Article Summary: “Influence of Ancestral Lifeways on Economic Outcomes in Africa” by Michalopoulos, Putterman & Weil


Title: Influence of Ancestral Lifeways on Economic Outcomes in Africa
Author: Stelios Michalopoulos, Louis Putterman & David N. Weil
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 2 stars
My personal rating: 4 stars
See more on my book rating system.

Topic of Book

The authors use statistical analysis to determine whether Africans who descend from Horticultural societies (i.e farmers with hand tools and no plows) have different levels of development from Africans who descend from Herding societies.

My Comments:

It is my contention that how a society acquires its food is one of the most important factors in how that society develops. In addition, the individuals who descend from those societies maintain those characteristics even after the economy changes and even if many of them immigrate to other societies. This study validates this idea within the continent of Africa.

Key Take-aways

  • The different ethnic groups within Africa each have distinct lifeways associated with how they acquire their food that have lasted for many generations, long predating European colonialism.
  • Africans whose ancestors were from Horticultural societies have higher levels of wealth and education than Africans who had ancestors from Herding societies.
  • When Africans migrate to areas outside their ancestral homeland, they reproduce the same difference (i.e. they bring their “richness” or “poorness” within them)

Important Quotes from Book (H4)

We find that individuals from ethnicities that derived a larger share of subsistence from agriculture in the precolonial era are today more educated and wealthy. A tentative exploration of channels suggests that differences in attitudes and beliefs as well as differential treatment by others, including differential political power, may contribute to these divergent outcomes.

Our study is the first of which we are aware which explores the impact of economic culture, as identified by the primary source of subsistence, at the individual level.

Africa presents a setting in which it is relatively easy to match individuals with the economic lifeway of their preindustrial ancestors. In brief, lifeways can be

associated with ethnic groups, and given the rather limited mating across ethnic lines, modern individuals can usually be identified with a single tribe, and thus a particular historical lifeway.

Finally, in the modern African setting, we can identify individuals with different ancestral lifeways living in the same location, thus allowing us to study lineage-based historical effects in isolation, that is, purged from the effects of the place-based history.

Institutions are generally associated with places, and thus are unlikely to explain heterogeneity of outcomes within a region. Hence, culture is a natural suspect, as it is something that can vary among individuals in a given location based on their lineage.

Our main finding is that the higher the share of their subsistence a person’s ancestors obtained from agriculture, the higher are his or her education and wealth levels today. This result holds not only comparing the descendants of pastoralists to the descendants of agriculturalists, but also comparing the descendants of non-pastoralist groups that varied in the degree to which they relied on agriculture. Importantly, this pattern continues to hold even when we restrict our attention to individuals living outside their group’s ancestral homelands, to residents within urban places, and to individuals engaged in occupations other than agriculture and animal husbandry.

The uncovered evidence supports a story in which ethnic groups which found themselves on land that was suitable for agriculture were more likely to take this up as a means of subsistence, and that engaging in agriculture then conferred portable characteristics on individuals from these ethnic groups that made them more prone to succeed after they migrated away from their homelands.

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