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Production Risk, Inter-Annual Food Storage by Households and Population-Level Consequences in Seasonal Prehistoric Agrarian Societies


Using complementary behavioural and population ecological models, we explore the role of production risk, normal surplus and inter-annual food storage in the adaptations of societies dependent on seasonal agriculture. We find that (a) household-level, risk-sensitive adaption to unpredictable environmental variation in annual agricultural yields is a sufficient explanation for the origins of normal agrarian surplus and, consequently, of household-level incentives for inter-annual food storage; and, (b) at the population level, density-dependent Malthusian processes tightly constrain the circumstances under which this same mechanism can be effective in smoothing inter-annual fluctuations in household food availability. Greater environmental variation and higher levels of fixed set-asides such as seed requirements or transfer obligations to political authorities lead to more severe, periodic famines; however, outside of famine events, these same factors improve average population welfare by suppressing population density to levels at which Malthusian constraints have lessened impact. The combination of behavioural and population ecological modelling methods has broad and complementary potential for illustrating the dynamic properties of complex, coupled human–natural systems.

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