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Old August 8th, 2018, 04:06 AM   #1
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Pre-industrial population sizes. Land capped or growth rate capped?


Hi guys,

I was hoping to get some insight about the magnitude of difference in world population sizes that current day agriculture can support (~7 Billion currently), against that of historical agriculture (0.17-0.4 billion 1 CE, very rough estimate but just to paint a picture).

My question is, to how much of an extent where historical population sizes representative of the maximum amount of food that could be generated by all the worlds farmland in combination with historical farming technology?

Were pre-industrial population sizes capped to such an extent, because historical farming technology could not (assuming there were enough people to farm every bit of agricultural land in the world) generate and feed much more food than 2.5-7% of today’s population? Or do you think that much larger populations where indeed possible, but due to population growth rates (influenced by inferior yields per capita, mortality rates etc.) just happened to never get much higher than 200-500 million?

Thanks for your answers in advance!!
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Old August 8th, 2018, 05:49 AM   #2
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I don´t know the general pattern, and I somehow doubt others know. But I think we have to see it as much more a "local" question if we look back more than a couple of centuries. There would simply be less options when it comes to compensate a local lack of food or other necessities by acquiring them from other parts of the world. And what about storage? Then also there is the question of how many people were around, since ancient population figures may not be very accurate (or rather: guesswork). Then also populations may have not grown continuously, but from time to time decreased.
And one thing more: If we look far back, several millennia, I would ask about sources of errors for figures that does not exist to the same degree for later periods. The most hospitable and densely populated territories could have changed since then in ways we may only guess. That could mean researchers would tend to underestimate population sizes, since they may have searched the "wrong" places.

Last edited by Fantasus; August 8th, 2018 at 05:57 AM.
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Old August 8th, 2018, 06:01 AM   #3
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Food supply has always been the limiting factor on population. Population has always exceeded optimal food supply because sex is more fun than working on a farm. Consequently there has always been hunger in the world as marginal populations struggle to find food.

In recent decades we have become increasingly aware that food production is increasingly becoming sub-maximal. In the US, much farm land lies idle or comes under urban and suburban development because one can make more money at a city job than as a farmer. Market forces do not therefore encourage food production. Also, global diets increasingly consume more meat. In terms of calories per acre, grain is more productive than livestock, but some arable land has switched from grain to livestock in response to the greater demand for meat.

Market forces have always existed. In Medieval England, much pasture land was given to the raising of sheep for wool, not food, as just one example, because landowners could make more money raising sheep than growing grain. In the ante-bellum southern US it was more profitable to grow tobacco or cotton than it was to produce food.

I would say that population was limited by local markets and the willingness of those markets to produce food and not other products.

Last edited by Chlodio; August 8th, 2018 at 06:27 AM.
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Old August 8th, 2018, 06:21 AM   #4
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In pre-industrial societies distribution was also a limiting factor. Food is bulky and difficult to transport any distance except by sea, rivers or canals.
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Old August 8th, 2018, 06:25 AM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Dentatus View Post
In pre-industrial societies distribution was also a limiting factor. Food is bulky and difficult to transport any distance except by sea, rivers or canals.

Yes, but people are more mobile than food. Surplus populations will move to wherever there is food or to where food can be produced.
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Old August 8th, 2018, 09:12 AM   #6
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We should all get clear in our minds that the huge difference in population, between pre 1800 and now, is because of TECHNOLOGY. That includes all aspects of technology, including new pesticides, anti-biotics for livestock, etc., but most importantly machinery which can sow and harvest huge amounts of food, by the work of relatively few people. Such machinery was only developed, large-scale, after the industrial revolution of the late 18th century, and this is the time that the world's population began to sky-rocket to its present high level.


Mind you, I am not saying that the ancient population couldn't have been higher. Take England in the 18th century before the industrial revolution, it had a population of about 9 million, at least double what it is estimated to have been as a Roman province. But it has increased 6-fold over the last 200 years, and that has only been made possible by technology (within a socio-economic system that allows us to import half of our food).

Click the image to open in full size.

Last edited by fascinating; August 8th, 2018 at 09:30 AM.
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Old August 8th, 2018, 10:52 AM   #7
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Looking at the chart in post 6, I can see a rise after the year 900 which corresponds to the adoption of three-field crop rotation in Europe and to the invention of the horse collar. There's another bump between 1400 and 1600. Does anyone know any farm technology that was invented in those years?
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Old August 8th, 2018, 11:35 AM   #8

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Chlodio View Post
Looking at the chart in post 6, I can see a rise after the year 900 which corresponds to the adoption of three-field crop rotation in Europe and to the invention of the horse collar.

Can we separate crop rotation from large-scale assarting in Europe?
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Old August 8th, 2018, 12:27 PM   #9
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Originally Posted by Kirialax View Post
Can we separate crop rotation from large-scale assarting in Europe?

I agree assarting, or the clearing of forest land to increase crop land, also contributed to the rise of population in the High Middle Ages. Still don't have an answer for the post-Medieval increase in population.
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Old August 8th, 2018, 12:34 PM   #10
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Thanks a bunch for your replies everyone.

So from your replies I carefully conclude the following:

1: Food yields per capita/worker where never/rarely high enough to yield a high net population growth, after substracting mortality rates and generalized causes for large population declines (such as disease, war etc.)

2: Population sizes rarely allowed for the soil-to-calory conversion to hit a ceiling on a global level (though locally it may have, for example city states with huge population sizes)

3: Pre-industrial population sizes might have had a much higher ceiling (possibly one, two, thee billion) even without industrial revolution/green revolution increases in soil-to-calory conversion, given enough time, lucky lack of big mortality events and initiatives to use available plots of land more for mainly caloric intended crops and less for luxury intended crops (tobacco, olives & grapes).

Feel free to point out any flaws in this reasoning.
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