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Was Agriculture Humanity's Biggest Ever Mistake?

The Technological Spark

It was agriculture that allowed empires to flourish throughout the Middle East and North Africa, most famously in Egypt as shown here.

It was agriculture that allowed empires to flourish throughout the Middle East and North Africa, most famously in Egypt as shown here.

Would You Swap This...

This is a smart phone known as a Google Nexus S running Android OS 2.3

This is a smart phone known as a Google Nexus S running Android OS 2.3

...For This

A hunting spear (above) and knife (below) found in the Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.

A hunting spear (above) and knife (below) found in the Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.

Where It All Began


We owe science a huge deal of gratitude. For example, astronomy informed us that our tiny, fragile blue planet is just one of billions of celestial bodies rather than the bright centre of the universe. Biology showed us that like all other species, we evolved gradually over millions of years, rather than being created spontaneously by a supernatural being. Archaeology meanwhile is presently destroying another long held belief of human society; that our history over the last 10,000 years has been a continuous and glorious tale of progress. Recent discoveries in the Middle East, Southern Europe and elsewhere have suggested that the discovery of agriculture, far from being a giant stride towards a better life, represented nothing more than a disaster, one from which we have yet to recover. For example, agriculture facilitated the onset of substantial social and sexual inequality, as well numerous diseases that continue to haunt our lives today.

Now, at first glance, any discerning, self-respecting 21st century Westerner may find the notion of the onset of agriculture as a disaster utterly preposterous. And you can understand why. Admittedly, our modern lives are better in virtually every way than our medieval ancestors, who in turn led better lives than hunter gatherers, who again were better off than our ape cousins. The luxuries we enjoy our considerable, in terms of food we enjoy access to the most and the best in terms of quality and variety. Additionally we possess a treasure trove of tools and materials, and lead some of the longest and healthiest lives in all of human history, with many in the Western world now comfortably reaching the age of 100. The majority of us need not worry about starvation and predators, plus some of us can accomplish great things without even breaking sweat, through acquiring energy from oil and a menagerie of machines. Who in the right mind would trade their modern lifestyle for that of a peasant, a hunter gatherer or chimpanzee?

For the majority of our 200,000 year existence, we have supported ourselves exclusively through hunting and gathering. Essentially we hunted wild animals and foraged for wild plants either for food or other means such as acquiring tools and materials. Traditionally thinkers regarded this lifestyle as nasty, brutish and short. What with the little or no food stored, surely each day was a struggle to find enough wild food to stave off starvation. The discovery of agriculture, according to this viewpoint was an escape from this infernal misery. It’s hard to consider agriculture as anything other than a success when you realise that its reach is now virtually global, with the nasty and brutish hunter gatherers confined to some of the remotest regions of the planet.

When one ponders why hunter gatherers across the world suddenly adopted agriculture, it seems a rather simple answer. They abandoned their old lifestyle because agriculture presented a more efficient way to get more food for far less exertion. Planted crops after all yield far more than wild plants over a similar sized area. Try to imagine an exhausted hunting party suddenly stumbling across a lush and fertile orchard or a pasture full of domestic and docile sheep or cows. I’d wager that the majority of them would appreciate the benefits of agriculture almost immediately.

However, one has to be careful when associating progress and agriculture. Many consider the adoption of agriculture as the catalyst for the spectacular flowering of advanced culture such as art that started a few thousand years ago and continues unabated today. The theory seems academic, after all, crops, that take less time to pick can be stored, thus giving humans access to the kind of free time that hunter gatherers could only dream of. Quite simply, such marvellous creations such as the Pyramids and Mona Lisa only became possible with the discovery of agriculture.

Leisure Time...

This San tribesman only works on average 19 hours a week in order to obtain enough food to survive.

This San tribesman only works on average 19 hours a week in order to obtain enough food to survive.

...And Hard Labour

In contrast, farmers like these often have to work from dawn to dusk for food often lacking in essential nutrients.

In contrast, farmers like these often have to work from dawn to dusk for food often lacking in essential nutrients.

When Famine Hit Ireland

Ireland's dependency on the potato from the 17th century onwards, meant that sooner or later a famine would strike. In contrast, the wide and varied diet enjoyed by hunter gatherers meant that famines were unlikely.

Ireland's dependency on the potato from the 17th century onwards, meant that sooner or later a famine would strike. In contrast, the wide and varied diet enjoyed by hunter gatherers meant that famines were unlikely.

A Highly Recommended Link

A Brief Guide To Paleopathology

Uncovering The Evidence

Regarding agriculture as a major step forward in human history seems initially quite easy to prove. But closer scrutiny of this notion reveals the evidence to be somewhat contrary to the popular view of our history. For example, think about this: Throughout the world today, are isolated bands of hunter gatherers living in marginal environments, often the fringes of agricultural land. One such group are the San people, once derogatively called Bushmen. They live much the same way that humans did before the adoption of agriculture and analysis of their lifestyle reveals that they have in actual fact, ample amounts of leisure time which is largely spent sleeping. In contrast their farming neighbours have to work virtually from dawn to dusk. To put it in an hourly context, they only have to spend a maximum of 19 hours a week obtaining food, while another hunter gatherer tribe, the Hadza of Tanzania spend on average less than 14 hours a week foraging for food. Amusingly when one member of the San tribe was asked why he hadn’t copied his farming neighbours, he gave the following reply: “Why bother, when there are so many mongongo nuts around?”

Farmers typically tend to focus on growing crops packed with carbohydrates such as rice and potatoes, whereas the various species of wild plants and animals consumed by modern hunter gatherers provide not only more protein but more nutrients over all. Amazingly, one study of the San diet revealed that on average, they consume 2140 calories and 93 grams of proteins, an amount that is significantly greater than the modern recommended daily allowance for people of their stature. Thus, the chances of modern hunter gatherers succumbing to starvation in the way that hundreds of thousands of Irish potato farmers did in the 19th century are virtually nil.

We can therefore categorically state that the lives of modern hunter gatherers are far from nasty and brutish. This is despite the fact they have long been denied access to the most fertile areas of the planet by farmers. However, it’s important to note that virtually all modern hunter gatherers have had at least some contact with farming communities for centuries, even millennia. Therefore, modern hunter gatherers cannot give us the full story about conditions prior to the Neolithic Revolution. Thus one must rely on archaeology both to determine when the switch occurred and whether the health of our ancestors improved after the switch.

So, how does one go about discovering how healthy our distant ancestors were? Well, until recently the question was unanswerable, but the relatively new technique known as paleopathology, which involves looking for signs of disease in the remains of our ancestors.

Occasionally, the paleopathologist gains access to the kind of material that even a conventional pathologist would be proud of. A prime example of this, are the mummies found in the freezing Chilean deserts. Despite being centuries old, these mummies are so well preserved that their cause of death can be verified by autopsy. Additionally faeces have been found in the Nevada desert that despite being centuries old are so well preserved that they can be examined for worms, parasites any other signs of disease.

Normally, all paleopathologists have to go with are skeletons. However, even these collections of bones can reveal a great deal of information about its former owner. Firstly, they can give a fairly conclusive answer regarding the sex and weight of the individual, and a more approximate answer regarding their age. They can also calculate the growth rate of the individual by comparing their bones with those of different people of different ages. They can examine the teeth for any signs of enamel deficiency, which is normally a clear sign of childhood malnutrition, while scars preserved on the skeleton, can often reveal the presence of various diseases such as tuberculosis and leprosy.

Paleopathologists have shown that the transition from hunting to farming resulted in a marked decrease in height amongst skeletons uncovered in Greece and Turkey. Whilst in the American Midwest, the skeletons there reveal that the early farmers experienced a 50 per cent increase in enamel defects, a sure sign of malnutrition. There was also a threefold increase in degenerative conditions of the spine, which was probably indicative of the amount of hard labour the new farmers had to perform. Life expectancy among these communities, perhaps unsurprisingly decreased markedly with the rise of infectious diseases and skeletal stress.

Moreover, the remains in the American Midwest also reveal that farming wasn’t adopted through choice or desire. Instead it proved to be a necessity in order to feed a rapidly growing population. Essentially, the people remained hunters for as long as possible, before making the necessary switch- it was a conscious trade of quality for quantity.

The Founder Crop

Wheat, while being easy to grow provided our early farming ancestors with less nutrients than their hunter gatherer brethren.

Wheat, while being easy to grow provided our early farming ancestors with less nutrients than their hunter gatherer brethren.

A New Threat

Agriculture allowed humans to sustain large populations, but the downfall of this was that we became vulnerable to a wide range of deadly diseases.

Agriculture allowed humans to sustain large populations, but the downfall of this was that we became vulnerable to a wide range of deadly diseases.

The Haves And Have Nots

An important Japanese Samurai standing alongside his lowly servant.

An important Japanese Samurai standing alongside his lowly servant.

Lucky To Be Alive

This Cambodian women was the victim of a brutal acid attack by a man. Today, sexual or gender inequality, despite the success of the feminist movement, is still a major problem in our society.

This Cambodian women was the victim of a brutal acid attack by a man. Today, sexual or gender inequality, despite the success of the feminist movement, is still a major problem in our society.

Why It Was Our Biggest Mistake

There are three clear reasons why agriculture was our biggest mistake. Firstly as already hinted, it was extremely bad for our health, hunter gatherers revelled in a varied diet, while farmers subsisted on just a few species (wheat, rice and corn) which provided cheap calories at the cost of inadequate nutrition. Even today, a large number of the food we consume contains these three species of crop, each one lacking in essential vitamins and amino acids. The reliance on a limited number of crops meant that farmers constantly diced with death in terms of starvation, even if just one of them failed. Additionally, the surplus of food inspired people to congregate together in ever expanding settlements. However, it’s important to note that agriculture wouldn’t have been possible without the sharp increase in hunter gatherer societies after the last Ice Age; essentially, crowding encourages agriculture. These expanding populations led to the rapid spread and prevalence of parasites and deadly diseases. With the appearances of the first villages, the first towns and finally the first cities, the diseases that still stalks us today like tuberculosis, measles and the common cold developed and prospered.

The second agricultural curse to befall our species was the development of recognisable class divisions. For hunter gatherers the concept of status and wealth was unheard of, as they had very few possessions and basically stored virtually no food at all. They also lacked the kind of food sources that naturally promote wealth, such as fields, orchards and pastures. Thus, hunter gatherer societies lacked rulers such as kings or emperors, they lacked perennially starving peasants and social bureaucrats who often grow fat on the profits (food) seized from the peasants. The evidence for the emergence of a healthy and prosperous elite is overwhelming. Remains of Greeks royals at Mycenae dating from 1500 BC show that not only did they enjoy a better diet than the peasants, but they were on average two to three inches taller and possessed better teeth. The discovery of mummies in Chile revealed that often the bodies of dead royals were adorned in elaborate ornaments and jewellery.

Today these sharp contrasts in both nutrition and health still exist. To rich Westerners, the idea of giving up an affluent lifestyle for the comparably hard hunter gatherer lifestyle is ludicrous. However, if you were asked to either live the life of a third world farmer or a modern hunter gatherer, then which one do you think sounds like the better option?

Thirdly and finally, the adoption of agriculture probably encouraged a profound and long lasting inequality between the sexes. The transition from nomadism to settlement saw women freed from the responsibility of transporting their babies, but at the same time the pressure on them to produce more humans grew, due to the need for extra labour; more pregnancies inevitably resulted in serious drains on their health. Very often in primitive agricultural societies today, where livestock isn’t available, it’s the women that become the beasts of burden. One such place is New Guinea, where women are often observed staggering under a huge load of vegetables or wood, while the physically stronger men often walk around empty handed or with light loads.

The Chicken Or The Egg

It was the rise of human populations after the Ice Age that facilitated agriculture, rather than the other way around. However, once it was adopted our population could only continue to increase, meaning that scenes like this became common

It was the rise of human populations after the Ice Age that facilitated agriculture, rather than the other way around. However, once it was adopted our population could only continue to increase, meaning that scenes like this became common

The Article That Inspired This Hub

A Highly Recommended Book


The claim that agriculture brought forth a spectacular flowering of art and culture, through the procurement of more leisure time is false. Modern hunter gatherers have in fact more free time than third world farmers and even us rich Westerners. In my humble opinion, focusing on leisure time seems rather misguided. After all, our great ape cousins have had ample free time to develop civilisation, if they wanted to. Admittedly agriculture did allow for new technologies to develop, which thus allowed new art forms to emerge. But remember that great works of art were already being produced more than 15,000 years ago in places such as Southern France, Spain and Australia.

Indeed it seems that only a relatively small number of people became better off, whilst the majority became significantly worse off. When one reflects on the notion of progress, it’s understandable how such a concept could have arisen, because in the early days of civilisation, the only people capable of recording history were an elite that had access to a skill that most peasants could only dream of- writing.

So, we now know or can at least guess from the archaeological evidence that farming emerged as a by-product of rising post- Ice Age hunter gatherer populations. Essentially, as a species we had to choose between feeding more mouths or limiting growth. Those that chose the former developed and moulded the civilised society we still live in today, whilst those that chose the latter were pushed out into the margins. Time and time again, hungry, malnourished farmers drove away healthy bands of hunter gatherers in order to acquire more land

Hunting and gathering was and is the most successful life style in human history, it has sustained us and our precursor human species for over two million years. Meanwhile, agriculture is a 10,000 year experiment that has undoubtedly gone horribly wrong, both for us and most of the other living creatures that share this world with us. It remains to be seen whether we have the capability of solving this fundamental problem and rectify our mistake. The only real certainty is that if we don’t undo the damage of the last 10,000 years, then the results will not be pretty, in fact they will be horrible for us, but more importantly for our children, grandchildren and the rest of life on earth.

What Do You Think?

© 2013 James Kenny


riley gordon on August 21, 2016:

i have a question do you think agriculture was bad or do think it was good for the human race

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on January 13, 2014:

Thank you very much for your input blueheron, like the name by the way. :)

blueheron on January 13, 2014:

I would have to agree that a hunter-gatherer lifestyle is by far preferable to a full-on agricultural lifestyle. (I do think some deegree of cultivation of some foods couuld be worked into a hunter-gatherer culture that was fairly sedentary, without a problem.)

As you've pointed out, agriculture was a response to population pressures, so a return to the hunter-gatherer existence could only happen by means of a human population crash. Population crashes of all species are cyclical, and there are certainly indications that we, as humans, are headed for one.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on January 06, 2014:

To call it a difference between being lazy and hardworking is too simplistic. Hunter gatherers actually work very hard, it's just that they don't need to work hard as often as a farmer. Moreover hunter gatherers work far less, for much a greater nutritional reward.

Afrodealing.com on January 06, 2014:

It's rather something very difficult to say. Agriculture should be the best thing that humanity has ever had. It is due to it that we had our most revolutionary ideas and solutions today. From a lazy person's perspective, Agriculture is not a good thing and will never be. From a hard worker's perspective; Agriculture is the best thing humanity has ever come across.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on January 06, 2014:

Yes, I've often pondered that too. It's tempting to say that we would live in a much cleaner, greener and bio-diverse world, but it's hard to say. I've even heard that the development of agriculture delayed the onset of the next ice age, so maybe if we had of remained hunter gatherers, we'd be in the midst of a new glacial episode.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on January 06, 2014:

Thank you very much Adam.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on January 06, 2014:

Haha! Probably not a good idea Heidi, as I have a very biased view on the subject. Admittedly I do enjoy certain aspects of civilisation, but I also feel that the agricultural revolution put our species on the road to disaster, a disaster that has yet to play out.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on January 06, 2014:

Thank you Tom! Glad you liked it.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on January 06, 2014:

Thanks Bill, I'm a great admirer of Jared Diamond, hence why I wrote the article. He also wrote another fantastic book called 'Guns, Germs and Steel,' in it he dispels the myth of European superiority, explaining that they only dominate the world due to good fortune in geography, environment and resources. If any other group of people had had access to those resources, then the roles would be reversed.

Mackenzie Sage Wright on January 05, 2014:

Interesting hub. It's always hard for me to imagine 'what if' scenarios for major influences of our culture. It's interesting to wonder what humanity on the whole would look like today had we remained hunter/gatherers and nomadic creatures. Congrats on winning hub of the day.

Matthew P Holbert on January 05, 2014:

JKenny, I think you could get a lot out of my hub: fractal keys to a natural life style. Further, your topic falls into a subject that I have been writing about most of all, which is human nature vs natural human. What is the difference between human nature and a natural human?

Human nature is to a cube, as natural human is to a tree. What kind of connections can you make from that analogy?

adamschwartz on January 05, 2014:

Very interesting, certainly a contention that I had never heard before, and you support it well. Thanks for the thought provoking piece.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on January 05, 2014:

I've been watching some shows on the History Channel which discuss the agriculture-breeds-cities theory. I do agree with the theory that it does and was a defining moment in our evolution.

However, this is a complex issue with a lot of moving parts. Questions of technology development, labor force, population growth and control, environmental conservation... just the tip of this academic debate iceberg.

Maybe you should do a documentary series on it. I'll be looking for it on the History Channel. :) Great, thought provoking topic!

Tom Mukasa from Lives in USA on January 05, 2014:

Thanks JKelly. Allow to read this 3 more times. The last two left me saying yes and no, no, yes, no!

William Leverne Smith from Hollister, MO on January 05, 2014:

Interesting food for thought. Jared Diamond is well respected for his views. Seems overly simplistic, to me, but does get one to thinking - that is the biggest contribution of these discussions. Thanks for sharing! ;-)

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on January 05, 2014:

Completely agree, we are in effect, domestic animals, except that we were domesticated not by another species, but by our own kind. The only way to free ourselves from this state is to reconnect with the natural world and re-learn long forgotten skills. In my opinion, the few surviving hunter gatherers are the most valuable people on the planet. Thanks for commenting.

Ciaran Moore from Ireland on January 05, 2014:

Interesting article. I recently completed a course online about the history of humankind and it says similar things. Most modern people wouldn't survive very long if left out in the wilderness to feed and shelter themselves. We have definitely become too dependent on the current system, and then there's the health implications of modern food and diet. Great job with this detailed article!

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on January 05, 2014:

Thank you very much Mattrick. Love and Appreciation to you too.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on January 05, 2014:

Thanks very much Brent. I must admit that I admire your faith in civilisation. Personally, I think that while Homo sapiens will survive, civilisation won't. Essentially we will revert to a lifestyle that had previously sustained us for 99% of our history.

Matthew P Holbert on January 05, 2014:

Whether agriculture was the greatest mistake is like saying the industrial revolution was a, shall we say, reincarnation of that very same mistake. I believe this is of good comparison as it has the same basic benefit to cost ratio. The issue is that both of these paradigm shifts were a double edge sword, there can be no doubt about that.

The change from natural human life to this artificial world is astounding when you consider how rapidly the change happens. From agriculture to "civilization" from industry to globalization. The next paradigm shift shall come soon in the form of our technology, in which a greater mistake may be made called transhumanism--the idea that man will be merged with machine.

Transhumanism is the height of this anti nature mentality that has been at the core of modern humanity since the industrial revolution. However, it could be said that the roots of this tree of knowledge of good and evil, has its roots in the first garden--the first agricultural project by man. Nonetheless, this perspective of artificiality, being what I believe to be the mistake, cannot be rectified by calling it out, or saying that it is wrong.

The possible fruits, when technology and agriculture are combined, could be magnificent. And I believe it is the place of humanity to travel to the stars. However, this cannot come if we are an immature race of culturally dumbed down zombies. The spiritual and mental advancement of mankind has been halted, if not retarded, by these stifling innovations. Technology will not save us, love is what will always save us, passion for life will save us.

The great mistake is that we do not learn well the lessons of history.

Love and Appreciation


Brent Probasco from Wilmington, OH on January 05, 2014:

Continued shift yes, complete collapse of civilization no. mankind will adapt as it always has from generation to generation. Reality is in the present and is not a comparison to what was in the past, my opinion life has and always will be a game of survival. Great Hub!

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on January 05, 2014:

Couldn't agree more. Thanks very much for commenting. Appreciate it!

poetryman6969 on January 05, 2014:

Very interesting. As another pointed out already, skirting the subject cannibalism is also interesting. Nonetheless, if we could skip the eating of people, a more nomadic diet might do many folks some good. All of that running around and drinking water makes one less fat as well.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on January 05, 2014:

Interesting comment, thank you for your feedback. If sexism is a comparatively recent phenomenon as you say, then why have most of our rulers, be they emperors, dictators and monarchs etc have been male? Plus the domestic and public spheres are more of a division of labour than sexism. Hunter gatherers possessed a rough division of labour, but every member of the tribe had to be more or less equally skilled at all jobs. In an agricultural society, specialisation quickly develops, resulting in a far greater division of labour, and thus promoting sexism. This has been the case for most agricultural societies for the last 10,000 years.

mbuggieh on January 05, 2014:

Had agriculture not evolved, then it is unlikely that the world in which we live today---the world of information and technology and civilization (as we know it)---would exist.

That said, the historical record does not support the notion that sexism is a result of agriculturalism and/or the Agricultural Revolution. In fact, sexism resulted from industrialism and from the Industrial Revolution which separated work into 2 spheres---domestic and public, in which men migrated from agriculture and the domestic sphere to the industrial and the public sphere.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on January 05, 2014:

Wow! Thank you for all the fantastic comments guys. I truly appreciate your feedback, and bestowing another Hub of the Day on me. Hope you all had a great Christmas! :)

The Logician from now on on January 05, 2014:

Truly an absurd hub making false comparisons and assumptions throughout like the conclusion "Modern hunter gatherers have in fact more free time than third world farmers and even us rich Westerners." Everyone isn't a third world farmer and the "free time" is created by farmers for the people who do not need to farm or hunt due to the farmers' efforts. Just one example of the insane logic espoused throughout this hub which is nothing but a whimsical uneducated potification fo wishful thinking!

Jools Hogg from North-East UK on January 05, 2014:

My comment is somewhat shorter than the previous one James - this is an epic hub which I thoroughly enjoyed; the whole topic certainly gives pause for thought doesn't it? I am amazed that you managed to cover so much so succinctly. The mongongo nuts comment from the San tribesman made me smile - there's an underlying simplicity to his explanation for not working too hard - we might all learn from that. Well done on it being Hub of the Day, well deserved :o)

RodneyBlaec Rainey from Louisville, KY on January 05, 2014:

“In North America,[annual] agriculture has been responsible for 66% of the soil loss”

“topsoil is eroding faster than it can be replaced”

http://www.globalchange.umich.edu/globa … d_deg.html

“A few basic principles of the earth's life in the cosmos have now been established. Balance is cosmic law. The earth revolves around the sun in a finely tuned balance. The heat budget of the planet is a finely tuned balance. If the incoming heat declined, we would freeze or if the planet did not dissipate heat properly we would burn up. The climax ecosystem maintains a balance and stability century after century as the diverse flows of energies constantly move and cycle within it. In the same manner the human body maintains balance (homeostasis) while motion of blood, digestion and cell creation, flow within it.

The life of the earth is fundamentally predicated upon the soil. If there is no soil, there is no life as we know it. (Some micro-organisms and some other forms might still exist). The soil is maintained by its vegetative cover and in optimal, balanced health, this cover is the natural climax ecosystem.

If one can accept these few simple principles then we have established a basis of communication upon which we may proceed. Anyone who cannot accept these principles must demonstrate that the world works in some other way. This must be done quickly because the life of the planet earth hangs in the balance.

We speak to our basic condition of life on earth. We have heard of many roads to salvation. We have heard that economic development will save us, solar heating will save us, technology, the return of Jesus Christ who will restore the heaven and the earth, the promulgation of land reform, the recycling of materials, the establishment of capitalism, communism, socialism, fascism, Muslimism, vegetarianism, trilateralism, and even the birth of new Aquarian Age, we have been told, will save us. But the principle of soil says that if the humans cannot maintain the soil of the planet, they cannot live here.” ~William H. Koetke

“Every human society that has relied on annual crops as staple foods in their diet has collapsed; every single one. Every human society from the temperate zone to the tropics that has relied on annuals to feed itself, is now gone. And the rich, abundant ecosystems where their temporary societies once flourished have been rendered into dust.~ Mark Shepard

“It's often said that the ability to recognize patterns is one of the signs of intelligence. So, I'm going to list a pattern here, and let's see if we can recognize it in less than five or six thousand years. When you think of the plains and hillsides of Iraq, is the first thing that you think of normally cedar forests so thick that sunlight never touches the ground? That's how they were.

The first written myth of this culture is Gilgamesh going in and deforesting those hills to make cities. When you think of the Arabian peninsula, is the first thing that you think of oak forest? That's what it used to be. Let's move a little bit west, and you get the cedars of Lebanon. They still have one on their flag.

Plato was commenting on how deforestation was destroying the springs and rivers in Greece. And I'm sure that those in power said, Well, we need to study it a little bit longer first, to make sure there's a connection. Greece was heavily forested, Italy was heavily forested, North Africa was heavily forested.

Any way of life that's based on the use non-renewable resources and based on the hyper-exploitation of (so-called) renewable resources... Any way of life that perceives the world around them as consisting of resources and not beings and communities to enter into these reciprocal relationships with, is going to destroy its land base.” ~ Derrick Jensen

So, I would say YES; agriculture is humanity's biggest mistake. Great hub, thank you for sharing!

RodneyBlaec Rainey from Louisville, KY on January 05, 2014:

"The thin mantle of topsoil, measured in inches over most of the earth, is the foundation of civilization. When earlier civilizations lost their productive topsoil from mismanagement and erosion, they crumbled as their food supply shrank. With an estimated 36 percent of the world's cropland now losing topsoil at a rate that is undermining its productivity, our food security is also at risk if this trend continues.

As pressures to expand food production have climbed, farmers have been forced into marginal areas, plowing land that is too dry or too steeply sloping to sustain cultivation. At some point probably within the last century, the long-term accumulation of topsoil was reversed as erosion losses surpassed new soil formation, leading to a gradual depletion of this basic natural capital.

The United States, the world's breadbasket, has undergone two periods of extensive overplowing, each of which led to heavy losses of topsoil. The first occurred in the early 1930s when a severe multiyear drought led to extensive wind erosion in the southern Great Plains. The resulting environmental devastation not only gave the era its name, the Dust Bowl, but it triggered one of the largest internal migrations in U.S. history as droves of people left the southern Great Plains and headed west for California.

After new agricultural practices were adopted in response to the Dust Bowl, such as planting windbreaks and strip-cropping land, with alternate-year fallowing, the soil was stabilized. But as demand for food began to climb rapidly after mid-century, and as grain prices reached record highs during the 1970s, farmers again began plowing from "fencerow to fencerow"—planting everything in sight. By 1982, the United States was losing annually an estimated total of 3.08 billion tons of topsoil from its cropland.

In contrast to the Dust Bowl, when wind erosion in the Great Plains was the problem, this time it was mostly water erosion in the Corn Belt. In states such as Iowa, with its rolling farmland, farmers were losing almost 20 tons of topsoil per hectare each year from water erosion. A dozen U.S. studies analyzing the effect of erosion on land productivity found that losing an inch of topsoil reduced corn and wheat yields an average of 6 percent. With nature needing centuries to form an inch of topsoil, current losses are irreversible if time horizons are measured on a human time-scale." ~ Lester R. Brown


Dean Walsh from Birmingham, England on January 05, 2014:

Brilliant article - you've made a convincing argument for something that most people would initially think to be a ridiculous statement - you've convinced me. It reminds me of a quote from an American Indian chief:

"When white man find land, Indians running it, no taxes, no debt, plenty buffalo, plenty beaver, clean water. Women did all the work, Medicine Man free. Indian man spend all day hunting and fishing; all night having sex. Only white man dumb enough to think he could improve system like that."

Tim Mitchell from Escondido, CA on January 05, 2014:

A very well written article presenting a valid argument to ponder. With humor I go with it not being the fall as I do like my ice cream. I guess for me this article did spark curiosity as I am illiterate regarding the information.

Seeking more reading your links gave some answers, though a hint of politics was tossed in there regarding class structures. A trip to Wiki for the Neolithic Revolution offered nine different theories and I decided to complex for me. I was impressed with the map demonstrating world wide and the time periods this revolution occurred. A transition seemed to occur over very long time periods. That caught my interest most. I pondered the "how" and "why" of information, of which offered more pondering of or for a "cause." A little thought of the Shannon Entropy theory of information brought a giggle thinking "nahhhhh" could it be?

All in all I liked this article as it did spark a time period of looking about and much pondering. I do not agree with this theory being the fall of man as I do not have a definition for just what that is. Has man fallen and if so when? If I knew that I would be more able to see dots being connected.

informationshelte on January 05, 2014:

Hi JKenny,

This is an excellent discussion on the relation between the development of agriculture through the ages and human survival and evolution.

The arguments in the article itself and the comments are really interesting and present different angles of perspective.

I agree with Marie Flint that the expulsion of the first humans from Eden has a lot to do with how we turned from hunters-gatherers to farmers. From that moment onwards all humans had to earn their living "...by the sweat of your face...". That's why modern-day hunters-gatherers have to work much less and live a more relaxed life than the "more developed" farmers.

I am not sure whether the Ice Age phenomenon was a natural event or was caused by humans themselves. Perhaps such a huge change of the climate was the result of Adam and Eve's tasting the forbidden fruit, the secret knowledge that finally led to the destruction of paradise. Was it something similar to nuclear physics, which was the foundation of making the modern life-vanishing nuclear weapons? Was it an early global warming and greenhouse effect case, because of the humans gaining access to artificial, unnatural, "more developed" ways of living? Who knows. Whatever it was, the results can be once again felt today in how we make ourselves and our fragile planet more harm than good through what we call "technology".

We have the tendency to call "technology" whatever is artificial and unnatural. The same thing happened with "alchemy" in the dark ages. And just like "alchemy" started to produce irreversible results, to make a bunch of "progressive" inventors and minds proud of themselves, boosting their egos more than anything else.

Figures like Einstein earned a place in eternity because they virtually changed the way we view and understand (can we?) reality and cosmos, and took humanity to a higher status of mentality. At the same time, they provided the ground on which nuclear weapons of massive, and potentially total destruction of the planet, same with what happened in Eden, were built.

The practice of agriculture, at least as it is applied nowadays on a massive scale, is not just a huge mistake, it's a huge misunderstanding. I am fascinated with methods such as "natural farming"-http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_farming, initially introduced by Masanobu Fukuoka and preaching that, contrary to common belief, nature itself is perfect as it is and can produce more than enough to feed us all, provided that we live it to do its own thing, just like the primitive hunters-gatherers did.

Susette Horspool from Pasadena CA on December 03, 2013:

Note the second part of "hunter-gatherer." The earth's natural abundance meant that there was plenty of food to gather, whether or not one hunted (which was supplementary in many early cultures). I agree that Native Americans here were very good at it. They were also good at knowing just how much extra food they could cultivate without depleting the soil. They moved their plots regularly, which "modern" agri-business doesn't do. The resting of the land allows mycelium to grow underground (mushrooms), which are the main converters of non-organic elements into food for plants, and which keeps soil healthy.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on November 26, 2013:

Couldn't agree more! I often think that we've become like helpless babies. Someday, we'll have to become human again.

Electro-Denizen from UK on November 26, 2013:

Yeah I think that's correct. Better enjoy the internet while we still can, eh? I don't know what people will do, when most of us go hunter-gathering in supermarkets. We're really adding to our skill sets by picking tins off shelves and taking down red stuff in cellophane!

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on November 26, 2013:

Haha! True enough, to be honest I think we'll go full circle. We'll endure a societal collapse, and then the survivors will return to hunting and gathering. I give it maybe a century or two, but it'll definitely happen.

Electro-Denizen from UK on November 26, 2013:

Because you can't just pick a cow that easily? :-)) It's a logically fair point though!

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on November 26, 2013:

Hmmm...that's a good point Electro, just goes to show that our world is ruled by business rather than politics. You could also make the argument, why aren't all our fields stocked full of prime beef?

Electro-Denizen from UK on November 26, 2013:

I think many Fruitarians would agree with this article. Certainly the whole food game relies on people believing they need certain things to be healthy which turns the wheels of the food industries - and indeed creates an elite class of high turn over sellers and mindless consumers. As someone once pointed out, why aren't the highways and parks lined with fruit bearing trees? It's a fascinating topic. Well written hub voted up.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on November 25, 2013:

Trust me Eileen, you're not the only one who's felt that way recently, and thanks for the info about Russia and the potato.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on November 25, 2013:

Yes Jared Diamond is a fantastic scientist, and one of the best thinkers of our age. Like me, he started out as a birdwatcher, but then stretched out into other fields. Who knows, maybe someday I'll be as well known as he is.

Eileen Gamboa from West Palm Beach on November 25, 2013:

Wellll, I've been feeling like a beast of burden myself, lately; I did want to mention I had a professor who credited Russia's population surviving the industrial revolution, when peasants were plentiful and poor…with the introduction of the potato.

JoanCA on November 25, 2013:

A few years back I came across the argument about the rise of agriculture bringing about class divisions and women's inequality. It's easy for us comfortable Westerners not to really notice the effects of this too much but for most people even today poverty and inequality are the norm. This hub is a great overview of the problem and it's good to see you recommending Jared Diamonds books.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on November 24, 2013:

Interesting to hear from someone who grew up on a farm, thank you very much for your input Marie. And of course many modern farmers live rather well, when I talk about poverty and farming, I'm referring to Neolithic and third world farmers. Anyway thanks for popping by.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on November 24, 2013:

One of the great things about the internet is the amount of information now on offer. It's largely thanks to it, that more and more people are becoming aware that our history is far from a tale of progress.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on November 24, 2013:

Thank you very much Ann and thanks for the share too.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on November 24, 2013:

Good point Martie, and don't forget designer babies too.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on November 24, 2013:

Exactly right, I personally think that it'll go full circle, with humanity reverting back to hunting and gathering once our agricultural society collapses.

Marie Flint from Jacksonville, FL USA on November 24, 2013:

While I don't agree with all the reasoning, the facts, as they are presented, are interesting.

Humans biggest mistake was leaving Eden. (Yes, I believe in a Creator.) Farming, in itself, is not an evil; after all, God made man originally because He needed someone to tend the garden. It was a very different kind of garden compared to anything we have today. Plant species were perfect, without pests and diseases.

Hunting came about after the fall of man from grace. There was also cannibalism, a topic which you avoid in this article, but would be considered part of some hunter-gatherers' practices.

The important factor of one's climate and environment makes a big difference whether one can grow fruits and vegetables or has to hunt for his living, such as the Eskimos in Alaska and other cultures in regions near the Arctic. Life spans of the Eskimos, before modernization, totaled about 24 years on the average. They live longer now because of medicine and better distribution of services and goods, including produce.

The Industrial Revolution created a greater detriment than farming and eventually changed the face of farming into one of agribusiness. This is what precipitated the chemical fertilizers and pesticides that came into practice.

I got a good chuckle from the video.

Ultimately, quality of life depends on one's self mastery--thoughts, emotions, words, and deeds--not whether one is a farmer, hunter-gatherer, urban dweller, or a hermit/monk living in some remote place.

Besides, I grew up on an 80-acre farm, and, in spite of our "poverty," life was good, and I had a happy childhood, one in communion with nature and its abundance. I carry that appreciation into my adulthood today, hardly a mistake. --Blessings!

Ann Carr from SW England on November 24, 2013:

Absolutely fascinating! It's such a different angle on civilisation that most of us, it seems, haven't thought about but all your arguments make sense. Well written with helpful examples and illustrations. This is a great read. Ann

Martie Coetser from South Africa on November 24, 2013:

Interesting article!

I do believe that development happens spontaneously. There is no way to prevent innovating and adventurous humans from experimenting and exploring all possible options of development. Humans have an instinctive urge to live more comfortable - we can see this urge so clearly in current generations - parents' never-ending wish to create a better life for their children. One can but only wonder what the situation will be a hundred years from now. Artificial vegetables and proteins?

Voted up and insightful :)

Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on November 24, 2013:

Very fascinating and comprehensive look at the development of agriculture and its effect on humanity and great comparative examination of agriculture and hunter gatherer societies. It would be ironic if our other advancements in technology solved the problems caused by agricultural development; like the way the Internet has broken down many boundaries and how machines can take over menial and hard labor. Maybe we'll come full circle somehow.

Cynthia Calhoun from Western NC on November 24, 2013:

Very, very thought provoking. Never really thought about this before, and I was an anthropology major. But, I do keep finding myself thinking that the Native American Indians had it right: keep it simple, respect the earth, and you'll be all right. Many tribes were nomadic, they warred other tribes for their possessions at times, but all in all, they were fairly peaceful. They survived generation after generation and had an equality we can only dream about. That said, you make a compelling argument. I do know one thing: modern practices in agriculture could verily contribute to our own demise, what with petroleum-based fertilizers and using WAY too much of it....

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on November 24, 2013:

Very true, and in the early days, farmers still engaged in a little hunting and gathering. Also, many farming societies that failed returned to hunting and gathering. I often wonder whether that's what we'll have to do when our civilisation collapses.

Drive By Quipper from Wrong Side of Town on November 24, 2013:

Most hunter gatherers and "primitive" cultures cultivated food source plants, but not on a large scale. They did not domesticate animals, because their was no need as in areas where populations became concentrated around those who did.

Well written and thought provoking.

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