Clearly, the definition of agriculturist merges insensibly into the definition of hunter-gatherer and it is impossible to say where one ends and the other begins.
— Tim Flannery

Jared Diamond of Collapse fame wrote an essay on agriculture’s origins provocatively titled The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race. For many people, this is a paradigm-altering read. Diamond claims that rather than improve the lives of our ancestors, agriculture made them worse. It brought malnutrition and disease, inequality, despotism, risk of starvation, population explosion, and unsanitary crowdedness. Free time shrank, hard labor increased, parasitic elites skimmed the surplus produced and went to war on neighbors snatching slaves and tribute. When I read the essay, I was stunned. You bet I double-checked his claims. In the old days, anthropologists used to ask what took humans so long to become farmers. Now they are asking, what forced our ancestors into this difficult way of life when life as foragers was generally plentiful enough, healthier, and full of leisure compared to the new lifestyle?

In a nutshell, the understanding of the so called agricultural revolution is in flux. That oldest theory of all, that agriculture is the superior way to live, was laid to rest in the 60s when forager research matured enough to see past the stereotypes. The main theories which followed proposed that humans were pushed into agriculture by hunger, climate downturns, and population growth. Though they linger, testimony of the ground has not supported them. There is a great deal of evidence that agriculture as we understand it emerged in areas of relative plenty, during periods of favorable climate and small forager populations, when there was the luxury to experiment. For example, the first known domesticate, rye, was cultivated in the Near East as early as 13,500 years ago, well before the climatic cold of the Younger Dryas – the last gasp of the Ice Age.

Perhaps the word “disarray” would describe the situation better than “flux.” As Bryan Hayden commented in his 1990 article Nimrods, piscators, pluckers and planters:

Few topics in prehistory have engendered as much discussion and resulted in so few satisfying answers as the attempt to explain why hunter/gatherers began to cultivate plants and raise animals. Climatic change, population pressure, sedentism, resource concentration from desertification, girls’ hormones, land ownership, geniuses, rituals, scheduling conflicts, random genetic kicks, natural selection, broad spectrum adaptation and multicausal retreats from explanation have all been proffered to explain domestication. All have major flaws … the data do not accord well with any one of these models.

The most colorful conjecture posits that it all started with human fondness for alcohol and other grain-produced endorphins. Then there is the encouragement of surplus production for competitive feasting, Hayden’s own contribution, but we know such feasts had gone on among foragers without leading to agriculture. Each hypothesis seems to have a bit of the truth, and none seems to satisfy the demands of a full-fledged, well-corroborated theory.

There is another prism through which to view this puzzle. After delving into far prehistory in great detail, it seemed to me passing strange to assume that our sapiens ancestors 100,000+ years ago did not notice that sticking a bit of a plant back in the soil produces more. We have erectus building rafts and navigating the ocean 800,000 years ago, we have neanderthalensis cooking up glue at high temperatures at 80,000+ years ago, but gosh darn, nobody noticed plants grow from seeds!? It makes no sense. I am assuming along with Colin Tudge’s Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers that by some 50,000 years ago, our ancestors were minding plants in ways that will never show in the archeology record, and had probably been doing it for eons before that time. As the Australian paleontologist Tim Flannery stresses in his book The Future Eaters:

Traditionally, the major crops of New Guinea have been root crops such as the taro, or suckering species such as the banana. In order to propagate these plants one simply needs to grub them up, cut off the tuber or sucker and stick the leafy top back into the ground. This simple act has probably been part of the human behavioral repertoire for 100,000 years or more. Clearly it does not qualify a person as an agriculturist. But what is to be said of the person who returns to the newly established plant and clears competing species away from it? And what if they plant 10 taro tops together…?

Surely, human intelligence would apply itself in trying to enhance the fecundity of a given environment… not in order to be able to cram more humans into it, but in order to have an easier, less toilsome life with a bit more buffer from natural downturns. After all, we humans follow the “law of least effort” whenever we can. I wager that we have experimented with plant and animal “magic” for a long time, trying for the best mix of strategies to fit in with a particular environment. ‘To tend’ means to listen, be attentive to; to watch over; and finally to cultivate. And taming (as in befriending) animals or helping plants spread and thrive will not necessarily leave a genetic footprint. In other words, cultivation is possible without domestication. The tribal record shows that we’ve gone back and forth, trying this and that, then returning to what was before if the new ways did not please. The precise mix of subsistence means varied in response to local opportunities and challenges. We sapiens emerged from the mists not as some pure and delimited hunter-gatherers, but as hunters-scavengers-fishers-gatherers-tenders and “firestick farmers.” This is who we were then. This is who we are now.

We lived in bands and small tribal groups, eking out a living from the land with some combination of foraging and tending, coming together periodically to gift and trade, feast and forge alliances. There was no progression to some “other” future, no march toward a “revolution.” Each culture adapted to its environs; in some areas, by further simplification (for example, Tasmanians gave up harpoons, boomerangs and clothes as nonessential), in most areas by only modest elaboration (in Australia and many parts of the early Americas and Asia a stone age toolkit with modest enhancements was enough to secure the provender of a tribe); a few others leaned toward tending in more complex ways (in New Guinea, Near East, northern China, Mesoamerica and the Andes – the earliest known centers of more intensive cultivation – animal and plant selection, elaboration of containers and other tools, terracing and irrigation played a role). I think of it as a mosaic of great many adaptations, each evolved to fit a particular people and land.

To be fair: what Diamond’s article really pillories is intensive grain agriculture. Grain agriculture, as it was generally practiced in ancient times and as it is still widely practiced today, not only contributes to the evils listed above by Diamond, but through the repeated baring and plowing the soil has also been a major cause of soil erosion and deterioration around the the world. It is said that in Australia (where soils are particularly vulnerable) it costs several kg of vanished soil to put 1 kg of bread on the table. There is no doubt that there exist any number of very poor ways to farm, and that the plow has done a tremendous amount of damage. But that should not obscure the fact that there are many very good ways to farm; there are places in the world where the ancient farmers actually left the land in better shape than they found it (e.g. the terra preta areas of the Amazon basin). Field-based, low-till, high-mulch vegeculture is another good way to farm; so is soil-sparing horticulture, silviculture, and their various permutations, as in permaculture. And similarly, there are good ways to tend animals. The Saami follow the reindeer and tame a small subsection of the herd. Certain tribes in New Guinea develop a relationship with a sow and help take care of her piglets, while she continues to live a life of the woods, a life a pig was meant to live, breeding with wild boars all along. The North American Indians opened up eastern forests through controlled fire, creating new habitats for bison. Agriculture is as old as humanity, and has been of great use to us as we spread widely and adapted to a wide range of environments.

It seems to me that the most successful human adaptation ever is the one that offers the greatest diversity of food sources. Foraging combined with basic tuber cultivation and the naturalization of new crops, as the north Australian Aborigines did with the wild yam. Anchovies plus orchards and veggies the Norte Chicans thrived on. Limited-till small-field agriculture backed up by foraging in nearby woods, or biointensive gardens surrounded by sequentially grazed pastures, hedges and prairies. Even larger scale plow-based grain agriculture may have its place in the self-renewing soils of a regularly flooding river like the Nile used to be, or within carefully looked after mixed-use fields (e.g. milpa), provided foraging habitats are preserved nearby.

And indeed, the anthropological record shows a great many cultures combining foraging with small-scale tending, which became a very successful, long term, stable way of life. The people enjoyed a varied diet not dependent on heavy starches, and when their agricultural efforts failed in any given year, foraging kept them well fed. And vice versa; when a severe El Niño chased fish shoals far away from the coast, inland fruits and vegetables tided the people over. Even in recent times, of those New World cultures that preferred to invest more than 10% of their effort in cultivation, the most popular combination was about 40% agriculture, and 60% foraging.

The chase after the origin of agriculture is a mirage. (Leaf-cutting ants invented farming 250 million years ago; we don’t get any firsts anyway!) Archeological evidence shows not the origin, but the intensification of agriculture to a point when it becomes visible to us today. The question we should be asking is this: what brought about surplus-oriented intensification that began to do away with the sensible and durable lifestyle of our forager/tender ancestors and led an escalating chain of evils up to the present time?