For Civilization, Trade Is More Fundamental than Agriculture

“I want to know what were the steps by which men passed from barbarism to civilization.” — VOLTAIRE.

This quote opens the introduction to the first volume of Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization.

Later, Durant identifies, “three steps that led from the beast to civilization — speech, agriculture, and writing.”

Trade deserves to be in Durant’s list as well. As discussed in my last post, in The Rational Optimist Matt Ridley convincingly argues that trade was one of the most, if not the most, pivotal developments in humanity’s rise. It can be said to be what distinguishes us from all other hominids and animals. It long pre-dates agriculture. In fact, it is what made agriculture possible. As Ridley writes (emphasis added):

“In the conventional account it was agriculture that made capital possible by generating stored surpluses and stored surpluses could be used in trade. Before farming, nobody could hoard a surplus. There is some truth in this, but to some degree it gets the story the wrong way round. Agriculture was possible because of trade. Trade provided the incentive to specialise in farmed goods and to generate surplus food. (…)
One of the intriguing things about the first farming settlements is that they also seem to be trading towns. From 14,000 years ago, much-valued obsidian (volcanic glass) from the Cappadocian volcanoes in Anatolia was being transported south along the upper Euphrates, through the Damascus basin and down the Jordan Valley. Seashells from the Red Sea were going the other way. This is precisely where the first farming settlements are — at Catalhoyuk, Abu Hureyra and Jericho. Such settlements were sited in oases where springs of fresh water from the mountains spilled out on to the western edge of the desert: places where soil nutrients, moisture and sunshine came together nicely — and also places where people mixed with their neighbours because of trade. This is surprising only because it is easy to think of early farmers as sedentary, self-sufficient folk. But they were exchanging harder in this region than anywhere else, and it is a reasonable guess that one of the pressures to invent agriculture was to feed and profit from wealthy traders — to generate a surplus that could be exchanged for obsidian, shells or other more perishable goods. Trade came first.