The scars of prehistoric malnutrition are visible both genetically and in the paleontological record, and it was through famine that poverty was first experienced. Malnutrition was as present among prehistoric human hunter-gatherers as it was for omnivores of other species, but famine is caused by dependence on local or regional agriculture for food and the calamitous failure of local or regional agriculture to meet the needs of the community. Because humans are the only species to have domesticated crops on a mass-subsistence scale, famine is a uniquely human problem.

As communities began to use currency for bartering and debts, financial poverty became a more prominent issue. The Sumerian Instructions of Shuruppak (ca. 2500 b.c.e.), one of the oldest surviving human texts, caution readers not to turn ...

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