The previous thesis glossed over a number of significant points, which we must now go back and revisit in greater detail. The most glaring of these glosses is probably the assertion that agriculture is a risky, marginal and difficult means of acquiring food. Many readers would certainly object that agriculture provides a stable, secure and reliable source of food. After all, it was the bounty of agriculture that allowed us to give up hunting and gathering, constantly wandering and wondering where our next meal would come from, giving us the time to build civilization. That is the common picture we’ve all been told, but it is also the opposite of truth. In fact, the Neolithic Revolution was, to use Jared Diamond’s turn of phrase, “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.”
It is taken for granted in our culture that agriculture is the path of least resistance, an immediately obvious advantage over any other subsistence technology. Agriculturalist philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes assure us–without any empirical validation–that any other way of life is “solitary, nasty, brutish and short.�? Before agriculture, humans lived like animals, constantly in search of food, always on the brink of starvation. With agriculture came ease and security, and a better way of life. How can we ask why the Agricultural Revolution occurred? The question is how, not why; once agriculture appeared, its superiority would be so obvious, and it would be adopted by all.
This view of agriculture has no grounding in reality, but it is a necessary myth for our civilization to hold. We would not be agriculturalists today if we did not. This idea is a necessary meme for the functioning of an agriculturalist society, in order to maintain itself over generations. The traditional view can be broken down into four myths, which we must address in turn:
- Agriculture is the path of least resistance.
- Agriculture creates a more stable and secure food supply.
- Agriculture leads to greater health and nutrition.
- Agriculture allows more leisure time and a generally higher quality of life.
Myth #1: Agriculture is the path of least resistance.
That agriculture represents the easiest or simplest way of attaining one’s food cannot be supported logically or empirically. Whereas hunter-gatherers must only accomplish the work equivalent to harvesting, and that on a low-intensity, rolling basis, an agriculturalist must also plant and tend to their crops. Agriculture is the most intensive form of cultivation, often requiring massive projects such as irrigation or terracing. This is borne out by empirical data. Due to the law of diminishing returns, though agriculture produces the most food absolutely, the ratio of food per unit of labor is in fact higher than any other subsistence technology. Agriculturalists must work harder for their food than anyone else. (Harris, 1993) In modern “petroculture,” 10 calories of fossil fuels are burned for every 1 calorie of food produced. Horticulturalists have the most efficient lifestyle; foragers have the easiest lifestyle. Ours produces the most calories, but is also the most grossly inefficient.
Myth #2: Agriculture creates a more stable and secure food supply.
If agriculture is a more difficult means of attaining food, at least it is more secure, no? Where a forager won’t know if they will eat today or not, an agriculturalist can be assured she’ll have food for the day. This, as it turns out, is also a false statement. In all but the most marginal environments, a gatherer has a near 100% chance of finding some form of plant food, whereas the probability of a hunter’s success lies closer to 25%. This has led to an emphasis on sharing in many forager societies, allowing them to take advantage of multiplicative probability. Whereas the chance of a single hunter retrieving nothing on a given day is 75%, the chances that ten will come back with nothing is 0.75 x 10 = 5.63%. If even one hunter makes a kill on a given day, then the band will eat. (Lee, 2000)
On the other hand, few organisms are domesticable compared to the diversity of all wild species available for food. Moreover, those species which are domesticable are very closely related to each other. Inclement conditions for one domesticate, then, are all the more likely to affect all of the staples, leading to a severe famine. Agriculturalists are forced to depend on a very narrow selection of closely related plants and animals for food, and this makes them highly susceptible to famine. There are also wars and political pressures which are more often the causes of famine than natural conditions. These are the results of the complex political structures which often require agriculture in order to exist. When Lee studied the Ju/’Hoansi in the Kalahari desert (2000), the region was in the midst of a severe draught. The neighboring Bantu farmers and pastoralists were dying by the thousands of starvation; the Ju/’Hoansi, however, were able to subsist very healthily on an average of two hours of foraging a day.
Myth #3: Agriculture leads to greater health and nutrition.
There is mounting evidence that agriculture may be very unhealthy. Of course, it is well known that most epidemic diseases would not exist if not for agriculture (Diamond, 1987). Most epidemic diseases are not “native�? to the human system—this should be evident from their virulence, as it is generally maladaptive for an organism to kill or even hinder its host’s survival. Chicken pox, cholera, and plague, for example, were all animal diseases which had the chance to jump the species barrier due to the newfound proximity of humans and other animals which followed domestication. Others, such as malaria, were spread by agricultural practices (malaria only became so virulent when slash-and-burn agriculture attracted mosquitoes to human population centers). (Diamond, 1997). Even so, these diseases and others might not have ever achieved their impact if not for the large, dense populations which agriculture created. Whereas an epidemic disease among foragers may destroy at most a single band of 25, with the advent of cities and extended trade networks, the threat of such diseases became global for the first time.
This is, of course, a long-term impact of agriculture. The immediate effects are little better. Excavations at Dickson’s Mounds show a sharp drop in all the customary benchmarks of health and nutrition, and also signs of immediate malnutrition. They evidence a catastrophically shorter life expectancy and smaller stature (indicating greater malnutrition). (Goodman & Armelagos, 2000) It is only in the past fifty years that the heights of Western Americans and Europeans, with the modern “affluent malnutrition,�? have come to match those of their Mesolithic forager ancestors. Greeks and Turks still have not attained the full stature of their Mesolithic ancestors.
Myth #4: Agriculture allows more leisure time and a generally higher quality of life.
Does agriculture at least provide more leisure time, and a generally higher quality of life? As we have already seen, agriculturalists must work much harder for their food than foragers; obviously, the argument that agriculture allows more leisure time is based on the untenable, ultimately philosophical, contention that agriculture is the “path of least resistance.�? Some argue that by providing for specialists, agriculture provides greater leisure time. However, such specialists must work comparable hours to farmers to offset the gross inefficiencies of agriculture. Whether by plowing the earth, making pots, or writing software, all agriculturalists must spend the majority of their life working for their food–whether directly, or trading their labor for various tokens that can be exchanged for food. Only the elites–what Thorstein Veblen called “the leisure class”–have greater leisure time. This class has an unprecedented amount of leisure, being able to shed even the few hours of walking that a forager must put in every day.
If by quality of life we mean health, then, as discussed above, agriculture is still a bad idea. To agriculture we owe disease, malnutrition and famine: things nearly unheard of to our Mesolithic ancestors (save perhaps for some foragers living in the most marginal areas, like the Arctic Circle), things we take for granted now as necessary and eternal evils. Even today, among the elites of the West, we have only achieved what some researchers have termed “affluent malnutrition.” We eat large quantities of food, yes; but they are so poorly mismatched to the evolutionary needs of our species as to constitute outright malnutrition in its own right. Though we alone of all the agricultural peoples in history have the affluence to eat truly healthy foods (and even among us, the lower–and often, even the middle–class cannot afford such luxuries as healthy food), we are still sickly and in poor health because of agriculture, combining a sedentary lifestyle and a high-carbohydrate diet lacking in other essential nutrients.
Perhaps we should define “quality of life�? in more abstract terms? This is precisely what makes it such a slippery concept, because it becomes impossible to gauge empirically. It may be offered as counter-point that “refined�? or “high�? culture—art, music, etc.—owes itself to agriculture. The music of Bach no doubt does; however, we have archaeological evidence of musical instruments predating the Agricultural Revolution. The polyphonic complexity of Pygmy songs was matched in Europe only in the 14th century. Without agriculture, Michelangelo would no doubt have painted something else. Art itself, though, dates back to the Upper Paleolithic. Those elements so often referred to as “civilized�? in fact have nothing to do with civilization; religion, music, art, and other such abstract cultural elements existed before agriculture, and are to be found in all forager societies. They are universals of human culture, however we get our food. The caves of Lascaux stand as an excellent counter-point to the contention that fine art can only develop from an agricultural society.
By any definition of “quality of life,�? we cannot say that agriculture increased it in any way.
Agriculture is not entirely without benefit, though. There are certain advantages to an agricultural system, and these are quite telling. Agriculture allows for sedentism. While not impossible, it is difficult for a forager group to remain sedentary over long periods of time. Whereas an acre of wild land will have a fraction of its biomass consisting of edible human food, an acre of farmland is entirely human food. This denser concentration of food allows a denser concentration of population. Whereas a forager will eventually begin to drain the resources of the surrounding country and have to move on, an agriculturalist must remain in one place, as agriculture represents a heavy investment into the location of the settlement. (Gilman, 1981) Agriculture also allows two things to be accomplished, and in fact, forces them: the creation of a higher population, and the production of a surplus.
The creation of a higher population, of course, is neither good nor bad to the general population itself. Nor is the creation of a surplus which is, by definition, unnecessary. While perhaps needed by populations facing periodic famine, as we have seen, this is an affliction of agriculturalists, not foragers. Sedentism, also, cannot be considered an advantage. In fact, it is the sedentary lifestyle of the West which leads to so much of our health problems (cf. Gladwell, 2000) However, as neutral as these are, there is one element of society to whom they are clear advantages: the elites. Before the modern era, elites were those able to control human capital more often than physical resources directly. (Hirth, 1992) They brokered more in esteem, opinion and influence than tangible wealth. A larger population, then, was advantageous to prehistoric, emergent elites, just as a larger treasury is advantageous to modern elites. Sedentism makes populations easier to control. It was nearly impossible for the Czar to control the Steppes nomads until they were co-opted as the Cossocks, for example. The surplus is no doubt the most important aspect, and, I believe, what drove the adoption of agriculture in the first place. With a surplus, specialists were able to develop, including elites themselves. However, emergent elites—“Big Men�?—require surpluses for the competitive feasting which creates their power, by bolstering their influence.
Agriculture helps the elites by making most of humanity suffer. It is, as Jared Diamond put it, a mistake we are still trying to recover from. As he ends his famous article:
Hunter-gatherers practiced the most successful and logest-lasting life style in human history. In contrast, we’re still struggling with the mess into which agriculture has tumbled us, and it’s unclear whether we can solve it. Suppose that an archaeologist who had visited from outer space were trying to explain human history to his fellow spacelings. He might illustrate the results of his digs by a 24-hour clock on which one hour represents 100,000 years of real past time. If the history of the human race began at midnight, then we would now be almost at the end of our first day. We lived as hunter-gatherers for nearly the whole of that day, from midnight through dawn, noon, and sunset. Finally, at 11:54 p. m. we adopted agriculture. As our second midnight approaches, will the plight of famine-stricken peasants gradually spread to engulf us all? Or will we somehow achieve those seductive blessings that we imagine behind agriculture’s glittering façade, and that have so far eluded us?
- Diamond, J.
- 1987 The worst mistake in the history of the human race. In: Discover, May 1987
- 1997 Guns, germs and steel: the fate of human societies. London: Random House.
- Gilman, A.
- 1981 The development of social stratification in Bronze Age Europe. In: Current Anthropology 22(1) pp. 1-23
- Gladwell, M.
- 2000 The Pima paradox. In: Goodman, A.H., Dufour, D.L. & Pelto, G.H., Nutritional anthropology: biocultural perspectives on food and nutrition. Mountain View: Mayfield Publishing Company.
- Goodman, A. and Armelagos, G.
- 2000 Disease and death at Dr. Dickson’s mounds. In: Goodman, A.H., Dufour, D.L. & Pelto, G.H., Nutritional anthropology: biocultural perspectives on food and nutrition. Mountain View: Mayfield Publishing Company.
- Harris, M.
- 1993 Culture, people, nature: an introduction to general anthropology, 6th edition. New York: Harper Collins College Publishers.
- Hirth, K.
- 1992 Interregional exchange as elite behavior: an evolutionary perspective. In: Chase, D.Z. and Chase, A.F., Mesoamerican elites: an archaeological assessment. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
- Lee, R.
- 2000 What hunters do for a living, or, how to make out on scarce resources. In: Goodman, A.H., Dufour, D.L. & Pelto, G.H., Nutritional anthropology: biocultural perspectives on food and nutrition. Mountain View: Mayfield Publishing Company.