Paleolithic Economics

An interesting new study links the rise in the number of old(er) members of paleolithic societies to massive leaps in human development.

Rachel Caspari of the University of Michigan and Sang-Hee Lee of the University of California at Riverside believe that groups in which old people survived better were more successful, in turn allowing more people to live into old age.

"There has been a lot of speculation about what gave modern humans their evolutionary advantage. This research provides a simple explanation for which there is now concrete evidence -- modern humans were older and wiser," Caspari said.

Of course, the news is of some interest on a "hard-science" basis alone. But really, that's something the paleontologists, biologists, and more will have to grapple with. What I got out of the story was something a little different: intelligent economic actors, solutions to collective action problems, and the provision of public goods.

The finding, published in this week's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, supports the so-called "grandma hypothesis," Caspari said.

This credits grandmothers with helping to raise their extended families, contributing to a group's success.

When the bulk of your time is spent on personal subsistence, little time is left for other pursuits, like caring for children. Getting older would reduce an individual's ability to spend time on the more rigorous part of subsistence living (hunting, back-breaking gathering, etc). However, one who reaches an older age will have some better insight into longevity on the very grounds of their existence, and the growth of that person's child to child-bearing age. Suddenly, trade is possible. One hunts, while the other offers better treatment of growing children. Even if the older person were still able to get the smaller amount of food necessary to sustain their own lives, it makes more sense for them to provide education and childcare, while the younger person attends to other matters. Ricardo didn't invent comparative advantage, he gave us a great way to think about it. The better care given to children, the more likely they will be to reach old age, at which point they can contribute their knowledge for the care of the newest generation. Increasing returns to childcare and education, indeed.

Of course, any grandmother (or -father) will know this. But there's more to the story apparently:

Caspari and Lee rechecked their numbers and analysis.

"But then we started to think about it and thought we really shouldn't be surprised, because there is a behavioral change that took place over time at the same time," Caspari said.

"You start to see a change in symbolic behavior. You see art. You see a large number of people being buried with jewelry, with body ornaments."

Now, I don't know about you, but that sounds an awful lot like productivity gains, specialization of production, and substitution effects for leisure time. Without seperating out those who hunt better, and those who are more able to care for members of a family, no one would really have the time to become interested or skilled in art or crafts of any kind. That the art and jewelry making continued signals, in my mind at least, some general preference for the creation of it -- that is, the group found utility in having art made over having a weaker member not hunt for him or herself. Ask any mother how leisurely it is to raise a child, and I think we can say that not all cave-painters or jewelery crafters were simply women back in the cave doodling while the kids were asleep. These are specific choices made by those who had to spend a great deal of effort wondering about where the next meal was coming from. Attend a play, concert, movie, the opera, or really any art event today, and the people who attend are those who don't have to spend that time making money (finding the next meal, wrapped in a modern monetary system).

Rational choice theory may have some oddities and discrepancies with the real world, but I think it's hard to say that it doesn't have some serious traction.

So, yes, sure sure, the anthro is all cool, and the fossil record is, you know, spiffy...but I'd say this is a pretty interesting economic find...


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This page contains a single entry by published on July 11, 2004 12:40 AM.

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