Categories Agriculture

The Influence of Historical Agriculture

A recent edition of “National Geographic” magazine contained an article about the archeological excavations at Gobekli Tepe, a religious site in the Fertile Crescent. The article suggests that as a result of the end of the Ice Age about 9600 B.C.E. and the resulting climate change, the population felt a sense of “wonderment” over the evolution of new plants and animals. This sense of wonderment then gave rise to early religion. And populations began to cluster together near the religious sites in communities founded for the purpose of worship. This trend of forming communities then may have given rise to the nascent development of agriculture. At this time in human history, the Neolithic Revolution, religion tended to be matriarchal even in patriarchal societies. (Examples of matriarchal religion are the Minoan Snake Goddess and, perhaps, the Venus of Willendorf.) The National Geographic article suggests that religion was the prime mover for settlement, cooperation and the birth of agriculture near these sacred sites.

Agricultural Tool Development

So as agriculture progressed moving populations away from horticultural practices or slash and burn types of food gathering, various tools were developed to raise previously wild crops which were now domesticated. Animals were domesticated and raised as food sources or for reproduction which required settlements to contain and protect the animals. By the 1800’s, Thomas Malthus hypothesized that populations would overtake agricultural technology and that certain populations would starve to death as a result.

Ester Boserup’s Contributions

Ester Boserup, born in Copenhagen in 1910, hypothesized that Malthus was wrong based upon his static view of agricultural technology. Boserup’s theory maintained that agricultural methods were a product of population pressures. She argued that when population is low, land tends to be used intermittently. As an example during the Medieval period when war and plague ravaged the population, agricultural practice dictated that fields remain fallow. Modernly, with ever increasing population, agricultural practices favor rotating crops to replace nutrients lost in the soil through planting a specific crop, such as fodder crops. Modern agriculture uses supplements to replace nutrients although arguably, this practice has not been beneficial to the top soil or riparian corridors.


Ester Boserup has been characterized as an “anti- Malthusian” but her theories are not limited to the relationship of population growth and agricultural practices.

Boserup’s Theories of Modern Gender Roles

Boserup was popular in the 1970’s with feminists for her theories that our present gender roles are defined by historical agricultural practices. Boserup promulgated the theory that in cultures where the hoe was the primary tool of cultivation, women were the farmers. The hoe required less upper body strength than its successor the plow. With the invention of the plow, men became the farmers as the plow required more upper body strength. According to this theory, the cultural descendants of hoe cultures are more likely to work outside of the home and assume more important roles in the social and political culture despite having moved to urban environments. Those female descendants of plow cultures are less likely to work outside of the home. The rise of the plow also signified a religious transition from matriarchy to patriarchal religions.

Boserup’s Theories Supported Today

Presently, economists, with data from the World Values Survey, show that the descendants of plowmen are significantly more likely to favor men when jobs are scarce. These cultures tend to believe that men make better political leaders. In Western cultures, the evidence that women can work in those jobs that were traditionally populated by men has not been lost on women who seek work outside of the home. However in non Western cultures women working outside of the home is generally about 16 per cent lower than men.


Ester Boserup has had her share of critics who feel that her work on gender roles ignored many women role models who were successful in traditionally male cultures. However, at least one of Boserup’s arguments remains compelling. She argued that agricultural techniques depend upon resource endowment. As a result she was not in favor of providing food on a long term basis to the hungry but, instead, helping them develop agricultural practices that would sustain their population growth.

Ester Boserup died in 1999. Her theories continue to be argued with favorable results.

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