Africa`s Traditional Lack Of A Malthusian Trap
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December 03, 2010, 04:02 PM
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The concept of a Malthusian Trap, in which the finite amount of land limits food supply and thus population, is a highly stylized but still useful concept for thinking about much of human history before the Industrial Revolution. The major exception to the idea of a land-based Malthusian Trap was sub-Saharan Africa. As John Reader wrote in Africa: Biography of a Continent, (p. 249):
The human population of Africa has never approached the size that the continent seems capable of supporting. ... An FAO survey published in 1991 reported that only 22 percent of land in Africa suitable for agriculture was actually in production (the comparable figure for south-east Asia is 92 per cent).
Reader offers a long list of discouraging factors, such as disease burden, poor soil, and wild beasts, especially elephants. We think elephants are cute, but they`re huge and thus quite capable of eating a farmer`s crop. Africa tended to be populated in a patchwork fashion. In some regions, enough people could be concentrated to drive off elephants, while other areas were conceded to elephants until enough human numbers could be assembled. Somewhat similarly, stronger herding tribes would tend to drive farming tribes (who use less land per person) into refuges in the mountains or islands.

So, intensive agricultural use of land was rare, which meant that men didn`t have to work terribly hard at farm work as long as they had women hoeing weeds for them.

Reader writes:

From the time that Europeans first set foot in Africa, travelers have commented upon what they saw as an excessive interest in sex among Africans.
Think of this from the perspective of the Malthusian Trap. Europeans already tended to voluntarily keep their populations below Malthusian limits by practicing the moral restraint that the Rev. Malthus famously advised in 1798. From 1200-1800, the average age of first marriage for an Englishwoman was 24-26. Rich women tended to marry at younger ages, poor women at older. Illegitimacy rates were in the lower single digits.

Thus, due to this sexual restraint, Europeans tended to be in a less Malthusian situation than, say, the Chinese, who tended to marry younger. Consequently, Europeans tended to be richer while working less hard than the Chinese. If the European population didn`t grow as fast during good times as the Chinese population did, they didn`t experience quite as many vast die-offs from famine during times when good government broke down (e.g., as recently as the early 1960s during Mao`s crazy Great Leap Forward). England, for example, hasn`t had a major famine in over 600 years.

So, Europeans developed cultural forms that attempted to sublimate sexual urges in more restrained and refined directions. Traditional Europeans dances like the minuet didn`t feature a lot of pelvic thrusting, for example.

In Africa, however, conditions of life were such that the Malthusian Trap was not an active worry. More people were needed, so African culture — dance, song, and so forth — tended to encourage mating now rather than to encourage delay. Listening to Top 40 radio today, this pattern seems to have carried over from Africa.

Of particular interest as an exception that supports the general rule is an island in Lake Victoria, Ukara Island, now in Tanzania, where the Malthusian Trap seemed to operate. The population has been around 16,000 for a century, with about one percent of the population annually moving to the mainland, a rate of increase unusual in Africa until recently.

Ukara has a few major advantages over the surrounding mainland of Africa: no tsetse flies to spread sleeping sickness and no trypanosomiasis. No lions and no elephants, either, to compete with humans. Life (and death) is presumably less random than on the African mainland, so hard work and investment pay off more reliably.

Life on Ukara sounds rather like life in a poor Southeast Asian peasant society rather than in most of Africa. A 1968 aerial survey showed that 98.6 percent of the land on the island was in use. In contrast to the typical pattern of land use rights in Africa, almost every resource on the island, including each tree, is privately owned, which has prevented deforestation. (Here`s a description of Ukara from a libertarian perspective.) People on Ukara practice much more intensive and sophisticated agriculture than elsewhere in Tanzania, supposedly working ten hours per day, every day.

I spent some time looking for accounts by recent tourists visiting Ukara Island, but it became apparent that very few people go there, which is not surprising since people on holiday generally visit big cities or go to less crowded places to relax. We tend to think of islands as being less crowded (and thus more relaxing) than mainlands because they are less convenient to get to, but in Africa, apparently, things work the opposite. Being inconveniently far out in Lake Victoria makes life healthier and less risky than being on the mainland.

Has the Ukaran culture spread with the steady flow of Ukarans to the mainland of Africa? Evidently, no. Phil Raikes wrote in 1986:

This provides a very clear example of Esther Boserup`s contention that necessity in the form of population pressure is the mother of agricultural innovation. Further evidence for this comes from the fact that Ukara Islanders who migrate to the mainland, where population density is far lower, promptly drop their labour-intensive methods (over ten hours per day throughout the year) for the much easier methods practised on the mainland.
I`m not sure what the ultimate lessons are from Ukara Island, but the place is worth thinking about.