A database of pre-industrial sampling supports historical and ethnographic research
We know that economic underdevelopment is often rooted in history. Smaller effects build over time, shaped by a society’s traditions and practices. Then there are the large, life-altering shifts — think colonialism, forced labor, the slave trade — that render historical shocks with economic repercussions spanning generations. But mining those connections can be challenging for researchers, since it requires drawing from many different sources and disciplines.
It was with this in mind that UCLA Anderson’s Paola Giuliano and Nathan Nunn of Harvard set out to construct a public database of ancestral economic, cultural, political and environmental characteristics from around the world. In a paper published in Economic History of Developing Regions, Giuliano and Nunn discuss how they built the database and how it can be used. Rather than analyze a specific aspect of economic underdevelopment, the paper offers a resource for future study in this realm.
Giuliano and Nunn use, as their primary source, the Ethnographic Atlas, a worldwide database of ancestral characteristics for 1,265 ethnic groups. The data is all pre-industrial, but because some of the sampled ethnic groups had written histories and others did not, the observation dates vary. In total, 23 ethnicities show observations during the 17th century or earlier; 16 during the 18th century; 310 during the 19th century; 876 between 1900 and 1950; and 31 after 1950. Nine ethnic groups show no exact observation year.
The authors then supplement the Ethnographic Atlas data with additional sampling to more completely cover ethnic groups from Eastern Europe, Western Europe and the former Soviet Union, bringing the total to 1,309 ethnicities.
Giuliano and Nunn work under the assumption that ancestral traits move through time alongside language, itself an important trait transmitted from mother to child. So they link the ethnographic data to current populations using Ethnologue: Languages of the World, a data source that maps the geographic distribution of more than 7,000 languages and dialects; and also using the U.S. Department of Defense-funded LandScan database, which estimates the world’s population in roughly one-kilometer-square grids.
The downloadable database can be used to assess any number of connections between ancestral characteristics and current economic conditions, factoring in such variables as political hierarchies, settlement makeup and complexity, marriage customs and gender dynamics.
Let’s say you’re interested in why certain societies invest in education for girls, but others do not. Could ancestral cultural traditions have any influence? The database could help determine that, yes, the probability of girls’ being educated is higher in societies that practice the tradition of bride price, which is the transfer of money and other assets from the groom’s family to the bride’s family (perhaps some in Indonesia or Zambia). Why? It turns out that educated girls attract higher bride prices.