Ancestral ecological endowments and missing women


This paper examines the relationship between ecological endowments in antiquity and contemporary female to male sex ratios in the population. It is found that there are proportionately more missing women in countries whose ancestral ecological endowments were poorer. This relationship is shown to be strong even after ancestral plough use, the timing of the Neolithic Transition, and many other potentially confounding factors are controlled for. Similar results are also obtained using district-level data from India.

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  1. 1.

    Relatedly, Grogan (2018) finds that a preference for sons is more pronounced among ethnicities likelier to employ the plough.

  2. 2.

    Engels (1902) too made just such an argument.

  3. 3.

    By these authors, hunter–gatherers suffering resource stress are under pressure to control their numbers, and fertility control is facilitated by the subjugation of women of child-bearing age. This conclusion is borne out in the authors’ observation that strictures upon women are significantly loosened upon their reaching menopause.

  4. 4.

    Since infant mortality is higher in boys than girls, perhaps an adverse environment led to selection, whereby surviving male infants were more robust than average, growing up to be taller than average, and this, not human intervention, led to a widening of the average height difference between the genders. However, since male growth processes are more sensitive to environmental conditions, selection from the greater mortality of boys under adverse conditions may not in itself have led to rise in average adult male height if these conditions persisted to adulthood.

  5. 5.

    Given our hypothesis that ancestral resource scarcity led to cultural norms of gender inequality in command of resources, the female to male sex ratio in the population better suits our purpose than children’s sex-ratios because skewedness in the former has been a consequence primarily of lifetime deprivation, whereas recent skewedness in the latter, at least in the Asian nations in which it is most pronounced, is driven by sex-selective abortion. Further, Andersen and Ray (2010) note that even in China, a significant proportion of missing females are adults, and that adults constitute the majority of missing females in India.

  6. 6.

    Conversion from crop to caloric yield utilizes the US Department of Agriculture’s Nutrient Database for Standard Reference.

  7. 7.

    The element (i,j) of this matrix is the fraction of country i’s population in the year 2000 whose ancestors were living in country j in 1500.

  8. 8.

    Fredriksson and Gupta (2018) too find that sex ratios are more skewed against females in countries with longer histories of agriculture.

  9. 9.

    Note, however, that the advent of sophisticated political organization, conducive to the founding of beneficial institutions, may have had little to do with agricultural productivity (Mayshar et al. 2017).

  10. 10.

    Anderson (2011) observes that, by the 1991 and 2001 censuses, 24 to 29% of the population of India consists of migrants, with 60% of these moving within the same district and 25% moving within the same state.

  11. 11.

    Obtainable from Soils of India published by the National Bureau of Soil Survey and Land Use Planning, Indian Council of Agricultural Research

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    One of these is (East) Punjab, called the ‘wheat bowl of India’, but its high agricultural productivity is driven by modern irrigation given its annual rainfall of but 649 mm.

  13. 13.

    For instance, there is evidence that damage to ecological resources in Europe, the Near East and North Africa, owing to a phenomenon of climatic cooling during the period 1450–1850 led to rise in conflict (Iyigun et al. 2017).

  14. 14.

    Cigno et al. (2017) describe a societal or family norm as prescribed behaviour whose amendment is not in the interest of future generations. It is unclear that norms of gender inequality fit this description. For example, while it may have been optimal for women in antiquity to specialize in household work in societies employing the plough, it cannot be said that this specialization remains advantageous.

  15. 15.

    Norms governing the inter-gender sharing of household resources might be reconciled with present-day intra-household bargaining if they were viewed as altering the genders’ respective utility functions in such a way that bargaining results in greater resource allocations to males. After all, there is evidence of women absorbing patriarchal ideologies to perpetuate gender inequality (Sultana 2010).


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The very helpful comments of two anonymous referees are gratefully acknowledged.

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Correspondence to Gautam Hazarika.

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Responsible editor: Alessandro Cigno

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Hazarika, G., Jha, C.K. & Sarangi, S. Ancestral ecological endowments and missing women. J Popul Econ 32, 1101–1123 (2019).

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  • Gender inequality
  • Historical factors
  • Resource scarcity
  • Culture

JEL codes

  • D1
  • J1
  • Z1