The Human Story – The Agricultural Revolution

Last time we looked at early man and his migration from the African continent and dispersal throughout the planet. Today we will focus on the most important innovation that Homo sapiens ever stumbled upon and the ramifications of what that means for us today.

The First Seeds

For most of human history, our ancestors were hunters and gatherers, risking life and limb to provide a slab of mammoth meat and some edible berries upon the dinner table. And then everything changed. In a mere 15,000 years, humanity has gone from hunting and gathering to creating such improbabilities as the airplane, the internet, the destructive power of the nuclear bomb and the delicious pizza. These are all things that we take for granted in the modern era (perhaps except for the nuclear bomb) but the reality is that without the advent of agriculture we would have none of it.

15,000 years ago, humans were gathering fruits, nuts, wild grains and grasses whilst hunting allowed for more protein rich sources of food. By far the best source of hunting was fishing as the rivers and coastlines were bountiful in marine life and they were unlikely to provide much of a threat to the fishermen – not much chance of a sea-bear mauling them to death, really. This is the primary reason why so much of humanity’s early migrations were along coastlines and up rivers.

Wheat

This changed when different pockets of humans began to develop agriculture. It is worth noting that the cultivation of crops developed independently over millennia with the nascent farmers using the crops that grew locally. For example:

• The Fertile Crescent and Egypt began the cultivation of wheat around 11,000 years ago
• East Asia and the island of New Guinea started farming rice and taro respectively around 9,000 years ago
• West Africans began domesticating sweet potatoes around 5,000 years ago
• In the new world, the potato was first grown in the Andes region 7,000 – 10,000 years ago whilst Maize was created by human selection in Mesoamerica (Mexico) roughly 6,000 years ago

All over the world, people began abandoning foraging in favour of agriculture. It is easy to assume that since so many tribes developed this way of life independently of one another then it must have been a good choice, right? Not necessarily.

We tend to imagine that the lives of our foraging ancestors were harsh, nasty and short but the fossil evidence suggests otherwise. The bones and teeth of foragers appear to be stronger and healthier than those of their agriculturalist progeny. Additionally, anthropologists who have studied the few remaining hunter-gatherer tribes have noted that they spend significantly less time working and more time on leisurely pursuits such as storytelling, art and music so it is hardly a great leap to assume that earlier hunter-gatherer tribes did the same.

As with everything else there was advantages and disadvantages to hunkering down and reaping what the earth provided…. providing you were willing to put in the back-breaking work, that is.

Advantages
• Farming provided a controllable food supply. Although there may have been droughts and flooding, human selection allowed the early farmers to breed hardier crops which meant less chance of starvation.

• It also meant that there was a surplus of food. A food surplus makes cities possible and allows the specialisation of labour to develop. Before farming, everyone’s job had been foraging for food where it takes approximately 1,000 calories of energy to gather 1,000 calories of food. This made it impossible to create large population centres. However, if there is a food surplus then it can support more people not directly involved in food acquisition. This led to people being able to specialise in other jobs such as trades people who could, for example, design and create better farming technology which in turn made farming easier which lead to more food being created more efficiently.

• Agriculture can be practised all over the planet, although in some areas it requires significant manipulation of the environment: irrigation, controlled flooding, damning or terracing.

Disadvantages
• To keep feeding more and more people as the population grows requires radically changing the environment of the planet.

• As the population grew and settlements expanded in size, disease was able to spread more easily throughout these packed settlements.

• Farming is hard work, especially before the Industrial Revolution. As such, one down side that is so often associated with the social order of agricultural communities is, unfortunately, slavery.

Not Quite Farming but Not Quite Hunting

An interesting and good alternative to both foraging and hunting is herding. It is quite simple really: domesticate some animals and then take them on the road with you. The advantages to herding are that the domesticated animals provide milk and meat. They can also provide wool and leather to produce clothing and shelter. The primary disadvantage to the herding, nomadic lifestyle is that you are forced to move around often in search of new grass for your herd to pasture and this makes it very difficult to settle and build cities.

Nomad

The reason that herding only really caught on in certain parts of the world is that there are not too many animals that lend themselves to being domesticated by humans. Herders were geographically restricted to Afro-Eurasia and even then, herding was (and still is) mainly practised in the high plains of central Asia. The only animal native to the Americas that was even semi-useful to humans was the llama.

Interestingly, looking at it from a purely biological viewpoint, one of the greatest evolutionary traits that an animal can have is its usefulness to humans. Many animals that can be considered either dangerous or of little use to us have either been wiped out or are on the brink of extinction. For example, there are an estimated 1.4 billion cows in the world, whilst only 23,000 lions.

Why It Happened

Back to the Agricultural Revolution. Why did it happen?

Plant

This is a question that no one knows for sure but there are some prevailing ideas. Perhaps the pressure of population growth necessitated a solution and agriculture was that solution even though it required more work. Maybe this abundance gave people more time to experiment with domestication or perhaps planting seeds originated as a fertility rite. Some historians have even made the argument that humans needed to domesticate more grains to produce more alcohol – for which human civilisation is forever grateful.

Perhaps there was no Agricultural Revolution at all but the whole thing came about accidently because of the evolutionary desire to eat more. Evidence suggests that early hunter-gatherers knew that seeds grew when they were planted. It is human nature to want to do more of something when you know it produces something that you want more of. This could have led early farmers to find the most accessible forms of crops and plant them and to experiment with them, not because they intended on furthering human development, but rather, because they simply wanted more food.

Archaeologists working in southeastern Greece found an early example of this. In the Franchthi cave that had been almost continuously occupied for 35,000 years they found evidence that roughly 13,000 years ago the inhabitants of the cave had been domesticating snails. They had been selectively breeding them to make them bigger and more nutritious. This was hardly a revolution but simply people trying to increase their food supplies.

How It Happened

We have looked at why it happened (and determined that we do not know) so now we will briefly look at why it happened (spoiler: we do not know).

Historians have postulated various theories as to how this massive shift in human activity came about. One such theory suggests that warming climates led to lush eco-systems with abundant food supplies. So much food, in fact, that the foragers stopped migrating and, instead, began to settle down. After several generations of population growth, the food began to become scarcer in these “Gardens of Eden” but the people had become so sedentary by this point that they had forgotten how to effectively forage. If this theory is correct then people would have been forced to get more out of the land. People already had a deep understanding of the local plants and of nearby animals that could be domesticated. Bingo!! You now have agriculture.

Cow.jpg

Another theory proposes that quarrels between different groups of people would occur over resources such as food, ponds and sexual partners. These peoples began to “claim” the land not for agriculture but, rather, to protect and safeguard the members of their group. In this scenario the people stayed in one place long enough to gain an awareness of the yields produced by the local vegetation and later developed agriculture to control and grow these yields rather than rely on the capricious nature of, well, nature.

Both theories are fraught with problems and actions inconsistent to the lifestyle of hunter-gatherers. However, as agriculture developed independently and at different times throughout history, the reality is that there are probably numerous reasons for how it came about. Regardless of the reasons for it, agriculture represents an incredible shift in human activity. Before agriculture, humans had adapted themselves to the environment. After agriculture, humans adapted the environment to suit their specific needs.

Some even go as far as to suggest that the Agricultural Revolution had been a mistake. In his incredible bestseller (seriously, if you have not read this then you need to), Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari suggests:

Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease… The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.

What Harari seems to forget to acknowledge in this viewpoint is that Homo sapiens is just another animal. We have looked at both the advantages and disadvantages of the agriculturalist lifestyle over the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and ultimately it boils down to that one primal urge that all life forms have and propagated the very first organisms: the survival and expansion of the species.

And The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey

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