Jane Jacobs, agriculture and a model for ancient civilisations

by Edward Pegler on 18 December, 2010

A summary of Jane Jacobs’ economy of cities and a briefly applying some of the book’s ideas to European prehistory.

Jane Jacobs is perhaps best known for her book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” in the early 1960s. She is less well known for her 1969 book “The Economy of Cities”. However this book, brought to my attention by a comment in Matt Ridley’s “The Rational Optimist” last summer, is a fascinating argument for why cities grow and contract.

My original reason for taking an interest in her book was Jacobs’ explanation for the origin of agriculture. This idea has some common ground with mine (see Trade and Farming), but was written down forty years ago. However, the book has much more to offer than that one measly idea. The aim of this post is to summarise the books’ arguments as I understand them and to discuss some of their implications for prehistory.

The argument in ‘The Economy of Cities’

Jacobs’ arguments, as far as I can tell, can be summarised by the following points:

1) The creation of all new goods, whether technological breakthroughs or fashions, originates in cities, not in the countryside. This is due to large numbers of people in cities and their demand for novelties and cheaper products.

2) The growth of a city comes about due to continuously creating new types of work in that city. Simply continuing to mass-produce the same small range of goods leads only to stagnation or even contraction when demand for those goods disappears.

3) New types of work in a city result from people experimenting with and (sometimes by chance) finding new opportunities to sell stuff. These opportunities are often nothing to do with what the people did before. This process is very inefficient and has a high chance of failure. Large corporations and company towns, which are generally highly efficient with extreme division of labour, are very bad at creating new and different sorts of things to sell.

4) The new types of work result from individuals supplying the needs of the city itself – whether clothing, food, inventions or waste-disposal. The industries only inadvertently create items or inventions for export. However, it is the export of these items that creates the wealth. Trying to plan what a city exports doesn’t work.

5) Cities can prosper almost anywhere, as long as the conditions for growth (i.e. small, inefficient businesses generating new work) are met. They do not have to be in any special place.$

Jacobs’ believed that if cities were allowed to be inefficient and with many competing businesses (i.e. without being dominated by any one industry) they would generate more and more work, with small businesses budding off small businesses. Hence these cities would continue growing.

The origin of agriculture – cities first

Jacobs argued that perhaps the first great example of the process of creating new work was the invention of agriculture and animal husbandry. ‘Cities’ developed this industry due to the need to feed people in the ‘city’*. Eventually this technology was exported to other places, including the countryside.

Jacobs’ reasons for saying this was that she saw the countryside itself as a passive receiver of ideas. Lack of population pressure means that new industries don’t need to be developed in the countryside. Therefore the countryside gets its technology and industry, and much of its work, from cities. As a result of this, Jacobs argued that when local cities disappear the technology of the countryside, unsupported, can disappear with it.

The reason why people are reluctant to consider such a radical idea, Jacobs argued, is due to the influence of the Bible on people’s thinking. So if Genesis said that farming came first and cities later then that’s how people viewed the past. She particularly singled out Adam Smith in this respect, saying that his ideas, which were influenced by the Bible, have heavily influenced people’s view of economics ever since.

Discussion: Bronze age redistributive economies

Most academics argue for what’s known as a ‘redistributive economy’ or ‘palace economy’ in the Bronze age cities of Mesopotamia, Anatolia and Crete. This means people working for a master, the king, to produce food and craft goods which they then hand to the king and his bureaucrats. In return the king ‘pays’ the people, usually in food. It is the king who controls imports and exports to and from the city. The making of luxury goods is conducted by palace-employed craftsmen and women.

However using Jacobs’ model this would effectively make the early cities of Mesopotamia like company towns. Their efficiency would cause them to stagnate, not grow. Yet all the archaeological evidence shows that these cities grew substantially. Jacobs’ would read this as evidence for small-scale private enterprises creating new work, not highly controlled redistribution.

Inventing the wheel

Academics often ask the question “where was X invented?”, this applies to agriculture, the wheel, metallurgy, horse-riding and many other things. Jane Jacobs would have given an unequivocal answer to that – in cities.

*Obviously in the case of inventing agriculture you’re back in the late Palaeolithic, when there’s no such thing as a city, so if you take her literally she must be wrong. However, there are settlements such as those of the Natufian Levant, which were probably the largest in the world at the time. Jacob’s argued that these were the equivalents of cities at the time. Personally, I think that’s reasonable.

In the case of the wheel and horse-riding there have been repeated claims, based in part on archaeological evidence, that these arose in the Asian Steppe. If Jacobs’ arguments are right then it’s far more likely that such things arose in the equivalents of cities, such as existed in Mesopotamia, Anatolia, ‘Old Europe’ and a few other sites . This may be important when weighing up arguments about the Indo-European language problem.

Equally, the origins of copper smelting metallurgy have been hotly disputed, with some arguing for multiple origins, some (including, cautiously, me) a single origin in the Balkans, and others arguing for an origin in either Anatolia or Iran. If Jacobs’ logic is applied, then looking for a large settlement at the time of the origin of copper smelting (around 5500-5000BC) should help. For example, Çatalhöyük in Anatolia (7500BC to 5500BC) could just about fit the bill. However, that would have been a reason for it’s economic growth, not it’s collapse at this time.

Ancient economic stagnation

Finally, could there be evidence of economic stagnation in prehistory?

The rise and fall of the Balkan copper age economies of ‘Old Europe’ could be an example. If, say, they were based on the export of just copper and gold, then the subsequent rise of other centres producing their own copper and gold may well have caused the Balkan economies to wither around the early fourth millennium.

Similar arguments could perhaps be applied to many backward steps in the Neolithic economies of Europe and elsewhere. For example the demise of the LBK cultures of northern Europe in the fifth millennium or the retreat of agriculture in Britain after a surge in the fourth millennium.

Equally, some form of economic stagnation might have led to the collapse of various early states at the end of the Bronze age. For example, Linear B archives from late Minoan period Crete seem to show excessive centralisation of power at this time and this may have led to stagnation and collapse of the Minoan economy.


As far as I can tell, even though Jacobs’ “Economy of Cities” is becoming better known amongst economists, it’s still not on many university reading lists. Personally, I think that if it were put on the reading lists of archaeology students at university that might be a good thing.


Jacobs, J. 1970 The Economy of Cities, Jonathan Cape, p288.

Ridley, M. 2010 The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, Fourth Estate, pp488.

Smith, A. 1776 The Wealth of Nations


This replaces an earlier post which I junked.

*City is used in the loosest sense here.

$ If you read the ‘trade and farming‘ page you’ll see that I don’t really agree with this point, at least for the ancient world.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Geoff Carter January 4, 2011 at 8:22 pm

Kick ’em out of the Libraries, and get them digging, preferably in the winter; [as long as it’s not anything important, as they have had very little practice].
I often wonder at the influence of student excavations that involve camping and sitting around camp fires in unfamiliar rural surroundings;
“it gives you a strong impression of what it must have been like for people living here thousands of years ago . . . . . . . .strange, primitive, and spooky man!”

[Ned, please excuse my erratic and seemingly random use of commas in my comments].


Geoff Carter January 4, 2011 at 3:23 pm

The problem is not Celtic/Roman, but Celtic / Historical / Medieval, interface; the former being a genuine interaction between two quite different cultures, while the latter has become problematic by the characterisation of Prehistory as ‘other’, or mysterious, with little apparent continuity with a traditional native culture.
What Mike P-P and the like, are doing is projecting their own ignorance and confusion onto the past.
A lot of modern archaeology seeks to mask its ignorance and lack of real understanding in complex and exclusive language, using inappropriate terms and models borrowed from other disciplines. It makes a simple and straight forward idea sound important if it requires a new vocabulary to describe it.

I also studied Philosophy, so I can de-construct arguments, and see through the conceit of vapid, fugacious, and specious lexicographical prestidigitation which underlies contemporary archaeological Pedagogy.

The problem is their inability to communicate, not your lack of understanding.
It’s like looking for the meaning in rock song lyrics, just because its incomprehensible, does not make it deep and meaningful, – it may be simply doggerel.


Edward Pegler January 4, 2011 at 6:47 pm

Dear Geoff

Nice summary. I once wrote a post on this and junked it. You said it in fewer words. Archaeologists a hundred years ago, digging up Egypt, must have had much more fun.

Also I like your ‘other’. Perhaps people in the past lived in realms of the otherness.

love Ned


Geoff Carter January 3, 2011 at 2:53 pm

Pub would be good.
I have never found you writing anything other than interesting and informative, and gives me insight into a world from which I am, by & large, excluded.
I had thought about Mongol hoards, but I had forgotten disease, a very good point.
Like you, I actually come from a background in Geology, which in its defence does have a fairly objective methodology; but I am driven by my experience of how little we understand of the data we recover from excavation, and I am frustrated by attempts by academics to join the dots of our ignorance, particularly by blending archaeology with models borrowed from other wholly inappropriate aspects of the humanities and anthropology.
Who is going to teach the teachers how to think? [not you btw!]
Being able to read is simply not enough!
Why nobody has put the likes of Mike P-P out their misery is amazing to me.


Edward Pegler January 3, 2011 at 6:29 pm

Dear Geoff

Ah! You’re geology background explains some things. Well, I suppose you could say that geologists all argue the present is the key to the past. M P-P would argue that he’s doing that. What I think he’s doing is a little different but that’s personal opinion.

The real problem that I have with applying social anthropological ideas to archaeology is that I’m not really sure western archaeologists (or western anybody) are very good at looking at other peoples objectively. Sometimes I feel that we understand the dead old Romans better than the very much alive Pirahã. There’s a tendency in all archaeology (and social anthropology) to ascribe a different set of spiritual values to those who didn’t/don’t write stuff. It makes for a jarring transition between ‘celtic’ prehistoric Britain and Roman Britain.

Funnily enough, I have a similar problem with reading some humanities papers (sometimes, not always). I simply don’t understand, for example, some of Ian Hodder’s early writings (and he’s not the worst by far). I think he’s probably got some really interesting ideas but I find it near impossible to get them. I know what he’d say to that and he’s probably right. I shall, however, keep trying.

Ho hum.

love Ned


Geoff Carter January 1, 2011 at 3:02 pm

Hi Ned [Happy new year],
I am not convinced that working as an agricultural labourer is aspirational for hunter gatherers. Native American peoples, like the plains Indians, did not rush to become farmers. Most cultures are inherently resistant to such radical change. [Leading to coercion and slavery].
Economic decline is not necessarily due some failure, or inherent structural weakness in the system, but can be caused by external factors, of which environmental issues and external/internal violence are the most obvious.
Throughout the past, changes in the environment are probably the prime cause of economic collapse, either by simple local climate change, or by political instability due to migrations promoted by changes elsewhere.
Eccomonic models in archaeology can describe specific ecconomies and cultures, but I suspect find it difficult to factor in things like Thera, the Sea peoples, or the Medieval mini-Ice Age. and thus, are of limited value when dealing with Change.
This not to say that a model cannot draw attention to specific structural weaknesses that also result in failure, but given the importance/impact of environmental factors in agriculturally based systems they are descriptive rather than predictive.
Economics may claim to predict the Great Depression, but not the Dust Bowl.


Edward Pegler January 3, 2011 at 10:45 am

Dear Geoff

Happy New Year also! Sorry it’s taken so long to reply. I don’t even have the excuse of a two day hangover – just a large jigsaw lying on my sittingroom floor.

Yes, I think you are right about all sort of environmental and other factors. I think an underrated one is disease, for example. Take the effects of the Justinian plague and black death. Environmental factors such as global cooling and warming have changed the natural patterns of vegetation and made it very difficult for people to stay in places like Greenland or the Sahara. Violence obviously also has consequences, but sometimes in unexpected ways. The effects of the mongol hoarde actually opened up the steppe to trade. Something similar may have caused the first empires to form back in the fourth millennium.

I suppose all I’m trying to do with most of the posts here is take a stance which is different from that of others. I’m certainly not convinced that it’s right. All of your arguments about coercion, environmental factors and violence are undoubtedly true. I think Jared Diamond sums up some pretty good arguments for environmental factors too.

As you’re no doubt well aware, the data that archaeologists have is incredibly limited. I come from a background in Geology where geologists blythely talk about having a complete stratigraphic record for some period in some place, little comprehending the missing 99.99% in what they have even there. Archaeologists seem to be more honest about this. That makes it very difficult to put a correct story together. What I really like about modern archaeology is that you’re allowed to put out an infinite number of stories to fit the facts. I also find that a bit disheartening though as you can’t prove the others wrong.

For example one argument I’ve been trying out for the native americans goes like this. Native americans only took up farming at particular locations. Those locations were of strategic value (mesoamerica, the andes, the banks of the amazon, the mississippi and colorado). In the case of mesoamerica, the andes, the amazon and the mississippi they were corridors through which people had to move. As for colorado and the mississippi, they were also controlling the flow of copper minerals (turquoise) and copper (mesoamerica). To be honest I’m just playing a game, trying to fit the data to my particular argument. There’s so much freedom to do that it makes one wonder what’s the point.

I’m sorry. I’m really bad at not coming over like a twat. I think I’d really like to have this discussion in a pub. Maybe this summer.

love Ned


Geoff Carter December 31, 2010 at 7:57 pm

I think so. I may have missed the point, but . .

I find it impossible to separate agriculture and violence, since it is appears to me, agriculture only works when an elite coerces the rest of the society to produce an agricultural surplus to support them, while, ironically, they amuse themselves in more hunter/gatherer activities. [Mesopotamian cosmologies are structured around the concept of slavery]

Civilisation/economics are driven by the greed of the elite; warfare/politics is the engine of economics and growth.

The elite extract food/labour/taxes/tribute/plunder & slaves – depending on the nature of the economics relationship; you have to ‘pay’ to be allowed to live, otherwise the elite will simply exterminate you. This is the [economic] imperative.

Thus, early cities are not ‘company towns’ in the modern sense, because other company towns, while may compete, do not aggressively predate their rivals!


Edward Pegler December 31, 2010 at 11:54 pm

Dear Geoff

Here it is, 20 minutes to new year and I’m replying. Well, anything to avoid my mother’s telly next door.

I think there are excellent examples in the past of economies that work as you describe. Later Rome fits the bill, I suspect Mycaenean Crete and Greece too. And, as you rightly point out, ancient Mesopotamia through much of its history.

However, personally I see the Neolithic initiation of it all as being a bit like the build up of townships around modern Cape Town, say. People (hunter gatherers) buy into the dream of being where the action is (say a “town”). If people in a particular location get rich off trade (or mining or whatever) then more people will come to that place. That needs no coercion. The trouble starts because you then run into a shortage of food. New people and smart people become suppliers of food to the people in the town. Pretty quickly (once people have exhausted the wild food) people start growing stuff to provide a service to the people in the town. I don’t say there’s not a certain amount of coercion and I’d be happy (?) to throw in a bit of slavery.

I just don’t buy into the whole top-down redistributive economy thing in the early Neolithic. It takes too much organisation. In fact I’d make a guess that the failure of economies like late Rome and Mycaenae was in large part due to too much ‘redistribution’ and heavy handed centralisation causing the economies to fail.

As for aggressive predation of rivals, I think that an Assyrian warlord sacking a city and taking all its inhabitants into slavery is not always the best policy. Better to secure your supply lines by taking control, tax them (not too heavily) and let them continue making money. The other approach is like an overzealous virus that kills its host.

Well, they’re just thoughts (and quite possibly wrong), but I have to say I’m very much enjoying the argument.

love Ned


Geoff Carter December 29, 2010 at 6:15 pm

No mention of warfare as a spur to innovation?


Edward Pegler December 31, 2010 at 5:37 pm

Dear Geoff

Jane Jacobs doesn’t really deal with war. She was firmly rooted in twentieth century America for applying many of her ideas and America had the luxury of pursuing its world wars from a distance. Indeed I don’t think she was terribly interested in war and probably had her own motives for not using it as an example in the book. However, I think that warfare as a spur to innovation is implicit in her work. If you see armaments as new work in a city then the production of arms can lead to a (perhaps temporary) growth in the economy of a city. It certainly seemed to have quite a galvanising effect in 1930s Germany. Perhaps both the Assyrians and the Romans relied to some extent on this. Imperial demand for arms will lead to new work in a city.

There is a second side to this in the case of the Romans. As Rome’s empire expanded through warfare and non-Romans became citizens, those new citizens sometimes moved to, and swelled the numbers in Rome. This in itself might have lead to economic growth.

From a personal point of view, in my megalomaniac grand plan (of trying to understand the whole of prehistory from the dawn of farming) I’ve struggled with warfare. I have regular chats with a friend who’s enormously interested in the role of violence and warfare in human evolution but for me it’s like I have a mental block.

A can see that in early societies without state organisation that there’s definitely violence (e.g. Talheim) but that does not obviously seem to have led to progress. The evidence for war and progress seems to have to wait until the fourth millennium kingly societies of Egypt and Mesopotamia. In the Egyptian case, one gang taking control, through warfare, of upper and lower Egypt seems to be the result (to me) of the economic imperitive, to control your economic trade and supply lines. What resulted, of course, is mighty Egypt. Whether the act of war itself resulted in innovation of itself I couldn’t say. That’s where you could try to apply Jane Jacobs’ ideas, I guess.

Does that answer your question?


As for Jane


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