Sheep and goats

What is the dominant institutional form of the ancient economy? Trade, tribute, plunder, debt? Wrong on all counts. Given that 95% of people were engaged in agriculture, that’s where we need to look. But did those entrepreneurial farmers produce surpluses of wool, meat, milk and grains to flog off to the highest seller, as Adam Smith would have us believe and a goodly number of archaeologists? Not at all. They were more interested in subsistence survival, which was the dominant institutional form.

Apart from grains, animals were the key. The typical herd had 67% sheep and 33% goats. Why? Sheep produce wool and meat in high volume, but they are less versatile in adverse conditions. Goats, on the other hand, are very versatile, keeping their body weight with a third of the regular diet and able to deal with water shortages and temperature extremes. And they are pretty good value for meat, milk and fibres. The mix ensured that if one part of the herd picked up a disease, the other part would still be there until the numbers return. They both breed well. The herd was culled regularly at all ages to keep its size manageable and the herd healthy. Surpluses? A small surplus in a good year was kept over for tough times that would definitely follow.

As Marx pointed out in the third volume of capital, specific items may turn up in different modes of production. But their function and relation to other items is very different. This feature shows up in all sorts of contexts: medieval Europe, Russia until the early 20th century, the early European settlers in North America, pre-Ottoman and Ottoman times, and many more. Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across a herd in Transylvania last week. The sheep and goats mingled with one another, were multi-coloured, and were in a ratio of 67-33%. It left me wondering about the best approach to animal husbandry in the quicksands of economic crisis.


5 thoughts on “Sheep and goats

  1. Define “ancient economy”.

    When he comments specifically on Syria-Palestine from the late fourth-century onwards, for example, Ste. Croix names taxation as the primary form of surplus extraction, not exploitation of agricultural labour. Ste. Croix adds that the payment of tribute altered the relations of production – and therefore altered the mode of production.

    1. On that matter he is simply wrong, although it is a great work that is a must read. The catch is that he is a textual scholar (a self-proclaimed ‘historian’). As with ANE scholars, they fall into the biases and propaganda of the state and a few large estates where the archives have survived. Surprise, surprise, the monarch and his cronies liked to assert that they had absolute sway over their whole realm, that land was his and/or the god’s, and that everyone was subject to them and piled tribute upon them. The reality is a little different, for the reach of their power waned with distance from the capital town (hardly a city) and was rather spasmodic, depending on the mobility of the army. In the end, the economic relations the texts outline apply to royal estates and those of a couple of clans. Beyond that, not so much. Further, the long periods of economic crisis, which endured even in periods of relative stability, ensured that subsistence survival was the dominant institutional form in many areas and for long periods.

      1. Not those incestuous buggers. Small period of time really, compared to earlier stretches: from the Ur ‘great leap forward’ to the end of the Persians, and for Palestine/Levant from the long economic crisis beginning in the 12th century to the same point.

      2. Yeah – a small period of time – but it did coincide with the making of the Pentateuch, so interesting for Pentateuchal studies if yer place some stock on an economic basis for such superstructural production.

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