Primitive Food Crops and Security

Economists argue that the security needs of various crops are the cause of civilization size:

The argument depends on the differences between how grains and tubers are grown. Crops like wheat are harvested once or twice a year, yielding piles of small, dry grains. These can be stored for long periods of time and are easily transported ­ or stolen.

Root crops, on the other hand, don't store well at all. They're heavy, full of water, and rot quickly once taken out of the ground. Yuca, for instance, grows year-round and in ancient times, people only dug it up right before it was eaten. This provided some protection against theft in ancient times. It's hard for bandits to make off with your harvest when most of it is in the ground, instead of stockpiled in a granary somewhere.

But the fact that grains posed a security risk may have been a blessing in disguise. The economists believe that societies cultivating crops like wheat and barley may have experienced extra pressure to protect their harvests, galvanizing the creation of warrior classes and the development of complex hierarchies and taxation schemes.

Posted on May 18, 2016 at 9:11 AM • 30 Comments


ShirleyMay 18, 2016 9:29 AM

Interesting take from economists, but if you want to get into much more detail about how food cultivation and other factors (quality of natural resources, disease immunity, etc.) affect the development of civilizations, I'd highly recommend any of Jared Diamond's books ("Guns, Germs and Steel," "Collapse" and "The World Until Yesterday"). Lots of thought-provoking material in all of them.

Raphael MarciMay 18, 2016 9:38 AM

Although historians generally agree that sedentism and the development of agriculture did lead to stockpiling of resources, the argument that these economists are making (i.e., that the value of the crop in itself led to sedentism and, eventually, urbanization) is, in my opinion, moot. This is because crops like yam, etc. lend themselves to low-scale farming and / or a combination of hunting-gathering and horticulturalism. On the other hand, crops like barley and wheat are already forcing you to stay in one place and develop large-scale farming strategies, due to the very nature of the crop and its cycles. So yes, people were trying to defend their crop, but these people had already made a decision to settle in a location, become sedentary and adopt large-scale farming.

AlanMay 18, 2016 9:41 AM

I'm not sure who those invaders were that wanted to steal grain. When I sack a foreign city, my goal is to take their weapons and gold, feast on their livestock, drink their wine and rape their women--their grain is the last thing on my mind...

AlanMay 18, 2016 9:53 AM

I struggle to see how "the creation of warrior classes and the development of complex hierarchies and taxation schemes" is a blessing.

John E. QuantumMay 18, 2016 10:41 AM


Ancient civilizations were constrained by climate. Areas suitable for growing grains were not geographically similar to areas suitable for growing grapes, so historically there has always been a divide between wine and beer (grain) producing peoples. Were you a Viking?

Dr. I. Needtob AtheMay 18, 2016 11:07 AM

@Alan: That sounds like a fun game. What's it called, and is it available on Steam?

TatütataMay 18, 2016 11:13 AM

On the subject of food security and the growth of "civilization", I can hardly recommend enough the book "Enriching the Earth" on the history and consequences of the synthesis of ammonia through the Haber-Bosch process.

Prof. Vaclav Smil specializes in "big picture" essays on energy and resources issues. I consider this particular book as his masterpiece, even though its implications are depressing. (And we're not even discussing the consequences of the massive influx of reactive nitrogen in the atmosphere, resulting from both fertilizer use and fossil fuel combustion - VW lässt grüßen - and the looming "peak phosphorus").

jaysonMay 18, 2016 11:18 AM

I'll agree with Yuval Noah Harare and take the position that grains domesticated humans in their wildly successful campaign to spread their kind across the planet.

Humans have benefitted from their plan.

KarinMay 18, 2016 12:44 PM

A few thoughts:

I wouldn't call potatoes a primitive crop (first domesticated in the Andes, there are currently thousands of varieties -including genetically modified varieties).

Frederick the Great: an army moves on its stomach. Frederick promoted potatoes his nickname is the potato king.

Similar to their cultivation, the preparation of grains (hulling, milling, cooking etc) is far more complex than cultivating and preparing roots and tubers. Often the leaves and stalks of roots and tuber crops are also eaten as green vegetables.

It's nonsense that people dug up roots and tubers right before eating!
Drying, fermenting and roasting (in an earth oven) are among the oldest preparation techniques.

Compared to domesticated grains, roots and tuber crops (e.g. taro) but also (sago)palms are much more ancient. Taro cultivation in terraces (similar to rice paddies) was already advanced when many grains were still weeds. Many Chinese civilizations could not have expanded without taro. People did take taro in their canoes to far away places such as Hawaii. Taro (species and varieties) were staple foods in Micronesia, where people developed a monetary system (rai, or stone money).

Roots and tuber crops are prob. most often eaten where they are grown. Similar to wheat and rice, they provide for carbs (the bulk of the diet), but today and in antiquity humans have to eat other macro-nutrients (protein, fat) too and need access to (fresh/sweet) water.

AnuraMay 18, 2016 12:53 PM


I wouldn't call potatoes a primitive crop (first domesticated in the Andes, there are currently thousands of varieties -including genetically modified varieties).

According to Wikipedia, they were domesticated 7,000-10,000 years ago. I'm not sure how much more primitive you can get.

Clive RobinsonMay 18, 2016 2:13 PM


These economists are miles off.

Grains are probably mans first "geneticaly modified crop" experiment. You can still find varieties of grass that are ten to twenty thousand years old, and luckily we can also find some grains in human waste around fires, preperation areas and middens. So we have some knowledge of when and where the cross breading / selection processes took place.

But this was long after man started collectivised food protection, that led to the domestication of live stock.

As far as we can tell the first collectivisation of food result on humans was "secrecy" of supply in the hunter-gatherers. That is the knowledge of where and when food became available was a valuable commodity in it's own right. Because the sometimes relatively small edge it gave, made a large social difference alowing one group to prosper over another.

But if you are looking for "civilisation change" behaviour, look at the effect of beer versus wine. Wine is relatively easy to make and outside of making water tight containers something that requires very little energy input. Thus can be done by just a family or very small group. Beer however requires considerably more energy input and is not something that is easily done. Thus you have the need for a "proffession" to make beer and it is a social activity. It's why churches amongst others brewed beer because it not only gave them a congregation it gave them income and the ability to raise rents etc. This excess income enabled them to spend on craftsmen, metal workers etc, forming more proffesions and eventialy industrialization.

Fredric RiceMay 18, 2016 2:22 PM

Several months ago when someone on Facebook asked (presumably rhetorically) "Why do we have wars?" I answered -- correctly -- that at core we have wars because of agriculture. Examining state-sanctioned terrorism, war crime atrocities, "patriotism" and all the other filthy right wing-ish ideologies and practices which humanity engages in, at core the reason is agriculture.

I'm glad to see that others have also reached that inescapable conclusion.

ianfMay 18, 2016 3:26 PM

@ Fredric Rice,

[…] filthy right wing-ish ideologies and practices which humanity engages in, at core the reason is agriculture.

This is (a)historical reductionism ad absurdum. Do note that that great "proto-European community" builder Adolf Hitler defined the goals for, then went to war for the Lebensraum on the rich wheat fields of Eastern Europe (meant to ensure 1000th-year food supplies for the Third German Reich) MERE 50 YEARS before the EEC, Euro Economic Community, started to pay off its farmers NOT TO CULTIVATE more crops, create higher "butter mountains," deeper "wine lakes," and other surplus agri produce. And that only in the Western subset of what now is the expanded EU.

But, agreed, your conclusion clinks much more soundbite-y than mine.

Don-eMay 18, 2016 3:59 PM

No "creation" of "warrior class" required. At the time of early agriculture, the real issue, generally, was the concentration items normally dispersed across the region. Now there is the concentration of grain and even game in the form of shepherding or corrals. And, once settled, the agricultural community now had structures to keep "stuff" - more material goods and for some - wealth accumulation that a nomadic culture had no practical way to transport.

Sooo: Nomadic cultures are a problem for a successful agricultural society. Imagine a nomadic culture cresting a hilltop and with awe, looking down on a settlement at all that grain, all those pigs and goats, all those goodies in the huts! You know the rest...

OK, there is also and issue with "failed" agricultural societies who, out of desperation want the successful ones to "share" so they can avoid starvation. Similar situation, a low-accumulation group on the move.

albertMay 18, 2016 4:33 PM


"...These economists are miles off...."

I would have said BS, but yours is the best (at least, the most polite) summary of the topic.

One need only peruse the economic catastrophe that is the present system. 'Economics' had best be classified in the social 'sciences', and just as useful.

Who really gives a RSA about useless history? More fodder for the academic paper mills.

. .. . .. --- ....

KeithBMay 18, 2016 4:51 PM

Fredric Rice:
Then why do chimpanzees have wars? They do not have agriculture - but they do have resources to defend.

LCNMay 18, 2016 7:49 PM

Fan of "Guns, Germs, and Steel", but believe that modern "security" really grew right along with modern society. That is, as societies grew, they started to have people not out there getting food everyday, they pooled together resources. Which, in turn, created room for abuse, and you had the birth of the tyrants and ruling classes. But, you also had fantastic ancient and modern structures and other creations.

Security made sure everyone got along with the new head honchos who suddenly take power and turn the "let's pool together resources" thing into something of abuse.

You see plenty of inner tribal fighting in environments where there are not limited food stuff.

Stealing the women can be a factor, increasing hunt areas, but I do not recall any findings of primitive tribes fighting to get someone else's wheat.

Could be wrong.

tyrMay 18, 2016 8:55 PM


Because the German farmer was a stick in the mud
traditionalist the Potato King who wanted to get
it into their hands planted it in a big garden
and forbade anyone from having the Kings Vegetable.

He set military guards around his potato patch
with orders to be less than vigilant. In no time
there were potatos all over Germany, just like he
planned. Some have said the French who didn't
grow potatos wound up with a revolution because
of bad nutrition. After the Revolution you got
french fries.

Two of Fredericks other innovations were to ban the
use of torture and fire all the lawyyers. It worked
but after he was gone the critters sneaked back in.

Most of the enlightenment started right at Fredericks
dinner table. He was the only Philosopher King and
deserved being called Great. But only after he was
dead, smartasses are not appreciated by the ordinary
cloddy in the upper crust.

JonMay 18, 2016 10:05 PM

I don't want to fire all the lawyers.

I just want them all to participate equally in the prosecution and the defense. Why aren't the "Public Prosecutor's Office" and the "Public Defender's Office" the same office (oh, right, money)?

Unlike water, power, telephone, or Internet service, the right to a lawyer is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Why isn't the entire practice of law a carefully-regulated government monopoly?

(Oh, right, 'cause the lawyers wrote the rules, and they could make more money the way it is... Or who knows, perhaps through regulatory capture they could win the other way too. The lawyers always win.)

Me, bitter? Why d'ya think that?


Jeff MartinMay 19, 2016 8:24 AM

An interesting notion, but there is no evidence that this is what happened, just like the theory that cooperative irrigation in drier climates led to larger organizations. My opinion, it is more likely that a bunch of farmers got together and decided to steal their neighbor's surplus crops, rather than work to farm their own. The "warrior class" was born.

paulMay 19, 2016 9:58 AM

It seems as if you can make up Just So Stories to support pretty much whatever model you please. E.g. tubers and roots present a different security threat from grains rather than threat/no threat. If something grows continuously, then you have to protect it all the time, in contrast to something that ripens all at once, so that your enemy can only take it at a particular time but can execute DoS attacks at other times.

Or with wine/beer. The techniques for making drinkable-but-lousy versions of both are perfectly easy to practice on a small scale, but doing it right need practice and continuity. (And if you have political or economic power, it may be in your interest to extend that power by discouraging people from engaging in home production.)

paranoia destroys yaMay 19, 2016 10:59 AM

Agriculture security brings to mind the Star Trek episode "The trouble with Tribbles" I saw this week.
Kirk was to guard the silos to protect the grain from being stolen, but that wasn't the real threat faced.
The tribbles died eating the grain because the it had been poisoned.

Dirk PraetMay 19, 2016 7:16 PM

@ tyr

He set military guards around his potato patch with orders to be less than vigilant. In no time there were potatos all over Germany, just like he

A strategy successfully copied by Microsoft and the primary reason Windows became the dominant desktop.

After the Revolution you got french fries.

A persistent myth. French fries are a Belgian invention the French usurpated.

@ Alan

I'm not sure who those invaders were that wanted to steal grain.

Obviously a bunch whose leader's brain was doing the thinking, and not his d*ck 8-)

DroneMay 19, 2016 10:25 PM

Economics has become a politically-driven pseudo-science.

The next time you are on a plane sitting next to a SJW/Economist calculating away, before he is arrested as a suspected terrorist, ask him some questions to test his basic understanding of probability and statistics. You will see what I'm getting at.

John CampbellMay 22, 2016 6:15 PM

This is interesting when compared to James Burke's "Connections" in his "Trigger Effect": I suspect the Nile Delta provided some security for an agrarian society to evolve and thrive (rather than merely survive) w/o constant theft from "warlords"... until the parasitic "central (theocratic) government" was enabled by predictable food supplies (and surpluses for the locality that can be delivered elsewhere).

Additionally, Jacob Bronowski, in his "Ascent of Man", commented that some societies had a slightly symbiotic (rather than parasitic) relationship with "warlords" who didn't just find it easier to take than make... but had an investment in protecting their own food suppluy.

I suspect much of Somalia's troubles for (in the 1990s) were due to the NGOs undermining the requirement for "warlords" (a/k/a "strongmen") within the "nation" to protect the farm territory (and the farmers thereon). Who needs to protect farmers when there's plenty of food being shipped in from elsewhere... that you can divert to your buddies (and to Hell with everyone else).

A need to protect one's food supply probably goes a long way to encourage a degree of territorialism.

There, my effort towards Stand-Up Philosophy...

rMay 24, 2016 6:15 PM


The whole chimps having wars/hunt area for nicely together prior to the expansion of the concept of farming vegetables rather than foraging edibles (meat included).

Could it be that hunt area can be stolen without stealing acreage or supplanting a population by harvesting their output instead?

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