Trade and farming

An alternative view of the origins of farming

(I should mention that I can see some weaknesses with this argument now and suspect that active trading and traders may have been a later development. However, the consequences of down the line exchange, coupled with concentrations of wealth for groups who could supply food to others, may have been significant factors in the development of agriculture).

One of the main linking themes in the posts on this blog is the role of trade in the development of farming and, ultimately, civilisation. The idea is, apparently, not a new one. Something very similar was suggested by Jane Jacobs in 1969 and has recently been restated by Matt Ridley*. It may well be wrong. Many of the posts I’m writing are making the case for this idea. It would probably be just as easy to argue against it.

This page is to explain what the idea is. It’s the dry version. Some posts will outline the ideas here in less dry terms I hope.

Conventional views of farming

Traditional views of the advent of systematic farming suggest that it arose due to complicated causes. These include prestige, shortage of food, population rise, fear and, perhaps most traditionally, progress.

Many western archaeologists assume, perhaps rightly, that people have an innate desire to settle down. However, as hunter-gatherers they usually couldn’t because there generally wasn’t enough food in any one location to last them through the year.

Once farming was established there was a surplus of food to cover any hungry season. This allowed people to settle in one place. The surplus of food also allowed people to specialise. People therefore produced specialised goods which were tradeable.

The alternative view

The idea of farming itself was established for thousands of years across the world before it was taken up (see ‘Second Nature’ by Haim Ofek p190 for a climate-related reason why not). Hunter-gatherers might sometimes have tended their wild landscape to get the best out of it. However, systematic farming was both unnecessary and undesirable, being hard work and with very delayed returns.

I want to suggest here that settlement and specialisation came before farming. This meant that people needed to farm to provide for themselves. In this view there was not, at least initially, a surplus from farming, only a sufficiency to feed the settled population.

To me the real question is why did people settle in the first place? I suggest here that it was due to trade.

Trade routes

Trade routes are paths through the landscape or across seas along which goods are carried for exchange.

Traders are people who travel and work sections of the trade routes. At each end of their section they exchange the goods from the other end for new goods to take back. Due to the higher value of goods at their destination it is possible for a trader to better himself or herself from this trade. Traders can be nomadic or have fixed homes. (initially, there may have been simply down the line exchange, people meeting at designated ‘markets’ between settlements).

Any long-distance trade route in the past involved numerous traders, each operating small (one village?) sections of the route. Heavy goods only moved short distances along the trade route. The lightest, least perishable items might travel the entire length of the trade route.

Due to the labour involved, light items became rarer, and therefore  luxuries of increasing value the further they were carried. Individual traders were unaware of the distances that these individual items travelled along the trade routes. Few trade goods survive in the archaeological record. Goods that do tend to be solid, bulky items that are not part of long-distance trade.

Trading places

Throughout history, even before the start of systematic farming, trade has caused people to settle at certain key geographical points, known as “entrepots”. These are places where goods are exchanged and made or where taxes are charged on traders. They are also places where traders can be provisioned.

The most successful entrepots occur along trade routes that are difficult to avoid so that all traders are forced to use them. On land these trade routes could be rivers or ridges passing through deserts or dense forests. They could also be mountain passes or lines of oases. At sea they could be straits or well-located chains of islands.

In terms of their exact position of entrepots along the trade routes, they can be at changes of terrain, necessitating a change of transport method. (e.g. a port, the highest navigable point on a river, the boundary between flat land and mountains). (best entrepots would be a places where trade routes converged too - 13 June 2012)

Alternatively they can be at a cultural boundary, necessitating a change of trader (e.g. due to religious differences). Sometimes entrepots are located at the only habitable points along the route, acting as supply stations.

Localised population crisis

People come to entrepots to do different things: they could themselves be traders, moving along the trade routes. They could be resident middlemen, controlling the trade through selling on goods or taking dues. They could well be artisans, either resident or itinerant, who make their living by increasing the value of commodities on the route, e.g. by shaping them or using them as raw materials for something more valuable. All people, even beggars, come to the entrepots to better themselves.

If an entrepot attracts a limited number of people or the land or water around it is highly fertile (e.g. with nuts, grains or fish) then the people can continue to practise hunting and gathering. However, if the population of the entrepot grows and the environment is not so abundant then this is when systematic farming becomes a necessity. People specialise as farmers to supply the needs of the others. These farmers also aim to better themselves.

The domestication of animals also allows nomadic pastoralist groups, wandering animal herders, to come into existence. They can act as (not always trustworthy) guides and food providers for traders over longer distances. Alternatively they can use their animals as movable wealth to trade for valuable goods that can be exchanged for more animals at the other end of their range. Either way, they gain through trade.

Satellite trade and conflict

Increased population at an entrepot requires either geographical expansion or intensification of farming. Both require dedicated farming populations and these are located in satellite villages and hamlets around entrepots. Because they are suppliers of food to the entrepots they become secondary consumers of trade goods in exchange, opening up new, mini trade routes radiating away from the entrepot. This creates what’s known as a “core-periphery” pattern around entrepots (the core). If the process involves geographical expansion it inevitably leads to conflict with existing hunter-gatherers in the area being expanded into.

As surrounding hunter-gatherers and nomads see and desire the wealth generated by trade in the entrepots they may either want to become part of that wealth by joining or conquering the people in the entrepots. On the other hand, they may want to get that wealth through raiding the entrepots or stealing from the traders along the routes.

An entrepot has a vested interest in defending itself but also securing its trade supplies. This involves defending the local sections of the trade route from bandits and also, possibly, taking over other entrepots nearby to guarantee “fair” exchange rates. This is the start of empire building. Whilst this results in conflict it makes the trade routes safer.

Changes with time

As technology advances new types of transport allow travel times to decrease and shorter routes to be taken. Better agricultural methods allow the cultivation of previously uncultivatable areas (e.g. irrigation of the Euphrates and Indus valleys). The results are that trade routes change, new entrepots form and old entrepots grow or die.

The advent of nomads, of route security and of provisions improves the ease of trading. This increases the wealth of the entrepots, causing the further expansion of farming and hence the demand for trade goods. These mechanisms act to provide positive feedback encouraging the further growth of trade and of the entrepots. This mechanism ultimately leads to the establishment of the first cities and to the growth of the trade routes.

In this view I draw no distinction between the first village settlements and the first cities. I see them simply as a matter of degree. The larger the settlement the more need there is for centralised control, bureaucracy and stratification of society. (I think I would now disagree with this statement – 26/11/11)

Other thoughts: colonisation and language

The expansion of some languages and language families is perhaps the result of trade. Traders control their supply lines through the establishment of colonies along the trade routes. The success of trading colonies tends to change the local balance in favour of the new language. Once trade routes collapse the languages are often left (along with some percentage of DNA from the original colonists) and these can splinter into more localised languages.* (I suspect that this view may be hokum – 13/06/12)

The nature of historical thought*

Currently the nature of world trade and technology means that it is almost impossible to distinguish the ‘core-periphery’ style of necessity trade (e.g. food) with luxury trade (e.g. electronics). The two have, essentially, merged into one global trade system. Modern writers cannot see the distinction for this reason. Even by Adam Smith’s time the difference was becoming blurred.

Ancient writers were perhaps unaware of much of the trade that was going on around them. Those who wrote for kings did not want to raise the grubby subject of trade with their leaders and so didn’t mention it either. This is one of the reasons that we have such a distorted view of history.

*Italics are changes made 5th July 2010, 20th November 2010 and after


Jacobs, J. 1969 The Economy of Cities, Random House, pp288.

Michailido, A. & Dogan, I. B. 2008 Trading in prehistory and protohistory: Perspectives from the eastern Aegean and beyond. Meletimata 53: Sailing in the Aegean, Readings on the economy and trade routes, p17-53.

Ridley, M. 2010 The Rational Optimist – How Prosperity Evolves, Harper Collins, pp448.

Ofek, H. 2001 Second Nature, Cambridge, pp254.

Additional References

Sherratt, A. 2005 The origins of farming in South-west Asia, Archatlas (online)

I do believe I might not have bothered to start this blog if I’d seen this page earlier. Andrew Sherratt seems to have had a profound understanding of this problem, as shown by this webpage. Sadly he died less than a year after posting this.