The Origins of Agriculture: Mathematical Models, Cooperation and the Rise of Social Inequality

Elizabeth M Gallagher, Peter J Bentley, Stephen J Shennan, Mark G Thomas


The transition from hunting and gathering to farming was one of the most important events in human history; having major impacts on human demography, evolution, health, culture and technology, and coinciding with a switch from fairly egalitarian to hierarchical societies. The reasons why some societies switched to farming are still debated, with climate stabilization, population pressure and feasting, among others, as popular hypotheses. However, since these processes occurred so long ago and ethnographic studies may not always be comparable to ancient groups, investigating the transition can be difficult without the use of mathematical models.

We have developed a game theoretical agent-based model of social and environmental interactions during the late Pleistocene/early Holocene in order to investigate potential societal impacts of the transition to farming. Our model is used to test various popular hypotheses for the origins of farming (e.g. population and climate pressure). We also investigate the affect of changing levels of cooperation on both the transition to farming and the emergence of social inequality. Our model is conditioned with a proxy for the amount of farming in the Near East (the domestic-to-wild ratio from an archaeobotanical database), and we use a method analogous to approximate Bayesian computation to explore the model’s parameter space and interactions in detail.