Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A vignette of early--very early--rural life

This piece from NPR's Salt blog provides a glimpse of the how and why of early (we're talking 12,000) years ago) rural societies. The story, by Rhitu Chatterjee, doesn't use the word "rural," instead referring to early farmers.  The story contrasts societies which relied on farming with nomadic, hunter-gatherer societies.  I realize that nomadic hunter-gatherers might also be commonly thought of as rural, at least by those who conflate "rural" with wilderness and the natural.   But this depiction is of a different type of society--one more akin to what I think of as rural, with villages or what we now call small towns.

Chatterjee is reporting here on the findings of Samuel Bowles, director of the Behavioral Sciences Program at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico.  The tale is one of how hunter-gatherers evolved into farmers.  Turns out that early farmers were descendants of hunter-gatherers who had ceased to be nomadic--and had therefore become rural.  They settled in fertile places where food was abundant and so they began to store the excess.  They lived in small population clusters, owning houses and "other objects ... jewelry, boats and a range of tools."
These societies had seen the value of owning stuff — they were already recognizing "private property rights," says Bowles. That's a big transition from nomadic cultures, which by and large don't recognize individual property. 
But when tough times came--maybe weather or animal migration routes changed--Bowles says, the communities had to choose between returning to the nomadic life or "stay[ing] put in villages they had built and 'us[ing] their knowledge of seeds and how they grow, and the possibility of domesticating animals.'"

Bowles believes that those who stayed put did so in large part because raising children is easier when you aren't on the move.  Recognition of private property played a role, too.  In a simulation using mathematical models, Bowles and a colleague found that "farming evolved only in groups that recognized private property rights."

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