These days large parts of our culture are celebrating the return of the “small farmer.” Food production is attracting progressive, young people who are earnestly looking to save the planet while improving our health. So it seems uncool and counter-intuitive to go slandering agriculture as “the worst mistake in human history,” to quote the title of Jared Diamond’s 1999 article http://discovermagazine.com/1987/may/02-the-worst-mistake-in-the-history-of-the-human-race
In fact this idea seems silly…when you’re not familiar with the arguments. Of course agriculture was not a mistake!! How else could the human race feed itself? Agriculture is the backbone upon which our entire civilization was built. In India, in China, in Mesopotamia, in Egypt, in Mesoamerica, domesticated species, flora and fauna, enabled human societies to grow, to thrive, to innovate.
But to back up a little…we did not always feed ourselves thus. From the beginning of our species (homo sapiens pops up around 200,000 years ago) until 10,000 years ago we hunted and gathered. Some things happened which could be called “agriculture,” burning the ground to allow new growth of plants, coralling some animals in an embryonic kind of “husbandry.” But generally speaking we did not become “farmers” until roughly 10,000 years ago, and even then very slowly and only in some places.
When we went at agriculture full-bore, things changed. Food surpluses caused massive imbalances of power in new “civilizations” which sprang up along river valleys (China, India, Mesopotamia, Egypt). The very same civilizations which did the cool things, such as develop writing, mathematics, architecture, astronomy (actually it was more like astrology), also developed slavery, inequality among the sexes, and large-scale warfare.
Here’s the anthropologist Marvin Harris summing it up in perhaps one of the most persuasive and forceful pieces of anthropological prose ever written:
For the first time there appeared on earth kings, dictators, high priests, emperors, prime ministers, presidents, governors, majors generals, admirals, police chiefs, judges, lawyers, and jailers, along with dungeons, jails and penitentiaries, and concentration camps. Under the tutelage of the state, human beings learned for the first time how to bow, grovel, kneel and kowtow. In many ways, the rise of the state was the descent of the world from freedom to slavery.
The Man, you might say, had arrived.
Harris points the finger at the state, but the state was made possible by the build up of storable grains, wherever it appeared. And this was possible only through agriculture. Same story whether its rice in Asia, corn in the New World, or wheat in the Middle East. So while agriculture allowed the “florescence” of many civilizations, such blossomings were often (actually, I’ll say “always” here) decidedly ambiguous in terms of human welfare.
There are, therefore, serious questions about the ultimate usefulness of this particular adaptation, 10,000 years after it began. Ultimately farming took land–lots of land. Forests were cleared, soil was washed downstream, nomadic peoples who chose not to adopt this particular set of practices were pushed into ever-more marginal areas (see the Bantu migration in Africa as the biggest example of this–but similar displacements happened in India, China, pretty much wherever farmers broke the sod).
Subsequent “History” has been largely the story of agricultural civilizations fighting each other over resources, mostly land and women. Thus the plot of India’s Muhabharata. Or Homer’s Illiad. Or many foundational texts. (Although it should be noted that a major debate going on currently, and which we’ll deal with here at some point, is whether state societies are actually more peaceful than non-state, hunter-gatherer societies. This argument has been made recently by Stephen Pinker, and has been strongly confronted by others.)
“A dozen crops” says Cambridge University archaeologist Graeme Barker, “make up over 80 percent of the world’s annual tonnage of all crops: banana, barley, maize, manioc, potato, rice, sorghum, soybean, sugar beet, sugar cane, sweet potato and wheat.” Put this list up against the diet of foragers and hunter-gatherers whose model is diversity, and it is neither healthy not sustainable. Barker, adds, “Only five domestic animals over 100 pounds, are important globally: cows, sheep, goats, pigs and horses.”
Spreading nutritional requirements over multiple species ensures adequate nutrition and hedges against starvation. The Irish potato famine of the nineteenth century (the major reason that so many Irish emigrated to the United States) was caused by the failure of the potato crop. The nation relied so heavily on one crop—which usually produced spectacularly—that when it failed, as crops sometimes do, disaster followed.
Today the Amazon is being cleared to plant crops (often expressly to feed to domesticated animals which we will eat). As we embark on the twenty-first century, rich countries with expanding populations are buying land on other continents to ensure plentiful crops for their populations, creating economic disaster for indigenous farmers.
The historian Steven Stoll refers to agriculture as “the most destructive and socially transforming technology we have ever had.” Stoll points to the subsequent and endless population growth, environmental degradation and conflict, spawned of the ceaseless need for new land: “The fearsome growth of agrarians—fueled by wheat, rice, and maize and driven by the need for fresh land—pushes them even farther east of Eden and into bloody territorial wars.”
Soil erosion, in particular, has been progressing since the first Neolithic plow broke the first sod in the Middle East thousands of years ago; whenever you open the land like this, rain and wind will carry away the fertile topsoil which will eventually find its way to the sea. The writer John Robbins has calculated that every year, the equivalent of 165,000 Mississippi River barges full of soil is eroded from Iowa’s fields alone.
Historian John Coatsworth, writing about human welfare over the ages, describes how bioarchaeologists, in particular, have cataloged the ill effects of agriculture, and concludes that, “civilization, we now know, stunted growth, spread disease, shortened life spans, and set people to killing and maiming each other on an unprecedented scale.”
Suddenly Cornflakes seem less wholesome.
And then there’s the experience of women. The gender gap is another major contender for the “most important story in history” prize. Its a long story and we’ll only break the surface here. But the basics go something like this:
In non-agricultural, non-state societies most anthropologists believe that gender relations are much more egalitarian. There is division of labor, yes. This, perhaps, only because its really, really annoying to go deep sea fishing (or Aurox hunting) with a nursing baby. But women and men played equally important roles in pre-state societies. Women were believed to have been primarily responsible for “gathering” which netted the majority of calories. Men hunted, providing meat, and while judging by Kalahari Bushmen’s experience, this was highly prized, it could not always be relied upon. Sometimes dad came home empty handed.
When people began farming in earnest, land became a commodity. Children were needed to help cultivate, harvest, store and process. Knowing whose children were whose combined with knowing whose land belonged to whom to create a perfect storm of inequality for women who became synonymous with property in the early “civilizations.”
This also had major ramifications for sex. We tend to think of monogamy as a natural inheritance: pair-bonding was necessary since the women was tied down with the baby and relied upon her man to provide food. But research suggests that hunter-gatherers often practiced polyandry–the taking of many husbands. Paternity was therefore not important. Or it was important in the sense that some tribes believed that it required the sperm of multiple men to generate a child with the right array of qualities. A little bit of Tom, a little of Dick (or a lot of Dick) and some Harry.
With farming, therefore, women’s roles and human sex life became increasingly restricted. Not only were women reduced to child-bearing machines, they were also entwined in ever-more elaborate cultural beliefs about the evilness of their own sexual desire, the expression of which wrecked havoc on society and needed therefore to be kept in check. Hence bride burning, witch drowning, female circumcisions. etc. etc.
How can we reconcile these views with the earlier (and perhaps still prevalent) view that sedentism and agriculture represented a beneficial development in the human career? Clearly the human experience is not equal the world over, and there are major inequalities even within countries. But the sedentary societies we have developed have generated human rights, democracy, respect for all peoples, regardless of race, sexual preference or class. Few would argue that these are values that define us as fully human.
The question that sits at the back of our minds, however, is, would all of these rights and protections, seen as “progress,” have been necessary were it not for the advent of sedentary, agricultural society in the first place?
Stoll, Steven. “Agrarian Anxieties.” Harper’s Magazine, July, 2010, 6
Diamond, J. “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.” Discover Magazine, May, 1987.
Harris, M. (ed), “The Origin of Pristine States,” in Cannibals and Kings, (New York, Vintage, 1978).