity on a new course.

The Natufians are often called the first farmers. Although there is no expert consensus on precisely where in the Fertile Crescent agriculture first appeared, Jericho was certainly among the earliest communities to practice agriculture. The oldest archaeological remains of domesticated barley, rye and early forms of wheat are found in human Neolithic sites in the Fertile Crescent, such as the Natufian settlement where Jericho is today. Evidence of domesticated figs has also been found near Jericho dating to around 9400 BC.

The worlds first farmers were patient and innovative. Consider wheat. They discovered how to selectively breed wild emmer grass so that the plants seeds would not fall off of its stalks when the grass became ripe, making collection of the seeds far easier. They used the seeds to make bread, and what started as just another kind of grass, gradually became what we now know as wheat. Today, according to Yale University, twenty percent of the worlds total calorie consumption comes from wheat.

Researchers disagree as to how much credit ought to be given to the conscious efforts of the early farmers. “One controversy in this area is about the extent to which ancient peoples knew they were domesticating crops,” noted University of Sheffield plant scientist Colin Osborne. “Did they know they were breeding domestication characteristics into crops, or did these characteristics just evolve as the first farmers sowed wild plants into cultivated soil, and tended and harvested them?” he continued.

In addition to bread, the Natufians also enjoyed beer and some researchers believe that the production of alcoholic beverages made from fermented cereals may have served as one of the motivations underlying early agriculture.

Whatever their motivation, the first Jerichoans became farmers, and were thus able to produce enough food to eventually leave their old hunter-gatherer lifestyle behind. Selectively breeding plants would prove to be a painstakingly slow process, and perhaps for centuries the people of Jericho may have continued to supplement their agricultural food production with hunting and gathering.

As agriculture advanced, the people still hunted gazelles and other game animals, but the grains they planted, harvested and stored yearly increased their food security. One day, there was no longer any need to forage for wild plants, beginning a new chapter in human history.

Over the centuries, the residents of Jericho became increasingly adept at farming. The Jerichoans went on to cultivate many other plants and develop an irrigation system, and their harvests grew larger. They soon had enough food to store for lean times and to trade. But with such productivity came a danger—the threat that nearby nomadic tribes would raid the city and rob Jerichos granaries with their large stores of food.

To fend off raiders, the people of Jericho built the oldest known protective wall in the world, perhaps dating to around 8000 BC. At that point, Jerichos population had probably reached 2,000 people or so. For perspective, that’s about as many people as the current population of the rural town of Victor, Idaho. For its time, however, Jericho must have felt like a bustling metropolis. (Recall that there were fewer than 10 million people in the entire world back then, roughly equivalent to the current population of Portugal).

Producing a surplus of food allowed for some specialization of economic activities: not everyone had to be a farmer, freeing people to pursue other projects. The wall’s construction could not have been accomplished without some degree of specialization. The stone wall stood over 11 feet high, and in addition to defending the city, the wall may also have served to protect the city from floods.

There is some evidence that the walls accompanying 28-foot-high cone-shaped stone tower, also built around 8000 BC, served a symbolic purpose rather than a practical one. The tower is not well-positioned to serve as a defensive lookout. But computer models show that back when the tower was built, the nearby mountains would cast a shadow on it just as the sun set on the longest day of the year—the summer solstice. The shadow would fall precisely on the tower and then spread out to cover all of ancient Jericho.

So, the tower may have served as a warning: its growing shadow let the people of Jericho know that the days ahead were about to start becoming shorter and the nights longer. Agricultural activities such as planting and harvesting are intimately linked to different seasons in the year, and so, to the largely agrarian community of Jericho, marking the summer solstice likely held great significance. The solstice may have been observed as a day of importance, whether as a celebratory festival or a day of solemnity.

The tower also may have symbolized power or authority. Transitioning from hunting and gathering to becoming an agricultural society entailed a transformation in how people related to one another: whereas hunter-gatherer tribes tended to be egalitarian (i.e., lacking in hierarchy), the more specialized and complex society that emerged in Jericho brought with it a new set of social power dynamics. Grave sites show that the first Jerichoans observed differences in rank, with some individuals buried alongside valuable goods such as shell jewelry and others occupying simpler graves.

“This was a time when hierarchy began and leadership was established,” according to Tel Aviv University archeologist Ran Barkai, one of the researchers behind the discovery of the connection between the Tower of Jericho and the summer solstice. “We believe this tower [by acting as a symbol of power and authority] was one of the mechanisms to motivate people to take part in a communal lifestyle,” he continued.

Today, Jericho is perhaps best-known due to the role it played in Biblical times. It is the place that the ancient Israelites are purported to have conquered in 1400 BC, after escaping from slavery in Egypt. The well-known song about the Battle of Jericho, covered by musical icons ranging from Bing Crosby to Elvis Presley, was first composed in the 19th-century United States by enslaved African-Americans. The songs subject, about a previously enslaved people triumphant in battle, and its chorus, proclaiming that Jerichos walls came tumbling down,” both alluded to the songwriters’ own desire for freedom.

Thus the city of Jericho became a symbol of freedom in popular culture many thousands of years after that city helped to free humanity from foraging for food in the wilderness. The transition to agriculture was likely a difficult and patience-testing process, upending the Natufians’ previous way of life and altering their social structure, but the payoff has been a level of food security beyond what our hunter-gatherer ancestors could have imagined.

For being the worlds oldest city and possibly the birthplace of agriculture, Neolithic-era Jericho deserves to be recognized as our first Center of Progress.

Blog Post | Economic Growth

Hunger in Retreat, but Not in Socialist Venezuela

The global numbers are heartening, but Venezuela serves as a warning.

A shocking statistic has come to light: Venezuelans lost 19 pounds on average over the past year because of food shortages.

There was a time when hunger was a near-universal experience. As Kevin D. Williamson put it, “Not long ago, the great dream and aspiration of most of the people walking this Earth was to have enough to eat, for themselves and for their children, and to be liberated from worrying about whether they would eat again tomorrow or the next day.”

Then, something changed. Exchange and specialization helped bring down food prices. A burst of innovations called the Green Revolution led to higher agricultural productivity and decreased food priceseven further. Even as the world’s population grew, the market ensured that the supply of food rose to meet growing demand.

The global numbers are heartening. The share of the world’s population suffering from hunger is shrinking. Despite population growth, the total number of undernourished persons is lower as well. Even those who are food-deprived are less severely malnourished than in the past. Humanity now produces more than enough food to theoretically feed everyone on Earth the recommended 2,000 calories per day.

Hunger was declining in Venezuela too until recently. The percentage of Venezuela’s population suffering from undernourishment fell from 14% in 1991 to “5% or lower” in 2015, the latest year for which the United Nations has data. Since then, the situation has rapidly deteriorated. In a single year, the number of cases of severely undernourished children in Venezuela’s capital city, Caracas, doubled.

The reason? Venezuela’s socialist economic policies, briefly sustained by fleeting high oil prices, led to hyperinflation and a societal collapse. If Venezuela continues on its present course, hunger is likely to become more widespread.

We can all be thankful that undernourishment has become rarer globally. But the case of Venezuela demonstrates that progress is not inevitable—suicidal economic policies, like socialism, can rapidly extinguish the prosperity we enjoy.

The first appeared in Cato at Liberty.

Blog Post | Food & Hunger

How We Are Beating Hunger in 5 Graphs

Here are five charts summarizing the incredible progress that humanity has made against hunger.

It can be hard to remember that even in wealthy countries, food has not always been abundant, and in many parts of the world hunger remains a problem. Fortunately, we are making great headway towards solving it. Here are five charts summarizing the incredible progress that humanity has made against hunger.

1. According to data from the United Nations, as recently as 1992, over a quarter of the world’s population was undernourished. Since then, a dramatic decline in hunger has occurred, particularly in places like China where economic liberalization has led to rapid development. In 2015, the share of the world population suffering from undernourishment had fallen to about 18 percent, while in China it had fallen even further, to less than 10 percent.

Hunger graph 1

2. Not only do fewer people go hungry as a share of the population, but the total number of people suffering from hunger has also declined. Despite population growth, the number of undernourished persons has fallen from over 950 million in 1992 to about 685 million in 2015. That’s almost 270 million fewer undernourished people or a 28 percent reduction. China saw a more dramatic reduction of 51 percent. In 2015, 150 million fewer Chinese were undernourished than in 1992.

Hunger graph 2

3. And even those who are malnourished are less severely malnourished. The average caloric shortfall among food-deprived persons (i.e., the number of calories by which they come up short of their daily requirement) has been shrinking. In 1992, a malnourished person typically consumed around 170 fewer calories per day than they needed. In China, the malnourished consumed 190 calories less than needed, on average. By 2015, the shortfall had decreased to about 100 calories worldwide and only 85 calories in China.

Hunger graph 3

4. How has all of this progress been possible? In order to decrease hunger and feed a growing population, humanity has stepped up to the challenge by producing more food. The amount of food produced per person worldwide is now 20 percent greater than what it was back in 2005. And back in 2005 it was almost double of what it was back in 1961. Thanks to the Green Revolution and subsequent innovations, crop yields (i.e., the amount of food produced per unit of land) have also risen. By producing more food per hectare, we are able to spare more land for other uses and better preserve the environment. Consider cereal yields:

Hunger graph 4

5. Importantly, as the food supply has risen, the cost of food has also fallen, on average. The price index shown below has been adjusted for inflation and represents a composite of eighteen crop and livestock prices weighted by their share of global agricultural trade. Despite an uptick in food prices since 2001, the long-term trend is clearly one of decline. Today, the cost of food is less than half of what it was back in 1900.

Hunger graph 5

This article first appeared in CapX. 

Blog Post | Economic Growth

Central Planning and Hunger: a Quick Reminder

6 out of the 10 worst famines of the 20th century happened in socialist countries

Socialism is back in vogue, especially among America’s college-educated youth. They are too young to remember the Cold War and few study history. It is, therefore, timely to remind the millennials of what socialism wrought – especially in some of the world’s poorest countries.

Those of us who remember the early 1980s will always remember the images of starving Ethiopian children. With bellies swollen by kwashiorkor and eyes covered with flies, these were the innocent victims of the Derg – a group of Marxist militants who took over the Ethiopian government and used starvation to subdue unruly parts of the country.

Between 1983 and 1985, some 400,000 people starved to death. In 1984, Derg earmarked 46 percent of the gross domestic product for military spending, thereby creating the largest standing army in Africa. In contrast, spending on health fell from 6 percent of GDP in 1973 to 3 percent in 1990.

Predictably, the Derg blamed the ensuing famine on drought, although the rains failed many months after the food shortages began. In 1991, the Derg was overthrown and its leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam, escaped to Zimbabwe, where he lives, under government protection and at the taxpayers’ expense, to this day.

Marian Tupy March 1

Speaking of Zimbabwe, in 1999, Robert Mugabe, the 92-year-old Marxist dictator who came to power in 1980, embarked on a catastrophic “land reform” program. The program saw the nationalization of privately-held farmland and the expulsion of non-African farmers and businessmen. The result was a collapse of agricultural output, the second highest hyperinflation in recorded history that peaked at 89.7 sextillion or 89,700,000,000,000,000,000,000 percent per year and an unemployment rate of 94 percent.

Thousands of Zimbabweans died of hunger and disease despite massive international help. As was the case in Ethiopia, the government of Zimbabwe blamed the weather, stole much of the aid money, and denied food and medicine to its political opponents. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

I was reminded of that parade of horribles when I came across Benjamin Zycher’s table of the greatest famines of the 20th century. As Zycher notes, six out of the 10 worst famines happened in socialist countries. Other famines, including those in Nigeria, Somalia and Bangladesh, were partly a result of war and partly a result of a government’s economic mismanagement.

Marian Tupy March 2

The American students growing interested in “socialism” today are too young to remember what the world actually looked like the last time socialism held sway. In their lifetimes, famine has all but disappeared. Today, there is not a single ongoing case of famine in the world – not even in war-torn places like Syria.

Why did famines disappear? First, because agricultural production is at an all-time high and food has been getting cheaper, not dearer. Between 1960 and 2015, the world’s population increased by 143 percent. Over the same time period, the price of food has gone down by 22 percent. Second, humanity has grown richer and can afford to buy more food. Over the last 55 years, the real average annual per capita income in the world rose by 163 percent. Third, communications and transport have massively improved and it is now possible to deliver food aid anywhere in the world in a relatively short time. Fourth, globalization and trade ensure that food can be purchased by anyone, anywhere.

Africa has been the main beneficiary of that salutary development. In 1961, Africans consumed 1,993 calories per person per day. In 2011, which is the last year for which the World Bank provides data, they consumed 2,618 calories. Globally, food consumption increased from 2,196 calories to 2,870 calories. Even in Ethiopia, food consumption has increased. In 1993, two years after the overthrow of the Derg, Ethiopians consumed 1,508 calories per person per day. In 2013, they consumed 2,131 calories.

Zimbabwe, which still suffers from Marxist rule, has not been so lucky. In 1961, Zimbabweans consumed 2,115 calories per person per day. By 2013, that number fell to 2,110.Wherever it has been tried, from the Soviet Union in 1917 to Venezuela in 2015, socialism has failed. Socialists have promised a utopia marked by equality and abundance. Instead, they have delivered tyranny and starvation. Young Americans should keep that in mind.

This post was originally published in CapX.