8/31/11 - rapid growth means death

In today's excerpt - prior to the most recent times, rapid growth in a given community's population quickly imperiled that community because their land and resources could only support a limited population. Therefore those communities had strategies for limiting growth—infanticide, emigration, and changing the age of marriage—among others:

"There are many reasons why an individual or a community might choose to migrate and settle in a new territory. Herodotus tells the story of the inhabitants of Thera—the modern Greek island of Santorini—who, after seven years of disastrous harvests, decided that all they could do was to draw lots to select a proportion of the population to be sent overseas to found a new colony. When the spirit of the frightened exiles failed and they turned their ship back to the island, stones were thrown at them to keep them from landing. The approach of famine was one compelling reason for emigration.

"But there were many other reasons for mobility. The Phoenicians from Tyre who set up a trading colony on the island of Gadir (Cadiz) just off the coast of Andalucia around 800 BC were most likely motivated by a desire to benefit from the proceeds of trade with the metal-rich Tartessians living on the adjacent mainland, while the Irish Christian monks who sailed to Iceland in the eighth century AD did so simply to seek solitude in a deserted place, the better to commune with their god.

"Many anecdotes can be told about human mobility, reflecting a bewildering variety of motives—religious calling, an innate desire to explore, trade for financial gain: all are familiar in the modern world. But the overriding imperative, then as now, was the desire for adequate personal space and the resources to support a desired lifestyle.

"All animal populations are governed by basic biological rules, as Thomas Malthus long ago recognized. A population occupying a defined environment, left to breed in an uninhibited fashion, is likely at first to increase in size exponentially. But as the population reaches the holding capacity of the environment they inhabit, the rate of growth will rapidly decrease until the numbers remain steady below that holding capacity. In practice, the holding capacity may at first be exceeded resulting in stress and disruption to the social fabric before the level is adjusted.

"To control the growth of population societies may introduce a number of constraints. Birth rate can be reduced in a variety of ways, from raising the age of marriage to infanticide. Warfare is another effective way to reduce surplus population, and since warfare seems to be endemic it has probably served as one of the principal regulators throughout time. Another mechanism, reflected in Herodotus's story of Thera, is emigration and colonization in which a segment of the population moves off to find a new ecological niche to settle.

"The holding capacity of a particular environment may also change. The introduction of more effective means of production and distribution through improved technology allows for a larger population. In Britain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a rapidly increasing population was accommodated through a range of agricultural improvements, including the more efficient overwintering of livestock made possible by the introduction of the turnip. Later it was new technology heralding the Industrial Revolution—inventions such as the blast furnace and steam power—that enabled population growth to be sustained. 

"Conversely, holding capacity can be reduced, temporarily or permanently, by natural catastrophe  or long-term environmental decline. The potato famine in Ireland in the early nineteenth century caused not only a high death rate through disease and malnutrition but also mass emigration. In 1841, the Irish population was over eight million. Ten years later a million had died and another million had emigrated, mainly to America. Thereafter, the momentum of emigration continued over the course of a hundred years, reducing the Irish population to about half its pre-famine level."


Barry Cunliffe


Europe Between the Oceans 9000 BC-AD 1000


Yale University Press


Copyright 2008 by Barry Cunliffe


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment