This Week in Experimental Archaeology

Twenty German college students are spending the summer living and training as Roman gladiators:

The student warriors, who are all studying various disciplines at the university, won’t be eating pizza, hamburgers or steaks during their training. Instead they’ll have berries and white beans on their plates as the ancient Roman doctor Galen recommended in his texts.

They will also learn to fight wearing bronze helmets that weigh almost five kilogrammes at a camp that won’t allow girlfriends, showers, or washing machines.

“For me it’s a welcome change from sitting in front of the computer,” said athletic archaeology student Martin Schreiner.

He and the other gladiators are already training together four days a week. Following the summer training camp the group plans to perform at the former Roman army camp Carnuntum in Austria.

The worst part of the experience will be the food. Gladiators ate a vegetarian diet consisting largely of a barley gruel. The fat gain from the starchy carbs is believed to have acted as a shield against blows and cuts received in the arena. [via HistoryTweeter]

Next on deck: a group of economists and anthropologists believe agriculture precipitated market economies because surpluses forced people to associate with others outside their social sphere:

To arrive at this conclusion, the team set up money-swapping games played by people from small societies around the world — farmers, hunter-gatherers, seaside foragers, livestock herders, and wage laborers — and looked at how each group divvied up resources.

Participants who regularly have to deal with outsiders treated strangers more fairly, sharing a pool of money or valuables more equally, the team found.

Game players’ willingness to split up resources fairly with an unknown partner rose sharply with their “market integration,” or the extent that they lived in communities with market economies.

I’m generally dubious of these sorts of games and models since I suspect the rules often support pre-established conclusions. In this case, the people with higher “market integration” may have been fairer to strangers simply because they were more familiar with the trading process itself.

In addition, participants from the largest communities were most likely to punish players whom they regarded as offering unfair deals. That meant canceling the deal and getting nothing or paying part of one’s own pool of money to cause an even bigger loss for the unfair player.

That’s not good news for traditional economic theories that regard self-interest as the engine of commerce. If those theories are right, players should take whatever someone else gives them, because that’s better than nothing.

Wrong. One of the most common misconceptions of capitalism is that individuals are motivated by material gain alone. “Self-interest” is not the same as “greed.” If a man spends a lot of money at a bar trying to pick up a woman, he’s still working in his self-interest. Other desires — like love or sex or vengeance — may outweigh the desire for wealth within the breast of an individual. It’s a mistake made not just by journalists but by economists as well. A lot of people seem to think of markets as robotic abacuses, with beads shuttling back and forth in a logical manner, but I’m always surprised at how often pure emotion fuels the economy, particularly the stock market.

Trade led to market economies because people began to trade — I think the writer garbled the point, although maybe the researchers did too. The belief in archaeology is that agriculture led to larger, fixed populations, which led to more complex societies featuring skill specialization, which often led to market economies because specialized individuals had to trade with each other to obtain things they could no longer produce for themselves.

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