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.