Was Agriculture Humanity's Biggest Ever Mistake?
The Technological Spark
Would You Swap This...
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.
...And Hard Labour
When Famine Hit Ireland
A Highly Recommended Link
- Driven from Eden? Reassessing the Neolithic Revolution
A fantastic article that highlights the gradual decline in height of Greeks and Turks in the immediate aftermath of the Neolithic Revolution.
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
A New Threat
The Haves And Have Nots
Lucky To Be Alive
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
The Article That Inspired This Hub
- The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race | DiscoverMagazine.com
Jared Diamond's superb article that first highlighed to me why agriculture may be the biggest mistake we've ever committed in our history.
A Highly Recommended Book
The article mentioned above appears in this excellent book by Jared Diamond.
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?
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© 2013 James Kenny
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