The Dismal Science

The Flintstone Effect

Tracing wealth back to the Stone Age.

Economic historians divide the history of living standards into two eras, which could be named for the Flintstones and the Jetsons. The Flintstones era runs from the beginning of time through the Stone, Bronze, and Iron ages and up to about 1800. The Jetsons era begins with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and culminates in a utopian future in which—Jane, stop this crazy thing!—machines do everything.

The Jetsons era trounces the Flintstones era in terms of leaps forward in global quality of life. According to some rough estimates, world living standards grew less than 50 percent over the last two Flintstones millennia (from A.D. 1 until the Industrial Revolution). By contrast, they grew a whopping 1,000 to 2,000 percent in the 19th and 20th centuries of the Jetsons era. In light of the importance of this relatively recent past, it would be pretty surprising if the living standards of our prehistoric forbears exerted a lasting influence. But according to a new study, they do.

In “Was the Wealth of Nations Determined in 1000 B.C.?”, Diego Comin and William Easterly of New York University and Erick Gong of Berkeley ask, specifically, whether a culture’s adoption of technology in A.D. 1, 1000 B.C., and 2000 B.C. can account for contemporary standards of living. The authors focus on five areas: communications, agriculture, military, industry, and transportation. Particularly for the earlier periods, records are often scarce or nonexistent. This is the prehistoric period, after all. So, how do the authors know which nations and cultures adopted which tools?

For the year 1000 B.C., they rely on the decades of archaeology and anthropological research that culminated in Peter Peregrine’s 2003 Atlas of Cultural Evolution. The work describes the characteristics of 289 prehistoric cultures, many of which can be geographically associated with today’s nations. Societies existing in 1000 B.C. had a large range of technologies even if none, I’m sad to say, had cars powered “courtesy of Fred’s two feet.” The atlas tracks whether a given culture had written records, nonwritten records, or no records and whether agriculture was its primary food source, its secondary source, or neither. And the atlas charts technological specialization (metalwork, pottery, or none), and form of land transportation (vehicles, pack animals, or human only). The authors infer a culture’s level of military sophistication based on whether it used bronze and iron, materials that produced weapons superior to stone.

The authors use different sources but similar processes to describe the technological prowess of cultures in A.D. 1 and A.D. 1500. In all, they’ve gathered relevant data on 113 cultures in 1000 B.C., 135 cultures in A.D. 1, and 123 in A.D. 1500. Each can be associated with a present-day country. For example, present-day Korea was inhabited by the Mumum peoples in 1000 B.C.

The glimpse at prehistory is interesting in itself. By the authors’ measures, the most advanced groups in 1000 B.C. were, in decreasing order, the Arabs, the Chinese, people of India, and people of Western Europe. This ranking holds for A.D. 1. By A.D. 1500, however, the order had changed, with Western Europe the most advanced, followed by China, and then India and the Arab world.

This brings us to the study’s basic question: Are current-day countries more prosperous today if they were inhabited by more technologically advanced cultures 500, 2,000, or 3,000 years ago? The authors note—as I wrote about last month in Slate—that whether a country has been a European colony in the last 500 years influences its income level today. When they statistically control for European influence, they find that technology adoption in each of the three distant past periods is strongly related to today’s living standards. And the effect is large. The combined effect of writing, agriculture, specialization, and vehicle transport in 1000 B.C. is associated with a fourfold increase in a country’s contemporary per capita income. To be sure, the effect of European colonization is even larger. But what is surprising is that the apparent effect of prehistoric technology persists even after accounting for the more recent European influence.

The study’s authors are appropriately cautious about the reliability of data this old. Still, they conclude that “centuries-old technological history still matters today” and therefore that the road to prosperity is a long one. Governments today devote substantial resources to promoting growth, for example through public education and investments in technological research. While this new work gives no reason to think that those policies do not work, it does suggest that to a sobering degree, much of the determination of present-day prosperity is outside the control of contemporary policy-makers. The wealth of today has accumulated mostly between the steam engine and the iPod. But where it has accumulated seems to depend in part on when a country’s forbears moved past Fred Flintstone’s Stone Age.