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In his 2014 book "War! What Is It Good For?", historian Ian Morris writes:

Ten thousand years ago, there were only about six million people on earth. On average they lived about thirty years and supported themselves on the equivalent of less than two modern American dollars per day.

Now, in theory "less than $2" might, of course, mean anything down to one cent, but I think it is reasonable to suppose that Morris means that the income was slightly lower than $2, or he would have written a specific lower number. This makes me wonder. The world bank sets the global poverty line at $1.25 a day, and estimates about 15% of the world's population to earn less. This means that an average stone age person earned per day, in a sense, more than about a billion people living today, and would not be considered poor by today's standards.

Unfortunately, my audio recording of Morris' book does not contain any references. Is there indeed evidence indicating that the average human income 10000 years ago was living on not much less than $2 a day?

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    I don't think the author is claiming what you think. Today's standards are not applicable to a barter economy: stone age people had no money and a completely different economic system. – Sklivvz Dec 9 '14 at 14:47
  • @Sklivvz I am not sure which claims you mean (except for the perhaps misleading use of "earning", which I now edited). The author claims stone age people lived on a specific amount of money, expressed in a specific unit (modern US$). The exactly same unit is used to determine global poverty. I am not sure the resulting comparison would be correct, which is the reason I am asking the question; but I do not see what invalid assumptions I am making. – P_S Dec 9 '14 at 15:46
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    @Oddthinking I think there are multiple possible meanings, the most probable being that, were stone-age people living now, they would need somewhat less than 2$ per day to sustain their lifestyle. Of course, incomes are never fully comparable, even within one time period; but I think there nevertheless is a sense in which they are meaningful. – P_S Dec 9 '14 at 17:35
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    What would they spend the $2 on? Tax accountant fees, because they can't do it themselves? Or bail money for the trespass and vagrancy charges? (Sorry - any snarkiness is coming from confusion. I just don't get it. Either they join society, which is expensive, or they remain apart, which is free.) – Oddthinking Dec 9 '14 at 21:12
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    One measure might be 'standard of living': e.g. how does their standard of living compare with the standard of living of the many people who live on $2/day on present-day earth? Another measure might be economic productivity: what's the present-day value of what they produced (e.g. agriculture, tools, and I don't know about hunting)? – ChrisW Dec 10 '14 at 13:43
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Did stone age people have an income of slightly below [USD]2[] a day?

No. "Income" is an anachronistic way to deal with hunter-gatherer or settled resource extraction or early agricultural people. Income is concept that relates to accounted earnings, which develop in antiquity and medieval times, but most strongly in early modernity with the birth of capitalism as a social relation. As "income" as a concept or as a social relation didn't exist, people did not earn incomes.

Ten thousand years ago, there were only about six million people on earth. On average they lived about thirty years and supported themselves on the equivalent of less than two modern American dollars per day.

10000BP appears to be meso-lithic, and Galor O, Moav O 2007, The neolithic revolution and contemporary variations in life expectancy, Working Paper, Brown University, Department of Economics 2007-14 http://hdl.handle.net/10419/80105 indicates that the lifespan was around 30, including infant mortality.

The crux of the question is: was meso-lithic life equivalent to less than USD2 per day? In particular, the concept of an equivalence between USD2 in 2014 in the United States where wage labour in advanced industrial capitalism is the way of life, and the way of life of pre-agricultural meso-lithic humans.

From the material relating to the attempt to form a long run wage price series in England, and from the general work regarding long run attempts to explain "inflation" and acceptable standards of living (cf: Measuringworth.com 's paper-sets): it is unreasonable to equate standards of living in the meso-lithic with a monetary income in an advanced industrial wage labour society.

The history of ways of living, and the social organisation of ways of living (including waged labour, and purchase of social necessities on an open market), strongly favour not making broad comparisons across time in terms of different ways of organising society. The anachronisms involved become counter-productive in the extreme, and hide the actual ways in which people live. Even in very short stretches of time, between 1800 and 1850, subsistence and how people experienced activity vary considerably such that ideas as to whether "work" is onerous in capitalism is a difficult question (EP Thompson 1967, Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism, widely reprinted but first in Past & Present).

USD2 in 2014 has no meaning in terms of how meso-lithic humans sustained themselves. Meso-lithic humans lacked wage labour, a cash economy, commodities for purchase. They did not support themselves on the equivalent of less than USD2 a day; as how they supported themselves has no comparable value to the methods of support that USD2 entails. The quote is a sloppy metaphor that produces more confusion than clarity.

  • Galor O, Moav O 2007, The neolithic revolution and contemporary variations in life expectancy, Working Paper, Brown University, Department of Economics 2007-14 hdl.handle.net/10419/80105 ; P Thompson 1967, Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism, widely reprinted but first in Past & Present ; cf: Measuringworth.com 's paper-sets – Samuel Russell Dec 10 '14 at 0:43
  • Samuel, you should edit that reference information into the post, and provide particularized citations for as many of the (many) claims in your post as possible. – dmckee Dec 10 '14 at 1:49
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    Thank you for the answer! It seems you are an expert in the field. Just two things: It would help if it was clear whether you quote the sources you cite, or draw conclusions from them. Also, perhaps you can tell where Morris' figure comes from, even if only to reject it as "a sloppy metaphor". – P_S Dec 10 '14 at 8:54
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    The problem isn't with the answer. The problem is with the question. The question should be on History.SE because hard sciences can't answer it, and any reference from soft science would be too-squishy-looking for Skeptics even if it's excellently referenced. – user5341 Dec 10 '14 at 11:55
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    @AE 's citation of Humphrey 1985 "Barter…" Man summarises the current view on the history of Barter. In addition, the incommensurability of desires: ie, the inability to reconcile actual human utilities; is a field basic finding in economics and political economy. This is to say: standards of living are incomparable from a universal perspective, because individual humans' desires are [provably, see 19th century utilitarianism] incomparable. – Samuel Russell Dec 10 '14 at 21:43

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